Coined by Robert Neil Butler in 1971, Ageism describes the discrimination of seniors. Learn more about five movies and television shows dealing with ageism.
Ageism is hard to define, but is best described as a phenomenon that covers a range of negative attitudes toward seniors. Although it is a difficult topic to discuss, these movies and television shows have highlighted the issue throughout the years.
Lloyd: “I worked at a smorgasbord, and the old people would flock there, and… they’d just eat with their mouths open, and to be honest, it was too much for me. You get to be thinking about how short life is, and how maybe everything has no meaning …you know?”
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Diane: “I think that’s ageism, and that’s being prejudiced against people because they’re old.”
Lloyd: “Really? Well, you’re really turning me around here.”
Cameron Crowe’s angsty coming-of-age comedy “Say Anything”is an 80s movie staple. It has all the key elements: Dry humor, young love, killer soundtrack and scenes that have become iconic (a sad-faced John Cusack standing outside Ione Skye’s window, boombox raised above his head, blasting “In Your Eyes”).
It also marks an iconic time when the topic of “ageism” was discussed. When Lloyd (Cusack) calls Diane (Skye) to ask her out, she invites him to volunteer during movie night at her father’s assisted living home.
The sad reality is that ageism in Hollywood is by no means limited to movies and TV shows that don’t give seniors a fair shake. Female actors in particular often get pushed out of the business at incredibly young ages. As Cusack himself said in an interview last fall, “I got another 15, 20 years before they say I’m old. For women it’s brutal… I have actress friends who are being put out to pasture at 29.” Because the Hollywood system has this heavy bias built into it, movies and shows of all stripes are subject to ageism — in how they’re cast, even if not explicitly in their content.
Rather than list off shows and films that have age discrimination built into them, this list will focus on movies like “Say Anything”— that is, entertainment in which characters either show a tendency toward ageism (as with Lloyd), or struggle against it, as with the inimitable Frank Costanza.
Frank: “It’s Festivus … for the rest of us! Welcome, newcomers. The tradition of Festivus begins with the airing of grievances. I got a lot of problems with you people! And now you’re gonna hear about it!”
George Costanza’s father, Frank (played by Jerry Stiller) experiences all manners of trials, but fortunately his retirement gives him time to focus on the things that matter to him, such as keeping the alternative-to-Christmas tradition of Festivus alive. He’s fantastically set in his ways — as illustrated by his extensive collection of TV Guide — and the way he yells everything in his trademark croaky voice only makes him more iconic. Frank is the flag-bearer for all the weird little things that are important only to him.
In another episode in the series, Frank’s doctor gives him a relaxation tape that instructs him to say “Serenity now” every time his blood pressure is in danger of going up, but he chooses to yell the phrase at the top of his lungs instead.
Jay: “So Chamberlain comes in one day with a friend, and it’s Elvis. Best singer in the world after Sinatra, and I’ll fight anyone who says different.”
Luke: “Dad says the best singer in the world is Peabo Bryson.”
Jay: “Then I’ll have to fight your dad.”
Played with stubborn charm by Ed O’Neill, the character Jay Pritchett belongs to that growing population of undeclared seniors. Is he retired? No, and he wouldn’t think of it. Does he have his AARP card in his wallet? You betcha.
His second wife Gloria (played by Sofia Vergara) is the same age as his grown children, making Jay “Modern Family’s” oldest character by a full generation. Just by virtue of his age, he doesn’t fit in. Part of what makes Jay so delightful is the way he owns this separateness — he’s ornery and judgmental, and he’s in no hurry to try new things.
Carter: “Forty-five years goes by pretty fast.”
Edward: “Like smoke through a keyhole.”
Billionaire Edward Cole (Jack Nicholson) and mechanic Carter Chambers (Morgan Freeman) are seniors brought together by their terminal illnesses. While sharing a hospital room, they decide to leave together and do all the things they want to do before they die — that is, all the things on their bucket list. In the course of their journey, they become unlikely friends, and help each other rediscover the joy in life.
Carl: [addressing Russell] I’m stuck with you, but if you two don’t clear out of here by the time I count to three…
Dug: Oh! A ball! Oh, boy! Oh, boy! A ball!
Carl: Ball? You want it, boy?
Dug: Oh! Oh! Oh! Oh!
Carl: Huh? Huh?
Dug: Yes, I do! I so ever do want the ball!
Carl: Go get it! [throws the ball]
Dug: Oh, boy! Oh, boy! I will go get it and then bring it back!
Before it was even released, Pixar’s “Up”experienced ageism because the main character, a cranky 78-year-old named Carl Fredricksen, wasn’t considered commercially attractive by investors and toy makers. In other words, they decided little boys wouldn’t want to buy action figures because of the main character’s age.
Professor Isabelle Szmigin of the Birmingham Business School, part of the University of Birmingham, commented: “This is a classic battle between creativity and commercialism. Age barriers need to be broken down in all walks of life, and if we exclude older people from entertainment aimed at children, we are not only dumbing down but discriminating, too.”
Of course, “Up”went on to receive wide critical acclaim and love from audiences of all ages. Voiced by Ed Asner, the character of Carl captured something universal about making your dreams come true. And he was the perfect foil for a) Russell, the young scout who escorts him on his journey to South America, and b) Dug, the enthusiastic (if single-minded) dog who adopts them.
Do you think movies and television shows dealing with ageism will affect the issue? Share your thoughts on the topic in the comments below.