The Gray Panther’s ‘Media Watch Task Force‘ statistics from the 1970s-1980s

In 1970, Maggie Kuhn started an organization in the US that become known as the ‘Gray Panthers’ (1972) with a handful of other older women who were also social activists. This organization quickly evolved into an intergenerational group of activists who worked for social justice and economic equality, focusing on a number of issues that included peace, health care, housing and the environment, as well as the broader issues of ageism and sexism that were reflected and promoted by media and popular culture. They established a ‘Media Watch Task Force,’ a grassroots network of local Gray Panther groups and individuals (media watchers) scattered across the country who monitored the representation of older adults in the media and television. Media Watch was also part of a larger movement – the Broadcast Reform Movement of the 1970s and 1980s who were concerned about the lack of representation of older people in the media and television.

In 1975, utilizing their media networks and media watchers from across the country (from whom they received 50 letters per month), the Gray Panthers built a comprehensive picture of the representation of older adults in media and television (Ciafone, 2019). Their findings included the following:

  • “Panther media watchers pointed out advertising’s glorification of youth and the treatment of age as something to fight off[italics added].
  • Older people were portrayed as “meddlesome, crotchety, and inept, as well as jokes about older people being senile, infirm, and sexless in nightly comedies”— descriptions that in part remain in place today in popular culture.
  • They also noted how few older people were on television. Media Watch chairperson at the time, Lydia Bragger described the situation this way,” There are more than 32 million persons in the US, aged 60 or over—15% of the population. Yet, with few exceptions, they are the invisible people of videoland.” (Bragger, p. 20)
  • In 1975, in the entire primetime TV schedule, “older characters accounted for only 7 roles of any significance” (Sanjek, p.54)
  • In a general sense, older people were represented as mentally and physically inferior; Older adults were usually not pictured in a positive manner, and instead stereotypes of older adults were in abundance.
  • Specifically, there were a number of derogatory and ageist characterizations of older adults on primetime and late-night comedy series, which included:
  • The overtly ageist “Old Man” and “Mama” characters, who were always nameless
  • “The frequent old lady minstrel performances by much of the cast on the Carol Burnett Show”
  • The middle-aged man dressed in “granny drag’; and
  • Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show character, “Aunt Blabby,” a confused, infirm, and frumpy older character, who was quite typical of the ageist and sexist depictions of older women on television at that time (Ciafone, 2019). In 1977, Maggie Kuhn, the founder and figurehead of the organization, appeared a number of times on the Tonight Show, and over time was successful in getting the offensive and ageist character of “Aunt Blabby” removed from Carson’s routines.

The Gray Panther’s continue with their activism and advocacy today through their organization of intergenerational activists who are “working to challenge laws and attitudes for social and economic justice.” They focus on issues that include “peace, health care, jobs, housing jobs, housing, ageism, sexism, racism, media stereotyping, family security, the environment and campaign reform” (ITVS, 2020).