When we think about college, we think about adults fresh out of high school starting out their adult lives, experimenting and finding their place in society, educating themselves and setting patterns for the rest of their life. While this is the majority of college students, there are other “non-traditional” students which do not fit this stereotype. These students are usually over 30 and have either returned to school or have come to a point in their life where the feel the can finally go to school.
Being an older non-traditional student myself, this pop culture class has encouraged me to look in the mirror and evaluate my position in society. Our discussions so far have prompted questions about stereotypes in media.
Why look at media portrayal of older students? Is the portrayal accurate? Looking at these questions and looking for patterns in media portrayal can help us establish a groundwork for other questions about fairness and social bias and the bigotry that comes with it. Namely, does ageism disadvantage older students?
In our modern day and age, movies and television commonly push social and political messaging that both reflect and mold popular opinion. By looking at how entertainment media portrays individuals, inspecting character roles, interactions, and value of the character in the portrayal, we can get a better idea of how we as a society see older students and justify our treatment of them. If our ideas about older students are accurate, we can then have conscious justification of why we treat older students the way we do. On the other hand, if our ideas are not accurate, the realization of this can empower us to reevaluate our social interactions, and empowers us look at ways in which the stereotypes negatively impact older students. When we are hurting someone and don’t realize it, we end up being disadvantaged as well, as we are limiting our ability to engage in our social interactions which have the potential to mutually beneficial.
So the search is on. How does media portray older students? Here’s what I’ve found.
The majority of older student characters are included in films or television series as background characters, with main character portrayal being the exception, not the rule.
Honestly, I scoured the internet for a couple days looking for something to watch where the older student wasn’t just an incidental character without any purpose in the plot. This lack of representation makes it difficult to study this subject, but I did manage to find a few different things, so onward!
Let me go over what I’ve found.
Spoiler alert: I’m going to talk a lot about what I see, so you might want to watch the first episodes and movie before I tell you how everything turns out.
From 2009 to 2015, NBC Studios produced a television series about an older student going to community college named “Community.” This sitcom was targeted primarily at teen to young adult audience.
In this comical representation of community college life, Jeff Winger (Joel McHale) is a disbarred lawyer who is forced to return to college when it was discovered his college degree was faked, in order to get back to getting his life as a lawyer. With a somewhat pleasant personality, he is a fast-talking type and tends to engage in deception and pretense to manipulate those around him.
It’s interesting that Jeff, being a GenX, is portrayed as a shifty, fast-talking, slacker who wants to make everyone else do the work. This is a generational teen stereotype that exists in many movies from the 1980’s such as “Back to the Future”, “Footloose”, “Breakfast Club”, etc. He is portrayed as not going to college to learn, but only to jump through hoops required for getting back to his career after he was booted out from the legal bar for faking his college degree. He says whatever is needed to get what he wants with no real merit to offer. The “slacker” character archetype. A GenX hold over from teen movies from the 1980’s.
Pierce Hawthorne (Chevy Chase), is another older character. He is a white male baby-boomer with a slight air of pompousness, who seems to be disconnected from progressive standards and current trends. He’s openly identified as having a “creepy vibe,” which he doesn’t seem to understand. In the first episode, he is openly verbally chastised for “sexual harassment” by two black characters, an athletic jock and the target of his affection, Shirley Bennett, a middle aged salty woman with a passive aggressive attitude.
Pierce Hawthorne is portrayed as being unable to relate to the modern college world, holding vestiges of legacy societal values that are shunned by the current progressive movements common on modern college campuses. As a baby-boomer, he’s portrayed as irrelevant, disconnected, and a social nuisance, with comments like “why would I harass someone I’m attracted to?”
Shirley Bennett (Yvette Nicole Brown) is a middle aged black woman who is tagged with the stereotype of being in school for making “poor life decisions” by a young white female student, who then goes on the offensive with salty attacks about the young woman’s age and inexperience in life.
So all-in-all, we have three characters who are represented. The boomer character Pierce is often the butt of many jokes. Though, this being a situation comedy, all of these characters are meant to be laughed at, but he seems to be the target of much ridicule and disdain.
The one thing that ties these three characters together is that they all have somehow failed in life and are returning to school to attempt to correct that failure or try to skate by in life until they find something else to do.
These portrayals are based on a cultural “generation gap”, and the assumption that individuals cannot adapt or be part of current college culture, because they are imprisoned in their conditioning and social expectations. Also, neither of these characters are portrayed as going to school for education, but for ulterior motives.
Adjectives that I see assigned to the three older student archetypes in this portrayal are: recovering from failure, desperate, predatory, underachiever, past their prime, irrelevant, disinterested, foolish, dishonest, average, sexually inappropriate, and alone.
Beer & Seed:
This 2002 indie film was written by and stars comedian Bill Cox. This dark comedy on the experiences an older people who return to college to “start over again” is targeted at college audiences and indie movie circuits. It is currently available to rent on amazon and vimeo.
The main character, Bill, is portrayed as a balding overweight gray-haired veteran. One of the first scenes how him getting into a younger student over the ownership of a pen when the younger student takes it, and ends up driving the pen into the hand of the student.
Bill goes back to school with the intention of doing what he felt he missed out on in life, but finds a lack of acceptance there. It’s interesting that there are several cues in the movie that Bill, the main character, has no future prospects past college. He’s portrayed as having no purpose except self-satisfaction. He’s not going to school to get a career or to prepare for the future. No one pays him any attention for his college career until his fight with another student. He is irrelevant to society, as he is already used up and has little left that can be taken, or that he can offer, in the way of a traditional college student.
It’s revealed that the character works at a bar mopping up urine in the bathrooms, and spends time fantasizing about fat girls who attend the bar. There is an animated rap song sequence called “I like the fat chicks,” where he’s checking out pigs and fat girls, then creeping after a fat girl at the end.
Socially, he’s not really able to connect with students or professors and is isolated socially. The dean has an interview with him where he tells him directly, “I don’t think you fit in.” His drafting professor also tells him “a good eraser will be the key to your success.” The school pushes him out by granting him “life experience credits” and charging his GI Bill, suddenly reducing his time to graduate to 4 weeks.
He’s told in his progress interview, “You lived life once, and it took all you had. This was never your life, you are just here marking time.”
It appears the author is trying to make a statement about stereotypes and being cultural ostracized because of age, being a social outcast, and not fitting in no matter how hard you try.
The other younger students ignore and avoid him, and when they are forced to interact with him, tend to be hostile. His social position with his professors is one in which he is not treated as a normal student and even though he works hard, they target him for harassment.
This is contrasted by a sudden switch in the last ten minutes of the film where he finishes his degree and goes around fixing everyone else’s problems, resulting in everyone living happily ever after. It’s a bold statement, in that the writer seems to be saying that people do have value, even if you don’t see it at first.
Adjectives attributed to Bill, as the adult student, as I see it, are: seeking purpose, bored, predatory, troublemaker, past their prime, irrelevant, unwanted, outsider, failing, average, sexually inappropriate, and alone.
In 2006, Oxygen television network broadcast “Campus Ladies”, a television sitcom targeted toward a female middle class demographic. It was aired in 2006-2007 and was canceled when NBC Universal acquired the network in 2007.
Joan and Barri, the two main characters in the series decide to go to college after they are free of their husbands, one of which passed away and the other caught cheating. They decide to go to college to rediscover and recreate themselves, as without their husbands they feel free but without purpose.
As they move in, their dorm roommate is offended that she has to live with 2 “elderly” ladies, though they are admired and offered assistance by young college men who also live in their co-ed dorm.
They face opposition when approaching a sorority, where the sorority interview shows disconnect from understanding questions about vegan-ism, modern trends, fashion, pop-culture and the like. One of the sorority girls asks “Can they even be in a sorority?” The age-based bigotry from both the room-mate and the sorority are are pronounced.
Toward the end of the first episode, they attend a frat party and get drunk with everyone else and when inhibitions are down start to ft in. Playing ‘spin the bottle’ and ‘truth or dare’ are bonding moments at the party. One of the ladies gets into a make-out session with a young student, who finds her attractive, and ends up going back to her place for some cuddle action.
At the end of the first episode, while trying to comfort the room-mate (who also was rejected from the sorority), they talk about the horrors of aging in the body, age spots, blemishes, bald spots, hair on chin, etc. These horrors are based in societal valuation of female body.
Every male in the series supports and accepts the main characters, even finding them attractive, while the other females in the series are resistant to their presence. It’s interesting that in a show on a network targeted at female demographic, which panders to a feminist ideology, that personal empowerment in returning to college first starts with separation from their husbands.
This starts an initial series of events in the first 15 minutes of the characters rediscovering themselves and overcoming their inhibitions. This feels like a message that going to back to college is a symbol of new beginnings and letting go of the old. The focus of the show doesn’t seem to be about their study or going to school for an education, but to have the “college experience.” This includes socializing, cute guys, drinking, and some social conflicts based in identity objectification.
I think there is a portrayal of age bigotry at work in the program, as they are emotionally opposed by their roommate and the sorority girls because of their age, though it may just be a proxy for jealousy, considering the younger women aren’t being portrayed as attractive, and target demographic for the program are middle aged women themselves. This bigotry and the characters overcoming of it may be a proxy to help the target demographic to feel a sense of personal empowerment and relevance that they may be lacking.
There is also a pronounced generation gap in relation to pop culture knowledge with the sorority that appears. This seems to indicate a belief that older people are disconnected from the world and isolated from their peers when returning to college.
So, there are some positive adjectives in this portrayal of female older students, as well as some not so positive: recovering from failure, desperate, sexually empowered, caretaker, relevant, disinterested in education, honest, average, sexually inappropriate (relative to inter-generational relationship taboos), and alone.
So looking at these portrayals I can see several adjectives that describe the character archetypes which are held in common, these include: recovering from failure or seeking purpose, desperate, average, sexually inappropriate, and alone.
I’m going to take a moment and interject a little bit about myself, so you can understand a little better my own experience and maybe see my bias in things. I am a non-traditional older student. As an older student, I don’t think any of these portrayals really represent me in my reason for attending school. I am attending college to educate myself in higher mathematics and computer science, as they are interests of mine. In my past I have had successes and failures like any other person, but I am not attending college to try to recover from any particular failure.
Up until this point in my life, I have been prevented from getting federal funding for college because I didn’t register for military conscription with Selective Service between the ages of 18 and 24, which only males are required to do. Over the years I have been denied FAFSA assistance. Luckily, with persistence, PSU granted me a waiver after considering circumstances in my life when I was still of an age where I could register. Getting a higher education is something I always wanted, but was never privileged enough in society to attain.
Contrary to the comical narratives portrayed in these shows, I believe a majority of older students are enrolled in school with the purpose of gaining further education, not because they have a lack of purpose or direction.
All in all, this really isn’t a full look into bias and bigotry in society. Much of my experience is anecdotal, and observations drawn from a small sample, but there does appear to be a mismatch between social stereotypes about older students and the reality which surrounds them.
Could messaging be promoting societal bias against older students? Older students do seem to be less connected socially than some of their peers, and the level of prejudice is something that could be studied further.
Does messaging reflect existing society bias against older students? Statistically, older students have been shown to receive far less aid in the form of scholarships, honors, and the like, and make up a relatively small representation of the student body. Whether these are because of institutional prejudices or because of personal choice is something that would also be worthy of further research.
All in all, it looks like there may be something present which we can address as a society, looking the mirror of our own expectations. I encourage us all as a student body to look internally at how we feel about people of different ages, and how much of that comes from social conditioning. Ideally, we should strive to judge people for who they are and the merits of their hearts, and not their age, genetics, or other bodily constraints outside their control.
Being able to connect with other people on a real level seems to be less and less common as we continue to add more abstractions to our understanding of reality. Honest, intimate, real. These types of social relations with other people are precious and should be cultivated and treasured.
Why else are we living?