Media and Age--And Norman Lear
By Karen and Erica
Last year we attended an Atlantic Magazine conference about the changing way in which we are aging. We reported on a study, sponsored by Humana and the Annenberg School, about how people older than fifty were portrayed by Hollywood--if they were portrayed at all. The data show that few women sixty or older are in any film in any capacity, and very very few are shown in a position of power. Even a little power. In fact, doing anything. Negative stereotypes and language abound.
This year we went to the same conference, and we heard another discouraging report. Humana and Annenberg studied the highest rated programs on television, and their conclusions were the same. Only 9.4 percent of all speaking characters (which includes characters who said one word) were sixty or over, even though that cohort is 19.9 percent of the population. The shows included a very high percentage of characters demeaning people over sixty, and characters over sixty demeaning themselves. "Humor" derived from language like "senior moment." Would anyone say "gay moment?" "Latina moment?" Not surprisingly, only six percent of the people behind the camera are sixty plus. Two of those are women. Two people, not two per cent.
Yet these shows have high ratings. Strange. We expect they would have even higher ratings if they treated boomers, a wealthy and powerful group that is prepared to spend big on entertainment, with respect. Why is the entertainment industry leaving money on the table? Maybe the recent Harvey Weinstein revelations give us a clue.
Norman Lear knows better. At 95, he is going strong, with passion projects and political commentary. And boy is he funny. Not because he is old. As he remarked, he is older, not old. He is funny because he is funny. He just sold a new comedy series to NBC. It is called Guess Who Died. There is at least one Viagra episode. We can't wait to see it.
So why does Humana care? Humana is a big health insurance company. Humana has learned that people who feel optimistic tend to feel better than those who do not, and people who experience agism do not feel optimistic. They feel physically and emotionally worse than people who do not. Makes perfect sense. But calling it out required that someone connect the dots. Kudos to Humana.
One of the reasons we founded Lustre was because it made us feel bad to see that almost all media portrayals of women in our age group picture us as weak, leaky, dim and dowdy. We're with Humana. If the media listened to Norman Lear and conveyed an accurate image of people sixty and above, we would all feel better about ourselves, and we would be healthier as a result.
That's what real humor can do.