At last I have a starring role. A movie came out last year with Sally Field playing me and now I see it’s streaming on Amazon. An even wider audience! I’m thrilled. You’ve caught me in countless other movies but in minor parts: the old dingbat in the apartment upstairs; the ditzy grandmother; the crazy relic with nothing to do but mind everybody else’s business. If I’m not cavorting around laughably deluded about my sex appeal, I’ve nodded off in a corner – a stubborn weed, still alive but who cares? But Sally Field, bless her heart, has made it possible for millions to get to know me more fully and sign right on to my looniness.
In this movie I’m a single woman called Doris, even though popularity for that name peaked in 1924 and had flat lined by the time this particular version of me would have been born, decades later. One of my lines is to say my mother named me after Doris Day, but I think I’m probably Doris because the 40-something writers are showing Old here, and Old comes free with that name.
Anyhoo, let’s see if Doris’s qualities match those of my usual dingbat self:
Hoarder? You bet.
Cat? Goes without saying.
Lives alone? Miserably the case.
Caregiver? Of course, although 50 years of caregiving Mom, including back when Mom must have been capable on her own, might be pushing it even for me. But then, how many of those old ladies in the audience are gonna do the math?
Disgusting housekeeping skills? A packet of duck sauce from 1970 is in the fridge. Say no more.
Wardrobe meant to draw attention to out-of-it, old lady weirdness? Peculiar hair accessories never worn by anyone in any era and a poodle skirt ought to do it.
Quirky bonus features: pushy brother; office job; super young male co-worker who ignites a passionate yearning in our 60-something Doris—just the sort of thing that happens if nobody ever puts a ring on it. Turn up the fire on the romance plot until the crazy boils over and we get Crisis Leading to Acceptance of Old Self.
Okay, I’m now taking off my Crackpot hat, which would probably be purple with magpie feathers and maybe a frog on it and which hurts my head. Why do I even care about this film? Or another I saw recently, Wild Oats, supposedly a comedy featuring two old women celebrating a long-time friendship on a trip together, but which turned out to involve cheating a life insurance company, purchasing gaudy outfits, wildly successful gambling, faux dementia and yet another storyline in which an old woman chases a much younger man.
I want to laugh. That’s why I care. That’s why I give these films a chance. My friends and I laugh, alone and together, and we’re older women. We don’t always want to relax by immersing ourselves in documentaries or the supposedly miserable temperaments of old men (Grumpy Old Men, Bucket List, About Schmidt, Nebraska, Gran Torino, etc.; why actual men attending these films don’t object to this constant presentation of “old man as misanthrope” is beyond me). We long to see ourselves depicted onscreen as the main character in something lighthearted, something not about the ravages of age, e.g., Still Alice, Amour, Away from Her, The Notebook, etc., and not about life as a member of a group, e.g., Calendar Girls, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, etc. Millions of women over sixty experience neither of these things.
So we flocked to theaters to see “Hello, My Name is Doris,” purported to be the story of a woman who, like us, happens to be the star of her own life. There, in the dark, the flock was fleeced and dispatched afterwards into the Pastures of Serves You Right For Getting Old.
I remember that after the film, in the theater lobby, I turned around to observe my fellow viewers emerging from the darkness. All women. Not one smile. Many dejected faces. A comment bubble over each head would have screamed: I AM NOT THAT WOMAN!
But I had a hunch that many of us, later that night in the safe privacy of our beds, would review our own behaviors and wonder how eccentric they might appear to others. This is only part of the damage that such a film can do. It can make us wonder if we’re all right. And, if we’re not all right now, then what lies ahead?
Even when you don’t care about the opinions of others or about popular culture, even if you don’t go out to see Hollywood’s latest grab for the Baby Boomer audience in hopes that this once they’ll get things right, the continual flow of stereotypes like Doris into the culture carries danger. Just because you’re not watching doesn’t mean millions of others aren’t breathing it in like second hand smoke.
I’m not trying to be dramatic. Nearly 20 per cent of our population is now 60+ ,and that percentage is rising. Because of this, studies are now being done to see how popular culture affects this group. Professor Stacy L. Smith at the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, along with Humana, for example, focused on several dozen films with older people to see how this population was presented.
The researchers reported these distressing results: Over half of the films employed ageist dialogue. Even though 84% of people over 60 regularly use computers, iPhones, etc., not even a third of the characters over 60 in these films used any kind of technology. Furthermore, many of them died violent deaths. You’ve seen that old man or old woman lying on the floor shot, stabbed, or bludgeoned how many times now? Think about it. It’s a popular way of death for the old in movies and on TV, despite the fact that the vast majority of old people of course do not die violently. It turns out, too, that the old in films go absolutely nowhere, have few friends, and can’t seem to manage their own destinies.
So much of what’s shown contradicts reality, yet false presentations continue. We’ve allowed the falseness to wash over us, as if the makers just got things wrong, it doesn’t matter, and oh well. Onward!
But the Annenberg report concluded that it does matter. Stories told about us affect our sense of self, and we are being sold stories full of lies. Sadly, those who accept what’s consistently presented as the reality of being old tend to dwell on thoughts of aging more than their peers do and experience a higher level of fear about aging. At Yale, Dr. Becca Levy, a psychologist, studied how television affects older viewers, resulting in evidence showing that when viewers take to heart the media’s low bar of what’s possible in old age it harms them. People even walk slower. Hearing and memory are affected. Stress levels rise, which can lead to heart issues and other problems. On the other hand, Dr. Levy found that optimism about old age pays off. Those who don’t buy into the stereotypes feel up to 12 years younger than their age, while those who buy them feel up to seven years older than they actually are.
It’s wrong to invite, through comedy or otherwise, a segment of society to expect and accept ridicule, to be satisfied with low expectations of function and worth. Images that force this on us serve to justify bad treatment. We’ve seen this before. We fought back. Civil rights. Women’s rights. LGBTQ rights.
Everybody knows what this is and how it works. Yet somehow it’s up to the old themselves to try to figure out how to “age successfully,” as the latest buzz phrase goes, as if they’re over there some place else, a class of people set apart, aging in a vacuum, squirming around in little Petri dishes while trying their damndest to age successfully. Every now and then someone pops over to peek at how they’re doing, but few bother to check either the culture they’re aging in or their own attitudes. Consequently, we miss many of the things that make aging difficult.
In searching for positive films about old people, I came across hundreds of lists online, each headline boasting they’d found the “best films” about the old. This exercise was mostly useless because the results simply list films that happen to have an old person in them somewhere. I might have been searching for “films about boats” and any film in which a boat is spotted at any point would have popped up. And yes, I refined my search terms. Some of that led to more studies, dissertations, and film histories, an interesting diversion, but none of all that helped me come up with a list to offer here.
Searching for films that show old as an okay place to be should not be a quest for the holy grail. The story of a woman, or a man, over sixty who faces a problem and can handle it should be a possibility for film, shouldn’t it? Laughter in the life of such a character ought to be a possibility, too. Yet, as far as I know, no such film in which the main character is an older person with a healthy, let alone funny, response to a challenge has been made. Not in this country anyway and maybe not anywhere.
Awareness brings with it responsibility. If you are over sixty, you already know that movies and the media are not your shepherds into anybody’s understanding of that good night. If you have friends or relatives over sixty, be an ally. No matter what age you are, speak out when you see the things that diminish – in conversation, film, TV, social media, anywhere you find it. Bonus feature for allies: You’ll make the road easier for yourself when you get here. I wish I had. I may never have found myself looking up in the dark at the giant be-ribboned head of Doris, with her two pairs of glasses perched on her nose and her face trembling with loss, disappointment, and failure.
Andrea Carlisle wrote a blog for seven years about caring for her mother: Go Ask Alice…When She’s 94. Her stories, essays, and poems have appeared in Catamaran, Travelers’ Tales, J Journal (John Jay College, CUNY), So to Speak, Northwest Review, Calyx, The Ledge, Willow Springs, Funny Times, and various other publications. Her poem, “Emily Dickinson’s To-Do List,” has appeared in anthologies, most recently in Literature and the Writing Process, Pearson (10th Edition). She also published a book of fiction, The Riverhouse Stories (Eighth Mountain Press). You can find out more at andreacarlisle.com.