Old Age

AQA Media Studies MEST3 Identities and the Media Old Age in Film and Television

Rob Miller | Friday September 12, 2014

Categories: A LevelAQA A LevelAQA A2Collective IdentityRepresentation of AgeKey ConceptsRepresentation & StereotypingHot EntriesTheoryQueer TheoryRepresentation Theory

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Identity and age is a broad topic for study with youth identity a much debated and analysed area focussing on Gauntlett’s prosumer, interactivity using web 2.0 and the representation of the self through social media platforms, creating online identities and user generated content. Cultural identities of old age however have become a marginalised area of representation study and potentially in the media are still victim to hegemonic cultural stereotyping more than most - if stereotypes are challenged it is frequently only through ironic humour as in the July 2014 BT Infinity television commercial where audiences find themselves surprised that Simon’s grandfather can competently use a tablet as digital technology.

Pluralistic cultural identities of age seem to be restricted to hyper real examples as in the Rolling Stones, all of whom are grandfathers with Mick Jagger in 2014 a great grandfather. Their appearance on the main stage at the Glastonbury Music Festival in 2013 anchoredtheir iconic status and longevity and maintained their aspirational representation to male audiences in terms of their age. The cultural stereotype of old age invariably hasconnotations of vulnerability, helplessness and undesirability with television news frequenting reinforcing and circulating this representation with news stories about care homes, old people in need of rescuing because of floods and a particular favourite, old people driving up the wrong side of the motorway. Audiences are conditioned into expecting these types of identities because they have become so common and normalised that anything that deviates from this stereotype almost has the status of a niche or novelty text. In ‘The Politics of Childhood’, Martin Hoyles discusses how children used to have no socio economic value in society but now, the concept of the teenage dot.com entrepreneur is far more acceptable than any pluralistic representation of older age. Ironically however, one of the most powerful, and more familiar older men in the media is the 83 year old founder, Chairman and CEO of one of the world’s largest media companies – the News Corporation.

Historically, and in more traditional societies the cultural identity of old age would be fixed but now, up to a point, older people have a greater role in constructing and negotiating a role and an identity for themselves. Below we see a poster for the 2013 action thriller Escape Plan starring Sylvester Stallone, aged 68 and Arnold Schwarzenegger, aged 67. Both men utilise their secondary persona as historical action heroes from RockyRambo andTerminator films to break out of maximum-security prisons and ensure audiences identifywith their representation as action heroes. Here, the identities of both men are dominant and in the world of mainstream Hollywood film there are still a narrow set of identities thatcommercially appeal to mass audiences. As David Gauntlett argues they “offer narrow interpretations of certain roles and lifestyles”. Here clearly the dominant role, bringing in anideological construct is the physically strong, determined and controlling patriarch who still is revered and respected.

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Audiences of media texts have a heightened role to play in the construction of identity – using Stuart Hall’s basic, but helpful framework audiences share in the dominant, traditional preferred meaning in relation to the representation of age but here, also gender. It is less common to see a dominant, older female identity in Hollywood film and certainly even less common to see a sexualised older female representation. Stallone and Schwarzenegger, using Blumler and Katz’ uses and gratifications framework still present audiences with an identity that they can identify with but also as a form of diversion or escapism. The characters are framed as aspirational for male audiences but also, up to a point for the female gaze for female audiences. Marxists film critics would argue that these fixed identities suit the needs of big distributors like 21st Century Fox, Universal, Disney, Paramount, Sony and Warner Bros in their commercial ability to exploit an identity and at the same time, not really positively promoting the cultural identity of old age. It is the uncommon aspect of a film like Escape Plan, coupled with the commercial priorities that prevents perhaps both identities being categorised as pluralistic.

Meryl Streep, at 65 commands a gravitas but also a strong screen presence playing dynamic, physically and intellectually controlling characters such as Margaret Thatcher inThe Iron Lady in 2011 but also as Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada (2006) – a powerful and controlling, but crucially sexualised fashion magazine editor who uses her representation to dominate both women and men. Applying Angela McRobbie’s theory, Streep is framed as an older post feminist icon as both exhibiting male and female stereotypes to create a dominant identity. McRobbie has written widely on sexual identity but tends to focus on the negative effects on young women of representations that are narrowly based on sex, appearance and relationships. In The Devil Wears Prada, Streep challenges the cultural stereotype that older women tend less to be cast in overtly sexualised roles and constructs a pluralistic identity. Helen Mirren, at 69 has constructed similar identities both on and off screen and has maintained a sexual siren representation through historical texts such as Caligula (1979) through to Calendar Girls (2003) and The Debt (2011). Male audiences’ perception of Helen Mirren is still filtered through notions of the male gaze which has been maintained in other media, including interviews.

Mirren challenges the sociological construct of older female sexuality being symbolically annihilated and marginalised as a result of simply the age of the media personality – slightly older contemporaries of Mirren such as Dame Maggie Smith and Dame Judi Dench have strong screen personas as older actresses but their identities have been more fixed, playing roles that require a degree of gravitas, from controlling James Bond to domineering roles as the Dowager in Downton Abbey. Again, this would reference the notion of mainstream media and the exploitation of an identity for purposes of audience identificationbut also for commercial success. Both actresses have a history of playing determined, controlling characters who generate fear and respect on screen. This would link with David Buckingham’s theory that identity is a unique marker of a person in that audiences understand that both have been subject to generic typecasting, and that this in turn suggest a more fixed identity but pluralistic on the level that they are dominant in their roles.

Sir Ian McKellan’s career has crossed over film and television and spans nearly six decades. His own off stagepluralistic identity has been determined by active LGBT campaigning after ‘coming out’ and declaring his homosexuality on the radio in 1988. As a very outspoken critic of the government and negative public attitudes to homosexuality, he once visited the then Home Secretary, Michael Howard in 2003 to lobby against a Section 28 local government bill which stated that a local authority: “shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality”. Howard refused to change his position but asked for McKellan’s autograph for his children to which McKellen obliged by writing “Fuck off, I’m gay” on a piece of paper. In 2008 he caused a major stir in Singapore when he was invited to do an interview on a morning show and shocked the interviewer leading to the show being immediately cut by asking if they could recommend him a gay bar. Like Victor Meldrew in the BBC sitcom One Foot in the Grave, McKellan has constantly challenged the expected passive identity for someone of his senior years by railing against the dominant ideology. One Foot in the Grave however, as a mainstream text scheduled prime time on BBC1 conformed to many cultural stereotypesof age by representing Meldrew as frail, limited in what he can now do, as retired and as resentful of his years and the changing world of technology around him.

McKellan’s excursion into sitcom culture recently explored more fully a range of wider, morediverse identities in Vicious (ITV1) which starred him and Derek Jacobi as an elderly gay couple who have been together for 48 years but endure a love/hate relationship. As an older, gay couple they celebrated diversity by challenging the traditional sitcom framework that commonly favours ‘safe’ representations that acknowledge a wider, more traditionalcollective identity. Predictably however, the show received a lukewarm reception and from mainstream media was overtly criticised. Brian Sewell, art critic of the London Evening Standard described the series as a “spiteful parody that could not have been nastier had it been devised and written by a malevolent and recriminatory homosexual”. Sewell’s reaction epitomised the mainstream media’s role and influence in the construction of identities or rather, in the case of Vicious to lampoon mainstream sitcom culture by providing viable, alternative identities. Interestingly though, many of Mckellan’s other notable performances have constructed powerful, dominant masculine identities from Richard III through to Magneto in X-Men and Gandalf in The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Within these roles playing elder, respected figures McKellan’s characters have brought with him the stereotype of wisdom and knowledge that mainstream culture suggests comes with age. Christopher Lee, now 92 has played comparable roles which also suggest a form of seriousness that only the passage of time can bring – these have included Saruman in Lord of the Rings as the black arts protagonist to Mckellan’s Gandalf the White, two old men fighting it out in a fictional, fantasy based diegesis. Mckellan’s commercial roles suggest a diversity and range of ability but also evidence a diverse range of identities that he has constructed on screen for an audience. Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit embrace commercialism and as such, are very different from roles in sitcoms like Vicious whereJudith Butler’s interpretation of queer theory can apply. One reason perhaps for the lack of critical and commercial success to the programme was that it attempted to understand differences in sexual identity and destabilized the cultural norm by representing a homosexual relationship between two old men which had been ‘happily’ running its course for nearly five decades. Queer theory suggests certain sexual preferences are normal and that anything else is deviant and in Vicious, heterosexual relationships are satirised. Cam and Mitch are a middle aged gay couple in Modern Family but are not shown as a couple that much while the older Mckellan and Jacobi characters are central protagonists, a challenge for the mainstream broadcast channel ITV1.

Cultural identities of old age are notable less diverse across a range of media but are more prevalent on Reality TV and in particular, Entertainment platforms – Bruce Forsyth remains an iconic showman, entertainer, singer, dancer and recently retired presenter of Strictly Come Dancing at the age of 86 while Tony Bennett still tours at 88. These older statesmen of the entertainment industry however conform to cultural stereotypes as promoting traditional, patriarchal ideology. The Pythons have just completed a series of shows at the O2 in July 2014, marking the end of their collaboration together again. Eric Idle and John Cleese both have Twitter accounts that are undoubtedly run by a management or a PR company but create the myth of interpersonal interactivity with their fans using social media, not normally associated with the older generation. Both have used Twitter to maintain but also extend their identity to their fans through a range of interconnections that are oftenaudience led. This creates debates about whether web 2.0 fulfils democratic and pluralistic ideals by allowing the creation of original identities to suit the needs of an ageing celebrity or by just conforming to, and recreating identities that have already been consumed in the mainstream media. Either way, both Pythons challenge stereotypical notions by engaging in this kind of interaction.

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New Tricks also suggests that mainstream media representations are beginning to be challenged and audiences, as a result of progressive social change are more receptive to more diverse representations – as a Police procedural/comedy hybrid crime drama its narrative focuses on older, retired Police Officers who are brought in to follow up on unsolved crimes from years past. Denis Waterman, James Bolam, Alun Armstrong, Amanda Redman (replaced by Tamzin Outhwaite in 2013) and now Nicholas Lyndhurst investigate in a programme that quietly amasses high ratings and achieves commercial success. The basic narrative premise of the title that “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks’ suggests pluralism but within a hegemonic construct and is this regard, a key audience appeal is nostalgia. The primary audience demographic suggests 45-65, male/female who see the characters as aspirational. This should not be immediately dismissed as pandering to the historicism of the audience as in each episode the characters are seem to actively engage in 21st century technology and utilise available technology to help them solve the crime. The Denis Waterman character however moans like Victor Meldrew and on one level, a traditional collective identity of old age is established through its dominant representations.

James Bolam currently plays an interesting role on CBeebies in pre school comedy drama series called Grandpa in My Pocket. Grandpa (James Bolam) has a magical shrinking cap which enables him to become 5 inches tall, run very fast and experience a range of adventures.

It subverts the grandchildren/grandparent relationship by representing a traditional Grandpa as physically active, busy but still in terms of the perception of others, conforming to a stereotype. Sometimes they think he has gone for a nap while really he is running under floorboards chasing a hamster or bringing a toy robot back to life. The programme addresses potential issues of passive consumption by vulnerable audiences (children) by challenging the normalised cultural identity of a grandparent by showing resistance to hegemonic categorisation which frequently leads to the marginalisation of the old as a social group. With pre school children as a social group the media, or specifically film and television aresites of cultural information that potentially influence the construction of one’s own identity.

Television as a media platform has also facilitated the re-launch of the career of food writer Mary Berry at the age of 79 and other older media celebrities. After initially appearing as a judge alongside baker Paul Hollywood in the BBC Two Reality show, The Great British Bake Off she has a new solo show called Mary Berry Cooks. In March 2013 she was listed as one of the best dressed over 50s by The Guardian, eventually coming second to Helen Mirren. Television and Film have come a long way since identities established in programmes like Last of the Summer Wine but only more recently have these identities entered mainstream media – it is worth remembering the commercial value of a stereotypical representation and as Andy Medhurst would argue, stereotyping is shorthand for identification.