The issues discussed on this page, ‘the cult of youth’ and the anti-aging industry, are at the core of this research. (See Hollywood and the ‘cult of youth’ and The aging and anti-aging industries in Concepts and Definitions for more detail). This first section provides the theoretical basis that sets the stage for the issues in the six other theme pages that follow, all of which are shorter, focusing more on participants’ thoughts and insights into the research questions.
Specifically, the photos, text and audio excerpts in this section reflect the thoughts of participants on the first research question presented to them: “What are your perceptions of old age in contemporary society as typically depicted in the media and popular culture?” Using their images and photographs as a starting point in the interview, participants in both groups vividly illustrated the dominance of youth in popular culture and its interconnection with the anti-aging industry. They also discussed the constant assault of print and digital media ads and images that promote the industry’s core message of remaining youthful (the ‘cult of youth’) with its strong gender bias that is ingrained in North American popular culture entertainment.
Linked to all of this is the invisibility factor. Many older people in our society, (particularly woman), have feelings of invisibility as they 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 erases the presence of older people in film and society in general. 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. The ideology of youth that has gradually become normalized in our society drives the consumption of numerous anti-aging products and services – from anti-aging creams and supplements to cosmetic surgery. As might be expected, anti-aging is a highly profitable industry. In 2018, the value of the global anti-aging industry was estimated at approximately 50.2 billion USD (Shahbandeh, 2020) with the highest spending per capita coming from the US and Canada (Fortune Business, 2020).
The 'cult of youth' ⎯ influence and internalization
Before starting the discussion and analysis in this section it should be mentioned that although participants provided images and responses to the first research question about depictions of old age in media and popular culture, not all of the participants in the older age group had a familiarity with popular culture (specifically film, TV or streaming service content). As a result, the opinions these participants expressed on popular culture (Hollywood film and small screen programming) came in large part from print and internet media, combined with their conversations with other people on this topic. This does not invalidate their responses, but it does add another aspect to consider.
All 5 participants in the younger age group were very familiar with popular culture as they watched films and TV and/or various streaming services throughout their lives, while in the older age group only 6 participants said that they watched popular films and/or TV and streaming services (5 females and 1 male). However, one of the male participants who had stated that he did not watch films, qualified his statement by saying that although he did not watch Hollywood films, he watched ‘foreign’ films and documentaries from the library. And the other male participant who also said that he did not watch movies, did look at a few films specifically for his participation in this project by researching films on ‘retirement’ or about older people in general. All of the older group of participants, with the exception of 1 person, read magazines, newspapers and online news and/or articles. In addition, none of the older group of participants mentioned films or TV that they had seen as a child or young person.
Looking again at the research of Gullette (2004, 2011) and others such as DePallo, et al. (1995) and Hurd Clark (2010) on stereotypes and the internalization process, it’s important to consider that internalizing aging stereotypes begins 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 (Gullette, 2004; Palmore, 2004, 2005; Levy & Banaji, 2002). 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. 203). As we grow older, we may become more aware of the emphasis in media and popular culture on youth and the power of the anti-aging industry, but have we stopped to consider the media and popular culture influences from our childhood and youth? Maybe, but maybe not. For this reason, I have provided links to some of the popular films and TV programs of the 1950s-2000s, which may offer insight into these questions and our own internalization process (keep in mind that small screen viewing changed in the 2000s with the addition of streaming services like Netflix that launched in 2010). (See: Statistics: Top films and TV series from the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s and 2000s.)
We live in a youth obsessed culture that has its roots in the establishment of Hollywood in the early 1910s-1920s and the creation of the ‘cult of youth,’ which in conjunction with the anti-aging industry, developed and advanced a new consumer market. The majority of participants in both groups recognized that media and popular culture were embedded in our corporate based consumerist culture. Today in contemporary society, popular culture and media continue to cater to youth and youthfulness, which is in the foreground in films, and programming on TV and streaming services. Older age, on the other hand, fades into the background and into the margins by removing evidence of aging and older/old age on screen. Participants concerns around the influence of media and popular culture on society focused on this lack of representation of older adults in popular culture. This lack of representation is confirmed in statistics on older age and gender bias on screen. For example, one study from 2019 of the 100 top grossing US films showed that for female actors only “8% were in their 50s, and 6% were in their 60s or older, and only 3 of these films featured women in leads or co-leads.” (See Gender and age in Hollywood films and Gender and Age Discrimination in Hollywood for more details.)
And although depictions of older adults are not completely absent, participants raised objections to what depictions of older age can be found in popular culture, including: 1) portrayals that reflect a polarity of old age as either a) the frail/passive and dependent stereotype, or b) the ‘successful aging’/’Freedom 55’ stereotype; and 2) old age as yet another consumer market in which aging and anti-aging products are targeted to both the frail and the ’successfully aging’ older adult.
It was interesting to note that although the majority of the older group of participants realized that popular culture influenced society and societal values, they did not always think that it had an influence on themselves on a personal level. One participant said that while she was aware of the messages and strategies of the anti-aging industry with its relentless focus on staying young, she “just ignored them.” Another female participant in the older group discussed the way that popular culture encourages ageist attitudes that subsequently shape public attitudes and values. She also believed that she had not absorbed these values and beliefs herself. Although this was true in many respects, her responses around her own perceived increasing lack of attractiveness as she grew older (in her mid 50s) indicated that she may have internalized some of the ageist gender bias promoted incessantly in popular culture that makes it very difficult to avoid. Internalizing the messages of the cult of youth is very easy to do.
An internalized form of ageism was also found in one of the older male participants who initially experienced difficulty with his retirement. He felt that as soon as he retired, he experienced a loss of identity and a loss of value, which he did not attribute to cultural or popular culture influences, but to general changes in societal values over generations. However, at the same time, this participant mentioned that he had little knowledge of popular culture, including movies and TV, and instead placed himself “outside popular culture” where he was “stuck in the 40s, 50s and 60s.” But because of his lack of knowledge about popular culture, he did some research for his participation in this project and watched a few films that were about older or retired people that included: Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino (2008), about an older man who helps out his Asian neighbours by taking on a gang that are harassing them; and The Intern (2015), which focuses on post-retirement when a retired CEO becomes an intern to an upstart fashion design studio and eventually gains the respect and friendship of the young female CEO of the company. He assumed that contemporary movies would reflect his own negative experience of growing older and retirement but was surprised to discover that instead, the films he found “seemed to actually celebrate the skills, contributions and capabilities now of senior people to society.”
However, like the female participant above, some of his feelings about his lack of value after retirement may have been come from ingrained cultural beliefs that have been shaped over a number of decades by popular culture influences. And too, while there are Hollywood films that present older adults (usually male) in positive ways, they are rare. In addition, human value in our neoliberal society is often measured by productivity bound to paid work. The reaction from these two participants finds resonance with academic literature which suggests that the ideology of the cultural imperialism of youth has become an ideology that is entrenched in the consciousness of North Americans and much of the Western world (Addison, 2006).
On a parallel note, while all of the younger participants also recognized that popular culture had an impact on society and societal values, 4 out of 5 of these participants also acknowledged that they had personally been influenced by popular culture and/or media in ways that were sometimes positive, sometimes negative and sometimes unknown. Yet at the same time, they were also largely indifferent about it, perhaps because through the increased advances and use of technology and social media in their generation, popular culture has in many ways simply become their culture and as such, is accepted as it is. “Influencers” for example, make their living from ‘influencing’ others – overtly marketing certain brands and/or products and services through social media. However, this kind of assimilation of popular culture also normalizes the cult of youth ideology, enabling the internalization of these ageist values.
Participants from both age groups (generations) felt that having an awareness of the manipulative nature of popular culture reduced their susceptibility to it. Critical analysis was very evident in this group of individuals. 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 the subconscious mind. One younger participant for example, who had a very solid analysis of popular culture, said that it was hard for her to say whether or not she had been influenced by media and popular culture, but because she grew up watching TV all her life and started using the internet when she was 12 years old, she was sure that she had been very affected. And although she was unable to describe exactly what these influences had been or what effect they had on her, she felt that as a result of participating in this research, she had gained more conscious awareness of the situation and had an interest in discovering what these influences had been on her life. A possible answer to her inability to know the source of those influences is stated quite succinctly in an insightful and now famous line by one of the main characters in Kings of the Road, a 1976 film by Wim Wenders (one of the ‘New German Cinema’ filmmakers): “The Yanks have colonized our subconscious.”
Two participants in the younger group also discussed the negative impact of media and popular culture on their personal life. A female participant said that she had been specifically influenced by popular culture (films and TV programs) through images of the female actors that affected her own body image in a negative way. Although she was only 31, comparing herself to these images of youthful female beauty she found herself lacking. Her response finds similarities in the description of age and image by the older female participant (described earlier). In her mid 50s she started to feel invisible when she perceived that she had begun to look ‘older’ and “less attractive.” One of the male participants also mentioned the negative influence of popular culture (TV programs and ads) through its celebration of youthfulness. Even at 34, as a result of the influence of these media ads, combined with family members who had also absorbed these messages of remaining youthful which they passed on to him, this participant had already developed a fear of aging, which he ‘resisted’ by becoming a consumer of anti-aging products (illustrated through his photos – “Resistance and Looming’).
Participants in the older age group, also discussed how their personal lives had been influenced by the focus on youth in our society. One female participant who otherwise had a very positive outlook on aging, said that she had absorbed certain aspects of ageism because of the North American focus in on looks (image) and youth. She felt that she had: 1) developed fears around old age and; 2) worried too much about the way she looked and what other people thought about her appearance. One of the other older female participants created an image/photo for her interview that creatively expressed her feelings of invisibility as an older woman (‘Looking through me’), feelings that have also been described by many other older adults, men as well as women (although women generally experience feelings of invisibility more often than men overall). She felt that because our culture is “all about youth and beauty” (which is determined by popular culture), “women are devalued as they grow older because they have lost their looks.” She went on to say that in popular culture and society in general, “women grow old while men seem to grow better looking.” The gender bias that is reinforced in Hollywood films validates her perception. (See GDIGM 2019 Report – “Frail, Frumpy and Forgotten“ for more details.) This ageist perspective can also be found in independent films made outside of the Hollywood system. For example, Richard Gere, playing one of the male characters in the UK production, The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2015), is referred to as a ‘silver fox’ a flattering term for an older man. No such complimentary term exists for older women.
It should be noted that the two participants who created photos that specifically addressed their personal experiences of feeling invisible were both created by older single females (1 divorced; 1 widowed). There was one other photo that illustrated invisibility, but it was created by one of the younger female participants to describe the lack of representation of older people on screen, which consequently renders them invisible. And a few of the other participants, (male and female) mentioned how the lack of representation of older people on screen erases aging and old age from popular culture and society. However, none of the other participants with partners mentioned feeling invisible themselves.
The observations and reflections from the participants above are also discussed in the academic literature. Drawing on five discrete studies from a 10-year period of data collection Laura Hurd Clarke (2010), applied a critical feminist and interpretive framework to her analysis of how women face aging in Facing age: Women growing older in anti-aging culture. She found that although there is resistance to the dominant view of beauty ideology (youth equals beauty), the majority of the women interviewed in the five studies internalized the negative messages of aging in one form or another. Central to this internalization of gendered ageism is the overriding message that older women are “ugly, repulsive, asexual; and undesirable” (Calasanti & Slevin, 2001; Cruikshank, 2003 in Hurd Clarke, 2010, p. 23). Seeing age as an enemy that must be fought, they strive for the unobtainable goal of maintaining their youthful looks: “Women learn from an early age that their social currency largely derives from their ability to achieve and maintain proximity to a youthful, toned, healthy, voluptuous yet slim body” (p. 21). Featherstone and Hepworth (2005) add to this dialogue by pointing out that images presented in media are never merely neutral ‘entertainment,’ but are instead images that are created in a cultural context, shaping our perceptions of body image, and in turn influencing individual self-image (p. 356).
Although the majority of participants viewed the influence of popular culture on old age as negative, a few participants from both age groups had a different point of view. One of the male participants in the younger age group felt that TV and movies had a positive effect on his impression of older people, citing Leonard Nimoy playing Spock in Star Trek into his 80s, and the film, Grumpy Old Men (1993), in which the two older lead characters (Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau) don’t follow societal conventions and “just live their lives and do what they want to do.” This same participant was also of the opinion that old age could be seen as a disease that sometime in the distant future may be solved (illustrated by his photo ‘A problem to solve’). His perspective reflects that of Cambridge gerontologist, Audrey de Grey’s biomedical approach to aging as a curable disease that has to be tackled at the cellular level (de Grey, 2014). And one of the female participants in the older age group felt that although we live in a very youth focused culture that is reflected in media and popular culture, this is changing due to the influence of the boomer generation. She spoke of the positive influence of Zoomer Magazine, through its features on “seniors doing interesting and challenging things.” (Discussed in more detail in the section on ‘Healthy aging’) And, although she said that she rarely goes to films and does not watch TV or Netflix, she felt that from what she knew, she believed that the situation is changing for the better for older actors.
The anti-aging industry
“For now at least, resisting age rather than ageism greases more palms, oils more deals, and turns more dollars” (Gilleard and Higgs, 2000 p. 71).
The anti-aging industry falls under the umbrella of the aging industry or aging enterprise, which comprises all aspects of the commodification of aging, (such as retirement homes and communities; specialized travel companies; fashion; and investment and legal services); and including private health care options focused on age-related health concerns, (e.g. private hip and knee replacement surgeries, paid companions for older adults, etc.) (Estes, 1993). With aging under the domain of biomedicine, the aging industry is afforded endless opportunities for growth through these enterprises, along with the promotion of new products, where in fact corporate profit, not improved health is the priority (Estes & Binney, 1989).
As mentioned in ‘The cult of youth – influence and internalization’ section on this page, Hollywood and the anti-aging industry became collaborators in this very lucrative partnership in the early days of Hollywood in the 1910s-1920s. Today, anti-aging ads and websites fuel the concept of “agelessness” by promoting surgeries, diets, exercise regimes, and various formulas to eliminate signs of aging.The aging and anti-aging industries are very big business indeed. In 2018, the value of the global anti-aging industry alone was estimated at approximately 50.2 billion USD (Shahbandeh, 2020) with the highest spending per capita in the US and Canada (Fortune Business, 2020).
Contemporary anti-aging marketing strategy focuses on two groups of older people, both of which are stereotypes: 1) the frail older adult; and 2) the healthy or ‘successfully’ aging older person (including the ‘Freedom 55‘ adult). Participants from both age groups in my research talked about the anti-aging (and aging) industries in the context of marketing to these two groups of older adults.
The ‘successfully aging Freedom 55’ older adult
Both age groups of participants pointed to the ‘successfully‘aging Freedom 55’ model of older adults as the prime marketing group of older adults for the aging and anti-aging industries. This group of older adults are quite often affluent and financially secure, thereby offering the most marketing opportunities for the aging and anti-aging industries. The ‘successfully aging’ group of older adults are targeted through ads that either focus on: 1) remaining youthful, tapping into anti-aging industry products and services; and 2) marketing by the aging industry of upscale retirement life, which include luxurious independent living/retirement homes, cruises and other travel options, along with financial planning and investment services, all of which provide a high-profit margin for the aging industry (although the travel branch of the aging industry undoubtedly experienced a drop in sales and a huge loss of revenue this past year due to the pandemic).
As one female participant from the older group said: “marketing to this group embodies the ‘monetization of aging,” giving as examples AARP (American Association for Retired Persons) ads such as: ‘The older I get, the prettier my portfolio,” and “I may be grey, but my money is as green as it gets.” Using a lottery ticket image to illustrate her concerns (‘Set for Life’), one of the female participants in the younger age group, stated that while the most common image of older adults in popular culture was no representation at all, when older adults were shown they were usually: 1) portrayed by actors who were considerably younger than the character they were portraying, therefore removing evidence of old age altogether; and 2) depicted as ‘young looking’ “older couples who were happy and carefree with no worries, no financial problems, usually on a holiday or boat living the best years of their life.” Sharing the views of the older group of participants, she strongly objected to this depiction of older age, as it denied the inequality and financial insecurity that is the reality for many older adults. (See Themes: Gender and class – bias and inequality)
This younger participant’s depictions of a fantasy version of old age find parallels in the literature on the retirement industry. As mentioned, the retirement industry is another highly profitable example of the aging industry. Feeding into our collective subconscious fear of becoming the decrepit and dependent elderly, retirement living advertisements are devoid of any of the negative images of “unsuccessful” aging. Instead, images of vitality and independence are key to advertisers – successfully aging seniors may have grey hair, but their bodies nevertheless still appear youthful and energetic (Blekesaune & Solem, 2005; McHugh, 2003).
Retirement homes were a subject of discussion by six participants in the older group (but not a topic in the younger age group). The discussions centred around two main issues: 1) the inequality embedded in these facilities which are extremely expensive (often with a cost of between $6,000-$7000 per month), consequently catering to the financially secure older adult ⎼ referred to by one of the older male participants as “retirement for the rich;” and 2) the marketing of retirement homes (as well as private assisted living and LTC facilities) as a ‘lifestyle’ that, according to a number of participants, is simply ‘warehousing of older adults.’ Participants also emphasized that in retirement homes people are segregated by age and socioeconomic status. And one participant felt that although the retirement homes may provide a degree of comfort, entertainment and security for those adults who can afford to live there, they also restrict engagement to people of the same age and class due to the nature of retirement home living; lack diversity in general and are heteronormative; and determine the kind of entertainment and engagement at each facility.
The other primary area of discussion connected to the anti-aging industry focused on the intention and effect of the message of the ‘cult of youth’ – stay ‘forever young’ or at least ‘grow old but look young.’ All of the participants in both age groups commented on the emphasis on youth and staying young that is embedded in popular culture on and off screen. One of the older female participants remarked that: “Anti-aging is the big goal. But that’s not possible. Nobody can prevent aging. Anti-aging [to the industry] means that you can get as old as you want as long as you look young, which is a ridiculous premise… Anti-aging is about the dollars – it’s a big money maker.”
The ‘cult of youth’ and the lack of representation of old age on screen has been one of the central themes in this research. On-screen, the situation for older actors is very challenging with few options available to them as they age (See Concepts and definitions: Background: Hollywood & the ‘cult of youth’ for details). For example, participants noted previously that in addition to the presence of very few older (primary) characters on-screen, actors often played characters much older than they were themselves. Additionally, participants in both age groups commented on the use of Botox and cosmetic surgery by female actors to maintain an appearance of youthfulness. One of the older participants remarked that most of the female actors (the ‘stars’) have had facelifts, some to the point where they are unrecognizable. Very few age naturally. This on-screen use of anti-aging products and services reinforces the ideology of youth off-screen as well, and in the process helps to sell that youthful ideology (and its products and services) to the public. The combination of gender and age bias has been entrenched in the ’cult of youth’ since its beginnings, but it is finally starting to find resistance in Hollywood from individuals and institutions (see Gender and age discrimination in Hollywood and GDIGM 2019 Report: “Frail, frumpy and forgotten” for details).
The impact of popular culture (including magazine ads) that market anti-aging products through youthful ideology was discussed by a number of participants. One of the male participants in the older group of participants was very concerned about the way that ads, such as the Helen Mirren Age Perfect ad for L’Oréal, suggests that women must focus on staying young/looking young and beautiful, which is not important or achievable, but the ads make you believe it is. He pointed out that while the focus is on women not men, with repetition both men and women internalize these messages, convincing women that they must try to remain youthful looking and avoid wrinkles, and inducing men to believe that older women should look like Helen Mirren in the Age Perfect ad. (See Themes: Gender and class – bias and inequality for additional information). On the other hand, men are not immune from the messages embedded in the ‘cult of youth’ ideology. One of participants in the younger age group discussed the impact the anti-aging marketing strategy had on him. Also nfluenced by the family of women he grew up in who were fixated on remaining youthful and reinforced through popular culture and its focus on youthfulness, he created two images for this research (‘Resistance’ and ‘Looming’) to illustrate how he had succumbed to the power of the anti-aging industry, buying various kinds of products in an attempt to slow the aging process.
Marketing to the frail older adult
The second stereotype is the frail older adult, isolated and waiting to die. There are less product options available for marketing to this group, but the big-ticket items are upscale retirement homes, as well as private assisted living and long-term care (LTC) facilities. Luxury retirement homes, as well as the more ‘basic,’ and somewhat less expensive, retirement homes are marketed to the frail but functioning older adult. Retirement homes, private assisted living and long-term care (LTC) facilities are also marketed to the more frail older adult, usually the kind of retirement home concept that also offers a graduated process of starting out in independent living in the ‘retirement home,’ and when needed, transferring into their assisted living facility conveniently located next door, and then at a later date, moving to LTC to spend their ‘final days’. One of the primary objections to these facilities, aside from the cost, is the intention behind this type of housing. Three of the older participants described this as the ‘warehousing or institutionalizing’ of frail older adults – moving them out of their own home and into an institution where they are ‘out of sight,’ which erases the presence of older people in our society, yet another form of ageism. Another participant’s perception is that this type of housing promotes alienation by separating older people from their friends and family and excluding them from the general population.
However, while the aging and anti-aging industries also promote prescription medications for many different health issues that sometimes have questionable value, such as dementia drugs for the frail older adult, they also market products that enable many older adults to live more satisfying and independent lives. Mobility devices (walkers, motorized wheelchairs, scooters, and chair lifts), for example, along with incontinence products give older adults the freedom to get out into the community and avoid isolation. A number of the older participants pointed out, that although walkers, wheelchairs and scooters are associated with frailty and dependence by some people, they are in fact a mobility aid that helps to maintain independence for many older adults. One of the male participants in the older age group said that whenever he sees people using a walker or scooter, he feels inspired because they provide an example of “what’s possible as he grows older”. And one of the female participants talked about a number of low-income seniors that she knew whose mobility devices were invaluable to them, as they allowed them to stay engaged with their community and other people. One of those people was a disabled senior who used her motorized wheelchair to go everywhere, always taking her little dog with her. This device enabled her to enjoy a happy and fulfilled life.
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. The insight and questions raised by participants on the ideology of the cult of youth and the vast influence of the aging and anti-aging industries are interconnected to the other six sections on this website. They are central to the challenges we face in resisting and eliminating ageism in our world.
'Just like sugar'
[anonymous, age 68]
[C. Cayer, age 35]
“[Helen Mirren] is actually 72 so she’s well into her senior years. [The image] is of her full face looking rather youthful, which I guess is the whole idea, but it’s the caption that really draws me to this ageism kind of thing, where it says: “beautiful skin at every age because we’re all worth it, age perfect.” And it just strikes me that in our media today that’s what we’re trying to portray – you can be older, but oh, it’s really important that you look young, and you can look young..as if growing old and having wrinkles is a bad thing…. That’s what the media is out there depicting as seniors and to me. …It really is ageism. It’s certainly fostering ageism and I think it’s sending the wrong message. We should be allowed to grow old with dignity. We’re all going to grow old and so what if we have wrinkles? I mean, no big deal…Why do we have to be ‘age perfect’?”
[D. Kirkham, age 66]
'Looking through me'
[C. Meyer, age 68]
Grow old but look young
(L.Quenille-Orphin, age 78)
Pop culture invisibility
[anonymous, age 32]
A problem to solve
There are some jellyfish that are literally immortal. They can survive in the harshest of climates with zero moisture literally out in space. Lobsters age until they die. I think that how old age [in humans] is looked at is possibly realistic but I prefer to take a more naïve approach to it and see old age as something that could possible, in the far, far distant future, be solved…
(D. Parker, age 28)
[C. Cayer, age 34]