The elderly are major consumers of media and entertainment. Yet they continue to be portrayed in negative, gendered stereotypes, as victims. Are these images promoting social segregation?

More and more Indians are joining the ranks of the educated elderly. They are the most avid among readers of newspapers and magazines, and even more ardent as television viewers. It is hence ironic that despite their growing numbers and their propensity to devour all that media has to offer, the elderly are either discarded by media or relegated to age-old stereotypes. The depiction follows a set pattern which, far from reducing the gender-based divide, perpetrates social segregation.

First, there is the belief that the best things in life are the preserve of the young and upwardly mobile. Producers, editors, copy-writers, and marketing buffs naturally target a world which has influence or money or they resurrect the world they are accustomed to. Like Jane Austen who never describes two men in conversation, because she never witnessed such scenes in her own life, the drivers of image creation appear unconvinced about women's empowerment, career advancement and economic independence; certainly not representative enough to be captured and projected. In conversation, Professor Srivastava of the Institute of Economic Growth queried whether this had only to do with the spending proclivities of the elderly, or it might also relate to the historically conservative role that media has played when it comes to social issues.

Disproportionate coverage

A study conducted last year by Archana Kaushik from the Department of Social Work in Delhi University has looked at the images of the elderly portrayed by newspapers, television, and cinema. In the case of print medium, her samples covered six English and Hindi newspapers having the widest circulation in India. In 30,000 articles that she scanned, the print media accorded less than one per cent space to the subject of the elderly. Considering that 60-plus people are eight per cent of the population, with a projected doubling of this proportion within the next 10 years, it is surprising that the elderly are of so little consequence to the print media. Kaushik also scanned 500 articles featured by two leading magazines over three months and found only one article on the elderly — that too on dementia, where only the threatening aspects of what lies in store received primacy.

Easy victims?

What the print media does however cover with ghoulish interest and that too on its front pages is the susceptibility of the elderly to become victims of crime, so reinforcing images of old people as feeble, lonely and vulnerable. The media's portrayal of such stories immediately gets a knee-jerk reaction from governments. The result: insecurity of the elderly takes centre stage for a few weeks while the more important issues of their positive well-being get ignored.

The experience with telly-commercials is diametrically opposite. In over 300 TV commercials scanned by the research study, the elderly were featured in double their proportion in the population. Another difference — while elderly men were shown as jovial extroverts, the wives were invariably confined to home settings. Observes Professor Srivastava, “A fundamental aspect of this (difference) has to do with sexuality. Such depictions of elderly men leave open possibilities that are closed off to women; it is one of the enduring taboos of Indian society.”

Perhaps the only rather refreshing exception was the Asian Paints advertisement where the grandmother contradicting her husband recalls the colour of their grand son's knickers, smugly asserting, “I'm always right!”

Again all insurance advertisements project men as ‘providers', and by inference show women as dependent beneficiaries. Another stereotype is the use of young models for selling products like disposable syringes, gels for the treatment of wrinkles and arthritis — as though images of the elderly who primarily use these products might attach some kind of odium to their marketability.

Among television serials, the elderly occupied almost 30 per cent of the major roles — four times higher than their proportion in the population. The obvious difference was that the men were shown in their sixties whereas the women were octogenarians swathed in traditional white saris reinforcing the belief that old age spells detachment from vibrancy. Similarly, while elderly men exercised power and patriarchal authority, elderly women were shown as family bonders, willing to make huge personal compromises to restore domestic accord. Although the manipulative genius of both sexes was depicted, women's roles were confined to making and breaking families while elderly men played challenging roles as patriarch, villain or Godfather.

An exception is a mammoth Marathi telly serial “Chaar diwas sasu che” where the main character, acted by Rohini Hattangadi, plays the protagonist's role, even influencing the selection of the state Chief Minister and the Home Minister through her proximity to the High Command at Delhi. What is refreshing is how her intelligence and strategic thinking surmount obstacles, in contrast to her industrialist husband and sons who come through as naïve wimps. If an elderly woman protagonist can dominate a Marathi serial for years together, it is a sign of what people may just like watching — might even welcome.

In cinema the research found that the elderly constituted almost 50 per cent of the total characters — almost five times more than the proportion of older persons in the general population. But no elderly woman played a single central character and less than a fifth of them played a major role. On the other hand older men played both central characters and major roles in several films like “Umar”, “Shararaat”, “Lage Raho Munna Bhai” and “Baghban” where elderly abuse was fought. But everywhere women played only the supporting role. Even while fighting the system as in “Virrudh” and “Dhup”, only the male lead is shown taking up the cudgels while the woman actor simply tags along.

Gendered take

On the whole, cinema seems to depict the elderly at a turning point — at risk, yet resilient; abused by some but respected by others. Be that as it may, elderly females do not move out of their age old stereotypes and the conclusion that emerges is that the box office would prefer no change.

At the end of the day, news, entertainment and advertising perforce hunt for the widest possible audience to absorb their messages. Hence the compulsion to create stereotypes. The danger is that stereotypes reduce people to simple categories and convert assumptions into realities, so accentuating inequalities and prejudice. They even resurrect taboos and cultural traditions which in practice may actually be on the wane. With life expectancy and disposable incomes of the elderly increasing each year, it is time the elderly, particularly women (who outlive men) are projected as leading fulfilled lives. Otherwise far from integrating in society, the elderly will believe what they see and read — and accept their roles as appendages, afraid to relate with a wider society.

The media's role as an agenda setter for society, as an information provider and an opinion maker is critical because of its inherent power to alter awareness, priorities and mind-sets. The media does not need a regulator to oversee these things. They need only ask the educated elderly what they think. The fear of being discarded for being incompetent and unwanted needs to be allayed, not reinforced.

The writer is a former Executive Director of the National Population Stabilisation Fund. These are her personal views.

Keywords: elderlylifestyles