Ageism is defined in part by Robert Butler who coined the term in 1969, as the “systematic stereotyping of and discrimination against people because they are old.” It is every bit as wrong and demeaning as racism and sexism, but is so deeply ingrained in American culture that it is perpetrated with impunity every day in the media and hardly anyone objects.
Catching up on my magazine reading on an airplane yesterday, this short book review, written by Barbara Kantrowitz in the “Snap Judgment” section of Newsweek, snapped me to attention. In its entirety, it reads:
Confessions of a Bigamist, by Kate Lehrer
You’ve got to feel a little bit of sympathy for Michelle Banyon, Lehrer’s 47-year-old heroine. She’s torn between two lovers: her high-powered Manhattan husband and a passionate Texas naturalist she meets when she literally runs him over and then nurses him back to health. Who will she choose? The title’s a hint. Her romantic juggling act is a middle-aged woman’s fantasy tale – hardly realistic, but a great escape.
That is the kind of “systematic stereotyping” Butler is referring to. In fact, Ms. Kantrowitz delivers a twofer with this bigoted review – ageism and sexism.
Imagine her review just as it is but with the protagonist of the book a 47-year-old man instead of woman, and substitute the male adjective and noun in the final sentence of the review so it would read:
“His romantic juggling act is a middle-aged man’s fantasy tale – hardly realistic…”
Oh, yeah? Tell that to Harrison Ford, Sean Connery and a slew of 60-plus movie idols. Of course, Ms. Kantrowitz would never write such a sentence about a man. But in her blind age prejudice – which holds in most of the media – no woman who has reached the advanced age of 47 could possibly be attractive, smart and sexy enough to inspire the romantic interest of one man, let alone two.
This kind of casual ageism enrages me, reinforcing the already deeply embedded belief that any woman older than 25 is ugly, unattractive and sexless. It is a lie, repeated every day in hundreds of ways as small and seemingly innocuous as this one, and no one questions it.