The primary goal of my research has been to identify our perceptions of the representations of age and aging circulating in Western media and popular culture (broadly defined). Specifically, the research asked: What image(s) of age and aging are projected by Western media and popular culture? Reflecting on these two research objectives, this literature review will provide an examination of the significant literature relevant to a practical and theoretical understanding of the role of Western media and popular culture in fostering ageism in contemporary society, which includes the major sociopolitical influences which have shaped our perceptions of age and aging, including neoliberalism.
Historical and sociopolitical influences
Since the early 1800s, old age in Western culture has been perceived in either a positive or negative light based on a number of factors: 1) “a ‘good’ old age was depicted by good health, virtue, self-reliance and salvation; while 2) a ’bad’ old age reflected sickness, sin, dependence, decay and disease” (Cole, 1992 in McHugh, 2003). Victorian morality also associated ‘bad’ old age with sin, as well as decay and dependence. Additionally, prior to the industrialization of the 1800s-1900s a primarily rural economy relied on experience that came with age, enabling older (and healthy) adults to fall into the ‘good’ old age category that had value within the society (Addison, 2006). This changed however with the increasing industrialization of the early 1900s which relied on strength and speed, qualities found in young workers that would increase productivity and profit. At the same time, the ‘Cult of Youth’ (Addison, 2006) that developed in Hollywood in the 1910s-1920s has now become ingrained in the consciousness of North Americans and much of the Western world, where it reinforces the belief that old age should be avoided regardless of the consequences. Association with older people is discouraged based on the grounds that doing so would “devalue” the younger person in contact with the aging individual (Calasanti, 2007, p. 337).