Growing Old



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Growing Old

Some of the Alternatives

  • Growing old as a man
  • vs.
  • Growing old as a woman
  • and
  • Growing old in a primitive culture
  • vs.
  • Growing old in a capitalistic society

Alleen: An Afghan Proverb

  • “If you see an old man, sit down and take a lesson. If you see an old woman, throw a stone.”
    • In my youthful naiveté—we were there between 1967 and 1969—I dismissed this as totally unrelated to me because surely as an American, I will never become “old” in the way of Afghan women with their missing teeth, grey hair, walking sticks, and general lack of health and beauty care. Besides I will make myself useful so that when I am old I will still be making a contribution.

Don’s Reaction

  • Looking at the male part of the proverb, I chose to think about the Afghan phrase “Safid riche,” which is a term of respect for a “white beard,” that is someone able to give “grandfatherly advice.”

Alleen’s Reaction

  • But then, I thought about my paternal grandmother, whose life in many ways was much like the lives of present day Afghan women.

Alleen: She never smiled in a picture because she was missing a tooth.

  • Alleen: She never smiled in a picture because she was missing a tooth.
  • She gave birth to ten children.
  • In effect, she was a single mother because her husband was out of town teaching school.
  • She never had running water or electricity in her house.
  • Yet she was a community leader and instrumental in founding the PTA in two rural Arizona counties.
  • Four of her five daughters graduated from college and had successful teaching and family careers.
  • What brought me up short, was that after we moved to Arizona, my father came to my 48th birthday party and sadly shared the fact that his mother died when she was my age, “and she was an old woman.”

Alleen Becomes a Feminist

  • I was so intrigued by all the evidences of sexism that I saw in Afghanistan that when we returned to the University of Michigan, I viewed myself as a feminist. However, the “real” feminists in 1970s Ann Arbor frightened me so much that I decided to study sexism in the dictionary rather than in real life.
  • I foolishly thought that I could study language without having to get involved in social issues.
  • But one of my first discoveries was that the contrasting American terms of “Grandfatherly advice” and “Old wives’ tales” send the same message as does the Afghan proverb.

Alleen: Sexism and Ageism

  • Alleen: Sexism and Ageism
  • Discovering that language and social issues are intimately connected was my first big surprise.
  • And now that I have lived with that surprise for something like 40 years, I have begun to observe some interesting connections that the language shows us between sexism and ageism.
  • Some of the revealed prejudices are against females of any age, but they are stronger when the target is old and so they are more obvious and recognizable as a prejudice.

  • Consider how most of the religions of the world promise an afterlife, a resurrection, or reincarnation.
  • And think of all the stories we have about Heaven and Hell.
  • And look at all the folk stories of the world that feature ghosts and communication with “the dead.”
  • Because we do not like to think about death and dying that we euphemize.
  • Don: Old Age and Death Are Serious Dilemmas for Both Males and Females

Don: The Search for Eternal Life is a Popular Theme even in Children’s Books

  • Rick Riordan’s books, as seen in the film, Percy and the Olympians, are filled with mythical creatures who illustrate many different versions of immortality.
  • In the Harry Potter books, Lord Voldemort (whose name means something like “Running from Death”) is a major character. The books revolve around him trying to gather up the seven parts of his soul that he has planted as Horcruxes (one of which is Harry).
  • One of the reasons Alleen is depressed by the success of Stephenie Meyers’ Twilight books is that Bella repeatedly tortures herself--and readers--by obsessing on the awfulness of her growing old while Edward (the vampire) will stay his beautiful and perfect 17-year-old body. She would rather give up her soul and become a vampire than grow old. The reason these same books depress me is that Edward is so “perfect” that as a male I could never compete with him.

Don: To Keep from Being Reminded of Death, We. . .

  • Illogically avoid calling someone old, and instead say they are older, elderly, or grandmotherly.
  • Refer to old people as seniors or senior citizens, who are living their golden years—not in old folks’ homes, but in assisted living or retirement communities.
  • Give such communities names like Sun City, Leisure World, Green Valley, and Golden Hills.
  • Instead of saying someone has died, we say the person has passed away, crossed over, or gone to join a loved one.

Don: Another example are the jokes based on General Douglas MacArthur’s response to being fired by President Eisenhower, “Old soldiers never die, they just fade away.”

  • Don: Another example are the jokes based on General Douglas MacArthur’s response to being fired by President Eisenhower, “Old soldiers never die, they just fade away.”
  • Old teachers never die; they just lose their principles.
  • Old athletes never die; they just lose their supporters.
  • Old robbers never die; they just steal away.
  • Old editors never quit, they just write away.
  • Old blondes never fade; they just dye away.

Alleen: But still there are differences in the attitudes that people express toward aging in females and males.

  • Alleen: But still there are differences in the attitudes that people express toward aging in females and males.
  • In relation to the question of whether women should be given the right to vote, Mark Twain remarked that it was a moot point because women would never give their age.
  • When our local legislature changed a law about drivers’ licenses, the Arizona Republic ran the story under the headline, “No longer a felony for women to lie about their age.”
  • Years ago when Gloria Steinem turned 40, the media made a big deal about it. She responded with something like, “Yes, I’m forty and this is what 40 looks like….If all women would be honest about their ages, people wouldn’t be so surprised.”

Alleen: Changing Attitudes

  • I’ve recently been encouraged to see a few women proudly making associations between themselves and concepts related to being old.
  • In September, when Barbara Boxer was conducting a Senate inquiry into a military matter and kept being addressed as Ma’m,” she asked them to address her as Senator rather than as Ma’m because she “had worked very hard to become a senator.”
  • Sandra Day O’Connor in a recent interview said that she thinks that a decision made by “a wise old man or a wise old woman” will be the same, but still it’s nice for the public to know that women are being included in decision making.

Don: Males Aspire to Adulthood While Females Cling to Youth.

  • Boy Scout leaders address 12-year-olds as “Men,” while 50-year-old exercise instructors address their 50-year old participants as “Girls.”
  • Black male teenagers address each other as “Man!while black teenage girls address each other as “Girl!” Women’s cosmetics are marketed under such names as Cover Girl and Breck Girl.
  • Mother-daughter look-alikes are often featured in advertisements and illustrations. Mothers are flattered to be mistaken as their daughter’s sister but fathers do not want to be mistaken as their son’s brother.

Alleen: How Healthy Is Our Present Emphasis on Body Image?

  • We have made progress since the early 1900s when H. L. Mencken declared that “Woman’s body is the woman,” and when “respectable” women had to be laced into tight corsets and hobbled by long skirts and petticoats.
  • But today’s commercialization of beauty products and procedures makes me feel like women—either young or old—are welcome in American society mainly because of how much money we will spend on non-basic items.
  • One of our doctoral students, Laura Walsh, just completed her dissertation in which she showed that in the most popular teen magazines for girls, the same body image is repeated over and over again.

Alleen: Women’s Body Image

  • Laura compared the image and the message in teen magazines to those in prize-winning, serious young adult novels by Laurie Halse Anderson. Her book Speak is about a girl who was traumatized by being raped and then ostracized for stopping a wild party. Her Wintergirls is a serious study of two teenage girls with anorexia.
  • Laura was shocked to find that virtually every girl pictured in the magazines she studied, whether in an advertisement or in an article, had straight long hair, was slender, and looked as if she had just walked through the white picket fence that surrounded Dick and Jane in the old readers.
  • Popular teen magazines are totally controlled by advertisers, which means that for a magazine to keep selling, even the editorial content must promote the currently popular image.

Alleen: Magazines for Adults

  • In October, I found something similar in the 25 magazine covers displayed in an “Of Interest to Women” rack in the Omaha, Nebraska airport. All but four had pictures of women with long hair, big smiles, and at least a hint of cleavage. Even their dresses were similar.
  • Of the four “different” covers, three showed food prepared from recipes published in the magazine, and one showed a group of young men apparently on their way to pick up dates.
  • In the “matching” display of 25 magazines “Of Interest to Men,” there were magazines devoted to sports, cars, body building, motorcycles, and women. Apparently, the manager could not find 25 men’s magazines and so the bottom two shelves were filled with collections of cross-word and sudoku puzzles.

Alleen: The Beauty Business: Then and Now

  • When I was a teenager, dyeing one’s hair was something to be kept secret. A famous slogan was “Hair coloring so natural only your hair dresser knows for sure!” Today it is almost mandatory for women to color their hair. Jamie Lee Curtis stands out because she dares to go grey.
  • Plastic surgery was even more of a secret, but thanks to Joan Rivers and tons of advertisements for plastic surgeons, today plastic surgery is way out in the open.
  • Last month, Kathie Lee Gifford was pictured in our local Sunday paper saying, “I have no lines in my forehead. What do you think I do? Iron it every morning? You think people don’t know I use Botox?”

Alleen: Last summer, an especially nasty campaign sign displayed at a venue for a speech being given by Nancy Pelosi read, “BOTOX DOESN’T WORK ON THE BRAIN!”

  • Alleen: Last summer, an especially nasty campaign sign displayed at a venue for a speech being given by Nancy Pelosi read, “BOTOX DOESN’T WORK ON THE BRAIN!”
  • My job at ASU used to include getting our student teachers ready to go into high school English classrooms in the Phoenix area. I would give them a talk about modest dress and how they were to be careful so that their breasts would not show even when they leaned over in class.
  • Don accused me of trying to rid the world of small pleasures, but he need not have worried because capitalism soon made all such concerns old-fashioned. Even the Director of all of ASU student teachers no longer gives her “dress appropriately” speech because she grew tired of arguing with girls who would say things like, “I paid a lot of money to look like this and I’m not going to cover it up!”

Alleen: Newsweek Magazine Pointed to the Oprah Winfrey Show as an Example of Hysterical Marketing of Health and Beauty

  • Last year, the editors devoted nine pages to a discussion of what they called “Crazy Talk” as exemplified on the opening page.
  • GET A LUNCHTIME FACE-LIFT!
    • TURN BACK THE CLOCK!
    • WISH AWAY CANCER!
    • ERADICATE AUTISM!
    • HARNESS POSITIVE ENERGY!
    • ERASE WRINKLES!
    • BANISH OBESITY!
    • CURE MENOPAUSE!
    • LIVE YOUR BEST LIFE EVER!

Alleen: The lead was about a January visit from Suzanne Somers, a 62-year-old actress and self-help author.

  • Alleen: The lead was about a January visit from Suzanne Somers, a 62-year-old actress and self-help author.
  • Each morning she rubs a potent estrogen cream into the skin on one arm. Two weeks a months, she smear progesterone on the other arm.
  • Next she swallows 60 pills—40 supplements in the morning and the other 20 in the evening.
  • In her books, she also tells about starting each day by giving herself injections of human growth hormone, vitamin B12, and vitamin B complex.
  • She wears “nanotechnology patches” to help her sleep, lose weight, and promote “overall detoxification.
  • This is only a sampling of what she does because she believes that with “chelation therapy” and “biochemicals” she can be her same beautiful self while living until she is 110.

Don: Men as a New Market

  • Men are now where women were when Alleen was in high school. We tiptoe around the idea of hair coloring as we begin experimenting with Touch of Gray. Donald Trump is teased for his elaborate comb-over and almost any man wearing a wig is accused of wearing a rug.
  • Even more than with women, the emphasis is on “staying young” and “virile.” Virile is based on the old Latin word vir, meaning “man,” which is seen in such words as virtue, vital, virtuous and werewolf, as well as in the carefully chosen brand name of Viagra.
  • We suspect that the “promised” rewards for using Viagra was a major factor in opening the door to the way that commercial interests are now beginning to treat men much like women have been treated for decades.

Don: Is the Traditional Male Endangered?

  • This cover of Newsweek from September 27, 2010 illustrates the changing times that are making both men and women nervous. The story went on to question whether (or how?) it’s time to rethink masculinity.

Don: “I Feel Pretty” by Joel Stein, TIME October 25, 2010

  • One month later, TIME printed a half-humorous piece connecting capitalism to the idea of health and beauty treatments for men.
  • In 1997, skin care products for men (aftershave, eye gels, wrinkle erasers) was a $40.9 million business.
  • In 2009, it had climbed to a $207 million business.
  • L’Oreal’s line of cosmetics for men went up 30% in the first half of 2010.
  • Menaji, a rival company, has grown 70% each year since its founding in 2000.
  • When Joel Stein called founder Michele Probst, she was just back from mailing 18 packages to soldiers overseas.
  • Her concealer is called camo, and it comes packaged like chapstick. Her bigger packages resemble cigar boxes.

Don: “The M word [make-up] is cancer to us. . . We are skin care that looks good.”

  • Don: “The M word [make-up] is cancer to us. . . We are skin care that looks good.”
  • Lisa Ashley, a make-up artist who has started her own line of products, includes Charlie Sheen, Howie Long, and Terry Bradshaw, among her clients.
  • What Stein calls his “Homer Simpson lines,” Ms. Ashley refers to as his nasolabial crease, a term that made him feel so “unmanly” he knew he would never apply the product himself.
  • He was amazed at the cost: $55 for 0.33 oz. (9 grams) of eye moisturizer—until Ashley dropped some Toppik powder on his hair line and his balding disappeared. He bought the largest jar she could find, which was either $45 or $12,000. He can’t remember, but he does know that it is not makeup and he will never leave the house without it.

Alleen: Animal Metaphors and What They Show about Human Thinking

  • In earlier writings I have discussed the biases against older females as shown through positive metaphors based on young animals, but negative metaphors based on old animals.
  • For example, as soon as a girl is too young to be called a chick, she goes to hen parties and cackles with her friends. Once married, she feathers her nest, and after she has her brood, she begins feeling cooped up and wonders if she made a mistake by putting all her eggs in one basket. Finally, she henpecks her husband and turns into an old biddy.
  • An especially mean-spirited comparison of women to chickens appeared during the 2008 presidential campaign when pundits created an anti-Hillary Meal Deal mug: “Two fat thighs, two small breasts, and a bunch of left wings.”

Alleen: We see something similar with cats. Parents used to name little girls, Kitty, and encourage them to act kittenish. Older girls were more likely to become catty, and to engage in cat fights or live in cat houses.

  • Alleen: We see something similar with cats. Parents used to name little girls, Kitty, and encourage them to act kittenish. Older girls were more likely to become catty, and to engage in cat fights or live in cat houses.
  • Puss, an alternate name for cats (and vaginas), is cognate with pouch and purse. It’s connection to sexuality was shown in one of the James Bond films about Pussy Galore and Her Flying Felines.
  • The most recent cat-related term to come into general use is the word cougar for an older woman who goes “prowling for young men.” Whether cougar is a positive or a negative term differs as shown by how a recent Arizona incident was treated in the media.

Don: DON’T FORGET ABOUT HORNY OLD MEN?

  • There aren’t as many negative animal metaphors about old men. For example, I think I’m on my way to becoming a silver fox, but think about a player on the Los Angeles Rams football team. He is so loved by LA fans, that they buy him a Dodge Ram truck, which he is careful not to use as a battering ram. He has inherited his grandfather’s Civil War ramrod muzzle and while he stands ramrod straight on the football field, he tries not to ram his ideas down the throats of his friends.
  • Nevertheless, he eventually turns into an old goat, otherwise known as a horny old man.

Alleen: From Soccer Moms in 2008 to Mama Grizzlies in 2010

  • The biggest surprise in the 2010 election was the “tough talk” between male and female candidates as when in August, Sarah Palin told FOX News that President Obama did not have the cojones to get tough on illegal immigration.
  • In an October Nevada Senate debate, Sharron Angle zinged Harry Reid with “Man up, Harry Reid!” This incident got heavy media attention, but Missouri Democrat Robin Carnahan had already used it in a Senate debate with Rep. Roy Blount.
  • In September, Delaware Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell told a radio interviewer that her primary opponent needs to “put his man pants on.”

Don: The New Politics

  • The quote accompanying
  • This photo came from Rush
  • Limbaugh:
  • “If 51 seats was really the
  • objective—if getting the
  • majority is really that
  • important, then let’s go
  • balls to the wall for
  • Christine O’Donnnell”!
  • Newsweek, Sept. 27, 2010

Don: Linguist Deborah Tannen related this shelving of polite sensitivities to the blurring between public and private.

  • Don: Linguist Deborah Tannen related this shelving of polite sensitivities to the blurring between public and private.
  • Communication professor Kathleen Jamieson says that tough language frames the attacker as tougher than the person attacked.
  • Linguist George Lakoff explained that the Republican worldview emphasizes masculinity and strength, while Democrats underscore the more feminine quality of empathy. This is why, “If you’re a woman candidate who’s a conservative, then you have to say you’re more masculine than the other guy.”

Alleen: Why Do We Have a Double Standard?

  • It has not worked for male candidates to reverse the sexism on women. For example, no one has told a woman candidate to be more ladylike.
  • In Colorado, Ken Buck was widely criticized for telling voters to support him because unlike his opponent Jan Norton, “I do not wear high heels.”
  • Jerry Brown apologized to Meg Whitman after an aide was recorded calling Whitman “a whore.”
  • New York Governor candidate Carl Paladino was chided by Katie Couric for referring to a woman candidate as someone’s “little girl.”
  • In Arizona, Harry Mitchell’s opponent chided him for “being Nancy Pelosi’s lapdog.”
  • “Tougher talk when male, female candidates collide,” by
  • Kathleen Hennessey, Tribune Washington Bureau 10/17/2010

Alleen: “Woman Up” by Nancy Gibbs (TIME Nov. 8, 2010)

  • In her essay, Gibbs admitted that it was refreshing for women candidates to call out their male opponents “for hypocrisy or political cowardice . . . But what are we to make of rhetoric that is less Margaret Thatcher than Lorena Bobbitt?”
  • Her hope was that today’s young women, many of whom think that the gender wars are over, will be radicalized by what, at least to some of us, are consciousness raisers.
  • However, she speculated that what some people view as an “orgy of emasculation,” is just the opposite. The imperative to “man up” honors “that old male model and is a powerful allure to men who want to hear it respected.”

Alleen: She went on to say that,

  • Alleen: She went on to say that,
  • While it may sound like a Sisterhood-Hear-Me-Roar rallying cry, it may actually “be calculated to appeal not to women but to men—the strong, silent types who have been left behind in the Hecession, dismissed or derided by a metrosexual media culture, and whose ability to hunt and gather and provide for their families is threatened by an economy skewing more female and more verbal, toward service and away from muscle.”

Alleen: In Conclusion

  • We started this out with the idea that we would do a “Ms. and Mr. Debate about Gender Issues,” but the more we worked on our “debate,” the more we realized we are all in this together.
  • While there are things we might both want to change about gender issues in our culture, we shuddered when we read a March 10, 2008 BBC news story, “Chinese Facing Shortage of Wives.” Now that technology makes it possible to discover the sex of fetuses, some countries have begun to systematically abort females.

Alleen: The study warned that by 2020, China is expected to have 30 million more men than women. In 2000, 110 Chinese males were born for every 100 Chinese females. In 2005, the number of males had risen to 118 for every 100 females (in southern provinces it was 130 boys to 100 girls).

  • Alleen: The study warned that by 2020, China is expected to have 30 million more men than women. In 2000, 110 Chinese males were born for every 100 Chinese females. In 2005, the number of males had risen to 118 for every 100 females (in southern provinces it was 130 boys to 100 girls).
  • Similar statistics can be found for India and other Asian countries. It does not take a great deal of imagination to see the truth in the prediction that such situations are worrisome because of the “prospects of social instability.”

Comments and Questions Welcome

  • Since this is still a work in progress we would love to hear comments and suggestions from any of you. Send notes to:
          • Alleen.Nilsen@asu.edu
          • or to
          • Don.Nilsen@asu.edu


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