Disrupting Negative Stereotypes in the Media
The media has a significant role in how older persons and individuals with disabilities are seen and portrayed. This panel featured individuals from a variety of perspectives who work primarily in film and television. The panelists were each given the opportunity to introduce themselves and give a synopsis of their backgrounds and experiences. Subsequently, Janni Lehrer-Stein, an independent consultant on disability policy and advocacy, led a moderated discussion with the panelists and then opened up the discussion to the workshop participants.
Disrupt Aging, AARP
Chong is the director of audience and influencer engagement at AARP, working in a department called Disrupt Aging, which seeks to challenge “outdated beliefs about aging.” Age itself should not be seen as a limitation to anything that an individual wants to accomplish, Chong said, but rather as something that gives experience, wisdom, and the possibility to do more. Chong expressed an interest in talking about how people are represented and portrayed as they age.
Lisa Takeuchi Cullen
Television Writer, Author, and Journalist
Cullen was previously a staff writer at Time magazine and also wrote two books, including one about how American funeral traditions are changing in response to the changing attitudes of baby boomers. Most recently, she has been working in the television industry where she writes and pitches television pilots. Cullen is a member of the Writer’s Guild of America East Council and is also a member of its diversity committee. She said that changing who we see on the screen can, in large part, be accomplished by changing who is behind the screen; that is, by increasing the diversity of the writers who originate the stories.
Robert David Hall
Actor, Musician, and Disability Advocate
Hall described how at the age of 30 he was hit by a drunk truck driver and suffered burns over most of his body and the loss of both of his legs. He noted that as a member of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA), now collectively known as SAG-AFTRA, as well as of Actor’s Equity, he has seen many changes in the entertainment industry over the years. “I love acting,” he said. “I love music. I didn’t think being disabled was supposed to cut me out of that.” Hall continued:
It was quite a shock to find out that people pitied me for being disabled. I was treated differently when I wheeled my chair than when I put my prosthetics on and kind of hobbled around. People with disabilities understand that there is a difference in the way you are treated.
Marter is the executive vice president of production development at Nine Stories, a production company. She noted that while she does not have expertise specific to aging or disability, her years of experience in entertainment and film give her insight into how people are cast, how roles are approached, and what audiences may be looking for.
MODERATED DISCUSSION WITH PANEL SPEAKERS
Independent Consultant, Disability Policy and Advocacy
Lehrer-Stein moderated the discussion by proposing several questions for the panelists.
Current Characters and Storylines
Lehrer-Stein asked the panelists to reflect on how characters are currently portrayed as well as on which types of characters or storylines are easier or harder to broach. Marter said that characters who are older or have disabilities may be depicted as being sweet or in need of help, which can make the characters accessible to audiences, but not necessarily complicated or truthful. However, Hall said, “It is more than just a cuddly, cute kid in a wheelchair.” Noting that he has only had two wives or girlfriends in his movie roles, Hall said more “normal human being” roles are needed for older characters and those with disabilities. Cullen agreed, adding that we do not necessarily see older people as heroes or romantic leads. Furthermore, when a character has a disability, the disability itself is often seen as the whole character. She described how in a pitch for a show, writers will often give synopses of the characters. “We go through all of their qualities, the things that make them special, the things that make them interesting. If the character has a disability, then you lead with that. You don’t get to be just a person who happens to have Parkinson’s and who is also a racecar driver and a math genius.”
Chong said that the portrayal of characters with disabilities in entertainment can be patronizing, and that the use of “inspirational” characters can be an attempt to make it acceptable to look at people with disabilities by highlighting what are framed as extraordinary achievements. Hall agreed, noting that historically, characters with disabilities were first ones like Quasimodo and Captain Hook and later were “inspirational” characters like the angry Vietnam veteran who climbs Mount Everest. Chong added that age and disability need to stop being punchlines for characters. “Is this person a whole person who is someone who seems relatable, that you see yourself in or someone that you know in? Or is that person portrayed as a caricature?” she asked. As an example, Chong pointed to the movie Grumpy Old Men. “Just the title tells you exactly what to expect. We just think when you are old and a man, you must be grumpy. You must also wear your pants hiked up to here.” The panelists also mentioned various cliché lines often spoken by older characters such as “Get off my lawn!” or “You darn kids!”
Hall said his primary goal was to become an actor, and he did classical theater for many years, but he admitted that at this phase of his career he will likely be playing “the senior consulting coroner or the aging judge or the angry disabled guy.” However, he said, “that is fine because I like playing. I like stories. Stories change the way people look at things. Above all, you have to be entertaining. . . . If it is not good and if enough people don’t see it, it goes away.”
Similarities to Other Stereotypes
Lehrer-Stein followed up by noting that the issues raised in the previous discussion relate to more than just age and disability. She asked the panelists to compare the barriers based on age and disability with those related to race and gender. Cullen said discussions around diversity often focus on race and gender first and suggested that writers can have an impact simply by changing what they write in scripts. She said that as a person of color, she has noticed how character descriptions in scripts will often be specific if a character is not white, but will remain silent otherwise, leading readers to believe that all characters are white by default. Cullen said it has become her practice to be more specific in her description of all types of characters, which should apply to age as well:
What I try to do when I write a character description is I will say if a person is white. I don’t care if you have already assumed he is white. I am going to say he is white. Same for age. I think if my character is 65, in my heart, she is 65, I am writing that she is 65. I am not saying she is “older” because older to you may not be older to me. I want the age to be specific. So, I think that we writers can make these small changes, but they are seismic in terms of the generally accepted practice.
Marter agreed with Cullen’s remarks, saying that she has also read many scripts where only certain characters had their race or ethnicity identified. Not including race specifications in character descriptions (unless necessary, as in the case of a true story) could help to make the focus more on who the character is as a whole person. Marter then told an anecdote of offering a role to an African-American actor in which the race of the character had not been specified:
When the actor received the offer, his representation called us, and they were over the moon. They were like, “He never gets offers like this. He only gets the same offers all the time for the African-American guy.” This is so exciting to be able to see something that is different. Just that little, tiny thing was like, “Oh, we actually can make a difference in this very easy way of thinking slightly outside of this kind of box that we have been programmed to think in.”
In terms of gender issues, Marter also noted that conversations about the importance of female directors have increased.
Changing Perceptions and Storylines
Lehrer-Stein observed that the panelists’ comments reflected earlier discussions in the workshop concerning inclusion and personal choice. She then asked the panelists to comment specifically on how stakeholders in the media can help disrupt stereotypes and promote inclusion.
Hall said he would like to see more people with disabilities believe that they belong in the media, including entertainment and writing, so that more good stories are told:
I think that every group, every subgroup that we can name has a percentage of very gifted people, a percentage of striving people, a percentage of average, and a percentage of below-average people. I want to encourage talent and intelligence and creativity from every single group. The best product will come from that.
Chong cited AARP’s project Movies for Grownups,1 which identifies movies with stories that are more inclusive and often feature intergenerational casts and older people (“however you want to define ‘older!’”). She said that an important part of the project is to be in the conversation by celebrating the movies through awards ceremonies and participation in screenings. AARP’s Disrupt Aging department is reaching out directly to the entertainment community to change conversations about aging in a more positive direction and to discuss how images in entertainment can reflect more positive images of aging.
Marter said that the film industry is dictated largely by business concerns and that for the content to change, audiences have to show up for movies with those storylines. “As much as, in my every day, I go out of my way to try to find new stories that are telling new perspectives,” she said. “There is also a reality of what I am going to be able to sell. That is a direct reflection of what happens to be popular at the time.” Marter also circled back to Hall’s comments about entertainment value. “If it is good and it touches upon something that I think is fresh and it really portrays people in an honest way, then you will have an audience for it.” In that way, she said, she can continue to put these ideas into practice by looking for material that “approaches aging in a way that is positive and fun and entertaining.”
Cullen said that streaming entertainment and cable television prob-
1 For more information, see https://www.aarp.org/entertainment/movies-for-grownups (accessed November 30, 2017).
ably have the greatest opportunity for change right now because of the huge need for new content. She cited examples like Transparent, Frankie and Grace, and Getting On. “If I came in with a great story that just happened to be about older people or about disabled people that was set in a world that felt organic,” she said, “then I think that we have a great opportunity right now to sell those stories and to show them to America.”
Erwin Tan from AARP asked the panelists how the media can use subliminal messaging and positive stories about aging and disability. Cullen said that seeing stories about people who are different can change conversations. When Transparent came on the air, studies mapped how people’s attitudes toward transgendered individuals started to change. Tan acknowledged that it was not the show alone that helped to change attitudes, but she postulated:
Maybe it is different with film, but I think with television, particularly, in the screen, in your house, and you are seeing them every week and you have relationships with them. Maybe it is not even subliminal. Maybe it is just overt. You start to, I think, have an empathy and an understanding of those characters in a way that—if you live in a town, in a family, in a situation, where you just don’t confront people who are “other,” then maybe the screen can do it for you.
Kenneth Brummel-Smith from the American Geriatrics Society said he appreciated the panel’s honesty about how financial concerns can drive the decision-making process for choosing stories, but he noted that many movies targeted to younger generations cost hundreds of millions of dollars to make but end up as box office failures. Therefore, he asked if lower-budget films are more likely to pay for themselves and added: “I wonder whether part of the unwillingness of producers to take the chance on something that focuses on aging and disability might really be more an attitude than an actual reality?” Marter said that attitudes about focusing on younger groups are evolving, in part because of changes in the demographics of who actually goes to movie theaters. Marter spoke about how media companies often attempt to capitalize on the success of other projects. For example, she said, soon after Transparent became popular, scripts were suddenly always including a transgendered character, which came across as disingenuous to her, as the characters were not necessarily being presented in a sensitive and honest manner. “It is hard to kind of pick through and feel which ones really are actually told from a good place,” she said. “There is this kind of balance of trying to find the
right audience, appeal to the right audience, but in a good way and in a way that is truthful.”
Linda Flowers from AARP’s Public Policy Institute said that it seemed to her that many characters start as caricatures and stereotypes, and wondered if this is a necessary precursor. “Do we have to start there to get people kind of warmed up to the idea?” she asked. “Or is there a way to change the conversation so that you can bring people on as their authentic selves?” Cullen argued that a key step is increasing the diversity of writers:
I think the more people who look like me or like you, are able to pitch shows, write shows, and get them on air, the more authentic the stories will be because they come from our own experience. . . . When shows are written from an authentic, true experience, when movies are written from that place, I think that the success of those shows and movies will hopefully move us to a place where more people of color, more people who are older, more people who are disabled, people who are writing from their own actual experience will get that exposure.
Chong and Marter agreed, however, that much of the power lies with the ultimate decision makers, who are often not diverse themselves. While writers can write authentic, gripping, and heartfelt scripts with a range of characters, the scripts will still need to get greenlit, funded, and brought to a screen. Hall agreed, noting that many producers will be interested in projects that focus on issues that have affected them personally.
Dan Trucil with the American Geriatrics Society asked whether the regulation of broadcast television “in the public interest” had any role here, as well as whether the growing number of unregulated forums with user-generated content might be a prime outlet for fostering more diverse conversations. Hall said that he did not think regulation could have a real role here, but he agreed that the proliferation of new ways of getting entertainment and information will help to make real changes. Cullen said that the media landscape is changing rapidly and that the newer forms of media like YouTube, Xbox, Instagram, and Amazon represent huge opportunities. “How do we get stories about aging and disability on YouTube?” she asked. “How do we leverage [these newer platforms] to tell these stories that ought to reach not just the choir, but younger generations too?”
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