Aged by popular culture’ began with my growing concern and awareness of the deeply ingrained ageism in Canadian society that has far-reaching detrimental effects – from its negative impact on individuals to long-term care policy. We live in a world saturated with ideas and images from popular culture and Western media that have expanded exponentially since the introduction of the Internet in the early 1980s. Search engines, streaming services and online platforms that materialized out of this development, such as Google, YouTube (in the 1990s), and social media in the early 2000s (Facebook, Twitter, Tik Tok, Instagram, etc.) provided additional sources for media and popular culture to influence the population. All of these sources were in addition to film, television, magazines and newspapers that had already been part of North American culture since the early 1900s (print media since the 1700s). Although the investigation by many scholars into the root causes of ageism concluded that media and popular culture were one of the sources of ageism in Western society (McHugh, 2003; Blaikie, 1999), it seemed that the impact of these sources had been largely underestimated.

 I focused my research objectives on identifying  perceptions of the representations of age and aging circulating in Western media and popular culture (broadly defined) among a group of older and a group of younger adults. Specifically, the research asked: What image(s) of age and aging are projected by Western media and popular culture? The participants in my research were asked questions that focused on their interpretations of media and popular culture depictions of older age and aging in contemporary society and their perceptions and/or personal experiences of age and aging.

The research also had an applied objective of promoting critical thinking that could generate a apositive change in attitudes towards aging, with an outcome of helping to reduce ageism in contemporary society. My group of 16 research participants – 11 older adults (65-80 years of age) and 5 younger adults (20-35 years of age) made this goal possible. Their photographs, images, audio clips, and interviews were used to produce a website which will be accessible to schools and community venues (as well as to the general public) as an educational tool to foster discussions on popular culture and media in relation to their influence on ageism in our society.

Internalizing yet resisting popular culture’s stereotypes of older age

A number of themes surfaced in data analysis from the interviews and participant images, but the primary topics revolved around:  1) marketing of the cult of youth and the anti-aging industry through dominant media; 2) the promotion of negative stereotypes of older adults in media and popular culture; 3) class, age and gender bias and inequality ingrained in society and reinforced by the aging and the anti-aging industries sustained by neoliberalism; and 4) how to generate and maintain resistance to these messages and industries of ageism. These themes in large part mirror academic research into ageism in Western society. But for the participants in this study, these stereotypes (especially that of the frail dependent older adult), did not reflect their experiences of an active and interesting older age. For the majority of participants in the older age group, their retirement years were good years, filled with connections with family, friends and pets; engagement in their communities; and intellectual, creative and leisure pursuits. Very different findings might have emerged with different participants, such as those not  enjoying retirement or struggling at that time of their life, middle aged adults, or specific subcultural groups. The embedded class, gender and age inequality that exists in North American society prevents many older adults from enjoying post-retirement life. Instead, as pointed out by a number of participants in both age groups, many older adults live with housing and income insecurity that in turn, generate stress and health issues. The ‘good life’ in retirement is beyond their reach.

A few surprises arose during the interviews. Initially, I had assumed that while not all participants in both age groups would watch TV, they would be familiar with popular culture through Hollywood movies they watched in theatres (or on a streaming platform like Netflix). However, I was wrong in this assumption. I was surprised to discover that although participants provided photographs (or images) and responses to the research question about depictions of older age in media and popular culture, not all of the participants had a familiarity with popular culture (specifically film, TV or streaming service content). While all of the participants in the younger age group were very familiar with popular culture as they had watched films and TV and/or various streaming services throughout their lives and continued to do so, three participants from the older group very rarely went to films in theatres (prior to COVID) or watched TV (or movies) on network or cable TV or through streaming service platforms. Instead, the opinions expressed by these participants on popular culture (Hollywood film and small screen programming) came in large part from the Internet and print media such as Zoomer Magazine or from watching library CDs of documentaries and foreign films, combined with conversations with other people on popular culture topics. This did not invalidate their responses, but it added another aspect for me to consider.

In addition, I also made the false assumption that on some level all of my participants would at least be aware of popular culture and notice its influences. Although this was true for the majority of participants, a few participants in the older age group stated that they had never really thought about popular culture or the impact it might have on individual or societal values. On the other hand, this research provided an opportunity for those participants to gain an awareness of contemporary popular culture. One male participant for example, said that he was quite upset when he started to look through magazines and noticed the age and gender bias in the ageist anti-aging advertisements. The majority of the ads focused on the importance of women remaining youthful (or at least, youthful looking). Gaining a different insight, another male participant who also said he had no knowledge of contemporary films or TV started to look at some recent Hollywood films on older age and was encouraged to find that the ones he watched presented a positive perspective of older age, (it might be noted that in these films the lead actors were all male). My research uncovered some information around current film and TV viewing habits, but further research would benefit from an in-depth analysis into people’s knowledge and use of popular culture, including genres of films and types of TV programs watched (and how often), as well as Internet and print media usage.

In general, one of the primary concerns of participants in this research was the ideology of the cult of youth that relentlessly focuses on the importance of remaining youthful in older age (particularly for women), while reinforcing negative stereotypes of older age. Hollywood promotes these youth dominated anti-aging messages through a focus on youthful narratives and a lack of representation of older people on screen that erase the presence of older people in film and society in general. Institutions such as the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media (2020), in addition to many popular culture scholars such as Sally Chivers (2011) and Pamela Gravagne (2013) have pointed out that one of the primary methods used to maintain the cultural imperialism of youth is through the removal of older adults in film and television. This lack of representation shifts older people into the background both on and off screen, where they slide into the shadows and eventually become invisible.

Many older people in our society (women in particular) develop feelings of invisibility as they age. These feelings of invisibility were discussed by two of the female research participants from the older age group, both of whom had created photos that illustrated their feelings of invisibility. Their thoughts mirror the academic literature that links feelings of invisibility with negative self-perceptions that include believing that as an older woman you lose your value to society. These feelings of lack of value as an older person are in turn supported by neoliberal ideology (individual responsibility and choice) and policies that emphasizes productivity and consumerism. It was of particular interest to note that both of these participants were single women (1 widowed, 1 divorced). None of the other female participants (or any of the men) from either age group mentioned feelings of invisibility, although some of the participants from both age groups (male and female) used the words ‘invisible or invisibility’ to describe the outcome of removing older people from film and TV.

The invisibility experienced by older people is an area of investigation where more research is needed. It would further our knowledge of ageism and possibly provide insight into ways to reduce or eliminate the sources of these feelings of invisibility. On the micro level, research questions could ask: Is this a common situation? Does having a partner or spouse reduce these general feelings of invisibility or does it depend on the nature of that relationship? How might friends and belonging to a cohort group mitigate these feelings? On the macro level, research questions would need to address the harmful effects of neoliberalism from birth to death that reinforce self-perceptions of a decreasing lack of value in older age.

Combined with the principles and policies of neoliberalism that form the structure of our society, the ideology of youth which has gradually become normalized in our society drives the consumption of numerous aging and anti-aging products and services – from ‘luxury’ retirement homes for the financially secure set of older adults to the sale of anti-aging products and services, that include anti-aging creams and supplements as well as the use of Botox and cosmetic surgery. Changing our society at the structural level is always something to continue to strive for, but at the same time, on an individual level resistance against the dogma of the cult of youth and ageism must also occur. From my perspective, I would argue that the central obstacle on the individual level lies with the internalization process, which, because it is largely a subliminal process is very hard to fight against.

Margaret Gullette (2004, 2011) and other scholars, such as M. DePallo, et al. (1995) and Laura Hurd Clark (2010) point out that it is important to understand that internalized aging stereotypes begin in childhood where they are then reinforced throughout the life course by sustained exposure to negative attitudes and stereotypes about older people present in North American and European society. These attitudes and stereotypes are then subsequently internalized into negative self-stereotypes in older age (Levy, 2003). Becca Levy and Mahzarin Banaji (2002) suggest that because these negative stereotypes apply to others for a long period of time, to a certain degree succumbing to an internalization of these negative stereotypes of aging is easy because there is no reason psychologically to guard oneself against them (p. P203).

Having excellent critical analysis is necessary for an understanding and resistance to any dominant ideology, including the ageist ideology of the cult of youth. This ability was very evident in both groups of research participants. Yet, because of the persuasive power of the subliminal internalization process, it is very difficult to prevent all of the ageist messages buried in the cult of youth from slipping into our subconscious mind. This became clear in my research. One example shows this process in action. During an interview one female participant in the older age group succinctly pointed out that “we live in a society that is fixated on image” while Hollywood promotes an ageist perspective that says that “woman grow old, while men grow better looking.” Yet, a number of times during the same interview, this participant also talked about “feeling not as attractive; looking older; losing her looks” in her mid 50s. Despite her critical awareness and analysis of popular culture, to some extent she had also absorbed the gendered ageism of Hollywood and popular culture. Wim Wenders, one of the ‘New German Cinema’ filmmakers, provided a probable explanation for the difficulty in resisting the internalization of the ageism in Western society that is an inherent characteristic of popular culture. In an insightful and now famous line from Wender’s 1979 film, Kings of the Road, one of the main characters states that: “The Yanks have colonized our subconscious.”

Although my research had limits in uncovering the internalization that takes place from popular culture, answers provided by some of my participants suggest this has happened. In hindsight, I should have pressed harder when this came up or gone back and reinterviewed people. However, it is difficult to analyze the internalization of anyone because internalization is for the most part a subconscious process. Because of this you cannot really ask “have you internalized ageism or the ideology of the cult of youth?”  and expect to get an accurate answer. And too, we all want to think that we are ‘free agents’ – making our own decisions and choices and having the ability to resist media manipulations. Armed with critical thinking skills, in many ways we can do this, but in other ways without knowing it, over many years from childhood on we absorb messages circulated by dominant media that shape our thinking in a more subliminal or subconscious manner. Using more indirect methods could help to reveal internalized ageism. These methods could include various forms of “writing as a method of inquiry” (Richardson & St. Pierre, 2005) such as: journaling; autoethnography (or interpretative biography) from a certain time period in life (Denzin, 2008); narrative or creative non-fiction pieces on a specific topic (e.g. describing a popular film or writing about the concept of beauty/beautiful). Audio recordings done by participants that discussed their feelings and perceptions about themselves or how they feel that others view them might also be illuminating and add to an understanding of the internalization of aging.

On a parallel note, like the older group of participants, all of the younger participants also recognized that popular culture had an impact on society and societal values. But in contrast to the older group who felt that they had been able to resist the influences of popular culture and the anti-aging industries, the majority of the younger age group acknowledged that they felt that they had personally been influenced by popular culture and/or media in ways that were sometimes positive, sometimes negative and sometimes unknown. This may have been because the younger group of participants were obviously closer to their childhood and teenage years than the older participant group. Some of the younger participants also commented on the influence of popular culture on their ideas about old age and aging. They mentioned TV programs or films they had seen during those earlier years as well, as what they watched now. 

Yet, it was interesting to discover that, at the same time, they were also largely indifferent about this influence or manipulation of popular culture. I wondered if perhaps through the increased advances and use of technology and social media in their generation, popular culture had in many ways simply become their culture and as such, was just accepted as a given. “Influencers” for example, make their living from ‘influencing’ others – overtly marketing certain brands and/or products and services through social media. But looking at it another way, it seems as if this kind of assimilation of popular culture also normalizes the cult of youth ideology, thereby enabling the internalization of these ageist values to take place in another way.

The question of internalization, how it takes place and how to resist it, are areas where more research would be extremely valuable. Were I to do this again, I would ask more direct questions about what kinds of TV and films my participants watched as children and teenagers/young adults. Further research could more specifically analyze movies and TV programs from the 1950s-2000s as to prevalence of different genres; common themes; and class, age and gender balance and/or bias. This analysis could then be applied to additional research focusing on what people saw as teenagers, children and young adults, as well as in their present lives. Combined with questions of a similar nature to those in this research, this additional analysis on specifics of dominant media and its usage, could add more detail into the how and why the internalization of the cult of youth ideology so easily accesses our subconscious. At the same time, this research could also provide beneficial insight into new paths of resistance.

The insight and questions raised by research participants on the ideology of the cult of youth and the vast influence of the aging and anti-aging industries are central to the challenges we face in resisting and eliminating ageism in our world. Participants in both age groups made a specific suggestion for dominant media: replace the negative messages and images of aging and old age that stem from the cult of youth ideology with diversity in order to reflect a more accurate representation of aging and older age. As one participant from the younger age group said: “Get rid of the stereotypes. More nuances, dimension and vibrancy” in representations on TV and in film. “No more one-dimensionality.”

There is tremendous diversity in the lives of older Canadians. Only a very small portion of that diversity has been represented through this research and participant interviews, but media and popular culture have the means and opportunity to celebrate and represent the diversity of our older age population. We live in a society that is, in large part ‘Aged by popular culture’ and as such, it affects us all, young and old alike. If continued resistance to the cult of youth ideology and the anti-aging industry is combined with replacing negative images of age and aging with diversity in popular culture, it would go a long way toward extinguishing ageism and replacing it with respect, awareness and acceptance of aging and older age.