One night when I was watching Real People on TV, Skip Stephenson kept talking hilariously about little old ladies. Every time he said “little old lady” he nearly fell off his chair laughing: not because he said something funny about little old ladies but because he said “little old lady,” which, apparently for him, evoked a funny image. It struck me suddenly that I was watching a grown man sit there laughing publicly at another human being—someone with a mind, feelings, pride, sensitivity, skills, memories— just because she had reached a certain age.
Like all bigotry, the expression “little old lady” condemns someone without a hearing. A little old lady is prejudged foolish, ineffectual, funny, lacking in judgment, easily shocked, out of touch, timid, a vacuum of physical attraction and, well, not quite a member of the human race, at least not one to be taken seriously anymore.
Making fun of elderly women is one of the last forms of prejudice still accepted, although, because of public opinion and, often, world events, people who have a crude word sense and a clumsy sense of humor (the same people who think the very word “mother-inlaw” makes a joke) have pretty well stopped using, in public anyway, terms of derision connected with race.
In the past few months I have watched a U.S. congressman wind up a speech in which he attacked the U.S. Senate by thundering, “They’re acting like a lot of old ladies,” then sitting down and glaring around with the air of someone not afraid to face facts; a chief of police who, when giving a talk on automobile safety, said on TV, in a nononsense tone of worldly, masculine, straight-from-the-shoulder realism, “You have to be ready when that little old lady pulls out in front of you on Interstate Four.”
Ironically, this was two days after a 24-year-old man turned over three times on the same highway when nobody was within half a kilometre of him and when a 16-year-old girl racked up a parked car and a hydro installation on a quiet residential street with no other traffic. I also recall a friend of minewho, when telling of an incident involving a T. Eaton Co. newspaper ad that, apparently, a lot of customers had objected to on the grounds that it was fairly
pornographic, said, “All the little old ladies wrote in.”
I doubt it. It’s my bet that if a lot of letters did come in, they came from all kinds of people—straitlaced plumbers, students (who often write furious, outraged letters about morals), ministers, prudish sales managers of roofing companies, conservative tire recappers. I think it’s time we stopped saying “little old lady” every time we can’t be bothered thinking.
Apart from the essential unfairness of expressions like “little old lady,” they are trite and boring, and, speaking for myself, I don’t want to see any more stereotyped little old lady detectives or little old lady witnesses or hear about that little old lady in tennis shoes. I have never seen a little old lady in tennis shoes, although I keep hearing about people who claim that they have seen little old ladies in tennis shoes. And I don’t want to hear about that little old
A little old lady is prejudged foolish, lacking in judgment and a vacuum of physical attraction ’
lady from Pasadena. I knew a whitehaired lady from, well, Riverside, Calif., which isn’t far from Pasadena, who drove smartly at about 110 km-h and smelled of L’Air du Temps. She was my landlady when I rented a house in Laguna Beach and she was as far from a stereotype as you can get.
I don’t want to see any more nightshow hosts doing imitations of old people’s thin, quavering voices, which is about as funny as doing imitations of the way someone with one leg walks or the way a person with double cataracts tries to find a stairway. Understand, I’m not against genuine humor about an elderly character or anyone else; what I’m talking about is presenting characters as funny just because they’re elderly. And another thing, I hope that if I ever again see a singer come down off the stage and wrap his arms around some white-haired lady and sing to her up close to her face, she will tell him to get back in the aisle or she will sue him and the network for public humiliation.
It’s true that we are living in an era in which it’s rather bad taste not to be
young. I see a lot of this when I’m walking on the beach in Florida, particularly when, through some miscalculation, my wife and I happen to be still in Florida during Easter break. Young fellows with surfboards on top of their Volkswagens lean out of the windows laughing, apparently because I’m still upright. Sometimes they shout things and laugh. “Hey, old geezer!” a kid yelled last year, leaning out of a car with a suppleness that I must admit I envied as the car receded in a general sound of laughter.
A young man with a bushy moustache, like Magnum, who drives a red sports car, never passed me when I was walking to the library across the causeway without yelling. He didn’t really yell anything as far as I could make out; he just gave this expression of intense mirth. Girls, incidentally, never behave this way—except for one. A couple of years ago a youngster leaned out of a car and called hysterically, “Hey grandpa!” and something else that I’m glad I didn’t quite catch, giving the impression that she had been waiting to do this to her own grandpa and now had the chance from the anonymity of a moving car. But that’s the only time. Unlike youths, girls seem to have an intuitive knowledge that someone four times their age is not another species. But the general idea that as you become older you become, somehow, less real isn’t as barbaric as the specific prejudice against elderly women that turns up in the material of stand-up comedians in comedy skits (in which women, incredibly, seem to like portraying members of their own sex who have reached advanced years as offensive idiots) and in everyday language (“That old woman!” meaning a fussy, 185-lb. man.)
It is amazing that women can retain a cheerful expression, like the woman I saw a while ago sitting on a bench, looking out to sea in a soft breeze—a white-haired woman in a blue skirt and a pretty blue flowered blouse with her cheek on her hand, absolutely still, looking out at the ocean in a trance, lost in thought. It must take special gifts to look as if you still think the world is worthwhile when, after a lifetime of coping with kids, debts, hard work, pain, pompous husbands, and, pulling it all off successfully, you have ended up a joke—a little old lady.
Robert Thomas Allen is a Toronto freelance writer.
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