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Trickle Down Celebrity Ageism

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“There aren't that many good roles for women over 40,” said 43-year-old Demi Moore a few months ago. “A lot of them don't have much substance, other than being someone's mother or wife. If we are told we are not valuable once we hit 30, it is a problem. We all have more to give…We can't just wait for something to happen. We have to say, ‘I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it any more.’”
- MSNBC.com, 14 September 2007

At 49, Madonna is feeling the professional age pinch too:

"Not only does society suffer from racism and sexism but it also suffers from ageism. Once you reach a certain age you're not allowed to be adventurous, you're not allowed to be sexual. I mean, is there a rule? Are you supposed to just die?"
- contactmusic.com, 12 October 2007

It’s not just women stars. 70-year-old Dustin Hoffman is forsaking Hollywood for the same reason:

"I might get the father who's dying or an Alzheimer's part. That's why I don't work that much and why I want to work in Europe right now. I have a much better shot at my age of getting a lead role. No one writes leads for people my age unless you're a signature actor who carries a gun and has a little more longevity."
- kcjb910.com, 10 October 2007

At their personal level, I’m not inclined to pay much attention to multi-millionaire celebrities who moan about their lack of work. Unlike “real people” who are victims of age discrimination, they won’t lose their homes and health coverage and unless they are extravagantly profligate, they won’t spend their old age in penury as a result of lost jobs.

But their mid- and late-life career crises are important to the rest of us because media – movies, television, music, the supermarket tabloids – bombard us with visions of gloriously gorgeous youth, excluding age from our collective, public consciousness.

The trickle-down theory may have lost its influence in economics, but it works quite nicely in perpetuating ageism. When aging media stars disappear from view, so do aging workers in other fields. When no one sees old people, they become the “other”, unknown, strange, feared - and not hired.

The problem of ageism in the entertainment industry begins, in large part, with age discrimination against writers. In recent years, there have been several lawsuits against production companies that jettison the people - when they reach 40 or so - who create the stories and characters that entertain us. And young writers, having grown up in a profoundly ageist society where most portrayals of old people are negative, are not capable of imagining old age in any other way. They write – as the adage instructs us – about what they know, and what they know about old people is what their own media have taught them – illness, incapacity, incontinence.

The exceptions of such celebrities as Judi Dench, Maggie Smith and Tony Bennett who manage to keep finding good work into their 70s and 80s are just that, exceptions and even they are too often victims of the “still syndrome” that infects many who write about old people: “Isn’t it amazing that she is still going strong at her age” or “He proved that he can still thrill a crowd.”

It is mostly the media that perpetuate ageism and which can do the most to change the common misperceptions about old people. But they do not and I haven’t the slightest idea how to change that. However, until it does change, ageism will continue to trickle down from celebrities to the rest of us.

We should keep our eye on Dustin Hoffman and if Europe works out for him, we can consider joining him there.

[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Mage Bailey gives us her take on the importance of the right shoes as we get older in What Did You Give Up?]


Comments

As a related point, let's remember to read, write, and promote writing by, for, and about elders: realistic, sympathetic writing, that is. When I find a book fitting that image, I always write a review of it on one of my blogs. Perhaps we elderbloggers can eventually help change those negative attitudes toward us.

Marlys Styne (Seniorwriter)

You're right, it is a circular problem: no role models, no roles (and equivalent).
I like Marlys' idea of reviewing relevant books in her blog. I've always been a fan of writer Marge Piercy, not least for the diversity of her characters, including older people, women especially, and would love to see some of her books made into films.
One day perhaps books with older characters won't stand out in our minds because they are just normal.

One reason I went back to uni at 30, was after working as a secretary for 13 years, I saw too many women get older in the office, and given way more work than the younger, sexy ones. I watched a woman get fired for being overweight as well as older. Another one was fully supporting her husband who had lost his eyesight at work. The bosses all knew she had to work, so they gave her all the crappiest jobs, and she had to do them. I think we need to fight this age issue very
hard, and with so many boomers out there, will THEY accept it? They pushed for so many other things. Maybe they haven't had the full force smack in the face of it yet. Where have all the Abbie Hoffman's gone?

Maybe another difference is that Demi Moore and Madonna have never done any exceptional acting (or singing) and Judi Dench and Maggie Smith have. I'm not saying there isn't a horrible level of ageism in Hollywood; it is probably rampant. But, where as your two choices of American actors might be considered to have played key roles in promoting trendy, cutting edge youthful images for the last twenty years of their lives, the two British Dames have not. They've just invested an enormous amount of time and talent in working at what they are good at.

Interesting thoughts and your commenters were good also. It's a weird thing that we worship at this youth cult when with a woman, her greatest beauty doesn't come until she's in her mid-30s, and it sure doesn't' disappear by 40 something-- unless she's turned her face into a mask in trying to look 20 again. With men, it's even later that they come into their real power. A face with lines, with character, is far more interesting than a smooth blob which is usually what it is in the early 20s.

As you say when all the advertising images, or most, imply the only good place to be is in your 20s and likewise heroes and heroines in films are kids, sometimes laughably presented as having advanced degrees and being serious scientists, it does lead a country to think only youth has value. It's nuts but then so much of what is being propagated on us today is nuts.

I have hope. We are living on the edge of a new age, and although many of us may not live to see great change, it will be of necessity that aging will be redefined. In a few short years 20 percent of Americans will be 65 and older, a vast resource of skill and experience that will not remain as underutilized as it is today. There is no way such a large segment of any society can be both supported and ignored. It will be up to the aging to redefine themselves and reinforce one another.

The trap is in this well known maxim of social psychology:

What we think about people influences how we will perceive them; how we perceive them influences how we will behave towards them; and how we behave towards them ultimately shapes who they are. In other words, society’s attitudes toward elders becomes elder’s attitudes toward themselves. THIS HAS TO END.

Bravo to you, Ronni, for addressing this subject.
As an author, I can most definitely attest to the fact that THIS is very true in the writing/publishing industry as well. My current manuscript just won First Place for the Royal Palm Literary award at the Florida Writers Conference. It's a good story. A damn good story and I know it.
However, all this year when I've submitted queries to agents, I get back wonderful rejection letters and almost all of them say, "But your main character is 52. I'm afraid this isn't right for us at the present time."
TRUST me.....even the publishing industry wants the 20-something in stilettos, sipping lattes, sleeping around, like Sex in the City.
It's been very difficult to make them see that women over the age of 50 DO still have sex, and not only partake, but many still enjoy it. Many women in that age group may actually finally figure out what, exactly, love is all about. Many in that age group have so much to contribute and offer to a community and family. And most of all, after age 50 a woman finally begins to know and understand exactly who SHE is.
But....it's very difficult to get agents and publishers to see this. Even though I'm told constantly by somebody over age 50 that THIS is the kind of book they'd like to read and it's this age group with the most disposable income.
So oh YEAH....there's ageism everywhere.

Hee hee. "43-year-old Demi Moore," is actually 45 at least, maybe older. I notice all the stars around my age are getting younger than me, somehow.

I have noticed the same thing as Terri in submitting queries. The agents who are accepting queries are the newer, younger ones. The nonfiction topic list rarely, if ever, includes aging. The heroine of my book is even older than Terri's: 96!!

Together, perhaps we boomers can turn this regrettable situation around ....

Rabon states what I, too, believe and have written before about what we think influencing perception etc. Some sort of intervention anywhere along that process to break the sequence can make a difference effecting some individuals.

I think it's one thing to talk about this, since awareness must precede the possibility of change. But, I think we need to continue bringing undesired language to the attention of those who use it in any form where we encounter it. This requires effort on our part.

Changing societal attitudes is likely a slow gradual process and my not occur in our life time. But it will never occur unless we start the process. Somebody has to do it. I've challenged a few by letter and otherwise, received some indication thought processes may have been stimulated. The more of us to do so, the better the odds for bringing the change we want.

Patience, perseverance, Ronni

At a party last week I was excited to hear that a new Indiana Jones is coming out in the spring, starring Harrison Ford. I was the youngest person in the group (I'm 58) but they were all saying Harrison Ford is too old to play this role. It seems there are many Elders who contribute to ageism.

As most of you know I suffered from a double whammy; I was deaf and old. As such, I was patronized, talked down to, looked at with sympathy as 'that poor old woman who suffers from dementia'. And this happened to me from well meaning but misguided good friends. Rabon is right; eventually you begin to believe that you are that person. It will be interesting to see if this changes when my hearing is fully restored.

Come on over!

Yes, Dustin is doing some neat commercials for a department store here in Sweden, anyway. Goldie Hawn, too.

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