Third Third in the News – February 2023: Ageism in Hollywood and the Question of “Old”

February 5, 2023

De Pree Journal

Ageism in Hollywood

The problem of ageism in our culture and, indeed, our whole world, is being addressed more frequently and more publicly these days. “Angela Bassett And Michelle Yeoh Address Hollywood Ageism At The 2023 Golden Globes” summarizes comments made by these award-winning older women. Yeoh, for example, when she won her award, said, “As time went by—I turned 60 last year—and I think all of you women understand this: As the days, years, numbers get bigger, the opportunities get smaller as well.” She joins a growing list of women in Hollywood who are speaking out against ageism in general and especially ageism directed at women.

Jamie Lee Curtis has been particularly strong in her pro-aging stance. “This word ‘anti-aging’ has to be struck,” she said. “I am pro-aging. I want to age with intelligence, and grace, and dignity, and verve, and energy.” See also “21 Celebrity Women Who Spoke Up Against Ageism in 2022.”

Things may be looking up a bit for older women in Hollywood. Last week, the title of an article on The Conversation website began this way: “Older women are smashing it this awards season.” But the title went on to say, “but ageism is far from over.” Old men also experience ageism in Hollywood. A U.S.C. study of recent best picture films found that only 11.8% of the characters were 60 or older, falling short of the 18.5 % of 60 and older adults in the general population. Moreover, 6 of the 14 films contained explicitly ageist comments. But women in Hollywood are more likely than men to be victims of ageism.

In time, I believe the efforts of people like Angela Bassett, Michelle Yeoh, and Jamie Lee Curtis will make a difference. But the problem of ageism is much bigger than Hollywood. It infects our whole culture. But, to the extent that Hollywood shapes as well as reflects the culture, changes in the entertainment industry might well have a broad impact.

Is There Such a Thing as “Old”?

A couple of weeks ago the title of an article in Marketwatch caught my eye: “‘There is no such thing as old’–this influencer wants to change the narrative about women and aging.” This influence, Eleanor Mills, had been a senior executive for the Times of London before creating the website Noon to support the people she calls “Queenagers” (women in midlife who are comfortable with their age and live with the freedom of a teenager). When asked, “What age did you used to think was ‘old?’ What do you think now?” Mills responded, “There is no such thing as ‘old’. When my granny was 97 she said to me that she still felt inside like she did when she went up to study at Oxford University when she was 19.”

I wonder, however, if saying “There is no such thing as ‘old’” is actually buying into a kind of ageism. Wouldn’t it be better to acknowledge that people can be old, and that old can be wonderful? I’ll never forget when my friend Betty Anne Cody once said in a Bible study, “I love being old.” She loved the person she had become as she was living well into her 80s. Betty would say, “There is such a thing as old and I’m thankful to be experiencing it.”

Those of us who live in the U.S. face the pervasive problem of our youth-worshiping culture that devalues or even despises being old. Becca Levy, a professor at Yale who has extensively studied issues related to aging, says in her groundbreaking book Breaking the Age Code, “I found that in China, when I asked people to describe the first words or phrases that came to mind to describe an old person, the most common response was ‘wisdom,’ whereas in the US, the first image to come to mind is usually ‘memory loss’” (p. 22).

The Old Testament book of Proverbs includes some eye-opening statements about being old. For example, “Gray hair is a crown of glory; it is gained through a righteous life” (Prov 16:31). I must ask myself when I see what’s left of my hair as gray, or to be even more honest, white, do I envision a crown of glory on my head? If not, why not? Similarly, Proverbs says, “The glory of youths is their strength, but the beauty of the aged is their gray hair” (Prov 20:29). Gray hair beautiful? Something to delight in? Something to be proud of? Oh, would that we lived in such a world!

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