MASS MEDIA IMAGES OF OLD AGE
AND THEIR DEPICTIONS ON THE WEB
Have you noticed how it's nearly impossible to find an older person
on television? According to a study by George Gerbner and Larry Gross of
ten years of cable and broadcast programming from the 1982-1992 seasons
(sponsored by the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television
and Radio Artists, study released in June 1993), though Americans over
60 comprise nearly 17% of the population they only made up 5.4% of all
network prime-time characters and 4% of the casts for daytime serials.
The survey observed how, despite the fact that older persons are the fastest
growing age group in real life, they "seem to be vanishing instead
of increasing as in real life. ... As characters age, they lose importance,
value and effectiveness. Visibly old people are almost invisible on television"--this
despite the fact that older people watch more television than the average
According to a survey of prime-time shows during the Fall of 2000 by
Children Now, a child advocacy group,
out of a total prime-time population of 2,251 characters, only 67, or less than 3 percent, were individuals
70 or older, and but 13 percent were "older adults" roughly between the ages of 50 and 69.
Such representation does not jive with results of the 2000
census, which found over 9% of the American population to be 70 or older
and 28% 50 years of age and older. Further, this distorted
demography of TV-land is even more biased in the case of older
women. While one-third of prime-time male characters were older than 40,
only 19% of the women were that age or older--even though older women outnumber
When the old do appear, what lessons do we take away? In The Fountain
of Age, Betty Friedan observes the second childhood stereotype:
- The movie "Harold and Maude," in which Ruth Gordon plays
a fey, childlike, white-haired old woman egging on a teen-age dropout in
his adolescent rebellion.
- The scene in "On Golden Pond" where Henry Fonda and his
new step- grandson sneak off to go fishing, like two naughty little boys
when Mother is not looking.
- Ads for the movie "Just You and Me, Kid" that show teen-ager
Brooke Shields and octogenerarian actor George Burns playing stickup: "the
story of two juvenile delinquents."
- A feature entitled "The Fun Life for Young and Old" in
the Boston Globe, offering "a guide to August activities for senior
citizens and children"-- a puppet show, a magic act, etc.
- A poster, "Have a Senior Birthday Party at McDonald's,"
offers to provide cake, party favors and paper hats for the "birthday
kid" who is "young at heart."
In 1993, U.S. News & World Report (Richard J. Newman,
"Older Folks Are Real People, Too," June 14, p.103) recommended
the following movies to show complexity of older persons' characters:
- The Wash (1988)
- Cinema Paradiso (1988)
- Thank You and Goodnight (1990)
- Age Old Friends (1990)
- Strangers in Good Company (1991)
- Enchanted April (1992)
- The Cemetery Club (1993)
Media Attacks on the Elderly
- Jake Harwood's
"Viewing Age: The Age Distribution of Television Characters Across
the Viewer Lifespan"
- Meredith Tupper's "The Representation of Elderly Persons in Primetime Television Advertising"
IMAGES OF AGING ON THE WWW
During the Fall semester of 1997, I posed the following challenge
to my Processes of Aging class: Given our discussions of the stereotypes
and roles of older people, your assignment is to locate and critically
analyze that website which provides the most positive images of growing
old and insights into what it means to "age well." Students were
told to be alert to the labels used to refer to older persons, the target
audience (acknowledging the tremendous diversity within this age group),
messages for the unwell old, and role models they personally consider to
be worthy of emulating. Below are some of the sites submitted:
- AARP Webplace. This
site provides an Internet index for people over the age of 50 to access
information on maintaining an active and productive role in the community.
It communicates the organization's motto "To Serve, Not To Be Served,"
indicating that they affirm the autonomy of "older persons" and
"Seniors," encouraging their maintenance of a productive and
contributing role in society. The web page links to a list of Legacy
Award recipients, people over the age of 50 recognized by the AARP
and Centrum Silver for providing "extraordinary service to improve
the quality of life with their communities."
page of the AARP. "Today retirement can mean embarking on a new
and vital phase of life, one filled with fresh opportunities, expanded interests,
new friends, and deep satisfaction. It can be the most enjoyable and productive
time of your life ..." This site immediately begins to talk about
the redirecting of one's work goals to new careers, part-time work,
self- employment, volunteer opportunities and leisure pursuits. You will
not find such labels as "senior," "golden ager" or
here--instead, employed are the terms "50 and older," "Older
Americans," and "Older workers." The unwell old are hardly
mentioned; the entire site seems to concentrate on the active, healthy,
enthusiastic young-old in hopes of preparing them for the years ahead.
- University of Pittsburgh's
Together: An Intergenerational Studies Program. Here the stress is
on intergenerational relationships and tapping the wisdom of age, with
programs such as IECP (Intergenerational Early Childhood programs), MISTY
(Mentors in Service to Youth), and the ARP (Artist Resource Program), which
links older masters of the visual, literary and performing arts with budding
- ThirdAge: The Web ... for
A rich on-line resource for older persons, offering and emphasizing a variety
of social opportunities for its visitors. Site includes wide-ranging informative
articles on such subjects as sexuality, intellectual pursuits, finding
romance, coping with loss, and "Wisdom of the Ages." There's
a "Speak Out" series, which, on the day last visited, was "Readers
sound of on decline of moral standards."
- The Senior
An electronic newspaper focusing on providing the middle and upper class
adult public in the Washington, D.C., area with information about the "graying
of America." Proponent of activity theory, this site not only provides
information on leisure options but also helps those searching for better-than-minimum
- The OASIS
is a national, not-for-profit "educational organization designed to
enhance the quality of life for mature adults." Seeking to keep "older
adults" active in the community through educational and volunteering
programs, OASIS offers such programs as Positive Attitudes, Positive Aging
to help people deal with the stresses of aging.
- The Hen Co-op. This
site is the product of six women, aged 65 to 78, who met at a Growing Old
Disgracefully workshop in England. They later collaborated on two books
on how to make life more joyous and creative. This page is an outgrowth
of these works, informing older persons how to defy aging stereotypes by
being active and how to take risks to make life more interesting.
- The National Council on Aging.
The first thing that catches your eye on this page is a bearded old man
hoisting an infant in the air with the caption "Celebrate age!"
Describing itself as "the dynamic center of leadership and nationwide
expertise on the issues of aging," the NCOA addresses many concerns
of the old such as how to maintain their health, returning to work, and
where to locate information about aging, financial issues, and lifelong
learning. For those who are ill or coping with disabilities, there is a
section entitled "Older Americans and Pain: Information for the Consumer,"
wherein tips are provided for managing pain and for dealing with physicians
- Online96 Senior's
This advocacy site addresses both older persons and their caregivers and
provides a chat site and a senior citizen love line classified section.
Topics range from money saving ideas, being gay and old, to learning how
to be a widow.
- Leisure World. This site
describes the Laguna Hills, California, community designed for "active,
mature adults." It is filled with images of older individuals playing
tennis, lifting weights, stroking a nine iron, painting, and taking academic
WEBSITES FOR CREATING A COLLECTIVE CONSCIOUSNESS AMONG THE OLD
- SeniorNet "the world's premier online community and
technology trainer for older adults"
- Senior Journal "Daily News for Active Seniors"
- America's Seniors
- Grandparent World
"life online begins at 50"
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