New study shows “ageist” British film industry casts out older characters
Our study shows older characters are underrepresented in British films, with only one in ten older characters involved in major plotline.
We're calling for greater representation of older age groups in film, particularly older women and older actors from minority ethnic backgrounds.
The British film industry is failing to give a voice to a huge proportion of the country’s population by continuing to create disproportionately low numbers of older characters, reveals new research published today.
There remains a general reluctance to feature older characters as central to the plot of British films, with older characters, especially women, noticeably given less of a voice than younger characters and usually defined by their age rather than other characteristics such as their mental or physical abilities.
Marginal improvements the industry has made over the past decade have been largely limited to increasing the number of older characters in supporting roles, not major roles, while an increase in older female characters has been restricted to women in their 50s and early 60s but no older.
Only a third of all speaking characters, from a sample of more than 1,200 appearing in nearly 50 popular films from three timepoints in the last decade, were aged 50 or over – despite this age group comprising nearly half (48%) of UK adults. The study suggests older women and older adults from minority ethnic backgrounds have a particularly raw deal when it comes to representation, with female characters aged 65 and over three times less likely than male characters of the same age to be featured in British films over the last decade. Empowered, active and rounded older female characters were rare and older women were much more commonly portrayed as passive, pitiable, ridiculed for failing to act their age and often irrelevant to the main plot.
The study also finds less diversity in older characters. On average, only one in ten characters in their 50s, 60s and 70s were from a minority ethnic background: less than half as many as younger adult characters during this period. When present, these characters were predominantly Black, with other ethnicities largely absent. The authors found virtually no minority ethnic representation existed for adults aged 80 years or older in any of the study’s sampled films.
Characters aged 65 years and over were most noticeably under-represented, comprising just 11.7% of all characters compared to 24% of the British population, while the inclusion of characters aged 80 years or over would need to quadruple to reflect the reality of British society. The study shows limited progress has been made, with all of the top British films from the last year (July 2021-June 2022) featuring a character aged over 50 in a speaking role with at least one line. This is compared to the 2010 sample, where one in four films did not feature any characters aged over 50 in speaking roles.
However, only 10% of characters aged 50 or older who featured in a British film in the last year were involved in a major plotline and the likelihood of characters being included in a major role significantly decreases as their age of the character increases.
Dr Carole Easton OBE, Chief Executive at the Centre for Ageing Better, said:
“This study lays bare the entrenched ageism that exists in the British film industry which can be seen across wider popular culture and society. The industry has an age problem and is not giving enough of a voice to older characters, particularly older women and older people from minority ethnic backgrounds.
“Surely as we get older, our lives become richer, more complex, and we have more stories to tell and perspectives to share. And yet, film culture is still largely focused on youth. It is wonderful to see films that are bucking this trend doing well at this year’s BAFTAs. But we need to see many more actors like Michelle Yeoh and Bill Nighy leading plot lines and lighting up our screens.
“The UK population is growing older, and that means audiences are growing older too. It’s not just right that films better portray older age groups; it makes good business sense.”
Professor Dennis Olsen, from the University of West London School of Film, Media and Design and lead author of the study, said:
“This report presents the most comprehensive research on the topic of ageing in British cinema to date. It shows that there have been small improvements in the depiction of ageing and old age on screen.
“But the report also points at persistent shortcomings and instances of prevailing ageism, with fully rounded older characters still being the exception rather than the rule – especially at the intersection of age, gender and ethnicity.
“The British screen industries should build upon some of the progress that has been made in the past decade and fully embrace age diversity in front of and behind the camera. With Hollywood showing little progress, British cinema has the opportunity to become an innovator and leader in addressing ageism in the screen industries and creating a more inclusive and equitable environment for everyone.”