‘Isms’—like racism, sexism, ageism—single out, judge, victimise, oppress, and change lives. I am prone to single out ageism and sexism as forms of judgement and oppression, particularly because I write fiction with female protagonists over the age of 40 in a genre where the majority of female leads—or romance heroines as the genre prefers to call them—are aged in their 20s. There’s been lots of discussion about representation, and why representation matters, but the discussion often fails to include age as a necessary part of representation. I find this frustrating because ageism is the equal opportunity ism that intersects race, ethnicity, gender identity, religion, sexuality. I have suggested that ageism, the ‘last socially acceptable ism’, could be viewed as a learning tool; it’s the one prejudice that humans can, and most likely will, experience at some point in their lifetime. Why does ageism sit on the periphery of representation?
The intersectionality of ageism could be key to opening eyes to what it is like to be judged, victimised, oppressed, and excluded, but the tricky thing is how ageism hits women harder than men. So much harder. That wallop is evident in how we treat women over 40. While men aged 40+ are allowed to be heroes and silver foxes, women of the same age are turned into stereotypes, shoved to side lines, or rendered invisible in advertising, film and fiction. And, as they say in advertising, but wait, there’s more! Add racism to the sexist double standard of ageing and women of colour are walloped even harder. Studies show that, thanks to ingrained ageism and systemic racism, in their later years Black women in the US have the highest rates of poverty, the lowest incomes, as well as the most severe health disparities.
Worse than how ageism crosses race, ethnicity, gender identity, religion, and sexuality, is the fact that (like teaching someone to hate), ageism and ageist practice begins in childhood and spans a lifetime across the continuum of all the other isms. One can almost say, “Everybody’s ageist” because ageism is entrenched in our language, in widely accepted expressions that subtly influence our idea of age and ageing, usually in a negative light. Geezer, coot, little old lady, cougar, grumpy old man, dried up hag, you look good ‘for your age’ are all familiar terms we use on a regular basis without giving them any thought. Dr Andrea Charise, notes that the metaphors, words, and images, such as the above expressions, as well as emoticons and short-hand symbols that portray older people hunched over with walkers or canes, are actually dehumanising and dangerous phrases and images that we have been unconsciously conditioned to recognise and use from an early age. We have been taught to deny ourselves a positive, vibrant future.
You may wonder what you can do about this.
First, think about how you see ageing. Think about if you buy into the notion that ageing is something you have to fight tooth and nail. Think about how ageing is too often portrayed as a disease, as decline, as a future fraught with loneliness and unhappiness. Think about the anti-aging advertising movement that is so aimed at women. While it’s wise to try to think before you speak, to choose your words with deliberation, it’s not something human beings are always capable of actually doing. The way we respond is often so quick and without much thought since we’ve been using ‘perfectly acceptable’ expressions since childhood. As a writer I have the time to think, sometimes long and hard, for weeks, or, because I don’t plot out a book, for months at a time. I can ponder ‘isms’ oppressing and changing lives. I can try to confront ageism the way many other writers are trying to confront racism and other isms in romance and other genres of fiction, even when the stories I write are part of the escapist In Service Series about an Irish, middle-aged female butler and the middle-aged British spy who loves her — I had to work in a book plug. I can challenge a publishing practice that has stated no one wants to read granny sex, that sees ageing characters as stereotypes, secondary characters, that sees women over 40 as mostly white, sexless grannies, as cougars, as anything but vibrant, intelligent, sensual, sexual whole human beings with a lifetime still to live. In my case, writing older female protagonists in a genre that favours youth challenges the ageism and sexism in in the industry, and fosters change for a better future—or rather it gives us the chance to see a future for ourselves — as middle aged Irish butlers, undercover FBI agents, house flippers, personal shoppers, and former race car drivers… Yes. I wrote those heroines.
We all age—living a long life is something many strive and hope for—however so much of our language around getting older indicates that the rest of life after 40 is nothing but decline. Remember this from The Power Of Words To Shape Culture, Instigate Change And Confront Ageism:
“Language matters. It can empower and inspire, but it can also insult, misrepresent and pigeonhole. Its detrimental effect can be long lasting and have life-changing consequences. Once an expression is ingrained in popular culture, it can be difficult (but not impossible) to erase. That’s why every word matters.”
Charise, A. (2020) Rising Tide, Grey Tsunami: Charting the History of a Dangerous Metaphor. http://canadiangeriatrics.ca/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/Rising-Tide-Grey-Tsunami-Charting-the-History-of-a-Dangerous-Metaphor.mp3
Ng, JH, Bierman, AS. Elliott, MN, Wilson, R. Chengfei. Xi, Hudson Scholle, S. (2014). Beyond Black and White: Race/Ethnicity and Health Status Among Older Adults. Am J Manag Care. 2014 Mar; 20(3): 239–248. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4474472/
Weinstein, F. (2020).The Power Of Words To Shape Culture, Instigate Change And Confront Ageism. June. https://www.youareunltd.com/2020/06/16/the-power-of-words-to-confront-ageism/
Economic Security for Seniors Facts. National Council on Aging. https://www.ncoa.org/news/resources-for-reporters/get-the-facts/economic-security-facts/
Older Women and Poverty. (2018). https://www.justiceinaging.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/Older-Women-and-Poverty.pdf