Thoughtful depictions of the elderly in media are few and far between. As the world’s elderly population increases, changes to our stories and their leading characters may be necessary. Photo provided by Storyblocks.
Looking at Our Elderly in Media
I believe in the lasting power of our films to incite discourse—after all, the stories we engage with move us, teach us, and steer our perceptions like nothing else can. I think it signifies a greater issue that the super-engine of Hollywood deliberately focuses on youth, and it has largely misguided the creation and portrayal of older characters.
For the most part, the elderly in the media are jokes. Plot devices. Punctuation marks. They’re rarely depicted as fully-realized agents with hopes, dreams, and complexities pronounced enough to rival those of their younger counterparts. I’m here to point out a few common tropes that I believe are the most obvious offenses. Note that I’m not here to condemn, merely to point out a pattern.
5 Elderly Stereotypes in Film That Should Seriously Consider Retirement
- The Sage.
Wisdom is an excellent attribute. The knowledge that comes only through experience is a hallmark accompaniment of old age, and it is celebrated the world-round in our cinema. However, in my viewership, I’ve noticed that the Sage is typically explored only at the surface level. In this article detailing a social movement pushing for more thoughtful portrayals of the elderly in media (specifically, characters older than fifty), we read that “older characters are sometimes relegated to the roles in which they serve [little] purpose other than to advise younger characters.” They lack “dimensionality and autonomy,” and therefore, are not actually good representations of the populace. The assumption with the sages is that, while they are wise, they are also inert. They are tucked away in their hermitages and must wait and hope while the real heroes— the young— carry the world.
Examples of the Sage: Professor Dumbledore in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001), Impa in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (2017), Alfred in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy (2005-2012), Miracle Max from The Princess Bride (1987), The Oracle in The Matrix (1999-2005), Grandmother Willow in Pocahontas (1995), Mr. Miyagi in The Karate Kid (1984), etc.
- The Pervert.
It’s a common trope in media to have an elderly man or woman sexually target younger characters. Viewers chuckle as these characters make fools of themselves, seemingly oblivious to the rules of the human mating game that brand them as incompetent. I believe the harm of this stereotype is dual-wielded. One, it makes light of sexual predation. The Pervert is not actually capable of accomplishing their goal— winning over the younger character— and so, many wrongfully assume there’s no danger cashing in “light mode harassment” for laughs. It’s okay because Grandpa is doing it, right? He’s harmless… I disagree with that mindset and believe that it’s irresponsible on the filmmakers’ part. And two, it reinforces prejudice against our seniors. It’s amusing to younger viewers to watch older people have intense emotions that their bodies can no longer enact. The Pervert is a unique kind of jester designed to make young audiences feel proud of their ability to perform. This trope ostracizes our elderly by preying on the painful disconnect they feel between body and mind.
Examples of the Pervert: Herbert Garrison in South Park (1997-2022), Bert Di Grasso in The White Lotus (2022), and so many more that I currently lack the media memory to relay.
- The Traditionalist.
Many elderly characters exist to stand as static champions of past times, tradition, personal creeds, and perhaps poisonous antiquities. These characters have their way of doing things and will not be changed by the sways and swells of society. Typically portrayed as parental figures, military or government officials, teachers, doctors, religious leaders, and other roles who cast long shadows, the Traditionalist functions as a cage door that the free-spirited hero (who is also always young) rails against. Traditionalists, for this reason, also tend to be villains. In fact, as detailed in this study by Amica (2021), “60% of senior characters were villains” in their sample group of 150+ popular films, and only “39.2%” were heroes or allies with the hero.
While the Traditionalist is more empowered and agentive than other stereotypes on this list, the issue lies here: their inability and/or resistance to change is their defining character trait. In reality, senior inelasticity is a myth. The processing differences that come with cognitive decline are a natural part of aging, but clinging to bygone years and their tenets needn’t be. I believe we encourage our elderly to become unchangeable when this stereotype is realized, and it contributes to the depression, anxiety, and isolation that much of the elderly population currently experiences.
Examples of the Traditionalist: Terence Fletcher in Whiplash (2014), Sister Mary in 1923 (2022), King Triton in The Little Mermaid (1989), Mr. Waternoose in Monsters Inc. (2001), Frollo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996), Lady Catherine de Bourgh in Pride and Prejudice (2005), President Snow in The Hunger Games trilogy (2012-2015), Henry Jones Sr. in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), Tywin Lannister in Game of Thrones (2011-2014), Pope Benedict in The Two Popes (2019), Lizzy Quinn in Waking Ned Devine, etc.
- The Retired Hero.
Many of our films and television series these days are reboots, and so retired characters are being called out of the woodwork in droves. This has taken the action genre by storm especially. We’re now seeing older versions of our childhood heroes back on the big screen, a little weathered but fundamentally the same. While I believe this signifies an amazing priority shift in Hollywood— rather than profit off of bold, brash, bellicose, future-forward tales of youth alone, people are now crafting productions to deliver a longed-for return to and respect for the past— I believe that it could be done more thoughtfully. What do we gain from watching Daniel Craig’s James Bond grimace as he finishes a fight scene and makes some snide remark about it ‘not being as easy as it used to be’? As our leads crack their backs, scratch their silvered heads, and remind us of their glory days, we’re expected to laugh. The biological changes of aging have become the low-hanging fruit of reboot humor. It’s revolutionary to have these changes depicted at all, but I personally would rather have the hero realize their limits and use that realization to create moments with emotional weight rather than merely quip away the pain. There, we’d see the human behind the hero, and that’s where the real saving is done.
Examples of the Retired Hero: Indiana Jones in The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), James Bond in Spectre (2015), Luke Skywalker, Leia Organa, and Han Solo in the Star Wars sequel trilogy (2015-2019), Mermaid Man and Barnacle Boy from Spongebob Squarepants (1999-present), Brian Mills in the Taken franchise (2009-2015), Rick O’Connell in The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (2008), etc.
- The Invalid.
The stereotype of the Invalid combines the worst points of the other four. The Invalid is characterized by their incapability, lack of change, lack of voice, and physical decline. They are either maneuvered through the story by others like set pieces or are neglected for comic relief, sometimes both. One of the most effective examples of the Invalid in my circles is Yiayia (grandmother) from My Big Fat Greek Wedding, a 2002 romantic comedy involving a loud, rambunctious, constantly-in-each-other’s-business family. Yiayia is a minor ensemble member who, when left to her own devices, wanders out of the reach of her caretakers. She is dragged back home by an angry neighbor who asks the patriarch of the family, “Did you lose this?” as she passes Yiayia over the threshold like a casserole dish rather than a person. “Bloodthirsty Turks!” Yiayia exclaims, oblivious. As humorous as this is, it’s important to consider the messaging here. It claims that it’s acceptable to make objects of our elders when they no longer resemble who we’ve known them to be. Rather than exhaust every avenue to keep our elders engaged, involved, and making decisions for themselves through the ends of their lives, we exclude them from important discourse, make decisions for them at their doctor’s appointments, and pass them from carer to carer. It’s a demeaning second infancy.
Examples of The Invalid: Yiayia in My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002), Grandma Georgina in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005), Deborah Logan in The Taking of Deborah Logan (2014), and, for the first half of the film, Jennifer Peterson in I Care a Lot (2020).
Anyone who has been exposed to film, new and old, can surely contribute to this conversation. I took inspiration from four different articles going over stereotypes of the elderly in media and their impact on society as a whole, two I’ve linked above, and the other two, I’ll link here and here if you’re interested in reading more on the topic. You can also check out my article on youth culture here if you want to read more about what the world’s preoccupation with youth could be doing to us psychologically.
Also, just for fun, here are some depictions of elderly characters that I believe are thoughtful, powerful, and well-rounded.
- Grandfather in The Princess Bride (1987).
- Royal in The Royal Tenenbaums (2001).
- Jacob and Clara Dutton in 1923 (2022).
- Olenna Tyrell in Game of Thrones (episodes airing 2013-2017).
- Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003).
- Doc Emmet Brown from the Back to the Future trilogy (1985-1990).
Can you think of any more stereotypes or examples of the stereotypes I’ve detailed above? Comment below and add to the discussion! It would make my day!
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