Ageing and Society

The mirror has two faces

a1 Boston University Gerontology Centre


Have changing demographics, increased life expectancy and findings about gender similarities and differences, altered portrayals of older people in American feature films during the past 65 years? We identified 3,038 films made between 1929 and 1995 in which actors and actresses, nominated at least once during their lifetimes for an Oscar award, appeared when aged 60 years or older. Academy Award nominees were selected because they offered a sample of ‘notable’ performers and an accessible database. We selected an eight per cent random sample for a content analysis of their roles. Throughout this period, men were more likely to be depicted as vigorous, employed and involved in same-gender friendships and adventure (whether as hero or villain). Women remained either peripheral to the action or were portrayed as rich dowagers, wives/mothers, or lonely spinsters. Despite changing gender roles in later life since the 1930s and despite social and economic changes for older Americans (earlier retirement age and better health are but two examples), their film roles have remained remarkably static in age and gender stereotyping. In feature films, the mask of ageing differs by gender. Male masks veil inactivity and physical changes, while female masks reveal ageist and sexist stereotypes.

(Accepted July 5 1999)

Key Words: gender; ageism; sexism; stereotypes; film; mask of ageing; images of ageing; cinematic portrayals; postmodern cinematic society.

c1 Address for correspondence: Boston University Gerontology Centre, 53 Bay State Road, Boston, MA 02215, USA. email: