“Average” age of Oscar nominees says nothing

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Feisty women are in vogue and feminism is no longer a dirty word In Hollywood, if we are to believe the breathless reporting about this year’s female line up of Oscar nominees. Not only that, but these feisty women are also older women. According to Vicky Roach, writing in the Herald Sun (2/3/14 p. 93) today, “the average age of the 2014 Best Actress contenders – Amy Adams (American Hustle), Sandra Bullock (Gravity), Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine), Judi Dench (Philomena) and Meryl Streep (August: Osage County) – is 55”.

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And there’s the rub. This isn’t really about good acting being recognised, it’s about bad journalism skewing – and screwing with – the facts.

It’s true that the mean age of the contenders is 55. In fact, I can give you many reasons why 55 is a mean age, but I’d rather point out that we calculate the mean by adding up all the values in a set of data and then dividing that sum by the number of values in the dataset, so we have: Adams – 39 years, Blanchett – 44, Bullock – 49, Streep – 64 and Dench – 79, giving a mean of 55. With 40 years between the youngest and oldest, and a sample size of only five, the mean is going to be skewed.

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By clinging to stats, the argument that older women are taking hold in Hollywood could be further supported by pointing out that last year’s contenders had an average age of 39, which means that this year there was a 29% increase in the average age of nominees. But last year’s crop were even more chronologically diverse, ranging from Quvenzhané Wallis (9 years old) to Emanuelle Riva at 86.

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Stats are like spices in cooking – they should be used sparingly, specifically and sensibly. Should you really report that a vote that was decided 51% to 49% means that “most people” support or reject the particular proposal? Should you write that there has been a “100% increase in shark attacks” when the number has risen from 1 to 2 deaths per year?

Number frippery isn’t needed to show that talent will find a way to shine, and as Tina Fey pointed out at the Golden Globes earlier this year, there will always be “great parts in Hollywood for Meryl Streeps over 60”.

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