Let me start by saying that I am not in my eighties—and I won’t be for some time—but when I do get to be that age, if I am referred to as an anonymous “octogenarian” or “elderly lady” or “old woman,” or “elderly grandmother” (which would be quite the trick, since I have no children that I know of) instead of by my own name and occupation, I will haul off with the punch and foul mouth of a juvenile delinquent. Identifying someone because they're old rather than by who they are and what they do—especially women (surprise)—is ageist and sexist. I’d rather you just call me one pissed-off bitch. (Though if I do smack someone upside the head, I know what the headline would be: "Rogue octogenarian.").
First there was the Beast Jesus flap. Amateur restorer Cecilia Jimenez put her paintbrush to a flaking fresco of Jesus in a Spanish church and created what is now the most publicized “restoration” outside of the Sistine Ceiling--not as good, but now just as well known. Here’s the Huffington Post’s headline from August 22:
“Elderly Woman's Hilarious Failed Attempt At Restoring A 19th Century Fresco In Borja, Spain.”
Yes, it was a hilarious attempt, one that I skewered here, but it would have been just as hilarious if she’d been 21 rather than 81. Chutzpah comes in all ages and all languages. Arianna Huffington, and pretty much everyone else, should have done better with the headline. and story.
Just out of curiosity, I Googled "spanish fresco destroyed by amateur," leaving out any mention of age. Below is a screengrab of what came up. Kudos to USA Today, headline at the very bottom of the image, which identified her as an amateur, the only real issue with regard to the restoration. Age can appear in the text of the piece as it does in any other story.
Then there was the infinitely sadder recent story, which this headline notes: “Johnny Lewis dead at 28: 'Sons of Anarchy' actor killed elderly landlady”.
Turns out the “elderly landlady” was also 81, having lived a life almost three times as long as the Hollywood meth-head who killed her, but most headlines treated her just as expendably as her killer did..
There was a lovely exception to the ageist anonymization of this woman, whose name is Catherine Davis. The actor Taylor Negron wrote a tribute to his friend, whom he describes as “a writer, artist and entrepreneur. . . .a woman of astounding energy and clear-minded self creation.” She supported herself— and her community— by renting rooms in her villa to struggling actors. She the difference?
Davis is shown here in the doorway of her Spanish-style style villa, which many struggling actors called home. Hardly the person "elderly landlady" calls to mind. I might not have taken the time to write this little editorial had both of these women not been artists, albeit amateur and/or unsung. (Davis, according to Negron, "was working on a biography of Phoebe Apperson Hearst," mother of William Randolph, at the time of her murder.)
Catherine Davis in the doorway of her home, photo from the Internet; photographer is uncredited
Given that most of us will not achieve New York Times above-the-fold status, or the cover of Art in America, the “elderly woman” (or “elderly man,” for that matter) may one day be how we are identified, even if—let’s hope—it’s not under either circumstance..
We can all do better when we write about artists, when we write about one another. If we are lucky that respect will be accorded to us one day.