CI5472 Teaching Film, Television, and Media

 Module 5: Studying Media Representations

Module 5

Representations of Different Age Groups
or Occupations

Media representations of different groups of people based on age (children, adolescents, the elderly), or occupation often essentialize, generalize, or categorize people based on stereotypical generalizations about individuals. It is assumed that certain prototypical images, language use, or social practices of a group are represented in a single token representative person — that a black gang member serves as a representative of all black adolescents.

Again, what is important is to help students to go beyond simply identifying the stereotyping to determine the origins of these representations. One of the incentives to essentialized, generalize or categorize people into groups is to create a hierarchy in which certain groups are perceived as inferior scapegoats, as did Hitler with Jews during World War II. Another incentive is to use these prototypes to ridicule or parody the shortcomings of a particular group, for example, to create humor out of the stereotype itself.


Children are often portrayed in the media or films in negative or stereotypical ways. For example, based on an analysis by British 18-year-olds of British newspapers, students identified what they perceived to be seven stereotypes of children in the media:

  • Kids as victims.

  • Cute kids sell newspapers.

  • Little devils.

  • Kids are brilliant.

  • Kids as accessories.

  • “Kids these days.”

  • Brave little angels.

A study by Professor Katharine Heintz-Knowles for Children Now of the representation of children on television found that children are often portrayed as motivated primarily by peer relationships, sports, and romance, and least often by community, school-related, or religious issues. Children are also rarely shown as coping with societal issues such as racism, substance abuse, public safety, or homelessness or major family issues such as family crises, child abuse, domestic abuse, or family values. And, about 70% of the children portrayed are engaged in pro-social actions such as sharing, telling the truth in difficult situations, meeting their responsibilities, and helping others of the time, while 40% are portrayed as engaged in anti-social actions, such as lying, neglecting their responsibilities, or being aggressive either verbally or physically. Physical aggression was portrayed as effective in meeting the child’s goal most of the time, and deceitful behavior is seen as effective nearly half of the time.

In this study, children of color were under-represented. 80% were white; 13.7% were African-American, 4% were Asian-American, and only 2.1% were Hispanic/Latino, as compared to the actual population percentages of 69% of children under 18 are white, 15% are African-American, 3.3% are Asian-American, and 12.2% are Hispanic/Latino.

Another study by Professor Dale Kunkel, also for Children Now, on the types of issues covered by news about children indicated that the primary focus of the coverage was on crime and violence — about half of all television news stories, and about 40% of all newspaper articles. Economic topics such as child poverty, child care, and welfare accounted for only 4% of all news stories about children. Only about a third of all stories dealt with public policy concerns associated with children.

Adolescents are often portrayed in being in a crisis state, without providing them with tools for critically analyzing reasons for their problems. In the following three sites, David Considine, argues that the media present adolescents with a lot of consumer options and portrayals of substance abuse, but do not provide any critical analysis of these options/abuse or strategies for coping with them:

Teaching Media Literacy through the Teen-Screen

Teens as Targets? Adolescent's Media Tastes and Preferences

Media Literacy: And Middle Grade Students: A Rationale.

Children are also represented in television commercials in ways that socialize them to become active consumers with defined needs for various consumer products at an early age:

“Buy Me That: The Powerful Influence of TV Toy Commercials, How TV Toy Commercials Influence Our Kids”

Caught in the Web: Online Advertising Targets Kids


New York Times lesson: Annissa Hambouz and Javaid Khan, “Media Babies: Considering the Effects of Electronic Media on Infants and Toddlers

Adolescents are also represented as members of prototypical groups — jocks, nerds, druggie, brains, underdogs, athletes, etc. Students could identify the nature of these groups in films and television programs and note the limitations of representations of these groups. For example, the trailer for the film The Goonies contains a number of stereotypical group representations.

Film Education unit: Representations of Youth

The elderly

At the other end of the spectrum, the elderly are often represented in equally limited ways. A study sponsored by Children Now of prime time television programs in the Fall of 2000 found that only 3% of the characters were 70 and older, and only 13% fell between the ages of 50 and 69, in contrast to the reality that 9% of the American population is over 70 and 28% are over 50. There was also a gender bias; only 19% of women were over age 40.

In contrast, as the study found, web sites for AARP and The National Council on Aging present the elderly in a very different, more positive light.

Sandy Landis conducted an analysis of media representations of the elderly in her CI5472 paper in Spring 2002:

  • In the May 21, 2002 issue of Family Circle, of the approximately 185 identifiable faces in illustrations, 15, or 8%, were conceivably over 55 years of age. Of fifteen representations, four were part of the same story, and seven, nearly half, were connected with products or services to help with the “problems” of aging: arthritis, anemia, incontinence, and wrinkles.

  • Of the approximately 177 identifiable faces in the June, 2002, issue of Better Homes and Gardens, 22, or 12% were feasibly over 55. Of these 22 “old” faces, three appeared in a single movie ad, and five were advertising health products for the elderly.

  • In the June 2002 issue of Good Housekeeping, of the approximately 159 identifiable faces, only ten, or 6% were likely to be over 55. Of these ten older faces, three appeared in one advertisement for an upcoming film release and four were advertising health remedies for the aged.

  • In the June 4, 2002 edition of Woman’s Day, 24 of 229 identifiable faces, or 10%, were possibly over 55. Of these 24 older faces, ten appeared in a single photograph and five were advertising health products for the elderly.

Landis analyzed the representations of the elderly in film and television and found that they were highly one-dimensional in that any complexity of these characters were limited to one or two particularly makers of aging:

  • “Grumpy old man.” (Grumpy Old Men, Grumpier Old Men ,The Sunshine Boys, It’s a Wonderful Life, On Golden Pond, King of the Hill, The Simpsons)

  • “Feisty old woman.” (Tea with Mussolini, The Golden Girls)

  • “Sickly old person.” (Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Key Largo, It’s a Wonderful Life, The Big Sleep, The Sunshine Boys)

  • “Mentally deficient.” (The Simpsons. On Golden Pond, The Golden Girls, The Whales of August)

  • “Depressed or lonely.” (Fried Green Tomatoes, Enchanted April)

  • “Having wisdom.” (Murder, She Wrote; the Miss Marple mysteries; Harold and Maude)

  • “Busy body.” (Everybody Loves Raymond, Murder, She Wrote)

  • “Having a second childhood.” (Cocoon, On Golden Pond, Arsenic and Old Lace)

However, an analysis of the representations of the elderly over 65 in prime time television commercials did not find evidence of negative representations:

No clear cut, definitive negative stereotypes of elderly people emerged from this study; in fact, elderly characters did not appear in the anticipated commercial categories. For example, elderly characters did not appear in roles for products such as arthritis medication, denture care products, or skin wrinkle creams, nor did they appear in sick, weak, fragile, or absent-minded roles.

It appears that the image of elderly people in prime time television commercials is less negative than previously thought. Advertisers may have taken the cue from published research and made an obvious effort to avoid perpetuating the sick, weak old person stereotype. However, the effect of this has been to reduce the overall opportunities for visibility of elderly characters.

For instance, Madison Avenue won’t break the stereotype by routinely showing older characters in positive situations, but it will make certain that older characters do not appear in negative, stereotyped situations, either. As illustrated in the data from this and other studies, elders are still significantly underrepresented in proportion to their true occurrence within the U.S. population.

What are Media Representations?

Why Study Media Representations?

Studying Media Representations

Methods for Analyzing Media Representations

Representation and Censorship

Representations and Public Relations / Promotions

Studying Representations of Social Types or Groups




Masculinity and Sports


Gays / Lesbians


Racial and Ethnic Groups



Representations of Different Age Groups or Occupations



Instructional Activity


Teaching Activities

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