Aging and Older Adults
Research shows that few characters age 60 and older appear in fictional storytelling. How your story depicts aging characters is important, as studies have shown that the physical, communicative, and cognitive fitness of older characters is often mocked or ridiculed on screen.
Consider asking the following questions about characters age 60+ in your story:
● Are any characters age 60+ not men? Think about women, gender-non-conforming, including non-binary people, and those from a variety of backgrounds and experiences.
● Are your characters age 60+ written as people who enjoy thriving, fulfilling careers? Are there power differences among men, women and non-binary characters in this age group?
● Is the full humanity of characters age 60+ depicted? Are they shown in a caring relationship, working or retired, as healthy, exercising, or traveling?
● Are characters age 60+ shown with challenges that are physical (e.g., using a mobility device to walk), communicative (e.g., hearing loss, reduction of speech fluency), and/or cognitive (e.g., memory loss)? If so, are these details crucial to the plot? Are any of these depictions framed in a humorous light that makes the older character’s age or disability the subject of disparagement?
One way to test biases in this area: Ask yourself if the joke or humorous incident involved a character from another identity group, would it be perceived as unacceptable and derogatory? For instance, saying "I am having a senior moment" is commonplace, but replacing "senior" with Latinx, Asian, LGBTQ+ would not be acceptable, and thus illuminates the potential biases contained in the joke or humorous incident.
● In terms of romantic relationships, are older characters shown overly sexualized, predatory or without interest in intimacy?
● Are women depicted with men substantially older or vice versa?
Religion is another aspect of storytelling that may be prone to stereotyping. Communicating about a character’s religious beliefs or belonging to a religious community can be done via small moments, brief bits of dialogue, or visual shortcuts (e.g., jewelry, décor, or wardrobe). Use caution to ensure that subtlety does not result in storytelling that allows audiences to attribute characters’ behaviors to religious beliefs in ways that reinforce stereotypes.
Take time to understand the diversity that exists within religious communities, including the regional, racial/ethnic, and language diversity. When portraying the Muslim community, refer to this 2021 report "Missing & Maligned: The Reality of Muslims in Popular Global Movies."
● Avoid defining devout characters solely by their religion in ways that eliminate nuance from the depiction of faith. For people around the world who practice faith traditions, the expression of those traditions may vary widely (e.g. the Priest in Fleabag).
● Use care not to trivialize, mock, or minimize the importance of different religious traditions, rituals, or texts. Consult experts to determine where caution should be used or nuance explored. For example, spiritual songs or illustrations may be considered sacred to members of certain religious groups. Juxtaposing these images or music against content that deviates from faith traditions may be offensive.
● Religious extremism should be depicted with care. Stereotypes about religion may tie the practice of certain faith traditions or beliefs to violence. These stereotypes erase the peaceful practice and beliefs of different faith traditions. The most obvious example of this occurs when Muslim characters are shown in roles linked with terrorism and violence. Extremism and violence may be over-reported or overestimated. Presenting only images and stories of violence fails to represent accurately the practices of different faith traditions.
● If you are telling a story that includes depictions of religious extremism, ensure that consultants from this religious group are working with you to eliminate harmful depictions, so that you include only necessary aspects of the story and avoid gratuitous violence or stereotyping.
Research has shown that jobs often bring to mind a specific gender or race/ethnicity of a character. For instance, a plumber or firefighter may summon images of white men. As content creators, you have an opportunity to disrupt this bias. The absence of alternative depictions or the consistent depiction of stereotypes may, over time, contribute to negative outcomes for individuals from a stereotyped group as well as for audience members outside of that group. While it may seem more difficult to review each occupation within a script (e.g. gardeners, hair stylists, computer programmers), it offers the chance to approach storytelling in innovative or unique ways.
Questions to ask about women. Are they shown…
● Without a job?
● In lower, service-oriented, or “assistant” positions?
● In stereotypically feminine career paths (nursing, education, appearance-related jobs, etc.)?
● Having little power or “clout”?
Questions to ask about characters from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups. Are they shown…
As specific stereotypes related to their racial/ethnic backgrounds? Investigate what those might be by working with outside consultants. Some examples:
● South Asian characters or Middle Eastern characters shown as cab drivers or corner store/liquor store employees.
● Asian characters shown in dry cleaning or restaurant management.
● Latinx characters shown in relation to cleaning, childcare, or yard work.
● Black characters shown as athletes, drivers/chauffeurs, cooks, security guards.
● Native American characters shown as unemployed, or as mystical.
Are they shown in specific occupations that reflect a bias about wealth or illegal activity? Some examples:
● Middle Eastern characters shown as terrorists.
● Latinx characters shown in relation to drug trafficking or as undocumented immigrants.
● Black characters shown as gang members, thugs, or in the context of criminal stereotyping.
● White characters being the only ones empowered with wealth or prestige.
Questions to ask about LGBTQ+ characters. Are they shown…
● In overly feminized or masculine occupations? For example, are gay characters shown in appearance-related professions (fashion, entertainment, etc.)?
● Excluded from occupations in education, healthcare, etc.?
Questions to ask about characters with disabilities. Are they shown…
● Without an occupation?
● In jobs that emphasize the character’s disability?
● In occupations that depict the character transcending the disability in ways that frame the disability as something to overcome or that present the disability as a superpower?