I know from experience that as they get older, women and men tend to become transparent. To women it usually happens somewhere between 50 and 60 years of age, and about a decade later to men, since in their 50s many of them are still at the prime of their career.
Thus, on a recent stay in the US, I wasn’t surprised to discover that in commercials, if older people are seen or heard from, it is usually in a very specific context. For example I saw them mostly in advertisements for prescription drugs (usually constipation and impotency), where they are portrayed as anxious or confused consumers.
From there it is only a small leap to becoming a full blown nuisance, and this was another way to present older people. In a series of advertisements for State farm Insurance, in order to emphasize the ineffectual and useless competitors of the company, old people were chosen. In one of the commercials featuring an accident, in response to the plea of one of the drivers: “State Farm Insurance person come help,” an agent immediately comes to the rescue. This is in stark contrast to the plight of the driver of the other car who does not have State Farm Insurance. His “help” is an old woman, probably his mother, who turns up and tries in vain to get a hold of a nameless insurance (Blah Blah insurance) through an outdated pay phone. Her son shouts in frustration: “you are no help at all.”
We can infer from those examples that old people are slow, helpless, confused, and have nothing more to contribute to society.
Thus I was delighted to see that the writer and director Nancy Meyers, an elderly (66 year old) woman herself, refuted similar stereotypes, and made an older man the quiet hero of her new film The Intern
Robert De Niro plays the 70-year-old retired widower Ben Whittaker. As part of a community outreach program, he answers an ad to a position of a senior intern in an online fashion site.
Most of his colleagues in the new company are in their twenties, but Ben, in contrast to all expectations, finds himself among those young people. Although he has no skills necessary to the online world, he learns quickly and his diligence, devotion and experience compensate for what he doesn’t know and make him very quickly a valuable member of the company.
Ben insists on staying the way he is which includes being a complete gentleman, wearing a jacket and a tie to work, and even carrying in his pocket a cloth handkerchief which proves especially useful.
Everyone ends up admiring Ben, even, and especially, his immediate boss the founder and the CEO of the company Jules Ostin, who, at the beginning of his internship, ignored him and pretended that he wasn’t there.
In the mid 1990s when Moti Kirshenbaum, the beloved journalist and television personality, was the CEO of the Israel Broadcast Authority, he declared that one of his aims was to “rejuvenate the screen.” What he meant was, that he wanted to get rid of the more seasoned reporters and presenters and to replace them with younger people.
This move did not help the quality, or the rating, of the programs. Ironically Kirshenbaum himself (who was almost 60 when he made this statement) continued to appear regularly on screen, together with another older journalist, Yaron London, until his recent death last September.
It seems that Nancy Meyers is wiser and braver than Kirshenbaum ever was. Ben Whittaker as a lowly senior intern succeeds in showing that some qualities like wisdom, discretion, devotion, and diligence are timeless, and together with experience they are assets, everywhere and in all walks of life.
It seems that the Israeli public who mourned the untimely death of Moti Kirshenbaum at the age of 76 was well aware of that. Now it is time for the media to get rid of the stereotypes concerning older people and portray them as they really are, just like you and I.