• Whatever happened to that lady called Grandma?

    by  • January 19, 2013 • Blog • 7 Comments

    A few nights ago, I went to the Women’s Parliamentary Labour Party evening at the House of Commons for women in the press and media. On the agenda were two main topics: Labour’s campaign against domestic violence (including One Billion Rising), and Labour’s relatively new Commission on Older Women. Being already involved in the OBR campaign, what I left thinking most that night were the frustrations of older women.

    Yvette Cooper (MP, Labour’s Shadow Minister for Women and Equalities) gave an update on Labour’s latest developments, citing the alarming rate of disappearing older women in media and public life, and noting some bemusing preconceptions on the life stages of men and women. Her comments made me recall a primitive three-stage life archetype that has appeared across many (often patriarchal) cultures for many ages—that of men as warriorfather, and sage; and women as maidenmother, and crone.

    William Blake and good Ol’ Hecate.

    Apparently men and women make a complimentary pair—until things get hairy at the end when older women suddenly veer from sager paths into burdensome old cronehood. Crone is an ambiguously good or bad term (the way a witch can actually be “good”), but the prejudice over centuries of late remains apparent (the way a witch is still a witch). Etymology nerds take note, crone derives from the Anglo-French carogne, meaning “an insult”, which in turn derives from Old North French caroigne, meaning “a disagreeable woman”—or more literally “carrion”.  Thus in the linguistic weaponry of a cultural battlefield, old women appear to be little more than dead meat.

    This little divergence between sages and crones got me thinking about a not-so-little American show of late: Modern Family—the hugely popular, Emmy award-winning, thorn in my side for some time now. Entering its fourth year, the show wins plaudits for its diverse depiction of three “modern families”: a gay couple with an adopted Asian daughter, a straight couple with three kids, and a multi-racial family featuring family patriarch Jay Pritchett and his new Hispanic wife and stepson. But the show also has its criticisms. Despite the fact that women make up 47% of the US workforce, and 70% of US moms are working or looking for work, the show does not include any working women, only stay-at-home moms.

    Add to those gripes my own personal pet peeve: the show’s glaring omission of a main, older female character. While family sage and patriarch Jay Pritchett (played by sexagenarian Ed O’Neill) gets to dispense his pearls of wisdom at the end of each show, Pritchett’s ex-wife and family matriarch, DeDe Pritchett, has been essentially written out of the family. She only appears in a few episodes (played by sexagenarian Shelley Long), and is portrayed as a borderline mentally unstable, manipulative, and aggressive nuisance. Reduced to little more than a cheap joke, DeDe Pritchett is quite literally an old crone with no real place in the family unit other than haunting and torturing everyone from afar.

    And that bothers me. I can’t help noticing how easily DeDe and Jay fit that primitive sage vs. crone blueprint. And wondering what the implicit message is about older women in modern society. Is it that you can be gay, straight, young, or old, a bread-winner, a homemaker, white, or ethnic—anything really—as long as you’re not a woman and old at the same time (if you still want to be in the family album that is)?

    Whatever happened to that lady called Grandma?

    Thorns aside, the show is great. It’s funny, and warm, and fresh. Its mockumentary style is perfectly apropos to our modern facebook/twitter-generated habits of obsessive, self-interrogating exposition. Millions of viewers tune in, making it one of America’s top-rated primetime shows. But that’s what’s also worrying. Popular shows seep into the public consciousness and affect our fabric of norms, whether intentional or not.

    It’s been theorized that popular media helped prep America for Obama’s presidency. Might the race have been tighter without Dennis Haysbert’s elegant portrayal of a black President in the hit series 24? Was it also coincidence that Denmark elected its first female prime minister just after the hit international debut of a series about a Danish female prime minister (Borgen)? Or, had Commander in Chief, featuring a 50 year-old Geena Davis, not been cancelled after one season in 2006, might we be looking at a second Clinton term right now? The cause and effects here are hard to quantify, but such shows appear to be a rough and handy litmus test for public perceptions at least.

    So, if hit shows are harbingers of things to come, what’s in store for older women when popular television routinely omits (and/or vilifies) them? Do they simply disappear from real life as well? America’s older demographic is certainly facing tough times right now. Since the 2007 recession, unemployment for Americans age 55 and over has already doubled, with the Senate Special Committee on Aging having to hold special hearings to address what’s fast becoming a national problem. For older women, things appear to be getting worse. In New York City, women aged 55 to 64 who lost their jobs remained out of work longer than any other demographic group in 2011.

    UK women face similar issues. Unemployment for women aged 50 to 64 rose nearly 40% over the past two years (compared to just 5% for over 16s). Reports also shows unemployment in that age group has fallen by 1% for men, but risen by 16% among women.

    Crazy things old crones used to get up to: Making up committees like the National Woman Suffrage Association.

    Shrinking visibility of older women in media and public life can’t be helping. Miriam O’Reilly’s 2011 landmark win against the BBC for age discrimination was a boon for older women everywhere, but a BBC-commissioned survey last year still reported a failure to put enough older women onscreen. The Labour Party’s Commission on Older Women is a much-needed step for making sure those affected women remain visible and heard.

    Thinking of O’Reilly, who will sit on the Commission for Older Women, it occurs to me that whoever twisted the connotations of crone in that maiden, mother, crone triumvirate must have had original designs on a two-act playbill for womanhood. Perhaps only engendering that new slant when older women like O’Reilly simply refused to disappear. But as an outdated, simplistic summary of women in modern times, it’s this misperception of a woman’s later years that really needs a disappearing act. At the Women’s PLP press night I saw every stage of womanhood there—mothers and maidens, but also warriors and movers, mentors and motivators, and yes, crones—wise, sage, lively, and visibly so—and not a bit of carrion in sight.

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    Amber Hsu is a scribbler and maker. She is part of Restless Buddha Productions. All opinions are--thankfully for anyone involved--her own. You can also find her on the about Restless Buddha page or on twitter @amberhsu.


    7 Responses to Whatever happened to that lady called Grandma?

    1. JJ
      January 19, 2013 at 2:22 pm

      Thoughtful article and great insight on how media continues to explicitly and implicitly perpetuate these archetypes.

    2. Gerald McCarthy
      January 20, 2013 at 8:03 pm

      As I live in the UK, I’ve never heard of Modern Family before, though now I’ve Googled it and watched parts of a couple of episodes, so I’ve got the flavour…. It seems that all the critics love it and it’s been slated for awards all over the place. I’m afraid I won’t be watching more. No surprise that Fox have bought it. The stuff to camera reminds me of Burns and Allen and Oliver Hardy…. but there the similarity ends.

      It does seem horribly stereotypical. In the UK, the Cameron Government and its acolytes have been busy rolling back so many of the gains made by women, disabled people and other disadvantaged groups, staunchly supported by the traditional right who dominate our media. Disadvantaged people are widely presented as scroungers, rather than victims. Its sad, but not surprising, to see that the US under Obama, is having the same… brainwashing .

      Crone…. an intreresting word. Is it still in use? I can’t recall hearing anyone use it in general conversation. By the way, I think midwives were called “birthing crones” at one time – and that was a term of respect, so it’s not all bad. (I realise that isn’t the point!)

      • January 23, 2013 at 4:29 pm

        It really is a shame that groups are excluded because they are perceived to not be of interest or suffer already from negative stereotypes by the incumbent media which is partially just down to lazy storytelling and the need for “quick” attention grabbing media.
        As to the word crone, it isn’t much in use these days, perhaps b/c of it’s distinctly negative connotations. It might not have always been bad, but the sad fact is that if I look “crone” in the Oxford dictionary, the definition is: “an ugly old woman.” That’s a great shame b/c it’s often used as the feminine counterpart to a sage (“a profoundly wise man (esp in ancient history or legend)”
        Matron might be a more positive feminine equivalent but even that lacks the kind of intellectual and stately oomph that “sage” imparts. It seems that whenever there is a term for feminine intelligence + advancing years it falls into hideous hagdom by some kind of witchcraft…

    3. Jo
      January 21, 2013 at 3:12 am

      Hello, after reading this amazing paragraph i am as well cheerful to share my experience here with mates.

    4. January 21, 2013 at 6:51 am

      Outstandingly educative cheers, I am sure your visitors would possibly want more writing similar to this maintain the wonderful work.

    5. D Turoun
      January 21, 2013 at 11:18 am

      Love to see more by this author- article was v funny and liked the etymology.

    6. damo
      January 23, 2013 at 12:27 pm

      Would be good to see more shows which challenge stereotypes rather than perpetuate them.

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