Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Age Bias in Fiction


by Sandra Parshall

I just finished a mystery by a male author whose books I like enough to buy (something I'm doing less and less often these days, as I try to thin out rather than increase my overwhelming book collection). Although I enjoyed it overall, I am bemused by the way he refers to his lead character’s mother.

Several times, the first-person protagonist notes that his mom is "almost sixty-seven" or "going on sixty-seven" -- and it's clear from the context and tone that he means she is OLD -- really, really old. In one scene the protagonist decides he doesn't need to hold his mother's arm to steady her as she walks because "her body was in decent shape for somebody going on sixty-seven." She has "memory problems" -- and if he means she suffers from Alzheimer’s disease,  that's realistic. Alzheimer's, while primarily a disease of advanced old age, can occur not only in the 60s but even earlier. It is not, however, a normal part of aging. The mom in the book, in any case, doesn’t appear to suffer from this devastating brain disease. As far as I can tell, she is “forgetful” because that serves the plot.

Her friends of the same age are also presented as women of greatly advanced age whose primary interest is bingo.

I mention this book not to single out the author for a thrashing (as I said, I enjoy his writing), but because it's just the latest novel in which I've seen "older women" portrayed this way. In one mystery written by a woman, the protagonist was trying to persuade her mother, seemingly healthy and independent at age 60, to move to an assisted living community where she could spend what remained of her days in a stress-free environment. A number of younger writers present older people of both genders as doddering, helpless wrecks or as comic relief characters who attend wakes and funerals for entertainment and openly leer at sexy members of the opposite gender.

I care because I am a woman of a certain age, and also because I hate the proliferation of a harmful stereotype.

I know plenty of women in their late 60s and older who lead active, challenging lives. Many swim, run in marathons, play tennis and golf – and a lot of them regularly turn out novels with complex plots and intriguing characters. Call them old women to their faces and you might get knee-capped for it. Younger writers attend conferences where authors in their 60s and 70s are a strong presence. Can't they see that these people are mentally sharp, quite articulate and entertaining, and aren’t causing traffic jams in the hallways with their walkers?

Why hasn’t the popular concept of an “older person” caught up with reality? Why are people over 60 still presented in fiction all too often as childlike and unable to fend for themselves or, even worse, as objects of fun?

Some writers, to be sure, not only avoid the stereotype but vigorously write against it. Daniel Friedman, who looks like a teenager but is undoubtedly a bit older, writes about an unforgettable 90-year-old retired male cop named Buck in Don’t Ever Get Old (Edgar nominee for Best First Novel). Buck has serious health problems, but that doesn’t stop him from setting out on a wild and dangerous adventure. Booklist praised the character for possessing “not an ounce of codger cuteness.” Another of my favorite older sleuths is the forever-92 poet Victoria Trumball in the Martha’s Vineyard mysteries by Cynthia Riggs.

How do you feel about the way older people are portrayed in fiction? Can you name more writers who create realistic, convincing older characters?

25 comments:

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Amen, Sandy. Never heard "codger cuteness" before, but it drives me up the wall. How about Laurie R. King's Sherlock Holmes as an antidote? He not only travels the world in early-20th-century conditions, his wits as sharp as ever, but gets married (to Mary Russell), and he must be getting up there in years.

Sheila Connolly said...

Having just spent two weeks with a group of forty women from my college Class of '72 in Italy, running up hills, tramping through cities, chowing down on incredible food, etc., I can attest that sixty-plus is NOT old.

I happened to catch the rerun of the NCIS episode where Ducky Mallard (the immortal David McCallum--I had such a crush on him when I was 16) acknowledges that his mother (a recurring character) had just passed away, at close to 100. That makes Ducky in his 70s, and he's still working.

But after saying all that, I should note that most of our characters are definitely younger than we are--mostly thirties and forties. Is that what our market wants? Is that the average age of our readers?

Claire said...

You are onto something here. Despite evidence to the contrary, right in front of them sometimes, some writers continue to present older characters as stereotypes unless they are writing "against type." I even hesitate to use the word older since I would be put in that category quite quickly by these same authors and I don't feel old even when my body rebels against me in some tasks.

Barb Goffman said...

You remind me of The Help, in which the 23ish-year-old bad-guy character (forgive me, I've forgotten her name) kept talking about putting her mother in an old-age home. Her mother likely was in her 40s.

Authors who have non-stereotypical older characters: Donna Andrews (Meg's grandfather is in his 90s and runs animal rescue missions), Lois Winston (she has a crotchety cane-wielding mother-in-law character who has health problems but isn't going to stop protesting for Commie causes), Heather Webber (the grandmother in her Lucy Valentine series gets arrested at a protest, if I recall correctly), Joelle Charbonneau (grandfather has regular gigs impersonating Elvis), and Jess Lourey (Mrs. Bern is older but she certainly gets around). And these are off the top of my head.

Karen said...

Great post, and so true. Popular culture has it that women over a certain age are invisible, except as stereotypes. Ageism is a cliche like any other, and a writer who resorts to stock characters isn't much of a writer, IMHO.

Patg said...

Thanks for bringing this up. 60s is not old, it is the youth of second life. Old is late 80s, now, but really should be third life, which is 100 to 150.
A recent experience with a 106-year-old buying a funky, chunky necklace and the seventy-five year old who chided her for wasting her money made my day. Age really is in the mind of the beholder. BTY, the 76 year-old looked 100, while the 106 year-old looked 65.
Patg

Leslie Budewitz said...

"Codger cuteness" -- love it! I'm writing cozy, so there is a level of benign cuteness to many of my characters, including Old Ned -- 75+ -- called that to distinguish him from Young Ted, his son who's not so young, and his grandson Young Ned, and so on. And the tottery 90ish artist, modeled on my late mother-in-law, who shows up in Village 2.

If anybody called my mother -- 88 in 6 weeks -- spunky, she'd probably stick her tongue out. Or adjust her hearing aid, sure he couldn't have said such a stupid thing.

Leslie Budewitz said...

Pat, love the story of the jewelry-loving centenarian! My 87 y.o. mother broke a tooth recently, and the dentist strongly suggested a temporary crown would suffice -- meaning she wouldn't outlive it. Ha on him -- it fell out three times the first month.

No doubt we've all noticed that at about 50, aging varies a lot -- some feel and show age far more than others the same age. I'm convinced it's attitude. The woman I know who calls herself "older than dirt" at barely 60 looks it, while us "life begins at 40" types would never imagine, let alone say, such a thing!

LD Masterson said...

If that first author doesn't have a mother or grandmother handy to smack some sense into him, I can probably get my sharp-as-a-tack 88 year old dad to climb down off his tractor and take care of it.

Sandra Parshall said...

What Leslie says is true -- some people seem to decide to get old when they reach a certain age, while others remain mentally active and engaged with life. I know many writers who didn't really get started until they hit middle age and have published their first novels in their 50s or 60s. They're excited about their "second wind" and looking forward to long writing careers. You can't get old unless you withdraw from the world and close yourself off from life.

Anonymous said...

Hi Sandra,
My aunt is 97 and still carries on a conversation. She needs a walker, but hey she's 97.

I also knew a man who lived to be 99. He didn't start receeding until the last two years of his life.

He told me he remembers his parents renting a summer house at the Jersey Shore to my grandparents. I'm 70. Whew. That was a long time ago.

Richard Brawer
www.silklegacy.com

Sheila Connolly said...

(I'll try again, since my first comment disappeared!) After spending two weeks this month running around the Italian countryside, up and down hill, through cities, and so on, with a group of college classmates (Class of '72), I can attest that sixty-something is not old.

But having said that, don't most of us write about protagonists who are in their thirties, or maybe forties? Is that the age of our reader audience, or the age they'd like to be?

But I have included a number of characters in their eighties and nineties, who are still living independently and are managing just fine. My grandmother maintained her own apartment in New York City until she was in her eighties.

Susan said...

Great points. You should write about this for AARP. And be careful - you suggest that you are buying fewer books, but I bet you still buy more than average.

Sandra Parshall said...

Susan, I'm buying fewer print books, but I buy ebooks and I buy two full-length audiobook downloads from Audible every month. I love audiobooks and get lots from the library, either on discs or as downloads.

Ruth Donald said...

When I was in my early teens, my grandmother was in her 60s and she looked old: grey hair in a bun, shapeless dress, sensible shoes, a sense about her of giving up on her life. Now I'm getting close to that age and I don't think I resemble her at all, especially in my attitude toward my future. I have one. And I'm excited about it.

I shudder every time I see a reference in the local paper to an 'elderly' man or woman, then find out they are only in their early sixties. Can we do anything about it?

I worked with someone a few years ago who used to comment on the things her mother did as if the poor woman were senile, yet her mother was probably about my age. Drove me crazy!

Donis Casey said...

Naomi Hirahara's protag Mas Arai is a great example of an old guy with more sharps than anyone around him. I find that the older I get the more invisible I get, which makes me want to punch SOMEBODY out. What ever happened to the Grey Panthers?

Linda Lovely said...

Marley Clark, the heroine in my mystery series, is a 52-year-old retired military intelligence officer. She's smart, fit and sexy. When my first agent shopped DEAR KILLER, editors told her the character was too old for younger readers to identify with. Marley also is being pursued by a younger man. By the way, I personally abhor the "cougar" tag.

Joanne Guidoccio said...

Age is all about attitude. Some women are old at 50 while others are blazing forward at 70 and beyond.

I am happy to see more boomer lit out there. Long overdue!

First time I've heard the expression "codger cuteness." Love it!

Sheila Boneham said...

Great post, Sandy. Janet MacPhail, the protagonist in my Animals in Focus series is mid-50s, the guy in her life late 50s, her mother is pushing 80, and her neighbor/best friend is 60ish. They are all very active physically and mentally - even Janet's mother, who does have Alzheimer's. When the first book in the series was in the works, the publisher asked me to make Janet younger because "she doesn't act that old." When I finished laughing in my editor's ear I said, "You don't spend much time with women in their 50's, 60's, 70's, do you?" and declined to change their ages. I've had a number of readers tell me that they appreciate seeing these people in active roles, and I've had not a single negative comment about their ages. So Janet et al shall continue to run agility courses, carry on with big, rowdy dogs, run tracks over hills and through woods, kayak, dig new gardens, and otherwise behave like people their/our age!

Radine said...

Yea for you, Sandy. I agree totally but, unlike you, I probably would have been so bothered by this male author's ideas about what we were or are like at 67 (were, in my case) that I would have stopped reading. One either laughs or fumes at this I guess. Not so long ago a lovely, and excellent "younger" author visited our area and, in a one-on-one conversation I did mention my age. She was astounded, and, when I also said I rarely ever told my age and her astonishment was one reason why, she promised secrecy, which she has kept, but has indicated I have a huge secret no one will believe. Huh. Well, she forget that "60 is the new 30" (just read that this morning) and so on.

Anonymous said...

I laugh at some writers' descriptions of "old" people. My mother was still getting up on her house roof to check out the shingles when she was 80. We did object to that & said wait for us. I do know some people who just seem to decide they are old. I don't think I'll ever have my mother's stamina, but she was a good example of someone to emulate. She died just after turning 90.

Lisa Alber said...

Janet Evanovitch's grandmother character is great. She's the best character in the books! Wait, is she codger-cute? She might be...

The term "against type" makes me laugh. I can't tell how old people are most of the time. Someone could be an "old" 49 or a "young" 62 -- the variation is so wide, like Leslie says. And it's not like we're really all that different than we were in our 20s (at least I'm not). What, so "old" people don't ogle hot young bodies anymore? Or paint their toenail blue? Or party too hard sometimes? Come on!


Polly Iyer said...

I published one romance where the MCs are over forty. One reviewer thought it would be boring and was shocked when it wasn't. Forty. I like 70 is the new 50. Great post, Sandy. The ditsy older character is becoming a cliche.

Cindy Sample said...

What a terrific post. I anticipate many more comments to come. My mother passed her real estate broker's exam at 83. She plays every card game imaginable and recently took up tai chi. In her mind, she is still 30!

Steven M. Moore said...

Hi Sandra and all,
The contractor who made my "man cave" (where I can listen to classical music at concert hall levels)when we moved into our present abode is 74 and crawls around like a thirty-year-old--puts me to shame. My recent book The Golden Years of Virginia Morgan is about retirees, some "forced" to retire by the government but rebel against it--kick-ass old people abound. I thought baby boomers would identify.
My favorite, of course, is the wonderful Miss Marple. I've always wondered if Agatha modeled her character after herself. Any ideas on that?
r/Steve