Study Finds Oscar-Nominated Films Are Ageist

February 18, 2017

The Academy Awards has received many public outcries over the years to honor more diverse talents. Hashtags like #OscarsSoWhite and #OscarsSoMale sought to call out bias of the Academy’s voting membership. But according to a recent Humana-sponsored University of Southern California study, senior citizens need to be added to the list of cinematically underrepresented.

Examining senior characters in the 25 films nominated for Best Picture from 2014 to 2016 revealed several key findings. First of all, only 11.8% of the 1,256 speaking characters were 60 years of age or older. This reflects nearly 7% below the percentage of seniors in the United States, according to the U.S. Census.

Looking closer, 77.7% of these senior characters were men, and 22.3% were women. This amounts to a gender ratio of 3-5 males to every 1 female. Additionally, 89.9% of the senior characters were White while 6.1% were Black, 2% Asian, and 2% from “Other” ethnic backgrounds.

“The outcry over the lack of diversity at Hollywood’s premier award show has failed to recognize the value of senior voices on screen,” asserted Stacy L. Smith, the director of Media, Diversity & Social Change Initiative at USC Annenberg. “While 2016 best picture nominated films are more diverse when it comes to gender and some racial and ethnic groups, ageism is still an accepted form of exclusion in cinematic storytelling.”

In addition to speaking characters, researchers analyzed how often senior characters occupied leading roles in the films. They discovered only one leading role was played by a senior character, and that was Michael Keaton in Birdman. Looking at ensemble casts, only one leading character was a senior citizen as well. “Ironically,” the study states, “the sole lead in an ensemble was Michael Keaton in ‘Spotlight.’ Thus, the only two senior leads across the 25 films were played by the same white male actor.”

Looking at the senior characters who occupy prestigious jobs, it was clear males overwhelmingly had the political, law-enforcement, business, and law-professional careers. Indeed, only one female character held a high-level job. This reflects a gender radio of 33:1. For this reason, the study’s authors wrote, “Senior characters–in particular females and individuals from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups–rarely have the opportunity to wield occupational power on screen.”

In six or the 14 films, senior characters were referred to in negative terms such as, “You look so old in person,” “mentally feeble, sick old ladies,” and “…just sit there and let Alzheimer’s run its course.” The researchers assert that this kind of language has a harmful effect on the well-being of older people.

Besides encouraging more inclusion of senior characters, the study also points out that many audience members are indeed seniors themselves. According to the Motion Picture Association of America, in 2005 15% of frequent moviegoers were 60 years and up. So Hollywood might do well to incorporate more senior characters to increase box-office profits.

Humana Vice President Dr. Yolangel Hernandez Suarez reflected, “We hope you’ll begin to question not just film portrayals, but how these inaccuracies and demeaning remarks are reflections of social norms. There is still more work that needs to be done in order to make aging Americans feel valued in our society. We believe that popular culture has the ability to transform social views of aging and fuel a sense of optimism.”