Since our perceptions about ‘old’ and growing older change, and we clue in to just how much bullshit is wrapped up in advertising ‘selling us a dream’ and telling us, women over the age of 40 in particular, that we ‘no longer matter,’ isn’t it time to challenge what we perceive as ‘old’ and how we depict age and ageing, to remove the stigma and fear? We, all of us, need to challenge, to change, to knockout negative depictions of aging in advertising, in films, television, fiction, all very powerful forces in shaping culture, that are utterly ageist because ageism is detrimental to us all, even more so if you are female.
Why is it so many of us fear getting older? Often, we treat antiques as items of great value and take care to look after them, yet rather than treat older people as valuable, we have come to ridicule and devalue them, older women in particular. Adding fire to fear is how we see ageing as a disease to combat. Girls and young women are bombarded by the message that getting older is a horrible road paved with ugliness and decline. As a result, we’re too afraid to face the skewed reality we’ve been told is true, when it’s nothing but a con.
If our primary goal in life is to, well, STAY ALIVE, seemingly as long as possible, why then do we see living a long life that changes our faces and bodies along the way as something shameful, ugly, and diseased?
Habit. Laziness. Because the stereotypes of age and ageism are so pervasive and accepted.
I often discuss stereotypes of women and age. I fully understand that stereotypes are a shorthand route to creating a character. I say dumb blonde Barbie or redneck and I bet it conjures up very specific images. The shorthand of stereotypes are a convenient way to contextualise accomplishments and standardise expectations, but the shorthand is reductive, usually faulty, and often comes with fixed meanings that people assign to it, which causes us to reduce people to labels like dumb blonde Barbie, redneck, or old coot. Age is a characteristic, not an attribute that defines a person. The depiction of older people as decrepit, pathetic, useless, as a crone, old coot, or geezer isn’t something that connects us with our future selves; it creates dread and denial of a natural process of life, it creates a multi-billion dollar industry that bombards us with reminders to fear and fight ageing, which in turn serves to devalue and dread our future selves.
When it comes to advertising, Cindy Gallop notes, “little nuance in the way age is portrayed,” there’s an either or with “beautiful blonde-haired, white-haired, blue-haired, gorgeous older people walking on the beach in the sunset…or ridiculously comical parodies and caricatures of older people.” There’s not a lot of ethnic or cultural diversity, not a great deal of products aimed directly at men the way anti-ageing products target women, nothing geared toward the older LGBTIQ community. Older people have the income, have the money to spend, but there is little to reflect this in advertising the products aimed at adults growing older. It’s about retirement communities, arthritis pain relief, funeral insurance, anti-ageing creams.
When it comes to films and television shows depicting older people, change is slow, particularly in romance fiction. I write about that often. I rant about it often. There have been some changes in Hollywood, even a little bit in romance fiction with the growing visibility of Seasoned Romance, and thank heaven for that. However, something I’ve noticed is that a number of films and TV shows with older leads, still treat being older as a joke, or treat ageing almost like another character present in the room. Invariably, someone points out that age is in the room with a well-timed, “really, at your age?” or there’s a scene with erectile dysfunction and Viagra, like in Book Club, where older women reading Fifty Shades of Grey is subversive and changes their lives. Age ceases to be a mere characteristic of a character as the focus shifts to stereotypes of decline and disease, on things older people ‘don’t do’ anymore, rather than keeping the spotlight on the story-telling of say, two older people finding love and sex again later in life, as in Our Souls At Night, which showed the romantic awkwardness and expectations of two people who just happened to be older—the awkwardness and expectations not really so different to younger people.
This could just be my bugbear, a thing that disappoints me, but it is something I’ve noticed and something that can spoil a story for me. I may even be guilty of it myself because I am so hellbent at making sure readers know my heroines are older, but I think, and I could be wrong here, that I don’t use a sledge hammer to do it, and I don’t make age a character in the room. I’ve written two books where I never specifically state the heroine’s age. Willa, in For Your Eyes Only and Mae the butler of my In Service series are both 50-ish—okay, Mae’s age is revealed—in one short statement that appears in Italian, but I chose to keep the exact ages of those heroines hidden. My characters get on with the story without bumping into those age stereotypes or jokes. Age is a characteristic of my leads, not an attribute that defines them.
Is it so hard to tell a tale without having arrows constantly pointing to the chronological age? No, it’s not. Stories unfold and develop with all kinds of characteristics becoming an unnecessary factor to the story-telling. When a story is well-written and executed, age, like a character’s eye color, fades into the background; we no longer notice the bright blue eyes, unless they are bright blue for some very important reason that impacts the story. What do you think?
Am I miles off base? Is age REALLY that important to tell a story?