“A 69 year old Brisbane grandmother takes on a US Biotech company in the High Court over human gene ownership, “ ran the lead sentence of a news item on the ABC on June 16. Subsequently, different versions of the headline have appeared , all noting the 69 year old grandmother.
This is a typical example of a news story headlined with the identification of a woman with a specific age, then the title of ‘ grandmother’, followed sometimes by the number of grandchildren.
It is both Ageist and Sexist.
It’s Ageist because she is identified by her age. The implication of noting age in a headline is that it suggests that age has a particular bearing on the content of the story. It’s unusual to read headlines about, “A 34 year old woman .…. “ or, “ A 34 year old man ….” However, it seems that after about 65, people, and particularly women, are often labeled and defined by their age in a headline or first sentence. The significance of their age is then not discussed at all in the article. It is not the defining characteristic of that person in that context.
There seems to be an assumption from some in the media that people, and especially women, over their mid sixties are not active participants in society. There is plenty of evidence to the contrary. It’s as if it is only their age which can be seen and which blinds the reporters to such qualities as a strong sense of justice, analysis, and persistence which have brought the individuals to public notice.
This social blindness extends to the Sexist use of ‘grandmother’.
Now, let’s go back to headlines and think of a headline which reads, “A 34 Year Old Childless Woman ….,” or, even stranger, “A 34 Year Old Childless Man …” It would only happen if the childlessness were a key part of the news story. So why was the reproductive information of ‘A 69 year old” included when there was no relevance of her family history to the news item?
“Grandmother” often seems to be code for something. It suggests an old woman who is nurturing, family focused and who exists outside the interests and issues of the ‘real world’ and about whom nothing else can be said. It seems a matter of great surprise to the reporter that this person is behaving like a member of general society and is also, amazingly, a grandmother.
If you do a quick Google of ‘69 year old grandmother’ you find a strange range of headlines: “Meet saucy 69 year old grandmother from Edinburgh…’, ‘This 69 year old grandmother is as hard as nails – about bench pressing’, ‘Grandma(of course 69) attacks would be car jacker’. It’s interesting that they are all about her physical prowess.
I have very rarely seen a headline identifying a man as a grandfather in the context of a story which is not about grandfathers. Google brought up one about ‘M M is a 69 year old grandfather of four, nurse, black belt..’ and another, ‘Grandfather, 69, shot dead after opening his door to 20 year old man’.
It is difficult to separate the Ageism from the Sexism in this issue and I think that the two sets of careless labeling are tightly interwoven. Men are less likely to be identified by age and their family circumstances.
I do have to declare an interest in this matter. You could attach a variety of labels to me, including the fact that I am both 69 and a grandmother. However, I would not like to to be defined that way unless both labels were the most important part of the context in which they were used.