No more wrinkles

My previous post incited some debate. Again and again, I was told that using the phrase ‘the elderly’ is wrong (here is a summary of such arguments), and even the elderly don’t like it (though is research suggesting that they used to) because it removes people from the description.  I would like to respond to the critique and, I’m afraid, I stand by the points I made earlier.

The website I have just quoted again advises us to use certain words and avoid others. And so, I am focusing on those referring to age, it says that words such as

  • the elderly
  • seniors

should not be used as they suggest ‘weakness or separation from society’. How these words suggest separation from society beats me, I must admit. Yes, you could argue that ‘the elderly’ refers to a group of people who are elderly (most certainly a very contested category), but so do phrases such as ‘the youth’ or ‘the free’ or ‘the brave’. Yet, somehow, I am yet to hear arguments for banning ‘the youth’ because it suggests separation from the society.

Indeed, I really would like to know the source of the arguments that ‘the elderly’ removes people from the picture. This is nonsense, as the phrase means elderly people, just like other uses of an adjective with the article ‘the’. And ‘the free’ refers to free people and ‘the brave’ refers to brave people. So, no, ‘the elderly’ does not ‘remove people’ from anything. In fact, it does exactly the opposite. And I wonder how (and why) people were persuaded that English grammar somehow didn’t apply to words referring to old people. Or the next time you hear about the land of the free, think that such a phrase removes people from the picture, and you don’t really know what it refers to. You can at least try.

As I was reading the argument, my timeline included tweets with the #nomorewrinklyhands hashtag in which tweeters appeal for stopping representing old age with images of wrinkly hands, or, more generally, wrinkles. This is similar to arguments against images of depression which should avoid clutching the head. I disagree with both kinds of arguments and wrote about the latter ones (here is the link).

I think burying your face/head in your hands is a culturally appropriate way of representing sadness or despair. Although you could make a similar argument about wrinkly hands, things are obviously more complex. While depression, you could at least make the point, is mostly about sadness/despair, old age is not only about wrinkles. Yet, wrinkles are a fairly inevitable part of getting old and a culturally appropriate way of representing old age. I also have a feeling that the appeal not to show wrinkles is not so much about putting forward a positive image of old age which goes beyond the wrinkles, but rather it’s an appeal to get rid of unaesthetic images of old age. Indeed, when you look at the #nomorewrinkles hashtag, you will see how many people think that wrinkles are really (like: really really) bad, unappealing and undesirable.

Do the words like ‘seniors’ suggest weakness? Again, I can’t see how, at least not in the lexical meaning of the word. This is, again, a common assault on language and I just don’t understand why you would want to make arguments which leave the realm of the English language most people speak.

That said, Twitter offers a number of examples where wrinkly hands are used as an image for just about anything to do with old age, and it’s hard not to agree that, at least on the face of it, it seems overused. And still, I feel uneasy about the appeals to hide the wrinkles. Here is why.

A number of years ago, I co-wrote an article about representations of social life in literacy primers (here is the link to the article). We compared two textbooks, a Polish one and a German one. The point I want to make here, however, is about representations of old age in the Polish textbook.

For all intents and purposes there was no old age in the Polish textbook. Only children and young adults were shown to inhabit the represented reality, to work or to play (playing was interesting, because only boys played, while girls were reduced to watching them). In the entire textbook there was only one character who was at least implied to be old. One of the child characters had a grandmother and she appeared once or twice (I can’t remember now) in the book.

What was quite striking, however, about the visual construction of the grandmother character was that she had barely any of the stereotypical characteristics of an old (or at least older) person. In other words, if we hadn’t been told she was a grandmother, we would not have been able to see it. She looked exactly like the young adults in the book, except her hair was white. Nothing else.

Now, you could argue, of course, that not all grandmothers are old and if you believe the internet (well, the Daily Mail), the youngest grandmother (by birth) in the UK is a woman of 30 years of age. The youngest woman to be a granny by marriage is a 21-year-old woman. I think it is unlikely that this is what the authors of a Polish literacy primer in Poland had in mind, still, it’s easy to imagine a grandmother, say, in her 40s.

So, there are two possibilities. Old age, i.e. the stereotypical grandmother is represented as a young adult. No wrinkles at all. Or, alternatively, the textbook does not speak of a single old person. Let it sink. The entire textbook shows kids’ lives as involving no old person at all. I am not certain which of the options is better. Both are fairly dreadful.

Now, I am very far from suggesting that a textbook across time and culture will have responded to calls of no more wrinkles. No. Rather, the textbook is part of a discourse which shoves old people onto the margins of life. They don’t matter. The problem for me is that today’s campaigns about euphemising old age are part of that same discourse. They are hell-bent to erase old age from language. It really irritates me when I hear about ‘older people’. Older than who? Me? My children? I find it extraordinary that you can simply decide that the older people are those over 60. Why? All those huge ideological struggles reduced away by a euphemism and/or an arbitrary number made up on someone’s say-so.

Of course, I realise that this blogpost will fall on deaf ears. Fighting words is the easiest thing you can do. Such fights always remind me of the famous movie “Enter the dragon” where the main character (played by Bruce Lee) dismisses his opponent, who had broken a wooden board with his fist, with ‘Boards don’t hit back’. No, words don’t hit back either.

So, again, fighting the use of a word or two is the easiest thing ever. You keep saying that some words should not be used, if you’re lucky, some media outlets will say, oh, these words should not be used.  Like ‘elderly’. And you will announce your victory, because now there will be only ‘older people’.  Hurray! Even less old age in the public sphere. Old age doesn’t exist! Youth has prevailed. And as we want no more wrinkles, your campaign will give even more legitimacy to wrinkle-removing industry. A job well done, indeed.

I don’t think for one second that the fight over words will change the negative image of old age. Just as fighting the words hasn’t changed the stigma of mental illness. Words change, stigma remains. Words change, wrinkles remain. But hey, who cares, right?


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