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USC Annenberg Film Study: Pop Culture Stereotypes Aging Americans

Studies from Humana and Professor Stacy L. Smith at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism reveal prevalence of ageism in film and the power of embracing a healthy mindset for healthy aging 

New research reveals few characters aged 60 and over are represented in film, and that prominent senior characters face demeaning or ageist references. These negative and stereotypical media portrayals do not reflect how seniors see themselves – or their lifestyles. These findings stem from two studies conducted by health and well-being company Humana Inc. (NYSE: HUM) and the Media, Diversity, & Social Change Initiative at USC Annenberg. The studies also reveal that aging Americans who are more optimistic report having better health.

Led by Professor Stacy L. Smith, USC Annenberg’s study analyzed the 100 top-grossing films from 2015 to assess the portrayal of characters aged 60 and over. Humana also conducted a quantitative analysis, asking seniors to identify the lifestyle traits that are important when aging, to assess the degree to which these traits describe them and to provide their point of view on senior representation in media. Major findings include:

In film, seniors are underrepresented, mischaracterized and demeaned by ageist language.

  • The findings show just 11 percent of characters evaluated were aged 60 and over; U.S. Census data shows that 18.5 percent of the population is aged 60 and over.
  • Out of 57 films that featured a leading or supporting senior character, 30 featured ageist comments – that’s more than half of the films. Quotes included characters being referred to as “a relic,” “a frail old woman” and “a senile old man.” According to Humana’s quantitative survey, seniors report they are highly aware (95 percent), resilient (91 percent) and physically active (71 percent).
  • Only 29.1 percent of on-screen leading or supporting characters aged 60 or older engaged with technology, whereas 84 percent of aging Americans report that they use the internet weekly.
  • Of the senior characters that died on screen, 79.2 percent of deaths were a result of physical violence — such as being shot, stabbed or crushed. This does not accurately reflect causes of death for the aging population, which are heart disease and other chronic illnesses.

But that’s not real life and seniors know it – people aged 60 and over lead active social lives and value internal, psychological strengths.

  • Aging Americans are using technology: 84 percent of respondents report that they use the internet to read news, social network sites or other info on a weekly basis, despite only 29.1 percent of on-screen characters engaging with technology.
  • On screen, one third of seniors pursue interests in hobbies and 38.5 percent attend events, while in reality, they are more than two times as likely to engage socially with friends or relatives on a weekly or monthly basis.
  • The top five traits respondents rated as most important to aging successfully were self-reliance, awareness, honesty, resilience and safety. In film, seniors are rarely depicted as the masters of their own stories or destinies.

As Americans age, one element seems to be key for their physical and mental health: optimism.

  • Humana’s quantitative survey found that seniors who rate themselves as very optimistic about aging tend to be the most active physically, socially and in their communities. 
  • They also report a much lower number of physically unhealthy days on average: just 2.84 for the most optimistic, compared to 12.55 physically unhealthy days for the least optimistic.
  • The most optimistic also feel on average 12 years younger than their actual age (those who are least optimistic feel on average 7 years older than their actual age).
  • Those seniors who do feel that media accurately portrays them think about aging more than average and have a higher level of fear around aging than their peers.

 “Seniors are rarely seen on screen, and when they are, they are ridiculed,” said Professor Smith. “When did we become a society that is comfortable with subtle and stigmatizing stereotypes about a group that have long served as the pillars and stalwarts of our communities?”

Dr. Yolangel Hernandez Suarez, vice president and chief medical officer, care delivery at Humana said: “As a health care company, we’re committed to helping aging Americans defy stereotypes and take steps to achieve their best health. That’s why it’s important to note that, according to our findings, seniors who report being optimistic about the aging process also report better health. As a Boomer myself, I can tell you that being optimistic about my future helps me make healthier choices every day.”  

Key findings surrounding both studies will be showcased at The Atlantic Live! New Old Age conference today in New York City. The event will feature the foremost experts of aging in America spanning entertainment, media, academia and business to examine the state of aging and its impact in society. Both Humana and USC will lead individual discussions to explore the findings in greater detail, which will be available to watch during The New Old Age’s livestream broadcast.

About the Humana Quantitative Analysis
This survey includes 2,035 responses from U.S. adults aged 60 and older. Data weights are based on U.S. Census statistics for age, gender, geographic region, and race/ethnicity. It was conducted between August 4- 21, 2016, and was designed to assess perceptions of the importance of various traits, characteristics or attributes of people as they age, then to have respondents rate themselves against the same attributes. Other data collected include general self-assessment of health, activity levels and perception of aging in popular culture.

About the USC Annenberg Film Study
USC conducted a secondary analysis of the Media, Diversity, & Social Change Initiative’s yearly report profiling every speaking or named character on screen across a variety of measures (e.g., gender, race/ethnicity, LGBT, disability). Using this database, the researchers quantitatively analyzed attributes of each character 60 years of age or older on screen (n=448) across the 100 most popular domestic movies of 2015. To determine age, the evaluators sorted each character into one of five age categories: child (0-5), elementary schooler (6-12), teen (13-20), young adult (21-39), middle aged (40-64), and elderly (65 or older).

About Humana
Humana Inc., headquartered in Louisville, Kentucky, is a leading health and well-being company focused on making it easy for people to achieve their best health with clinical excellence through coordinated care. The company’s strategy integrates care delivery, the member experience, and clinical and consumer insights to encourage engagement, behavior change, proactive clinical outreach and wellness for the millions of people we serve across the country.

More information regarding Humana is available to investors via the Investor Relations page of the company’s web site at, including copies of:

  • Annual reports to stockholders
  • Securities and Exchange Commission filings
  • Most recent investor conference presentations
  • Quarterly earnings news releases
  • Calendar of events
  • Corporate Governance information

About USC Annenberg Media, Diversity, & Social Change Initiative
The Media Diversity & Social Change Initiative (MDSCI) at USC's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism is a leading think tank studying diversity in entertainment through original and sponsored research. MDSCI findings create valuable and sought after research based solutions that advance equality in entertainment. Dr. Stacy L. Smith is the Founder and Director of the MDSCI.  Dr. Smith and the MDSCI examine gender, race/ethnicity, LGBT, and disability on screen and gender and race/ethnicity behind the camera in cinematic content as well as barriers and opportunities facing women and people of color in the entertainment industry. The MDSCI also conducts economic analyses related to diversity and the financial performance of films.  In 2015, Dr. Smith was named the #1 Most Influential Person in Los Angeles by LA Weekly. Dr. Smith has written more than 100 journal articles, book chapters, and reports on content patterns and effects of the media.  In terms of the popular press, Dr. Smith’s research has been written about in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, The Atlantic, Newsweek, The Hollywood Reporter, Variety, and NPR. She has a co-edited essay in Maria Shriver’s book, A Woman’s Nation Changes Everything (2009). Dr. Smith and the MDSCI’s most recent research reports include an analysis of 800 top-grossing films, the Comprehensive Annenberg Report on Diversity in Entertainment (CARD) and a series of landmark studies with Sundance Institute and Women in Film Los Angeles.  To learn more, visit or follow on Twitter @MDSCInitiative.

About the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism
Located in Los Angeles at the University of Southern California, the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism is a national leader in education and scholarship in the fields of communication, journalism, public diplomacy and public relations. With an enrollment of more than 2,200 students, USC Annenberg offers doctoral, graduate and undergraduate degree programs, as well as continuing development programs for working professionals, across a broad scope of academic inquiry. The school's comprehensive curriculum emphasizes the core skills of leadership, innovation, service and entrepreneurship and draws upon the resources of a networked university in a global urban environment. Based at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in the heart of Los Angeles, the USC Center for Public Relations (CPR) is truly at the center of one of the world’s most dynamic professions. Our mission is to connect corporations, agencies, academics and students to define the future of our industry and to develop those who will shape it.

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