Critical Perspective of Ageism
Ageism remains a social problem that is pervasive in our society. It comes in many forms, both positive and negative, and inadvertent and deliberate. All forms damage and devalue older adults and may cause them to become a reflection of the stereotype itself (Hillier & Barrow, 2015, pp. 35 & 41) (Frank, Ageism 2). Nowhere is ageism more prevalent than in the media (Hillier & Barrow, 2015, p. 50-54). The media in the United States helps to both establish and also imitate societal cultures and values affecting young and old alike (Hillier & Barrow, 2015, pp. 50-52) (Frank, Ageism 3). Movies, television, magazines, music, and the mass-marketing companies that sponsor them instigate and propagate negative stereotypes about aging (Hillier & Barrow, 2015, p. 38-39). This institutional discrimination both underrepresents and misrepresents older adults in film (Frank, Ageism 3). Pixar introduced an important new twist to movie plots in the film Up, by intentionally portraying the main character of the movie to highlight these stereotypes and ultimately demonstrate that they are prejudiced and can be overcome. Two major types of ageist stereotypes presented in the film are biomedicalization of aging and compassionate stereotyping.
The main character of this movie is Carl Frederickson, whom we follow from his boyhood to older adulthood. Carl meets Ellie and they begin their friendship with a shared childhood dream of going to Paradise Falls, South America. Their hero, an adventurer and explorer named Charles Muntz, never returned from his visit there to find a multicolored giant bird. Carl and Ellie eventually marry. Carl is a balloon salesman who lives an idyllic life, in his childhood neighborhood with his soul mate Ellie. Throughout their lives they save nickels and dimes to finance their great adventure to South America, but each time they save a significant amount, a set-back occurs that requires the use of their savings and putting off their adventure. Years go by and late in life Carl finally buys tickets to go on their trip, but Ellie becomes ill and dies before their dream is realized. Heartbroken, Carl becomes attached to his and Ellie’s home and all of the things they have collected in their lives together. Carl’s only activity in life is watching from his front porch as his neighborhood becomes a downtown area, full of sky-scrapers. One day Russell, who is a young scout in the ‘Wilderness Explorers,’ knocks on Carl’s door offering to help him cross the street, so that he can receive his ‘Assisting the Elderly’ badge and graduate to become a Senior Explorer. Carl tells Russell that he doesn’t need any help crossing anything and slams the door in his face. Undaunted, Russell keeps knocking until Carl agrees to let Russell help him by sending him on a fool’s errand to search for a ‘snipe.’ Carl’s mood is already sour, and as he watches a truck accidently knock down the mailbox that he and Ellie painted, he starts a confrontation and hits the truck driver over the head with his cane. Carl is summoned to court and is ordered to leave his home and move to a retirement facility called Shady Oaks. Carl hatches a plan to escape and ties thousands of balloons to his home and floats away unknowingly with Russell on board. When they encounter a storm, Russell helps Carl steer the house to South America and they end up in Paradise Falls. They encounter the bird, Kevin, that Muntz had been searching for and a wrathful Muntz, who believes they are trying to steal the bird from him. Muntz’s dog Dug helps them escape from Muntz and his evil intentions. Carl realizes that his relationship with Russell, Kevin, and Dug is more important than his house. The group finally defeats Muntz, saves Kevin, and returns home.
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After Ellie’s death, Carl is portrayed as a lonely, grumpy, and infirmed old man. He has difficulty getting out of bed in the morning and walks with a cane. His home is equipped with a stair lift so that he can get up and down the stairs. He eats bran cereal (implied irregularity) and wears a hearing aid. Carl aimlessly spends his time watching television or sitting on his front porch as high-rise construction is taking place all around him. Despite the six locks on the door that indicate that he doesn’t feel safe in his neighborhood, Carl ardently refuses all of the developer’s offers of purchase for his and Ellie’s home, which he has made into an isolated shrine of his life with Ellie.
In the first overarching example of ageism, Carl’s character embodies the psychological negative stereotypes that Hillier and Barrow describe as, “being set in their ways, unproductive… stubborn, grouchy, lonely, rocking chair types” (Hillier & Barrows, 2015, pp. 36). Additionally, Carl is depicted with all of the physical attributes of social prejudice of aging in society today, such as a sagging face, shuffling walk, use of a cane, and hearing aids (Frank, Ageism 1). These “common perceptions of old age,” perpetuate negative stereotyping, which according to Hillier & Barrows can begin in children as early as age three (Hillier & Barrows, 2015, pp. 43).
A second example of ageism is exhibited by Russell, a child that lives in Carl’s neighborhood. When Russell knocks on Carl’s door, he is trying to complete his Wilderness Explorer merit badge for ‘Assisting the Elderly.’ Russell assumes that because Carl is elderly, that he must be infirm and in need of assistance. According to both Frank and Hillier & Barrow, children are influenced by their peers, schools, families, media, and advertising to take on ageist social values (Frank, Ageism 3) (Hillier & Barrows, 2015, pp. 43). These values cause them to engage in both the “biological model of decline” stereotyping (aging as a disease) and “compassionate stereotyping” (the older adult is in need of help) (Hillier & Barrows, 2015, pp. 37) (Frank, Ageism 2). Russell sees Carl as ancient and Russell’s assumption is not lost on Carl.
In the third example, staff members from Shady Oaks come to retrieve Carl and he asks them to wait a moment so he can say goodbye to his house. One of the staff members comments to the other that Carl, “probably has to go to the bathroom for the eightieth time” (Rivera, Docter, & Peterson, 2009). In biomedicalization of aging stereotyping, the shady oaks staff member has assumed that because of his age, Carl is incontinent (Hillier & Barrows, 2015, pp. 36) (Frank, Ageism 2).
Before floating away to South America, Carl has been treated in an ageist manner. This has caused his self-perception to become what the construction workers, developers, Shady Oaks staff members, and Russell all perceive him to be. Old. He feels that his best years are gone, the world is passing him by, and he is old and infirm. Both Frank and Hillier explain that in the “social construction of aging” these internalized concepts of self negatively affect the way Carl deals with the world at large and he has become the psychological and physical embodiment of these negative stereotypes (Frank, Ageism 2) (Hillier & Barrows, 2015, pp. 42). It is not until they arrive in South America that both he and Russell’s negative stereotypes are challenged. Soon after they arrive, Carl begins walking without the shuffle, his growing positive self-concept is affecting physical status (Hillier & Barrow, 2015, pp. 41). He stands straighter, and eventually, he doesn’t need his cane. As they begin to encounter adversity, Carl begins living in the present and has goals greater than himself. As their relationship changes and they face many adversities, Russell begins to rely upon Carl for assistance rather than the other way around. He sees Carl as more capable and less infirm. Carl begins to see himself in the same way and sheds society’s perception of him. As Carl encounters Russell, Kevin, and Dug, he begins to establish a powerful purpose in his life: saving Kevin and Dug from Muntz and helping Russell to return home.
Once home, Carl becomes a grandparent type to Russell, whose own father is absent. This further exposes Russell to Carl, as an individual older adult, rather than an aging caricature. Both Russell and Carl have challenged and overcome all of the stereotyping precepts and see each other for what they really are: just two people of different ages who can learn from each other, help each other, and enjoy each other (Hillier & Barrow, 2015, pp. 43).
An interesting subtle indication of Carl’s success in overcoming the internalization of ageist stereotyping came during the credits. As the credits were rolling, photographs of Carl’s and Russell’s time together were shown. One snapshot showed Dug, Russell, and Carl at Shady Oaks visiting the residents, in what appeared to be pet therapy. Carl’s transition from the “model of sedentary later life” to an “active life,” by making contributions to help others, couldn’t be more drastic (Hillier & Barrow, 2015, pp. 56-57). In addition, he was exposing Russell to a broader range of differing older adult personalities and activity levels that would allow him a better understanding of what it means to become older. This understanding will cause him to be more empathetic when he is older towards social programs for the elderly, but it will also assist him in having a more positive view of himself as he ages (Hillier & Barrows, pp. 43) (Frank, Ageism 2).
This movie spans Carl’s past, present, and future selves. Older adults that see the film may feel bad for Carl or angry about the blatant ageism. However, Up may allow them to see the danger of internalizing societies’ views of older adults. They may catch a glimpse of their negative future possible selves by seeing it in Carl. According to Hillier & Barrow, “this can be very motivating for making useful and appropriate behavioral changes” (Hillier & Barrow, 2015, pp. 42-43).
The motion picture industry abounds in ageist stereotypes and Up is no different (Hillier & Barrow, 2015, pp. 54). However, Pixar intentionally paints Carl as a gross caricature of many aging stereotypes and underscores how easily other groups in society apply them. This film, by design, intentionally includes ageist stereotypes in the plot to make the point of how society engages older adults throughout the film. As the plot progresses, the film sets the aging main character and his younger counterpart up to challenge these stereotypes and succeed.
Challenging aging stereotypes will gradually lessen as intergenerational households increase and there is greater sharing of finances for care. As young adults and younger children are exposed to multigenerational households, their understanding of what it means to become old will significantly reduce their fear of aging, and subsequently, ageism itself will be reduced (Hillier & Barrow, 2015, pp. 43-44 & 54). Additionally, active older adults are remaining fit later into life and are challenging some of the physical stereotypes (Hillier & Barrow, 2015, pp. 57). Ageism will probably never completely be eliminated, but like racism and sexism, American society is becoming more aware of it as more and more older adults challenge it.
Both film critics and ageism challengers have commended Up for the atypical main character (Jamieson, 2009). It appears as though Pixar Animation Studios is attempting break down stereotyping and portray a more positive view of older adults. They also subtly highlight the implications and benefits of a positive self-concept, relationships, and a purposeful life (Hillier & Barrows, 2015, pp. 43-44) (Frank, Ageism 2).
Frank, J. (n.d.). “Ageism Part 1.” PowerPoint presentation. Eastern Illinois University. Charleston, Illinois
[bookmark: _Hlk31187658]Frank, J. (n.d.). “Ageism Part 2.” PowerPoint presentation. Eastern Illinois University. Charleston, Illinois.
Frank, J., (n.d.) “Ageism Part 3.” PowerPoint presentation. Eastern Illinois University. Charleston, Illinois.
Hillier, S. & Barrow, G. (2015). Aging, the individual, and society (10th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
Jamieson, A. (2009 April 18). Disney film Up sparks ageism debate, The Telegraph. retrieved from https://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/film/5176178/Disney-film-Up-sparks-ageism- debate.html.
Rivera, J., Docter, P., & Peterson, B. (2009). Up, United States: Pixar and Disney Studios.