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?