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Ageism in Fiction: Backgrounding the Third Age.

Old age is the last stage of life. Alongside gender, class, and race, age also supposes a source of discrimination against many. Socially and culturally, age might determine many factors of someone’s life, and how it affects and limits the natural course of time in the human body. As with all -isms, ageism “is broadly defined as prejudice or discrimination against or in favor of any age group” (Ayalon & Tesch-Römer, 2018, p. 3). However, discrimination or favoritism on the basis of age is divided on a quite binary basis, considering that old people and young people are both extremes of the spectrum, respectively, obviously in a fluctuating state. Both children and old people are discriminated against according to their age supposedly on the arguments of discourse abilities.

The way old people are perceived and understood is subjected to and conditioned by the required skills and level of education necessary to formulate coherent arguments and fluent discourse, thus leaving room for prejudice. In fact, as the Modernization Theory stipulates, “through the process of societal modernization, which includes advancements in technology and medicine, older adults have lost their social status in modern times (as compared to pre-modern eras)” (Ayalon & Tesch-Römer, 2018, p. 7). The position elder people might have occupied in previous time periods and cultures has severely declined since the theory “also predicts an increase in power and status of the younger generation, who are seen as holding the knowledge and skills valued by modern society” (Ayalon & Tesch-Römer, 2018, p. 7). Consequently, this reality has an impact on the literary and cinematographic world of fiction. Fiction holds onto the systematic structures established by society. Age and its stereotypes are translated to the page, giving preference to young and middle-aged adults and backgrounding elder people to lesser subplots. For this reason, this article seeks to present the reasoning and implications of ageism, both literary and cinematographic, to argue the significance of including elder people as necessary and instructing narrators who provide valuable insight into life trajectories.

Figure 1. Ageism is a social reality.

The Bildungsroman narrative can be appreciated as the first example of ageism and stereotyping in fiction. Ideally, this narrative follows the development of an individual throughout their life in a particular time period. Yet, when the character grows into old age, the plot ends. In addition, old characters’ appearances seem brief and futile. Dickens’ novels such as Great Expectations (1861) compromise how “the elderly […] draws attention to the fact that the realist novel’s aspiration to represent the social will always be burdened with a temporal compromise. […T]here is simply not enough time to consistently represent the transformations that age registers” (Jewusiak, 2019, p. 49). Correspondingly, old age is usually given a mono-mythical role, that is, the elder individual initiates the hero or main character in their journey by providing extensive life advice and assistance. This nineteenth-century narrative is transplanted to contemporary film representations such as Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings and even Carl in the 2009 movie Up. Fair enough, Up does transcend the narrative by allowing the elder hero to delve into the reconciliation of love and death. Notwithstanding, Carl acts as an instructor and guide for the much younger Russell, as Gandalf does with Frodo.

Therefore, there is no negotiating for the relevance of old-age-related plots beyond illness, decadence, and death. Many academics have found a particular pattern for old-age roles. Dementia has become the preferred illness to highlight the relevance of third-aged people. As Medina & Zecchi (2020) have detected, “the current growth of dementia in all its forms among the aging population has created a sort of paradoxical social and cultural discourse around the relation of the mind and the body with regard to aging: […] the effects of aging on the mind cannot be surgically eliminated” (Medina & Zecchi, 2020, p. 253). Dementia is a clear marker of age, decadence, and a progressive loss of identity and individuality. Consequently, dementia and other degenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer, are the go-to model that implicitly stigmatises old-age behaviour and the last leg of age. Works or texts such as the movie The Father (2020) and the novel Elizabeth is Missing (2014) portray how “increasing age is often associated with some positive stereotypes, such as wisdom and high morals, whereas it is difficult to find any positive attributes that are commonly associated with dementia” (Evans, 2018, p. 272). In addition, the representation of dementia is not only ageist but also sexist. As Medina & Zecchi (2020) point out:

“In most of these films, dementia mainly affects women, thus visually gendering it and reinforcing the discrimination and stereotyping of women. Through the trope of dementia, unsuccessful aging is linked to women who are unable to socially perform either with the body or the mind and therefore are depicted as zombies with a vacant stare” (Medina & Zecchi, 2020, p. 256)
Figure 2. Anthony Hopkins plays a father suffering from dementia in The Father (2020).

As mentioned, ageism is closely related to gender; the current social postmodern setting that re-evaluates social positions and constructed phenomena reduces the space for age female representation. In fact, the expectations associated with female roles and their age, those of motherhood and marriage, show that “a woman will experience age and aging through the lens of her gender identity, and aging will affect that same gender identification over the course of time” (Lange, 2021, p. 90). Hence, the inclusion and representation of older women get complicated when discussing and deconstructing the marriage plot and motherhood, both clear indicators of atemporal ageist discrimination in front and behind fictional pieces.

Characters such as Anne in Jane Austen’s Persuasion (1817), a woman considered at 27 too old to marry or have children, testify to the fact that “at the outset of ageist structures that exclude older people from social and public life, older women actively turn to different images of womanhood to create a more positive environment for themselves. Effectively, they repress oppressive age identities to fully embrace their various gender identities, such as wife, mother” (Krekula et al., 2018, p. 43). More contemporary works such as The Behaviour of Moths (2008) and the movie Hannah (2017) bring forward and give room to older female voices that accomplish the same or even better narrative developments that account for a great part of the world’s population: elder women.

Figure 3. Charlotte Rampling stars in Hannah (2017).

Overall, ageism as a social phenomenon has presented to be particularly harmful to elder people in fiction. The predominant narrative voice has been attributed to young and middle-aged characters by backgrounding old people and assuming that the only contribution third age individuals can provide to society is through means of mono-mythical advice and guidance such as in The Lord of the Rings or Up. However, this has been proved to be discriminatory and stigmatizing since elders seem to not have their own plot narratives independently of a younger population. Furthermore, it has been discussed the stigmatisation of old age through the portrayal of dementia as the primary focus of interest to include this type of representation. This has also been confirmed to be damaging and prejudicial towards this certain population of age.

Additionally, such a considerable lack of inclusion and injuring representation is complemented by a gendered-based stereotyping that mostly affects older women. Even more, ageism can inflict gendered pressure on younger women in relation to the age appropriateness for marriage and motherhood. Consequently, there is a need for faithful representation and disposal of stigmatisation around old age. Hopefully, everyone goes through this life period and experiences these systematic patterns of perception and behavior, hence, respect for old age and its implications should come at the forefront of literary and cinematographic representations.


Ayalon, L., & Tesch-Römer, C. (2018). Introduction to the Section: Ageism – Concepts and Origins. In Ayalon, L. and Tesch-Römer, C. (eds) Contemporary Perspectives on Ageism. (Ayalon, Clemens Tesch-Römer, Eds.; 1st ed. 2018.). Springer Nature. https://doi-org/10.1007/978-3-319-73820-8

Evans, S. C. (2018). Ageism and Dementia. In Ayalon, L. and Tesch-Römer, C. (eds) Contemporary Perspectives on Ageism. (Ayalon, Clemens Tesch-Römer, Eds.; 1st ed. 2018.). Springer Nature. https://doi-org/10.1007/978-3-319-73820-8_16

Jewusiak, J. (2019). No Plots for Old Men. In Aging, Duration, and the English Novel: Growing Old from Dickens to Woolf (Cambridge Studies in Nineteenth-Century Literature and Culture, pp. 47-69). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/9781108615501.003

Krekula, C., Nikander, P., Wilińska, M. (2018). Multiple Marginalizations Based on Age: Gendered Ageism and Beyond. In Ayalon, L. and Tesch-Römer, C. (eds) Contemporary Perspectives on Ageism. (Ayalon, Clemens Tesch-Römer, Eds.; 1st ed. 2018.). Springer Nature. https://doi-org/10.1007/978-3-319-73820-8_3

Lange, E. (2021). The Creative and The Maternal: Age and Gender in Contemporary Speculative Short Fiction. Journal of Popular Culture, 54(1), pp. 88-106.

Medina, R., & Zecchi, B. (2020). Technologies of Age: The Intersection of Feminist Film Theory and Aging Studies. Investigaciones Feministas 11, no. 2 (2020): pp. 251-262.

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Natàlia Vila

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