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Geena Davis Calls Hollywood's Age Bias 'Dismal'

New study from her media institute reveals few roles for female movie characters over 50

Actress Geena Davis

Stephane Cardinale - Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images

En español | Geena Davis, 64, isn't just an Oscar-winning actress (The Accidental Tourist) but also a feminist activist — especially on behalf of her female peers 50-plus. Starring in the 1991 hit film Thelma & Louise "made me realize how few opportunities we give women to feel empowered by female characters,” Davis told AARP. Determined to make a difference, she founded the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media in 2004, which has just released a new study on the state of women in film. And it's not a story with a happy ending.

"Frail, Frumpy and Forgotten: A Report on the Movie Roles of Women of Age” is the first-ever analysis of how women over age 50 are depicted in 2019's 30 top-grossing films from the U.S., the U.K., France and Germany. It uses the institute's unique Geena Davis Inclusion Quotient software, which uses automation to measure screen and speaking time for all actors.


"I knew it was bad, but this really drove home how very dismal it is,” Davis told People magazine. Zero women over age 50 had lead roles, and males age 50-plus outnumbered them 2-to-1 onscreen. Only 1 in 4 films passed the Ageless Test by avoiding ageist stereotypes and featuring at least one female character over 50 who matters and is tied into the plot so that their removal would have significant effect.

The persistence of stereotypes

The stereotypes are ugly. One in 3 characters age 50-plus are depicted as stubborn or cranky, and they get just 16.9 percent of screen time and 21.8 percent of speaking time. Other characters routinely degrade characters 50-plus, with lines like “You're useless,” “He looks 1,000 years old,” and “No wonder you have gray hair.” Characters over 50 are equally likely to have a romantic partner as those younger, but three times less apt to get a sex scene — and if the randy elders get such a scene, it's never as graphic as those of the younger characters. Often, the camera cuts from a kiss to the morning after. Movies can't bear the sight of grownups with sex lives.

Male characters 50-plus are also stereotyped, but female charcters get it worse. They are:

  • 4 times likelier than men to be depicted as senile or frumpy.
  • Twice as likely to be shown as physically unattractive or large-bodied.
  • 69.5 percent likelier to be shown as sickly.
  • 7 times likelier to be portrayed as housebound.
  • Twice as likely to be depicted as totally unfashionable.
  • Almost twice as likely to be insulted by ageist stereotypes of all kinds.

The Davis report quotes (and bears out) an AARP study that found “only 15 percent of print media images feature those over age 50, despite the fact that this age group makes up one-third of the U.S. population,” and notes that AARP found that less than 5 percent of print images show grownups using tech devices — even though about 69 percent of those age 55 to 73 own smartphones (on which most readers are reading this article).


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The missing post-Thelma feminist revolution

Back when she got her second Oscar nomination for Thelma & Louise, Davis thought her feminist classic was a game changer. “The press was predicting Thelma & Louise is going to change everything,” says Davis. “Now we're going to see so many movies starring women. Female road pictures, female buddy pictures. I was very excited. Then it was The Hunger Games: 'Now everything is going to change.’ Then it was Wonder Woman. Female directors are still around 4 percent, with equally poor numbers for editors, cinematographers, writers and producers."

Davis's report concludes with four recommendations:

  • Cast more women ages 50-plus.
  • Increase diversity in older characters (most minority characters are young).
  • Avoid stereotyping.
  • Allow older characters to be sexual.

Is there any reason to believe Hollywood will step up and respect grownups? Maybe so, says Davis. “One thing that has changed in the past few years: Movies starring a female character have made significantly more money than movies starring a male character. That may help."

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