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 warrior, father, and sage; and women as maiden, mother, and crone.
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)?
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.
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.