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opinion | Jennifer graham

Embracing the gray, wrinkled characters

Sylvester Stallone (center) stood between Randy Couture and Jason Statham on the set of “The Expendables 3.”Phil Bray

Horses’ teeth grow continuously, like humans’ nails or hair. Without dental care, an old horse can become like the cast of “The Expendables 3,” a bit “long in the tooth.”

There once was a time when this was a pejorative in a nation famous for its frenetic worship of youth. But long in the tooth is increasingly accepted, so long as the teeth are blindingly white. For this, thank the baby boomers, whose greatest legacy may be that they — in cooperation with Hollywood — were the first American generation to turn old age into something worthy of respect.

Not that we should respect “The Expendables 3,” a made-for-TV movie mistakenly released on the big screen. Its trouncing by “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” invites a too-easy analogy, that the young will always triumph over the old, that all things, even glamorous things, necessarily wear out. Forbes.com columnist Scott Mendelson noted that 66 percent of the film’s audience was older than 25. He saw that as an indictment of a movie in which the combined age of the stars is 850. I see that figure and think, wow, how cool is that — fully one-third of the movie’s audience is still on their parents’ health insurance plans.

The idea that young people don’t want to watch old people is wrong, and growing wronger every day, thanks to geezer creep, the thickening influx of older people into domains previously exclusive to the young, such as marathons and video games.


In the Microsoft video-game franchise “Gears of War,” one of the most beloved characters is Bernie Mataki, a sixty-something sniper who hacks up the civilization-destroying Locusts with nary a complaint from her aging joints, nor from her warrior colleagues. They call her Boomer Lady and Granny, but always want Mataki on their team.

On the Nickelodeon network, a popular animated series has a cast equally balanced between young people and those old enough to be cast in “The Expendables 4.” “The Legend of Korra” is a children’s show about a young woman’s quest to save the world. But Avatar Korra shares significant screentime with four baby boomers: her 52-year-old mentor and his older sister and brother (the latter named Bumi, get it?), and a Mataki-like police chief with a scarred face and gray hair.


In embracing these graying, wrinkled characters, Hollywood’s goal may just be to expand profits and audience. Sylvester Stallone, who is 68, said he sought a PG-13 rating, rather than R, for “The Expendables 3” to expand the film’s demographics, saying, “We want to reach as many people as possible.” The industry can only dip so far into the market of adolescents, however, whereas the market for aging boomers is phenomenally elastic, and will likely be stretched for several more decades. Thousands of Americans turn 65 every day, and as we age in droves, testing the limits of longevity, we crave characters who look like us, only better. The appeal increases if they’re not pretending to be young.

Of the cultures that revere their old — Korea, China, Japan, and Greece chief among them — most are rooted in Confucian principles which rank “filial piety” — honor for parents and ancestors — as the foundation of all virtue. The respect afforded the old in these ancient traditions derived, in large part, from awe. To achieve old age in a time when most people were dead by 40 was to be favored by both God and genetics, the sort of happy confluence that allows an ordinary child to become an American movie star.


In Korea, one’s 70th birthday is a happy occasion called kohCui, which means old and rare. The boomers are getting old, but remain comfortably distant from rare, as evidenced by the 16 stars on one of “The Expendables 3” publicity shots. This is a problem for the boomers’ overall image, given that the worth of any commodity escalates with scarcity. To really be of value, at least some of us are going to have to die. But not right now. Got work to do, recasting a nation.

Jennifer Graham writes regularly for the Globe. Follower her on Twitter @grahamtoday.