‘Help the aged…coz one day you’ll be older too.’

Age has been poorly represented in the media for decades. This fact has many serious implications but the reason why this is the status quo is not so complex; sex sells – and sex is associated with youth and beauty. But now this is finally starting to change. In the last five years important headway has been made. As the Sindy doll[1] turns 50 next year (and still looks the same as she did when she was 19!) we need to ask how far have we come and how far have we got left to go when it comes to age?

There has been a gender imbalance in the media when it comes to age for a long time. Just look at famous TV couples – Holly and Phil, Bruce and Tess and you only have to see that women get a tougher deal and to ‘make it’ they still have to look youthful – even if they aren’t

Miriam O Reilly’s case threw this uncomfortable fact to the fore: her contract with BBC’s Countryfile was ended, – simply because she was considered too old. Talent went out of the window and all that mattered was that she looked too ‘past it’ for prime time. She went on to win this case and it was made clear that the BBC’s actions (although it goes on a lot) were completely unacceptable.

When age is dealt with in the media, it is normally in terms of shouty headline culture ‘MADONNA LOOKS FAB AT FIFTY’  and stars looking bizarrely like twenty-somethings- pumped full of botox like Mummy Kardashian. When Helen Mirren made a splash in ‘that’ swimsuit, the media attention was still obsessed with how she looked but at least this time, here was an older woman in great shape who didn’t look like she should be in an American Apparel advert. She auctioned the said bikini off and donated the money to Help the Aged’s ‘Spread the Warmth Campaign.’ A wonderfully generous and ironic move.

The Guardian included Mirren in their 100 most inspirational women of all time and their ‘Weekend’ magazine has done something to tackle the unfair representation of older women in their ‘All ages’ models who wear the latest trends – something that you hardly see anywhere else.

Although it is slightly different for older men (in that grey hair = silver fox rather than ‘past it’) they still do suffer from unfair representation in the media. Nicholas Parsons – now 88 – made comments in the 2012 Radio Times ‘‘Nowadays if you’re making a joke: you don’t make jokes, which are sexist, racist or about disability… But you can make as many jokes about age as you want.’ It is interesting Parsons has held onto his post as host on ‘Just a Minute’ because of first and foremost his talent, his ability to keep up to date and also the fact he is on radio – you do not have to see him, you hear him – and his voice sounds assured – it has gravitas. The genre makes a difference.

Elderly people – both men and women – do not feature in many adverts associated with technology.[2] Marketing teams want to make their technology sexy, slick and emphasize its newness. The Kindle advert is very clever in that it uses a bikini – which uses the same lettering as the Kindle in ‘kin’. This appeals to men and it also conveys that it is light, easy to take off, sexy and simple to use.

Although older people are not averse to using Kindles, iPads, smart phones, and laptops (‘silver surfers’) – and some older people prefer them (they take up less space, all your books are in one place etc) they also have their downsides: youngsters have grown up with them and touch-screen mobile phones whereas from middle-aged and older, these people have to learn these skills from scratch. They are also hard to use if you suffer from arthritis and bad eye sight but as this technology becomes even more prominent in our daily lives (as remote controls will be replaced by tablets in a few years) older people will have to adapt – or be left behind.

As our get quick and famous culture starts to wane (see the demise in audience figures in programmes such as ‘Big Brother’ and ‘X Factor’) we have started to look a bit beyond the shallow nature of TV and popular culture.  Older people are now no longer invisible. I’m not saying that next month’s Vogue will feature Miriam O’Reilly inviting us into her home, sprawled over her bed but we’ve made a start. When it comes to the representation of age in the media, it’s a work in progress.

[1] Influential for generations of young girls who have grown up with her and are now middle-aged too.

[2] The Nintendo DS features older people in their adverts for ‘Professor’s Brain Trainer’ which helps to test and train your memory.