Monday, February 27, 2012

Women, Aging, and Ageism

As a part of Women in Society, each student is required to conduct two interviews with two women of different generations. The interviews must share in common a specific focus; something based on one of the fourteen topics of study we've covered thus far in the course.

Last week I was struggling with which topic I'd choose as a focus, but after engaging in class-time related to our most recent topic - women in midlife and aging - I'm feeling good about the interviews.

Here are some thoughts gathered from my readings related to women, aging and ageism:

Historically, women's value has been based mainly on reproductive ability. Whereas in contrast, men's status could be attributed to achievements, money, or power. Because women are evaluated throughout their lifetimes by their bodies, it can be particularly frustrating and challenging for women to live in an aging body.

Messages in our society suggest that being old is a negative experience, from jokes to media portrayals. Women are no longer sexual past a certain age, and when they are portrayed as such, it is seen as a humorous because it deviates from the perceived norm of what it means to be elderly.

Traditionally all forms of mass media excluded older women, and when they were portrayed, they were stereotyped as an evil mother-in-law (Sex and the City's Bunny, + a smattering of Disney characters), a manipulative and selfish elderly mother (The Sopranos' Livia), or a powerless "little old lady". Even more recent portrayals of older women in media, like Hot in Cleveland, still utilize comedy in order to portray older women's sexuality and lifestyle choices which differ from the perceived norm; these things are not normative enough to portray as simply something that just happens (like a non-comedic sex scene between younger folks).

The effects of negative stereotypes concerning elderly folks have been seen in studies. Hausdorff, Levy, & Wei's (1999) study displayed such effects. Participants with ages ranging from sixty-three to eighty-two played a video game which exposed them to either positive or negative stereotypes about elderly folks. Before and after the game, their speed and manner of walking was measured. Those who played the games with positive stereotypes walked faster and more energetically, "suggesting that the slower gait of older people may be partly due to internalized stereotypes and not entirely to the physical changes of aging".

Women often engage in creating distinctions between self identities (subjective feelings of age) and social identities (the manner in which she appears to others) because to emphasize distance between oneself and the "typical" elderly person creates distance between the perceived self and the concept of the deteriorating and decrepit elderly member of society.

But what does it mean to feel a certain age? And why are we so afraid of growing old?

We watched a movie in class, Acting our Age, which presented a number of women's perspectives on growing older. One woman in particular said something about how folks will say to her, as a compliment, "oh, you look great for seventy-five!", because implicitly, in our society, it is something of a misfortune to look old.

But! Why? Why is it so terrifying to claim age, to embrace wrinkles, to get rid of the medicalization of menopause, and to stop fighting a war against our bodies and the naturally occurring biological process of aging?

Acting our Age portrayed many women's concerns about taking care of husbands, husbands or friends dying, or reclaiming identity at an older age. However, as a classmate of mine pointed out, only one woman in the film suggested fear of her own death, and only in the context of having realized her own mortality following the death of a friend. So as a society we're afraid of and repulsed by growing older, and yet possibly the scariest aspect of growing older, the inevitability of death, is not clearly present to most folks?

There are so many topics regarding elderly folks and plights within society, I could type words about it forever. But I will not, and am instead just really excited to interview two women about their experiences with aging and ageism.

I know that I've posted a link to this previously, but I really enjoyed Young@Heart, a film watched during my COPACE (On Death & Dying) course last semester.

So, click here to see the Young@Heart Chorus' version of the Talking Head's "Road to Nowhere". It's swell.

1 comment:

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