"Don't Make Me Old" - Ageism in the media
"Don't Make Me Old" - Ageism in the media
The BRIT awards 2015 will be remembered in years to come, not as the show where she made her come back, but when the world sat with open mouths and witnessed, in shocking real time, Madonna fall over on stage. A Twitter storm blew up, mocking the event, not helped by the lyrics of Madonna’s song ‘Living For Love’ which includes the lines; ‘watch me stumble.’ Madonna responded to the event in an interview with Rolling Stone magazine. Her response was cutting as she compared the ageism leveled against her to homophobia and racism.
The Queen of Pop said:
‘It’s like the one area where you can totally discriminate against somebody and talk sh*t. Because of their age. Only females, though. Not males. […] No one would dare to say a degrading remark about being black or dare to say a degrading remark on Instagram about someone being gay. But my age – anybody and everybody would say something degrading to me.’
Yoko Ono turned 82 in February. To celebrate, she addressed a letter to critics who thought that an octogenarian should not be making music or dancing in hot pants in her music videos. She wrote ‘I don’t want to be old and sick like many others of my age. Please don’t create another old person.’ Ono’s is a plea to society to let her create what makes her happy, not what society expects an 82-year-old woman to be doing. In asking society to not make her old, Ono highlights the fact that as a society, we are quick to define people in terms of their age and to let that become the most important thing about them.
Additionally, Dame Kristin Scott Thomas joined the debate by saying that ageism is a ‘disaster’. In an interview, Scott Thomas said, ‘I won’t bore you with all the stories of older women not getting jobs in film because it’s so boring… Because it’s never going to change... Until the average life-span is 150 years or something, I don’t think women in their 50s are going to be considered at all viable.’
To me, all three statements are deeply saddening. They echo the sentiment that once a woman reaches a certain age then her use to society declines. This is an issue which seems to affect mainly women. Men are allowed to age. The 'silver fox' is a very real phenomenon that is admired and sought-after. Iggy Pop, 67, often performs shirtless but is more often slated for his insurance adverts than for exposing his body. Tony Bennett is commended for still touring at 88. If they were women, they would be slated by the media and the public alike and told that this is not their place.
Madonna said to Rolling Stone that ‘women, generally, when they reach a certain age, have accepted that they’re not allowed to behave in a certain way.’ This is the result of specific societal conditioning which occurs subconsciously throughout our lives. Society teaches women to go to school, get an education, than get a job, after that get married and finally to have children. Having children is the end; there is no expectation for a woman after she has reproduced, she has reached the climax of her life and there is nothing left for her to achieve, apart from being gracious in growing old.
It would be easy to blame the perpetuation of this cycle on men, but I believe that women are as culpable, if not more. Women’s magazines regularly mock women for getting older. Indeed, a whole sector within journalism seems to be devoted to making women feel bad about the way that they look. Women are expected to remain young forever, which is obviously totally unrealistic, yet when a woman tries to combat these mocking jibes, for example by having plastic surgery, she is vilified for making an attempt to regain her youth (see Renée Zellweger and Uma Thurman).
Once women cease to be deemed sexually desirable then they are of no use to society and are not held in high esteem or favour. Women are systematically favoured or disfavoured on the basis of their looks alone. This is where the social construction of the ‘cougar’ comes into play, that of the older, predatory woman seeking out a younger male partner. The concept of the ‘cougar’ is fundamentally flawed as the idea is still about women who look good. ‘Cougars’ rarely show signs of ageing and, like the whole MILF fantasy, praise women who have retained their youthful looks. The focus is not on older women achieving the same as a younger women, it is about the sexuality of a woman which is acceptable because the woman is attractive. My case in point is Sam Taylor-Johnson who was largely slated by the media when she started dating her now husband, Aaron Johnson, when he was 19 and she was 42. Was this because she was not deemed attractive enough for the teen heartthrob or was it the age gap, which the cougar culture seems to advocate for, when in reality it demonises those that fit it’s mould.
Indeed, it is the young that are the harshest critics of age. This is normal , and quite because for young people, the idea of getting old is terrifying. I am dreading the day that I no longer get asked for my ID when buying alcohol, let alone when I start to get grey hairs. That is because youth is arrogant; it’s strong and it’s powerful. It’s comforting to ridicule age as age is synonymous with degeneration. It’s easier to mock those older than us than to admit that one day we will be them. We are unable to empathise as we lack the experience of being old and so are very quick to find fault in those older rather than to celebrate them.
Ageing as a fact of life, but like race, gender, or sexuality, it should not be a defining feature of someone, or determine how successful they are. Ageism is another battleground in the fight for equality. We should rejoice in people of all ages and celebrate their talents.
In her letter, Ono stated that she is afraid ‘that those ageism criticism [sic] will finally influence me … Because dancing in the middle of an ageism society is a lonely trip.’ It might seem that way, but with people living longer and Madonna by your side, back up, dancing and singing live five seconds after falling over on British National television, despite getting whiplash from the accident, it might not be quite the long haul that we expect it to be.
Madeleine is a final year student at the University of Exeter studying BA English with proficiency in French who has developed her writing and editing through her involvement with Her Campus Exeter. In her free time, Madeleine loves discovering new music in preparation for the UK festival season and searching for opportunities which can broaden her horizons, most recently this was volunteering as a teacher in Beijing, China, where she was immersed in Chinese culture and tradition. There are few things in this world that bring Madeleine more joy than glitter, velvet and sequins and her ideal dinner party guests would be Queen Elizabeth I, George Orwell and Taylor Swift. Currently, with graduation looming, Madeleine is exploring the idea of taking time out to travel the world on a shoe string before embarking upon a career in international humanitarian aid.