By Elaine Viets
See this woman? I’m sure you have. She’s been featured in a slew of ads. Aw, what a cute old lady.
I loathe the old bat. Her harmless cuteness stereotypes seniors and makes it easy to dismiss older people. Thanks to her, anyone over sixty seems powerless and a bit simpleminded. She may be a fine person in real life, but I don’t like how her stock photo is used.
Crazy old cranks. How about this woman known as “Cranky Martha.” You’ve seen her in the Medicare ads. Martha’s another stereotype – an old woman who grumbles about Medicare programs. Martha is denied the dignity of righteous rage. Dealing with government phone lines and websites should make anyone angry. They can eat up your whole day. But poor Martha is just another complaining, crazy coot.
Like many baby boomers, I’m old enough to get Social Security. I’m also concerned about how older people are portrayed. Older people are cute, cranky, sexless and downright weird.
How many of these demeaning stereotypes are perpetuated in our books?
Even the language I’m using to describe these people is disrespectful: coot, crazy, old crank, old bat. All those words diminish older people.
Here are a few more stereotypes:
The old weirdo. This person is often found in cozies, dressed in loud clothes and behaving like a silly 16-year-old. Margery, the 76-year-old landlady in my Dead-End Job mysteries, skirted the edges of this stereotype. But I tried to keep her smart and sometimes downright scary.
The male version is the wacky old guy who is the hero’s sidekick, a popular Western trope. Remember Gabby Hayes, the grizzled old codger who tagged along after John Wayne, Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, and Hopalong Cassidy?
The foreign old weirdo. Heaven help an old person who lives in a poor country, like this Cuban woman smoking a cigar. Photographers flock to photograph their wrinkles (apparently poor people can’t afford moisturizer). Writers condescend to them and their customs.
The old technophobe. Yes, it’s true. Some older people have trouble with cell phones and other tech. There’s a reason for that. Parts of the brain shrink with age and communication between neurons slows. This makes it tough for some older people to learn new technology.
Some. But not all.
It’s true I still long for the return of the five-button phone in offices, but I can use a cell phone. Alan Portman, a regular reader of this blog, is my main IT person, but when I need someone local, I use a sixty-something grandfather with his own business. His brain works just fine, thank you.
Growing old disgracefully. That’s the motto for a lot of boomers. They love to tease their staid children.
The old stereotypes are outdated. Older people are not the old fogies of yesteryear. They are active, well-educated, and entrepreneurial. Empire-builder Martha Stewart was on the cover of Sports Illustrated at age 81.
Seventy-year-old Christie Brinkley looks damn good in a bikini.
Older people are powerful. Associate Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg held office until her death at age 87.
So how do you portray old people in your mysteries? Are they one of these stereotypes, or realistic characters? Are your older people like Miss Marple, who are underrated because of their age, but use it to their advantage? Or are they fierce and vital?
Deadly secrets in a crypt. The Dead of Night, my 7th Angela Richman mystery, is on sale here: https://tinyurl.com/2c4qzlb6