Gendered ageism: ‘I’m such a grandma’ and other stories

Saga Jaubert graduated from King’s in 2020 with a degree in War Studies and History, and is now studying for a Masters in Public Affairs at Sciences Po Paris. She is interested in international affairs as well as feminist issues, and how they manifest in everyday life.

It is not rare, when hearing about a friend’s weekend that consisted of tea-drinking and staying at home, for them to say with an ill-concealed tone of derision: ‘I’m such a grandma’. While such dramatic statements about one’s social life as a young adult are surely tied to the infamous FOMO most of us experience, it highlights the strict dichotomy that exists in Western society between the young and the old, seemingly dividing our life cycle into two, impermeable chapters. 

Heavy tea-drinking is far from being the only characteristic attributed to old age. In fact, the usual labels of ‘slow’, ‘boring’, ‘dependent’, and ‘old-fashioned’ are exacerbated in the current societal climate, in which the elderly and their outdated political opinions are held responsible for everything ranging from kitschy interior design to Brexit and the climate crisis. The bitter grandparent cliché – with whom politics must be avoided at the dinner table, who thinks feminism does not have a valid raison d’être, and who never quite gets the hang of their email inbox – is the bullseye target of the ‘ok boomer’ trend. Western society has fallen victim to an ageist discursive battle that casts young and old as two antagonistic concepts that view each other with mutual suspicion and disdain. Coined by American gerontologist Robert Neil Butler in 1969, ageism is ‘the prejudice that results from the misconceptions and myths about old people that depict them as senile, unattractive, asexual, sick, and dependent’: they are not defined by what they are, but by what they no longer are. [1] Ageist opinions and prejudice are widespread in the workplace and in the medical sector, but their effects and repercussions vary depending on the other social categories an individual might belong to. 

The ageist discourse rests on the assumption that old people take up too much time and space in society; but gender brings a new layer of complexity to the discussion, first and foremost when it comes to the perception of the female body. Anything that no longer resembles the youthful, vigorous body of a twenty-something-year-old is deemed unattractive and a sign of a woman ‘letting herself go’. As hair colour fades, wrinkles appear, and the effects of gravity on the body become evident, a feeling of dread settles in at the thought of gradually becoming undesirable in the eyes of society. Consequently, substantial efforts are deployed to cover any attributes of age, conceal the passing of time, and uphold an illusion of youth. In 2017, 69% of women in the United Kingdom dyed their hair. [2] Women’s use of cosmetics and hair dye to ‘pass’ as younger than they are reflects not only a wish to preserve their beauty and attractiveness but also an urge to avoid social devaluation. 

Men, on the other hand, appear to enjoy a space-time distortion of their own. Perhaps best described as the ‘George Clooney Effect’, the human male seems to age according to an entirely different timeline than his female counterpart: past the age of forty, he sheds his skin to be reborn as a wiser, more attractive, and sophisticated gentleman. A plethora of flattering sayings such as ‘men age like fine wine’ or the term ‘silver fox’ suggest that society attributes greater moral virtue and distinction to men as they grow older. 

Women are generally not granted such sympathy. The fear of inevitably becoming invisible does not spring out of thin air but is fuelled by various triggers, such as the media we consume. In the fashion industry, older women are markedly excluded from ads and magazines that seek to target the younger generations, even though women over 40 make up most of their readership. [3] That very age group is also snubbed by Hollywood, as older actresses struggle to find parts that break away from the ‘evil step-mother’ repertoire and provide interesting, complex – and most importantly, relatable – character development. In fact, a new horror subgenre called ‘hagsploitation’ emerged in the 1960s, featuring previously elegant and glamorous female characters who had turned into terrifying, mentally unbalanced women (with a series of delightfully interrogative titles such as What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice? (1969), Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? (1971), and What’s the Matter with Helen? (1971)). While actresses are speaking up about ageist gender discrimination and works such as Mare of Easttown and Nomadland have garnered stellar acclaim, they point to the lack of representation of women over the age of forty on our television screens. 

Gendered ageism does not harm older women only. For many women, it takes the shape of a gradual crescendo of dread as the candles line up on the birthday cake. Social and cultural expectations revolving around age bring a sense of urgency to a woman’s life. For example, the different labels attached to motherhood and fatherhood bring to light profoundly gendered and ageist perspectives. Following the birth of her child, a mother often seeks to construct a new identity for herself, both as a mother and as a woman. Societal discourses on the matter, however, tend to present these two identities as mutually exclusive: a columnist in the Irish Times recalled how hurtful it was to hear someone say ‘but you don’t look like a mom!’. [4] While fatherhood seems to grant men an endearing tenderness – i.e., the aura of a middle-aged Colin Firth in a turtleneck –, motherhood is not necessarily viewed as an additional layer to an already complex identity, but rather as an all-encompassing label that merges all your previous personality traits into one. Menopause is another inevitable deadline to which women must comply, an ‘expiration date’ by which you are no longer a child-bearer and your perceived value in society decreases. Ageism therefore clearly demarcates the duration of each phase in a woman’s life, during which her status and identity as a woman shifts considerably. Granted, the sense of urgency to live our lives to the fullest before our age catches up with us is certainly a feeling shared both by men and women; but I’ve rarely heard male friends share their concerns about raising cats alone.

I found a white hair the other day. Not grey, but a single, lonely white hair among its otherwise not so white counterparts. I immediately jumped to conclusions: did I involuntarily skip a couple of steps in the ageing process? Once the irrational fear of turning into a Dumbledore look-alike at the tender age of 21 subsided, I started looking around. My daily subway ride was spent paying closer attention to my fellow commuters’ hair colours. Much to my surprise, I encountered many grey strands of hair. Some were scattered across the head, growing timidly as black fades into grey. Others formed a united front in linear formation, progressing south from the roots and gradually forcing the dyed hair strands to surrender. I even spotted the occasional glorious silver mane. It made me think of my paternal grandmother and how I never saw her natural hair colour before she died: for a long time, I did not even question the fact that her hair could be anything else than bright red. It spurred a broader concern about whether I had kept my own ageist prejudices in check. Why did I act so surprised when an older colleague at work spoke with great fondness of a party she and her friends had a couple of weeks ago? After all, why wouldn’t they have a nice time with their loved ones? 

The tendency to invalidate and question older women’s experiences reveals how deeply ingrained their characterisation as boring, inactive, and invisible is in Western society. In fact, it could be argued that the feminist movement, and especially white feminism, has often excluded older women from its discourse and rhetoric. The feminist icon of the young, liberated woman (most likely from a bourgeois background) serves as yet another model to which many cannot relate, ultimately producing more division than cohesion. Adding age into the feminist equation enables the movement to cater for a larger audience and adopt a more intersectional approach – and who knows, maybe change the way we perceive and talk about growing older. After all, ageing is not necessarily decline.

Sources

1] Katherine R. Allen and Karen A. Roberto, ‘From Sexism to Sexy: Challenging Young Adults’ Ageism About Older Women’s Sexuality’, Sexuality Research & Social Policy, vol.6 no.4 (2006), pp.13-24. 

[2] Vanessa Cecil, Louise F. Pendry, Jessica Salvatore, Hazel Mycroft, and Tim Kurz, ‘Gendered ageism and gray hair: must older women choose between feeling authentic and looking competent?’, Journal of Women & Aging (2021), pp.1-16.

[3] Denise C. Lewis, Katalin Medvedev, Desiree M. Seponski, ‘Awakening to the desires of older women: Deconstructing ageism within fashion magazines’, Journal of Aging Studies, vol.25 (2011), pp.101-109.

[4] Edel Coffey, ‘Is motherhood the place where sexiness goes to die?’, The Irish Times, 8 September 2021.  

[Image: The Three Ages of Woman, Gustav Klimt (1905)]

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