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 by the Centre For Ageing Better.
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.
Read the full report here