Ageism in Literature. An Analysis Kit for Teachers and Librarians.

The title of this essay is the actual name of a research and analysis paper written by Anita F. Dodson and Judith H. Hauser. The paper was sponsored by the U.S. Dept. of Education and the publication was released in 1981.

https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED211411

I discovered this document online when searching for resources about the improvements made in modern literature in respect of ageism, embedded bias, and systemic elder malignment. Like you, perhaps, I assumed that progress has been made in this area; that certain antiquated and demeaning stereotypes had been scrubbed out of literature by a watchful literary vanguard of editors, publishers, librarians, teachers, readers and right-minded people in general.

“We should all be concerned about the future because we will have to spend the rest of our lives there.”

I believed, like American industrialist Charles F. Kettering must have (quoted above), that age bias is the product of an illogical mind and that it would, especially in today’s atmosphere of rapid, broad communication and ultra-scrutiny be all but eradicated. While discrimination over race, religion, gender, or sexuality continues to plague society, open hate-speak and flagrant animosity have been essentially banned in world literature. The same should be true for ageism, yes?

Well… “Hey, BOOMER!” No.

Here are the some of the findings of the Dodson/Hauser paper. Their research included visits to, “public, college, and school libraries, as well as bookstores. Approximately eight hundred books from the kindergarten through adult levels were investigated.” The authors reason that what readers absorb through reading—particularly the young—will influence their opinions and beliefs. How true.

In summary, the authors concluded the following:

[…] “analysis of past and present literature shows that the aged have been stereotyped and portrayed negatively. By not assigning them a full range of human behaviours, emotions, and roles, authors have categorized them, resulting in ‘ageism’—discrimination against the elderly.

Literature conveys writers’ and society’s stereotypic and negative images when:

  1. Authors consistently use adjectives such as “old,” “poor,” “little,” “sad,” and “wise” to refer to the elderly.
  2. Older men are depicted with wrinkles, white hair, and canes, while older women are portrayed as fat or skinny, with their hair in “buns” and wearing aprons.
  3. Senility is considered to be synonomous with old age.
  4. The aged are pictured as sitting in rocking chairs or engaged in passive roles, such as storytelling, fishing, or housekeeping.
  5. Personality is characterized in two forms—crotchety or unfailingly pleasant.

1-5, above, are the faults present in a certain cross-section of American literature at the time the study was done forty years ago.

The authors identified important categories as a way to break down and better analyze a piece of literature in respect of its treatment of elders.

  • Significance. In Canada today, StatsCan estimates, “Almost one in five (18.5%) Canadians are now aged 65 and older, and the number of centenarians rose 1,100 year over year to 12,822 as of July 1, 2021.” https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/daily-quotidien/210929/dq210929d-eng.htm Simply put, are one in five contemporary literary characters age 65 or older? What systemic initiatives (funding, grants, contests, mandates, education) exist to promote the significance of elders in modern literature?
  • Ethnic and Racial Composition. The study contends that, in 1981,

“When older characters appear in literature, the vast majority are white. Ethnic and racial minorities tend to be stereotyped to an even greater degree, assuming roles that are even more typecast than whites. While some behaviors are not inaccurate, they are shown in exclusion to others. For example, Asian-Americans operate laundries or gift shops or participate in dragon festivals, while Blacks appear in servile roles.”

  • Character Role. To what degree are elders depicted as main characters?
  • Occupational Role. Are elders, “shown in a diversity of meaningful occupations and employment settings?” The study found that:

The majority of older characters are placed in indeterminate occupational roles or those that require only passive participation… When there is obvious employment, the positions require little mental acuity or are outside the experiences of the average student. Women’s roles are repetitive… generally engaged in housework or gardening.

  • Behavioral Characteristics. Elder characters found by the 1981 study usually created problems Today, are they depicted solving problems too? Are behavioural characteristics stereotypical? A somewhat recent example is Canada’s “Corner Gas” television show. The ensemble cast includes two prominent elder roles, a husband and wife. The show often elevates the female elder to a person of agency, responsibility, strong character and otherwise gives her a role equal to younger characters, although she seems to me too often petulant and vengeful and her role in the home and the community are based on typecast models. Her husband is a comical dumping ground of grouchy old man tropes, spun out relentlessly, episode after episode, giving authority for other writers to continue down the caricature trail, unabated; angry old white man… Difficult old lady.
  • Physical Traits. In 1981, “Older characters are rarely given fully developed physical descriptions. Instead, they are described by three adjectives–“old,” “little,” and “ancient.” “Old” is used approximately seventy-five percent of the time. No other generation is completely described by the use of one word.”
  • Personality Traits. Do older characters express, “a full range of emotions with the opportunity for continued growth?”

~ ~ ~

The sample size is small. It’s a review of predominantly American literature and may not be representative of the Canadian reality—then or now—particularly in respect of Indigenous characters, for which significant differences exist between American and Canadian cohorts. (Example: Métis peoples are seldom represented in American culture or literature.)

Despite these shortfalls and potential inaccuracies, when I read the findings and conclusions, I can’t help but see a description of many parts of modern day Canadian literary content. Few elder characters are drawn in the same way as their younger counterparts and many suffer from the same endemic flaws as those highlighted in 1981.

What, if anything, has changed? Is this unalterable? Will literary and genre fiction remain forever bound by and within these “old” tropes and lazy caricatures?

A few nights ago, the doddering, heavily made-up character portrayed by “Saturday Night Live’s” Mikey Day, fell headlong and without reserve into almost every insulting, belittling device cited by Dodson & Hauser. When in doubt, slander the elderly and grab a cheap laugh! This recent example from one of the big-audience icons of Western pop culture suggests that elder discrimination is still openly permitted. The zeitgeist has spoken.

~ ~ ~

On the plus side, and I’m sure there are many, I was impressed with Ralph Benmergui, author of

I THOUGHT HE WAS DEAD: A SPIRITUAL MEMOIR

during his CBC radio interview from Winnipeg yesterday. Author-broadcaster-spiritualist (and likely much more), Mr. Benmergui is, like me, a 1955 product and I thought his take on elder invisibility was a direct hit. BOOM! He later added a positive tone to his comments, pointing out many of the things that have changed and are changing concerning the role of seniors in Canadian society. I’m sure his book will contribute to the dialogue.

His is another book for me to buy and it may find a place on the shelf right next to Sharon Butala, and her wonderful book of essays,

THIS STRANGE VISIBLE AIR: ESSAYS ON AGING AND THE WRITING LIFE

~ ~ ~

Please accept my apologies for being on a bit of a birthday-induced rant about all of this, but as Kettering pointed out, it is in our best interests—and that of generations to come—to grapple with issues of ageism now and with permanence.

One thought on “Ageism in Literature. An Analysis Kit for Teachers and Librarians.

  1. As a certified little old man, I resemble those remarks.

    As a volunteer at a hospital, I noticed that if someone accompanied an old person into the hospital, frequently the younger person would be the one who got the attention. It isn’t just literature. I’ve been ignored young and old. What was I rambling about (not above a cheap joke)?

    Musty Doug
    ________________________________

    Liked by 1 person

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