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The Double Standard of Portrayals in Popular Films

The concept of double standards is at the heart of the analysis, where expectations for individuals from different groups diverge, often favoring one group over another. In this context, a substantial body of literature has highlighted the existence of a double standard applied to aging women and men in our society. This disparity is particularly evident in the valuation of appearance and its impact on workplace expectations.

Susan Sontag, in 1972, articulated the interplay between appearance and work, underscoring that men's success is typically gauged by their actions, while women's success is disproportionately tied to their appearance. The significance of physical attractiveness is much higher in a woman's life, but it does not endure well with age. Consequently, as men age, they tend to enjoy greater job satisfaction due to their accumulated success and knowledge. Conversely, women often feel "wounded" by the loss of their physical beauty, which is equated with a decline in social value.

Two decades later, Naomi Wolf further highlighted this enduring double standard in television news, where female anchors' primary worth lies in their appearance, while male anchors' value is rooted in their authority and expertise. Male anchors have the latitude to display signs of maturity like wrinkles and gray hair, enhancing their authority, while female anchors must conform to more narrowly defined and youth-centric appearance standards.

Media portrayals of male and female characters in workplace settings also reflect these cultural double standards. Studies have consistently found that female characters occupy fewer occupational roles, hold lower-status positions, and wield less power than their male counterparts. When female characters do exercise power, they often risk losing their femininity or being viewed as "real" women, reinforcing the notion that real work and real womanhood are incompatible. This disparity does not apply to male characters, further highlighting a gender-based double standard.

Moreover, the representation of various gender and age groups in media, be it television or film, significantly impacts their symbolic worth. Studies indicate that older individuals, particularly women, are underrepresented and misrepresented. These findings hold across decades, emphasizing the lack of progress in this area.

The age and gender distribution of characters in prime-time television have revealed persistent trends. Female characters tend to be younger than male characters, with male characters dominating in age groups beyond 35. The portrayal of women becomes scarce in their mid-30s but resurfaces in the 50-and-over category, albeit in character actress roles, perpetuating the idea that older women lose their utility.

In addition to age and gender distribution, the analysis considers characters' purposiveness, including occupational power, leadership status, possession of goals, and effectiveness in achieving them. Male characters are more likely to be employed, hold high-status positions, and are depicted as bosses, further highlighting the imbalance in workplace portrayals. Leadership status is another marker of gender bias, with male characters often dominating leadership roles.

While research has shown that female and male characters are equally successful in achieving their goals, it is crucial to recognize the disparities in their portrayals and opportunities leading up to those goals. Overall, the analysis underscores the persistence of double standards in media representations, particularly concerning aging women and men, and the urgent need for greater inclusivity and equality in storytelling.

In David Dozier’s research paper on ‘Maintaining the Double Standard: Portrayals of Age and Gender in Popular Films’, the analysis explores the portrayal of aging male and female characters in popular films, revealing a complex interplay of age, gender, and leadership roles, occupational power, and goals. This study highlights the presence of a double standard that perpetuates traditional gender roles and reinforces societal biases.

1. Age and Leadership Roles: The study found that, overall, leadership roles increased with age among film characters, with the highest percentage of leaders being in their 50s. However, when examining the data through the lens of gender, a stark disparity emerged. Female characters did not exhibit a positive relationship between age and leadership roles. In contrast, male characters in their 40s, 50s, and 60s were more likely than their female counterparts of the same age cohorts to play leadership roles. This discrepancy suggests that movies continue to depict men as natural leaders, reinforcing stereotypes about masculinity and leadership abilities.

2. Age and Occupational Power: The analysis also revealed that age was positively related to occupational power. As characters aged, they were more likely to wield more power over others. However, an interesting trend emerged at age 60, where the percentage of characters with occupational power declined. Male characters in their 30s, 40s, and 50s were more likely than female characters to hold occupational power. These portrayals suggest that society may view it as more appropriate for men to occupy roles in which they exert power over others. When female characters do wield such power, they may be seen as overstepping or uncomfortable in those roles, perpetuating gender biases.

3. Goals and Age: Regarding the possession of goals, the findings indicated that the possession of goals tended to decline with age for film characters as a whole. However, this relationship did not hold when each gender was analyzed separately. Male characters of all ages were likely to have goals, while female characters were less likely to have goals as they aged. These portrayals imply that men have tasks to accomplish throughout their lives, regardless of their age, while women's lives become less purposeful as they age.

4. Effectiveness in Achieving Goals: The analysis did not find a significant relationship between the effectiveness of achieving goals and the age of female or male characters. This suggests that age did not impact the characters' ability to achieve their goals, but rather the perception of whether they had goals in the first place.

In summary, the results highlight the presence of a double standard in the portrayal of aging male and female characters in popular films. Male characters in their 40s and 50s were more likely than female characters of the same age to play leadership roles, wield occupational power, and have goals. These portrayals have real-life consequences, as media influences societal notions of appropriate occupational expectations and choices. These biases can make it more challenging for women to assume and be accepted in positions of power and leadership in the real world.

The film industry's focus on the youth market may partially explain these findings, as younger audiences are often targeted due to their frequency of movie going. However, the study also highlights the substantial and growing segment of moviegoers aged 50 and older. This demographic wields significant discretionary income and net worth, indicating the need for more diverse and inclusive portrayals in cinema.

Further research should explore the relationships between the age and gender of key decision-makers in the film industry and on-screen portrayals. Understanding the behind-the-scenes dynamics can shed light on how and why certain portrayals persist. Additionally, researchers should investigate how exposure to distorted media content impacts audience members and consider methodologies like sense-making to understand viewers' perceptions and attitudes towards aging and gender roles. Addressing these issues is crucial for promoting diversity and equality in the film industry and combating the perpetuation of harmful stereotypes.


Research Paper: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/225889150_Maintaining_the_Double_Standard_Portrayals_of_Age_and_Gender_in_Popular_Films

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