Sunday, 1 March 2015

Why is Ageism the "Acceptable" Form of Discrimination?!

Photo via CNN.

On Wednesday night, London played host to the annual BRIT Awards.  Unless you've been living in a cave since then, you're probably aware that during the proceedings, Madonna took a bit of a tumble.  Actually, that's something of an understatement; as you can see above, she pretty much flew backwards down a small flight of stairs.  It was impossible to watch it and not flinch, because that has got to hurt...

Now, I'm holding my hands up right now:  I find falling down kind of hilarious, providing nobody is seriously hurt.  If someone's genuinely hurt in some way, laughing is... Well, pretty horrible.  But a tumble in which the only injury is a bruised ego appeals to my slapstick sense of humour.  So at first, given that Madonna herself was quick to announce that she was fine, I allowed myself a chuckle, whilst also thinking what a pro she was for getting back up so quickly and carrying on.  And then the jokes got a bit same-y and I zoned out and moved on.  That is, until yesterday, when, during a lunch with friends, the conversation turned to Madonna's fall and my best friend made a comment that stayed with me:

"Why were there so many jokes about Madonna's age?  Why is ageism acceptable, when we rightly condemn discrimination of a person based on their gender or race etc?"

And she's right.  Why is it acceptable to make ageist remarks?  Madonna herself has compared ageism to racism or homophobia, rightly stating that most of us wouldn't dream of slighting a person because of their skin colour or sexual orientation, yet we feel quite comfortable making slights against a person because of their age.

A huge number of the jokes made at Madonna's expense after her fall at the BRITS referenced her being older than some of the other stars at the event.  There were pictures in which Madonna's face was Photoshopped onto a stairlift advert, suggesting that her age (she's 56 - I know, what a dinosaur! *disengages sarcasm mode*) was responsible for her fall, or even that her age should be the reason people sympathise with her.  Because clearly, young people don't fall down, right?!

Except... After one too many cherry Lambrinis last weekend, one of my high-heels made contact with a particularly well-polished area of flooring and I almost shot across the ground in a most un-glamorous (but bloody hilarious) manner.  Even better, I grabbed onto my younger friend for support and almost brought her down as well.  If someone had been filming us, I reckon they could easily be £250 richer...

But I digress.  The fact is that people on social media were quick to play the "it's funny, because she's so old" card, following Madonna's fall.  And very few people seemed to have a problem with that.  So, why?

Women over 50 must instantly break out the twin set and pearls, apparently.

It's fair to admit that younger members of society tend to view people perhaps just ten years their senior as ancient.  Recently, on a night out, a guy in his early twenties referred to a person of 32 as being "seriously old."  I'm 32, sweetie.  I'm still much too keen on rollercoasters, I still drunkenly attempt twerking and I'm not quite at the stage where I take my teeth out to go to bed, thank you very much.  The irony is that whilst that young man sees me as old, I don't see myself that way in the slightest.  I guess I'm at a point where I am aware of ageing, but I view "old" as being 70+, these days.  Perhaps it's only when we look in the mirror and see changes to our youthful faces and bodies, that we start to see the foolishness of using the word "old" to squeeze people into a box in which they simply aren't yet ready to fit.

That said, I probably did it myself, once upon a time, although I don't remember it (perhaps because I'm so old now that my memory is failing...).  I probably sat in a club, aged 19 or 20, thinking about how horrific it would be when I was old.  And by old, to my shame, I probably meant 30+.  Perhaps it's because of social convention - there's still a widely held belief that by the time you hit your thirties, you should be settled down, married with kids and in a stable job (especially if you're female).  There's still something of a side-eye given to women in their 40s and over, who make an effort with their hair and make up and go out wearing a figure-flaunting dress.  

Perhaps it's fear.  None of us want to think about getting older, after all.  Why else would anti-wrinkle cream and hair dye sell so well, other than because we want to push back the inevitable?!  We hear such horror stories about getting old, too.  Elderly people being mistreated in care homes and hospitals.  Loneliness being a huge problem for the over 60s.  And of course, the fear of death comes into play as well.  Better to poke fun and ignore the idea that that will ever happen to us!

But does fear make it okay to discriminate or make jokes about a person because they're older than we are?  Of course not.  The fact is that we will, if we are lucky, grow old.  And whilst that might be a difficult thing to contemplate when we're in the glow of youth, it's something we have to accept and deal with in our own way.  Whilst I'm a big lover of dark humour, I don't exactly like it when it's at someone else's expense.

After her fall at the BRITS, Madonna got straight back up and carried on singing and dancing.  There are people thirty years younger than she is who would have struggled to do that.  If age gives us one incredibly positive thing, it's maturity.  And whatever you want to say against her, Madonna certainly showed maturity in the way she laughed off the incident (publicly at least) and carried on with the show.

For what it's worth, I'm much happier and more self-aware/self-confident in my thirties than I ever was in my twenties.  Age doesn't have to be something we fear.  And in my view, ageism shouldn't be an "acceptable" form of discrimination.  Just as we should never, ever discriminate against a person because of their race, gender or sexual orientation, we shouldn't be casually disregarding a person because of their age, either.

We're all getting older and it's fine to laugh at that.  But it's not fine when we start making older people the butt of all of our jokes.  After all, a joke is only really funny when everyone is laughing.


  1. I tend to think most ageism is also rooted in misogyny. Older woman face a lot more abuse than older men.

    1. At least we have a longer life expectancy worldwide. I will take that deal!

  2. You know, I always thought the man in the moon had better spelling than that. Maybe they don't have books up there...


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