Voicing A Positive Image Within an Ageist Society

What triggered off this research on the subject of older people was that current Gerontological interests focus primarily on older people, in relation to chronic illnesses (such as dementia), disabilities, or social services provisions. Valuable as these areas of research interest (especially in the promotion of ameliorated policies for older people) might be, what filters through to public consciousness nevertheless is that older people are predominantly ‘needy’ – perhaps apart from a small minority, and that all negative stereotypes regarding them are more or less true. This stereotype projects older people as living isolated lives, beset by serious health problems causing them to be emotionally distraught (Hendricks and Hendricks, 1983). What was unclear to me though was whether we just project our own fears of growing old onto older people. What is missing therefore is a stronger voicing of older people’s perception on their own experience of growing old.

Prior to presenting the outline of my thesis though, it is essential to elucidate the terminology used to describe older people as a distinctive social group in the literature. For instance, in the literature, there is a wide range of terms employed to describe older people as a particular group. Further, there is a distinction between ‘ageing’ (which is the natural process of growing older), and ‘ageism’ (which describes the discrimination against older people, because of their age). ‘Ageism’ according to Hendricks and Hendricks (1983), like racism or sexism, is a wholesale discrimination against all members of a category, though it appears usually in more covert forms:

Part of the myth a fundamental if implicit element of ageism is the view that elderly are somehow different from our present and future selves, and therefore not subject to the same desires, concerns or fears’. (page 60)

However, some writers found the exclusive focus on older people when defining ageism, problematic. They believe that age categories are socially constructed and that any person at any stage of her/his life can be discriminated against because of their age. Johnson and Bytheway (1993), take this point further by arguing that there exists both institutionalised ageism, including legislative discrimination against people over specific ages (i.e. exclusion from jury service) and internalised ageism, such as offensive interpersonal action (i.e. calling somebody an ‘old bag’). As a result, they have reached to a shorter, but more encompassing definition of ageism as «the offensive exercise of power through reference to age» (page 205). Laslett (1996), when analysing the stages of life defines the latter part of the life-course as 3rd Age. Again, this typification includes people of retirement age. However, he realises that the boundaries between middle age and 3rd Age are not clear-cut. Rather, he sees them as problematic:

There is a very recent and problematic extension of the 3rd Age backwards, so as to include younger and younger people…this is a very important development for contemporary experience over the life course’.

(page 116).

This paper will focus on older women and the extent to which they internalised cultural stereotypes. In the cultural stereotypes and images of older women, according to Ginn and Arber (1993), they are portrayed as evil. Cruel jokes are made at their expense, and they suffer from patronising and dismissive attitudes. All these, «play a part in legitimising and reinforcing their social and material disadvantage» (page 67). They also suggest that women are doubly devalued and accorded low social status, because they are past their sexual reproductive and domestic servicing roles.

This paper will also assess the impact of social stigmatisation which occurs through visible physical stigmas – wrinkles for example (Goffman, 1963), on older women’s self-perception. Goffman asserts that a visible stigma makes society at large, to react differently to the stigmatised person than they would do to a so-called normal person (i.e. young person). Also, it will be examined whether – and the extent to which, older women transgress their ‘age-appropriate’ roles.

This research will employ the Feminist, Symbolic Interactionist and Materialist theoretical perspective in the analysis of the research findings. The aim of the research is to show the extent to which older women internalise the above-mentioned stereotypes, through their portrayals in cartoons. The research question of ‘how older women manage the ‘ageing process’ will hopefully assist in achieving the aim of the research. In the following chapters, a critical review of the current theoretical debates within Gerontology will be attempted. The subjective nature of language used to describe older people will be also discussed. What follows next is the rationale behind the choice of qualitative research methods, as well as an explication of methodological challenges faced by this researcher. Further, a presentation and analysis of the data will ensue. Finally, potential limitations of this research will be referred to, as well as further issues that could be addressed in a uture research will be identified.


Blaikie A. 1999. Ageing and Popular Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge

University Press

Ginn J. and Arber S. 1993. «Ageing and Cultural Stereotypes of Older Women» in Johnson J. and Slater R. (eds). Ageing and Later Life. London: SAGE

Goffman E. 1963. Stigma: Notes on and Management of Spoiled Identity. New Jersey: Prentice – Hall

Hendricks J. and Hendricks C. 1983. «Ageing in advanced industrialized societies» in Carver V. and Liddiard P. (eds). An Ageing Population. Hong Kong: The Open University Press

 Johnson J. and Bytheway B. 1993. «Ageism: Concept and Definition» in Johnson J. and Slater R. (eds). Ageing and Later Life. London: SAGE

 Laslett P. 1996. A Fresh Map of Life. London Macmillan Press Ltd

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