Hollywood's ageism and harmful neglect of women over 50

Hollywood’s intentional and harmful neglect of women over 50


A new study from the hills of Hollywood has revealed that women over fifty are regularly sidelined to supporting roles and painted into discriminatory, one-dimensional archetypes. 

The study, titled The Ageless Test, was completed by TENA, the popular female personal hygiene brand and the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media based at Mount Saint Mary’s University in California.

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🎥 Check out our studies feature in @USAToday! ⁠⠀ Which movies do you know can pass The Ageless Test?⁠⠀ ⁠⠀ Unfortunately, not many movies do at all. ⁠⠀ In our recent study in partnership with TENA, we found that NO women over 50 were cast in leading roles in 2019’s top films from the U.S., U.K., France, and Germany. 😨⁠⠀ ⁠⠀ And when older women DID appear, they were cast in stereotypical fashion, stubborn, unattractive, grumpy, and unfashionable. ⁠⠀ ⁠⠀ The study is a call for content creators to cast more women over 50! To learn more about it check our link in bio:⁠⠀ https://www.usatoday.com/story/entertainment/movies/2020/10/27/women-over-50-losing-out-major-movie-roles-study-finds/6048202002/?fbclid=IwAR3q-tycBMyNcdpRNggi0dAyKGvn7QVsR6iUYI2zjyEmpzw3lrGSiAeLheE⁠⠀ ⁠⠀

A post shared by Geena Davis Institute (@gdigm) on

The collaboration between the two organisations follows Tena’s Ageless campaign which was launched in March this year– the first advertising campaign in the UK to feature women over 50 openly talking about their sexuality and incontinence.

The Ageless Test involves a two part-question: 

  1. Does the film have at least one female character who is 50+ who matters and is tied into the plot in such a way that their removal would have significant effect? 
  1. Is the female character who is 50+ presented in humanising ways and not reduce to ageist stereotypes? 

The study revealed that only 1 in 4 films passed these two questions. The Ageless Test showed that women over 50 are often lacking in having fully realised lives, and simply “serving as scenery in younger people’s stories.” 

The study analysed last year’s top grossing films from the US, UK, France and Germany and found there were no women over 50 cast in leading roles in 2019’s top films. When an older women did appear as a character onscreen, they were consistently cast in a unsavoury, stereotypical way. 

Stubborn behaviour in older female characters was tracked in 33 percent of films; 17 percent of films contained portrayals of older women as unattractive; grumpy behaviour was found in 32 percent of films, and in 18 percent of films, older women were depicted as unfashionable. Older women were also often depicted as senile, homebound, physically inactive or feeble.

Romantic relationships between people over 50 were often not depicted. Characters under 50 were also three times more likely than characters over 50 to be depicted in a sex scene, “sending the message that older bodies are not as worthy to be shown in a sexual way,” the study explained. 

“Older adults are stereotyped as mentally feeble or senile, inflexible in thought and manner, and old-fashioned in morality and skills,” the study expressed.

“This type of prejudice is remarkably acceptable in most cultures. Unlike other prejudices, which are manifestations of fear of difference, ageism is unique in targeting our future selves. This is striking because ageing is unavoidable for all regardless of race, class, gender, sexuality, or ability.”

Geena Davis, an actress who founded the Institute in 2004 after spending years speaking out about the importance of gender equality in films, said Hollywood needs to create better characters that do not prejudice older populations of women.

“Given that adults over fifty are 20 percent of our global population, we need to not only include diverse adults over fifty in our stories, but also show them having full lives in order to de-stigmatise the stereotypes around ageing,” she said in a statement.

Earlier this year, the 64-year old confessed to The Guardian that she no longer got any roles as an actor once she turned 40. “As soon as I hit 40, I fell off the cliff,” she said.

The Ageless Test study showed that male actors have not been made invisible and that when they do appear, they are not forced to play diminishing, unflattering characters. Of the films analysed by the study, women made up only 25 percent of characters over 50, compared with 75 percent of men. 

Tena’s global master brand & communications director Meta Redstedt believes the collaboration with the Geena Davis Institute is a positive step in reversing the damaging stereotypes of older women.

 “At Tena, we are on a mission to de-stigmatise the stereotypes around ageing and urinary incontinence,” she said. “[This study] builds on our mission to highlight and change the negative perception of ageing. We want to ensure that people of all ages are able to see equal and fully realised representations of themselves within the entertainment and media industry.”

Tena’s own study a few years back revealed that 51 percent of women over 50 think it is essential that we change perceptions of ageing in media.

“Ageing is still fuelled by traditional and outdated stereotypes and preconceptions, particularly in the way the older generation are portrayed in global film and television with little to zero ‘real’ portrayals or representation of older women on screen,” the brand said.

Hollywood legend and seven-time Oscar nominee Glenn Close opened up to The Guardian in 2018 while promoting “The Wife,” (which she co-stars with Jonathan Pryce) that at the age of 70, she felt “as free and as creative, as sexual and as eager” as she ever has. “It’s one of the great myths that you lose your sexuality as you get older,” she said.

Geena Davis’ latest study wants filmmakers and content creators to change these stereotypical departures of older women by casting more women over 50, increasing diversity in older characters, erasing stereotypical portrayals of older women and showing them as sexual human beings.

Two-time Academy award winner Jessica Lange, now 71, told AARP Magazine in 2017 that “ageism is pervasive in this industry.”

“It’s not a level playing field,” she said.

“You don’t often see women in their 60s playing romantic leads, yet you will see men in their 60s playing romantic leads with co-stars who are decades younger. I think about how few wonderful actresses of my generation are still doing viable, important film work. You go to television. You go to the stage. You do whatever you can because you want to keep working.”

The Geena Davis Institute is an all-female-led, research-based organisation working inside the entertainment industry to create gender balance, generate inclusion and reduce negative stereotyping in films, TV and other entertainment media.

“Our goal is very simple,”Davis said in her Guardian interview. “The storytellers and people on screen should reflect the population, which is half female and incredibly diverse.”

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