Marketing Mondays: The "Octogenarians"

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. 

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Ben Stansfield said...

Thanks for writing about this.
I get pretty pissed off (as a middle-aged man) when I see headlines and treatments like these. What, exactly, does the lady's elderly-ness have to do with the story? Well, it makes her disposable, as you pointed out.
And I do notice it more often used as a descriptor for women than men.

Ben Stansfield said...

Thanks for writing about this.
I get pretty pissed off (as a middle-aged man) when I see headlines and treatments like these. What, exactly, does the lady's elderly-ness have to do with the story? Well, it makes her disposable, as you pointed out.
And I do notice it more often used as a descriptor for women than men.

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annell4 said...

Too bad, "old" is a bad thing. After all "old" represents so many days in the studio, so many paintings painted, so many ideas, perhaps "old artist" should be a good thing. Good post!

Behind all this is the word "woman", who was given the gift of creativity, and yet a dismissive word..."Old woman artist...." I can't say there will be a day that it will be different....

Joanne Holtje said...

Joanne: I found this this article interesting, and I do agree with what you have to say.

I have to present a few alternatives, though.
In the case of the would be fresco restorer, I believe that had this person been a minor, their age also would have been mentioned (Teen Defaces Ancient Icon or such). If it had been a teen, the act would have been characterized as an act of vandalism by a person with no respect for history or culture. At the hands of an elderly person the act becomes one of well-meaning, misguided care with a touch of dementia. Who knows? Maybe she is a devious, hooligan!

We (most of us anyhow) tend to lump people into convenient groups to simplify things. And I agree that is bad, dangerous,and just basically stupid.

I think one of the rolls that artists can perform is to draw attention to our collective lazy way of seeing the world, and offer a new vision whether that be literally or more abstractly.

As for the shooting victim, ugh, yes, the drug-addled actor shot her, and then the media robbed her of her depth and dimension as a valuable human being. Also, I believe the subtext here is her vulnerability and powerlessness (as in "poor, little old lady") which while in the guise of sympathy, is equally offensive. I also think it is trying to further demonize the shooter, like somehow it is more disgusting to shoot a human of one age and gender than another (Oh, the victim was a 40 year old male? well, then that's okay). Right? it is all horrible, senseless and it is all our loss.

Thank you for bringing this topic to light.

Carol Diehl said...

I'm sad to learn of the tragedy at the Writer's Villa, where I stayed the year before last--a wonderful place where guests felt like part of the family. The dismissal of a life story by the reporter is bad journalism. As usual, the emphasis is on the sensational.

Nancy Natale said...

Thank you for calling attention to this proclivity of headline writers to categorize people by age. I don't really understand why they do it except that it seems to be a code or (favorite media meme now) dog whistle for automatic associations. I do get a kick out of the "pensioner" in some of the headlines you googled. Does that mean to imply that she's not only old but also dependent on the state for her income?

I do think that this type of categorization is more prevalent when writing about women than men. In the public consciousness, women do not age out as well as men. Men can still be described as "distinguished" and "attractively mature" while women will be just plain "old" or "elderly." Come to think of it, I do hate that term "elderly." At what age do you think it gets applied? I'm hoping not too soon in my own case.

And I know that another term that grates on the ears (not usually used in headlines but all too frequently applied in person)is the dreaded and ear-curdling "ladies." As in, "What will you ladies have today?" uttered unctuously by the waiter (who might insist on being called a "waitperson.)It's nearly as horrifically cringe-worthy as "maam."

Funny how the description "girls" for grown women has returned to use by some women who don't find it offensive since it's used in more of a playful, campy way. Of course headline writers wouldn't dare, would they?

Anonymous said...

OK, another great story, Joanne and it raises our awareness of ageism which is really a problem in the art world but let's take it further than the news media. What about the gallery system? I remember when I was 30-something, in Grad school and there were visiting speakers (and I can't remember their names) - two gallery owners in NYC who let us know that in order to make it in NYC, you had to be a young 20-something. I know that reading Art in America, Art Forum, etc. they do give quite a bit of press to the 20-something recent and freshly-minted MFAs. As much as I respect Winkleman, he also represents the YOUNG crowd. Was it David Smith (or Tony Smith) who said that one needs to make art for 15 years after school (or beginning their art career) in order to reach their own *style*? I agree. Yet, as a 50-something (late), I'm often discounted. Happily - there are some wonderful gallerys who really embrace those of us with some maturity (though, sadly, not the majority). To be 100% honest, when I look at my earlier work, I'm a little embarrassed but I'm equally proud of what I make now. My work has grown and matured, as have I. As have many of the artists I admire...

Eva said...

This is a topic I've been thinking about a lot as I age. What I wonder about is the age of "authority" and just how long it lasts - especially for a woman. It's like you're a young babe and finally, at some point, you are seen as an authority, an expert in your field. But then bam! Before you know it, you are perceived as old. I would like to see that arrival, that middle ground, last a little longer....

Tim Welsh said...

Here is a link to an artist's obit, Christine Fox (British 1922-2012) where she is discussed by means of her accomplishments. There is not the implied 'despite her age' tone. I am thrilled to own one of her sculptures, done in her 'middle age' when she was, as it turns out, younger than I am now.

If you're lucky, you get to be old. Brandish the accomplishment, along with the trials and successes that got you there.

Anonymous said...

Cool post! These labels are just a reflection of how a bunch of marketing clowns have been allowed to get away with defining/labeling everything and everybody just to make it easier for them to sell them as products. So let's not accept these insults to our intelligence anymore. We need to insist on our own definitions of ourselves, based on our own criteria, repeat that often and that is how we will change the consciousness. This is very doable but it begins with our refusal to accept these ridiculous and irrelevant labels.

Joanne Mattera said...

I agree that we need to insist on our own definitions of ourselves at any age. But the issue I raised is not one of marketing; it's journalism--how reporters, editors, wire services and news aggregators are lazy in their use of generic terms, especially when they help denigrate or dismiss a person.
Carol Diehl nails it as "bad journalism."

Karen Schifano said...

Yes, and yet ... It's the underlying culture and high octane marketing world that makes us all expendable so quickly -old and not worthy of respect. I try and maintain my own sense of self-respect as I pass through my late fifties, white hair and all. Maybe we all can be role models at least and persist, as Joanne does, not hiding our age and conveying pride in our accomplishments and whatever wisdom we've gained.

Anonymous said...

But journalism has been co-opted too. So of course it's lazy - it's no longer independent of the selling industrial complex. That's why the blogs are so great as they are a space where fresh air and ideas can percolate. For now. For a little while. Until.

Karen Schifano said...

Joanne, this is such a giant topic - any thought of expanding somehow, a series possibly, people pitching ideas about ways to change attitudes ( as you did with analyzing language in the media)? I'm grateful to have just this small discussion, but am now hungry for more!

Claudia Waters said...

This brings to mind Carmen Hererra and the 2009 article from the New York Times,
"At 94, She’s the Hot New Thing in Painting".

jafabrit said...

I seem to be facing this more and more, just recently after a nice article in the local paper I was dismissed as just old and having a midlife crisis and seeking attention.
Frankly if my art/activities are a result of a midlife crisis, I say bring it ON!

One victim of a crime recently spoke out about being called the "old lady who sits on a bench". I am glad she spoke out, because it is very dismissive and not an accurate description of who she is as a person. ggggggggggrrrrrrr, vent over.