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Gender differences in the portrayal of older people in television documentaries in Hong Kong, 1987-2006

There is an extensive literature on the images of older people in various types of mass media in Western societies, and gender differences have often been noted in the portrayal of older people in various studies. Older males have often been represented in an apparently more favourable light than their female counterparts in terms of characteristics such as physical health, material conditions and personality (Lee et al. 2007; Magoffin 2007; Razanova et al. 2006; Kessler et al. 2004; Janelli and Sorge 2001).

Objectives and methods

In Hong Kong, there have been very few studies on the images of older people and gender differences in the mass media. Specifically, no research of this kind has focused on public affairs documentaries, which have become increasingly important over the years. Therefore, the main purpose of this study was to fill a research gap in Hong Kong, a rapidly ageing place in Asia.

Documentaries were selected because, since they purport to provide ‘factual’ accounts or discussions, any potential differences in portrayal of older people by gender could reinforce or counter any existing popularly-held stereotypes. The study employed content analysis as its main research method, with a coding scheme designed to allow the researcher to use standardized coding criteria for a range of documentaries spanning a twenty-year period.

Data collection

Sample television documentaries were drawn from those produced by two free television channels in Hong Kong. These were Chasing Current Affairs, produced by Asia Television Limited, and The Hong Kong Connection, produced by Television Hong Kong, covering the production period between 1987 and 2006. A full list of public affairs documentary episodes was examined and those that had focused on older people as a theme were reviewed (n=39). The researcher determined if the theme of the episodes were related to older people by the title of each episode. If the title contained any words related to older people or ageing, then it matched the criteria of focusing on this group. The study considered only the major character(s) of each documentary episode, defined as characters who were very important to the storyline or had speaking parts greater than one minutes. Among the 39 episodes, 89 major characters were found, comprising 39 male characters and 50 female characters. The coding covered economic conditions, self-care ability and portrayal of overall traits of the older characters by gender.

Economic conditions of older characters

Economic conditions were classified into two types: relatively good and relatively disadvantaged. Table 1 shows that almost half (48.7%) of older male characters but only 32.7% of older female characters were depicted as being “in relatively good economic condition”. Half of the older female characters (50.0%) were depicted as being “in relatively disadvantaged economic condition” compared to 41.0% of males. 10.3% of older male characters and 13.5% of older female characters in this study did not show observable details on which to judge their economic conditions.

Self-care ability of the older characters

The ability of older people to look after themselves was classified into three types: independent, having minor health limitations, and dependent. About 80% of the older male characters were depicted as being “independent” compared to only 58% of older female characters. Around one-tenth of the older male characters and one-third of older female characters were depicted as “having minor health limitations”. The proportion of older male characters and older female characters portrayed as “dependent” was 10.3% and 12% respectively.

The overall personal traitsof the older characters

The overall personal traitsof the older characters were classified into three categories: positive, neutral and negative. The majority of older male characters (60%) were depicted with a “positive overall personal trait”, whereas around 30% were depicted as having a “negative overall personal trait”. The rest (5.1%) of older male characters were coded as a “neutral overall personal trait”. However, half of the older female characters in the analysis were depicted as possessing a “negative overall personal trait”, with 44.0% and 6.0% were depicted as possessing “positive” and “neutral” overall personal traits respectively. 

Table 1
Economic conditions, abilities for self-care and the overall personal traits of older characters by gender, 1987-2006 (%)


Older male

Older female

Economic conditions
Relatively good





Relatively disadvantaged



No observable details for judgment



Self-care ability





Having minor health limitations






The overall personal trait



















In summary, older male characters in the present study appeared to be somewhat more favourably depicted than their female counterparts in all areas analysed, including economic conditions, self-care ability and the overall personal traits. This could be a realistic portrayal but it could also reflect gender inequality in the approach of documentaries. The researcher attempted to use “gender inequality” as a consideration to illustrate how this determinant might affect the lives older males and older females as well as their television depictions, using economic condition as a particular case.   

Gender inequality

Gender inequality (a type of bias) may provide an explanation for the gender differences in the portrayal of the economic conditions of the older people in local television documentaries. In Chinese tradition, men have often been viewed to be the family breadwinners whereas women have assumed the role of the housewife, in charge of household work and child-care. Women, basically, were less economically active than their husbands and not every woman had full-time or paid work during their younger years. For example, only 43.6% of Hong Kong women were engaged in paid employment in 1976 (Census and Statistics Department, 1976). Even if some women had participated in the labour force, income disparities between male and female workers in lifetime remain apparent. For example, during the parenting years of the present cohort of older people, the female-male earning ratio was 0.60, meaning the average monthly earnings of women would have usually only been 60% of men’s (Chung 1996).

Consequently, female workers not only earned less than male workers, but they were rarely able to accumulate savings or a pension. Over time, earning inequalities by gender may well affect the material conditions of people in their later lives (Arber, Davidson and Ginn 2003). Gender inequality is a recognized social phenomenon in Hong Kong and it might well affect the perceptions of documentary workers about the lives of many older people and eventually affect their decision on gender difference in their portrayal. In other words, with gender inequality, the portrayal of older women as more economically disadvantaged than older men seems reasonable. The same logic may also apply to the male-female differences in health conditions or even extend to their self-care ability as they generally have different access to resources.


In the present study, gender as a variable seems to predict somewhat the economic conditions and self-care abilities of older female characters. These are similar to those found in the literature associated with older women with lower socio-economic status and more functional limitations than males of the same age and status.Nonetheless, since the Hong Kong government started to provide nine years’ compulsory education in the late 1970s, the education level of females in the current middle-aged cohorts has been significantly improving. The proportion of females aged 15 or above who have attained secondary and higher education has more than doubled over the past 30 years, from 32.2% in 1976 to 71.2 % in 2006 (Census and Statistics Department 2007). In contrast to the past, women in Hong Kong nowadays receive more education. Women are less likely to stay at home and many are engaged in the paid labour force. The labour force participation rate of women increased from 36.8 in 1961 to 49.5% in 1981 and to 51.6% in 2001. The recent female labour force participation rate was 53.1% in 2007 (The Hong Kong Council of Social Service 1997; Census and Statistical Department 2008). As many women are now able to access education as well as men, a growing number of women are in professional occupations. Their economic status has improved and the gender gap in material conditions of older people is expected to narrow in the future.

Limitations and recommendations from this study

This is a preliminary study and of course it has limitations. Firstly, a number of Chasing Current Affairs episodes were unavailable for analysis during the period of study. A second limitation is that characters in the episodes could not be reliably analysed according to age cohorts and there could be various differences in health status and functional ability and others among different older age groups based on gender. Therefore, an analysis of gender differences based on finer categories of age was not possible because the precise age groups of over one-third of the characters were uncertain. For future studies, it would also be helpful to compare the portrayal of older people in other media sources over the same study period, such as magazines, children’s books or newspapers, to achieve a wider-ranging assessment of any potential gender imbalances in media portrayals. This would help the research to be able to assert more conclusively whether there have been gender disparities in various aspects of the portrayal of older people in the mass media. Such studies in Hong Kong would also add to knowledge of the portrayal of ageing in Chinese societies.

Caillie Tam: Exploring the Television Portrayal of Older People in Hong Kong: A Study of Two Public Affairs Documentary Series, MPhil thesis, supervised by Prof. David R. Phillips and Dr. Kenneth Law, Faculty of Social Sciences, Lingnan University, Hong Kong, 2009.



Arbar, S., Davidson, K., & Ginn, J. (2003) Gender and Ageing: Changing Roles and Relationships. Maidenhead, PA: Open University Press.

Census and Statistics Department (1976) 1976 Population by-census. Hong Kong: Government Printer.

Census and Statistics Department (2008) Women and Men in Hong Kong: Key Statistics. Hong Kong: Printing Department.

Chung, Y. P. (1996) “Gender Earnings Differentials in Hong Kong: The Effect of the State, Education, and Employment.” Economics of Education Review 15(3): 231-243.

Janelli, L. M., & Sorge, L. 2001 “Portrayal of Grandparents in Children’s Storybooks: a Recent Review.” Gerontology and Geriatrics Education 22(2): 69-88.

Kessler, E. M., Rakoczy, K., & Staudinger, U. M. 2004 “The Portrayal of Older People in Prime Time Television Series: the Match with Gerontological
Evidence.” Ageing and Society 24(4): 531-552.

Lee, M. M., Carpenter, B., & Meyers, L. S. (2007) “Representations of older adults in television advertisements.” Journal of Aging Studies. 21: 23-30.

Rozanova, J., Northcott, H., & McDaniel, S. (2006) “Seniors and portrayals of intra-generational and inter-generational inequality in The Globe and Mail.” Canadian Journal on Aging, 25(4), 373-386.

Internet resources:

Census and Statistics Department (2007) Hong Kong People See Notable Improvement in Education Level. Available from :<http://www.censtatd.gov.hk/FileManager/EN/Content_1064/C3_E.pdf>[Accessed January 4, 2009]

Magoffin, D. (2007) Stereotyped Seniors: the Portrayal of Older Characters in Teen Movie from 1980-2006. Unpublished Master's Thesis. Department of Communication. Brigham Young University. Hawaii. [Internet]. 
Available from: <contentdm.lib.byu.edu/ETD/image/etd1978.pdf>[Accessed 29,May, 2007].

The Hong Kong Council of Social Service (1997) Paper on ‘The Future Development of Women Service in Hong Kong. [Internet]. Available from: <http://www.hkcss.org.hk/fs/er/Reference/future%20development%20of%20women%20service%2097.pdf> [Accessed 3, May, 2009].

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