Benevolent ageism is embedded and goes undetected perpetuating the narrow cliches in celebrated and not-so-celebrated Australian novels. Authors project their own anxieties of ageing from their vantage point of midlife. Higher Degree by Research (HDR) student Rebecca Carpenter-Mews is researching exactly how older women are depicted in contemporary fiction as part of her English literature PhD candidature:
‘No one wants you when you’re old. You have to shore things up before this point. You have to face up to the future, to the worst possibilities. You have to prepare yourself. Anticipate, adapt, accept.’
These sentiments are from a character in Charlotte Wood’s 2019 novel The Weekend. This is a highly celebrated novel in the Australian literary landscape. But I was curious; why does this novel make me so apprehensive about a life stage I’ve yet to reach? Why do I feel I have a best-before date?
The picture of ageing in Australia is a topic of increased public debate. In the lead-up to Ageism Awareness Day on 7th October promoted by the advocacy campaign EveryAGE Counts, it is timely to consider the representation of female ageing in Australia and the role that literary fiction plays in shaping the social imaginary of what it means to get older.
Ageing is not only a biological and social fact but also a cultural one. We are aged by culture. Literary fiction provides secret insights into how a society feels about ageing and its ageing population. We absorb stories of ageing over a lifetime. We internalise myths and stereotypes, role expectations and age-appropriate behaviour, particularly of older women. It seeps into our psyches and becomes the collective consciousness of ageing.
The collective consciousness of ageing across social media post-Covid heralds a change in the way we might think about age. There is the ‘greyvolution’ of older women sharing their experiences in ditching hair dye to embrace their natural colour, making it fashionable and enticing to go grey with a bevy of silver sisters on the same journey.
The Aging Project, Age Against the Machine and Mamma Mia No Filter are a few of hundreds of podcasts about health, wellbeing conversations for women in midlife and beyond. In film and streaming services, we see middle-aged women being agentic in their lives and in their bedroom, How to Please a Woman, Good Luck to You, Leo Grande, Gold Digger and On the Verge. While the world tries to pivot to a new normal and reimagine a world without ageism, literary fiction, on the whole, lags behind.
Literary fiction has problems with its depiction of older women. There, I said it. After reading a range of highly celebrated novels and others not-so-celebrated, I was aghast, at the age of 54, of the depiction of ageing that lay ahead of me. The social imaginary of female ageing emerges from sedimentary layers of Western cultural scripts historically rooted in viewing age as something of which to be cured.
As Sociologist Professor Susan Pickard from the University of Liverpool points out, we fear the worst of what seemingly lies ahead which is disconnected from the rest of our life course – abjection, frail embodiment, disposability, invisibility, isolation, loss of identity, decrepitude and cognitive decline, along with a lack of freedom and independence all of which bubbled to the surface during the pandemic. And while literary fiction has the rich capacity to transport us into the foreign country of age, the literary-ness and perceived authoritative stance have the powerful potential to either reframe the dialogue of ageing to a more meaningful vision or reinscribe the pejorative stereotypes.
I didn’t realise I had a best-before date until reading Charlotte Wood’s The Weekend. I am conscious of age-appropriate dress since reading From Where I Fell by Susan Johnson. Melanie Cheng’s Room for a Stranger inspired research into African Grey Parrots as a potential carer and companion before my lonely demise.
Either consciously or unconsciously, authors employ a kind of benevolent ageism, good-natured in intent but negative codes are subtly presented as natural and unavoidable. For example, ageing bodies are made hyper-visible and abject through spaces and objects in these stories. That is, the same vocabulary used for decaying materials and domestic spaces in disrepair is interchangeable with descriptions of an ageing body. This is not new, but I was surprised how often the conflation occurred in these celebrated, very contemporary novels. Believe me, I went to work with the green Stabilo highlighter.
Descriptions of a character’s clothing reveal value judgements of what’s considered age-appropriate dress. Older women are more harshly judged if they deviate from dominant norms, confirming the ageing body is a social text, inscribed and under surveillance by culture. Plot endings that flashforward into the future rob women of their agency, envision a world that serves the privileged few and lock them in their mid-70s without the grace of reaching a meaningful conclusion. Employing an omniscient narrator has the tendency to lean towards monologism where one voice speaks for the whole.
I agree wholeheartedly with Amanda Lohrey in conversation with Julieanne Lamond in Lohrey, who feels omniscience ‘makes all your decisions and judgements for you…’. The ‘overpowering’ effect, she says, ‘leaves no room for me’ to be co-creator of the text.
Although discussing film rather than literature, Peter Bradshaw sees in the horror film Hereditary, a secret fear of loathing of old people that flowers in middle age: fear of becoming old, fear of the genetic message of weakness they have left us, about which we can do nothing, strive for success as we may.
Pickard responds, if a change in the social imaginary of the fourth age is to come about, it will occur first and foremost by and through this age group. That’s us. Early or mid-50-year-olds. The Gen X cohort, is wedged between caring for Boomer parents and raising Millennial and Gen Z offspring.
I cannot help but think the benevolent ageism is symptomatic of younger writers, or middle-aged writers, projecting their own anxieties through multiple characters experiencing a life stage they themselves have not reached.
Charlotte Wood’s The Weekend and Melanie Cheng’s Room for a Stranger, both published in 2019, present fictional accounts of women in their 70s negotiating their identities, relationships, health and relevancy post-workforce participation. Wood and Cheng are much younger than their 70s. In an article in The Guardian, Susan Wyndham writes that Wood researched the biology of old age during a fellowship at the University of Sydney in order to inhabit the bodies and minds of her protagonists, Jude, Wendy and Adele. Melanie Cheng is a practising GP in Melbourne.
Hence, Wood’s and Cheng’s creative process were informed by research and they write from a position of intimacy regarding the subject matter. Close research on the lives of older people still allows these problematic depictions and highlights the dissonance of how an author’s valuable research, story genesis and thinking outside the narrative do not always reach the literary pages.
This is a valuable start to the issues of ageing, but there remains the problem with the thinking depicted on the page. We absorb these transgressions and accommodate them as the reality of ageing. Fearful, age-as-disease attitudes are so ingrained they go undetected and perpetuate a feedback loop the narrow cliches. This is not so much an indictment of Wood or Cheng, but a reflection of our times that reveals the problem.
From their vantage point of twenty-first-century midlife Wood, Cheng, Johnson and other authors stand on the cusp of a personal experience that is naturally filled with questions, anxieties and apprehension. While these authors might convey an interesting plot, the old scripts are reinforced which has the potential to become a likely trajectory for a certain number of women. Literary traps of descriptive density, omniscient narration, conflation to domestic decline, sartorial judgements, and double-edge-sword plot endings go undetected but are evident.
Thus, while authors perpetuate the anxious world-making for their receiving communities, we as readers could be more cognisant of the feedback loop of ageist cultural scripts. Internalised ageism flourishes because of the conventional limits of the literary form and I suggest, readers’ expectations of the ‘literary-ness’ of literary fiction onto which we bestow middlebrow reverence.
Does literary fiction need to be ameliorative? No. Is the role of literary fiction to provide only positive stories of ageing? No. Is there a moral obligation for authors to get the depiction of older women right? We may ask if these stories are the best way to depict ageing. Our acceptance of current boundaries of ageing reveals we live in a society that doesn’t push or challenge the negative codes of dominant discourse in celebrated literary fiction. We seem to accept without question narrow images of female ageing.
The presentation of ageing in literature has the capacity to shape and produce the social imaginary of what it means to get older. While Ageism Awareness Day occurs on 7th October to coincide with the UN’s International Day of Older Persons, there is opportunity to call out the ageist rhetoric from this point onwards, on a daily basis, before our apparent best-before dates expire.
Author: Rebecca Carpenter-Mews