Let’s Put Films to the Applewhite Test

Invented by the sharp American cartoonist Alison Bechdel, a movie passes the Bechdel test if at least two women talk to each other about something other than a man. Low bar, right? Yet surprisingly few movies pass it. I propose the Applewhite test for ageism: a movie passes if two older people talk to each other about something besides falling apart.

My inspiration for this occurred when I appeared as the ageism expert on a panel in Hollywood about bias against older actors in the film industry. It was expertly moderated by Sharon Lawrence, and the other panelists were actors JoBeth Williams, Lesley Ann Warren and Lynn Whitfield, plus comedian Kathy Griffin, agent Harlan Boll and director Michael Lindsay-Hogg.

I’d expected a fair amount of grandstanding but was instead gratified by the honesty and vulnerability of many of the participants, especially Kathy Griffin, who got a huge laugh by hobbling onstage behind a walker. (Hey, it was funny.) Some of Boll’s clients, most of whom fit into the legend/icon category, had forbidden him to mention their ages or even their names—so strong is the stigma of being even remotely associated with the A-word in the epicenter of youth culture. The event has gotten a lot of media attention in the Hollywood Reporter, Vanity Fair and elsewhere, and hopefully it’s just the start of many larger conversations.

I got to open the discussion with a five-minute presentation about what ageism is, and how it works, and closed with a reminder that ageism is a social-justice issue, and that when we make the world better to grow old in, we also make it a better place to be gay, to be female, to be disabled, to be human.