Old Isn’t the New Young Yet on Film and TV, but There’s Progress

Three Tufts media experts reflect on how aging is portrayed in TV shows and movies. Spoiler alert: It’s not the same old story

In September 1985, NBC rolled the dice on a new TV show about four feisty roommates over 50. Despite the star power—including small-screen legends Bea Arthur (Maude) and Betty White (The Mary Tyler Moore Show)—the notion of The Golden Girls was audacious. This was the Dynasty era: big jewels and zero wrinkles. In contrast, this sitcom chronicled niche topics such as menopause, grandparenting, and midlife romance. 

“A woman’s worth is tied into what she looks like,” creator Susan Harris told the New York Times before the premiere, in a story headlined “NBC’s Golden Girls Gambles on Grown-Ups.” “At 82, Cary Grant could still be a romantic lead. But, on television, a woman over 50 is cast as an ax murderer.”  

The rest is history—the show was a trailblazing smash. Nearly 40 years later, older age has been normalized in the media, in movies such as 80 for Brady, TV shows such as Grace and Frankie, and on podcasts such as Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s Wiser Than Me. Meanwhile, movie stars such as Drew Barrymore, 49, are hocking menopause supplements, and former pinup Pamela Anderson, 56, is making headlines for refusing to wear makeup in public. 

But have we come far enough? Three Tufts experts weigh in on the state of ageism in the media today: Jennifer Burton, a filmmaker and professor of the practice in Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies; Susan Napier, Goldthwaite Professor of Rhetoric, professor of Japanese, and a scholar of the films of Oscar-winning octogenarian animator Hayao Miyazaki; and Tasha Oren, director of the Film and Media Studies program. 

Old Isn’t Old Anymore. The Media Reflects That 

In the days of the three major TV networks (ABC, CBS, and NBC), older viewers weren’t coveted by advertisers—it was thought that they didn’t spend money. 

That meant “there weren’t many life stories from the perspective of older people, because that was not the audience that television was courting,” Oren says. “Now, things have really changed radically. Two of the biggest shows on television are Yellowstone and The Golden Bachelor.” The former stars 69-year-old Kevin Costner as the patriarch of a powerful ranching family, and the latter spotlights senior citizens looking for love.

Baby Boomers are living longer and spending more money while watching more movies and TV—and the entertainment business honors that. Consider shows such as Grace and Frankie, starring Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, who are both 80-plus; Curb Your Enthusiasm, starring 76-year-old Larry David; and the new Palm Royale, whose marquee star, Carol Burnett, is 90.

“Now older audiences are more coveted, so you’re going to see a lot more writing for that audience. I think the trend is only going to continue,” Oren says. “Our conception culturally of what’s ‘old’ has radically shifted.”

Stars such as Sarah Jessica Parker and Reese Witherspoon, who became famous as ingenues, are now firmly middle aged. They’re also producing their own shows, from Parker’s Sex and the City spinoff And Just Like That to Witherspoon’s Big Little Lies and The Morning Show.

“They’re not only the stars; they are also the producers. You’re seeing a lot more older women taking control of their career,” Oren says. “They’re creating roles for themselves, not waiting for somebody else to write those roles for them. I don’t think we’re ever going to go back to a point where older people are invisible.”

There’s Still a Long Way to Go to Combat Ageism in the Media 

The tide might be changing, but ageism persists. Burton notes that a 2017 study from USC’s Annenberg School [PDF] analyzing Academy Award-winning films from 2014 until 2016 found that just 11.8 percent of the 1,256 speaking characters in those movies were over 60.

“There’s very thin representation. Often, it’s someone who’s basically fodder for a younger character’s joke,” she says. “They’re not complex, developed human beings.”

Burton points out that ageism isn’t about mere vanity—it affects physical and cognitive health. People who hold negative views on aging are at greater risk for cardiovascular events and Alzheimer’s biomarkers, and are more susceptible to anxiety and depression. But people with positive beliefs about aging survive a median of 7.5 years longer than those with negative attitudes, she notes, citing research from Becca Levy at the Yale School of Public Health.

“How people think about the possibilities of older age is so important. We have such power by creating media, and I think it’s really important to teach our students about it,” Burton says.

Cross-Generational Collaboration Is Essential to Create Diverse Portrayals of Old Age 

Burton teaches a course on Producing for Film and another building on Half the History, a digital humanities project dedicated to short-form content on diverse women in U.S. history. 

One of the standout projects made in her classes is Old Guy, a comedy series shot in part on the Tufts Medford/Somerville campus. It stars her dad, Roger Burton, as a late-in-life actor coping with stereotyped roles. The six-episode series is now available on Vimeo, YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram.

The topic was special, but so was the collaboration—Burton’s young students worked on every aspect of the series with her dad.

“What Old Guy did, and what so many of my projects do, is embrace this idea of having positive intergenerational, co-generational experiences. You build something together; you create a film together. And engaging in an activity with people of other generations is one of the most effective ways to combat ageism in younger people,” Burton says. 

It was especially poignant due to its pandemic release, she says, when older people were isolated and often marginalized.

“We saw such ageism in the beginning of COVID. There were unbelievable statements being voiced about how older people’s lives were less valuable,” Burton says. “We put the series out for free and made it widely available because we felt so strongly that we needed to open this conversation about the value of people of all ages.”

She hopes to combat ageism in three ways. First, by training students to recognize it. Second, by urging people to demand different representation. “Vote with your pocketbook,” she says. “Buy a ticket to a movie that has interesting representation.”

And, lastly, she wants to promote more co-generational experiences, and these can be in everyday life as well as in media. 

“You might talk to somebody who’s sitting at a park bench by themselves or say ‘hi’ to someone walking their dog alone. A huge problem for older people in the U.S. today is loneliness and isolation. Think of tiny, minor ways that we can create community,” Burton says. 

We Could Learn Something from Japan 

Napier studies the films of renowned fantasy animator Hayao Miyazaki. At 83, he won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature for The Boy and the Heron

Miyazaki is known for nuanced portrayals of older women. Napier was initially drawn to his films after watching Kiki’s Delivery Service, about a young witch who makes deliveries on her broom—including to an older woman who bakes excellent cakes. 

“The portrayal was just so straightforward and gracious—the portrait of an older woman doing regular things as part of the life of her city, making a living,” she says. 

Another of his signature films, Howl’s Moving Castle, is about a young girl who transforms into a 90-year-old woman through a witch’s spell. 

“This old woman is not particularly cute. She’s wizened. She has wrinkles, a big nose, and she snores. And yet she’s a very strong, energetic, cantankerous, and smart character,” Napier says. “There’s a real acceptance of old age. It’s just very straightforward stuff. I know that sounds so obvious, but it’s not obvious in most American fields.” 

Echoing Burton’s point about cross-collaboration, Napier says that Miyazaki had strong intergenerational role models as a child. His mother was intellectually active and engaged, despite being bedridden with tuberculosis throughout his childhood. 

“He would come in from school, and they would talk about what was going on in the news. He had great respect for older women. She wasn’t a young, beautiful person, able to do active things, but she was very interesting. His respect for his mother stayed with him,” Napier says.

As a result, “Miyazaki has a very strong awareness of how really wonderful it is to be alive. He shows these very lively old people who are still enjoying themselves,” she says. “He’s a fantasy film director, but his ‘fantasies’ are often very plausible and credible, because they’re anchored by credible, believable, identifiable human beings.”

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