Netflix and chill. We all know what this means and we’ve all done it…with no shame. Watching shows, whether they come from syndicated television or the new normal of online content, has become a new form of communication and connection. We use shows to reference our lives, such as watching HGTV for home decor ideas or cooking shows for recipe ideas. Shows use current events as content creators (like they do, for example, on shows like South Park), and we use shows to connect with those around us - such as when we find common ground with a coworker who also loves GoT.
96.7% of households in the United States own at least one television set, according to a 2011 Nielsen Wire article. The Nielsen Company (2011) reports that Americans spend 34 - 39 hours per week watching television! That time spent is paramount to that of a full-time 40-hour-per-week job.
The American Academy of Pediatrics also states that with American adults spending as much time watching TV as they do working, children are exposed to 360,000 TV advertisements by the time they graduate from high school. Television has become a new medium of socialization. According to academic research that looks at how television impacts society, researchers have found television is a mechanism through which information and messages are introduced, reinforced, and then believed by viewers through influencing attitudes and values.
Shows, whether they come from TV or the internet, have now become giant industries (think about the growth of Netflix and its influence on your watching habits… binge watching) that help shape ideas and belief systems of those watching. One person might love watching Joel Osteen sermons on television, thereby reiterating a belief system, while others might love the popular RuPaul’s Drag Race.
In her book Playing with Power in Movies, Television, and Video Games: From Muppet Babies to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Marsha Kinder writes that television represents a mass entertainment supersystem which orients viewers to American consumer culture. This creates a system in which
Television impacts the way we see the world around us whether we like it or not. Television creates ideas of social norms, shared beliefs, and promote standards of behavior, as researched by Peyton Young in The New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics.
Researchers Kumanyika & Grier from the University of Pennsylvania add that not only does television influence belief systems for the public in general, television shows and commercials also significantly impact the belief systems of minorities and adolescents.
Given how ubiquitous television has become in American life, examining the reciprocal nature of how television impacts our lived experiences and how our experiences influence television provides the opportunity to examine our understandings of social phenomena - such as aging. This article is focused on how, more often than not, television shows, commercials, and movies negatively stereotype and depict older adult characters.
Looking into how older characters are portrayed in Disney movies, team researchers Robinson, Callister, and Magoffin found children as young as three have already begun to manifest negative stereotypes toward older adults. The attitudes formed in early childhood likely begin to crystallize during late and childhood adolescence, according to authors and experts Isaacs & Bearison, and become entrenched by young adulthood. Young adults often view older adults as ineffective, dependent, lonely, angry, ugly, disabled, in poor health, and less physically active than younger adults when watching television shows.
Older characters are also underrepresented in the media when compared to their actual numbers in the U.S. population. Adults 65+ constitute 15% of the population in the U.S., yet only represent between 1% and 5% of television characters. Older characters often appear as minor characters that are not well-developed or essential to the plot story. Physically, older characters are largely portrayed as being ambulatory with little need for physical aid. One study looking at how popular movies from the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s portrayed older characters found that 35% of the older characters measured were angry/grumpy/stern, while only 25% were depicted as being friendly. In this same study, older characters were found to be shrewd and despondent.
Despite much of the research indicating popular media paints a sorry picture of older adult characters, not all older characters are portrayed negatively - especially as we continue to walk into 2018. Frankie and Gracie, a popular show on Netflix, starring Jane Fonda (who is now 80) and Lily Tomlin (who is now 78), show older women in more progressive ways than television shows have in times past.
On either side of the spectrum, older characters are largely portrayed through common misrepresentations and stereotypes. On the one hand, we see the golden ager grandmother who bakes cookies and is a “sweet old lady,” while on the other hand, hand, we see a shrewd, senile, and physically disabled older character. Each side has taken a stereotype that becomes watched over and over again. These images rarely depict the reality of aging, yet often cultivate negative stereotypes towards older people. And if the characters are not the doting grandma, or the angry neighbor, most depictions of older characters still focus on the physical ailments of the body as one ages.
Older characters on shows are always grandparents, are seldom single (mostly widowed), and are embedded within familial dramas; seldom are they depicted as having lives of their own. We have yet to see a single, child-free older woman character walking down 5th avenue in New York City in her Jimmy Choo shoes. If Carrie Bradshaw can do it, why can’t an older woman in her 70s do it? As photographer Ari Seth shows on his widely popular blog Advanced Style, they already do so, why don’t we see these images in mainstream entertainment?
In her book, “The Ageless Self: Sources of Meaning in Late Life,” Sharon Kaufman writes of older adults who she interviewed who say, “Even though I look in the mirror all the time, I don’t see myself as old.” The Elder adults Kaufman interviews talk of how they feel weird about aging because they feel different than the way we depict aging. Her book finds that
Given people are living longer in new and previously unseen ways, it’s time we take the experincial roles actors have in shows such as Girls, Insecure, and other popular shows depicting the lives of millennials, and showcase the lives of older adults as they actually are. Grace and Frankie is a step in the right direction, but we still have a long way to go. Before people get to 80, they fear reaching that age because of how we popularly depict aging within the media. Once people arrive, they are the life of the party and the fear they felt creates a dissonance between how they feel and what they have been taught. Trust the hundreds of people we’ve worked with, even with the changes in our bodies, aging isn’t has bad as TV shows make us think.