Call to stop Australian authors’ ageist stereotypes

Some Australian authors are guilty of perpetuating images of ageing women that should be challenged – and Ageism Awareness Day on 7 October, which coincides with the UN’s International Day of Older Persons, provides an appropriate time to reconsider depiction of older women in literary fiction.

Rebecca Carpenter-Mew, a PhD student in English Literature at Flinders University’s College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences, was recently a finalist in the 2022 Three-Minute Thesis competition at Flinders University, with her presentation Best Before Date: Changing the Narrative of Ageing.

In her thesis presentation, Ms Carpenter-Mew says many Australian authors project their own anxieties of ageing from their mid-life vantage point, and she argues that benevolent ageism is embedded and goes undetected, perpetuating narrow ageism cliches in many Australian novels.

“The presentation of ageing in literature has the capacity to shape and produce the social imaginary of what it means to get older,” says Ms Carpenter-Mew.

“Ageism Awareness Day presents an opportunity to call out the ageist rhetoric from this point onwards, on a daily basis, before our apparent best-before dates expire.”

She points to sentiments expressed by a female character in Australian author Charlotte Wood’s celebrated 2019 novel The Weekend as a critical example of ageing anxiety: “No one wants you when you’re old. You have to shore things up before this point. You have to face up to the future, to the worst possibilities. You have to prepare yourself. Anticipate, adapt, accept.”

Ms Carpenter-Mew says the character’s assessment of ageing upset her. “This is a highly celebrated novel on the Australian literary landscape, but why does it make me so apprehensive about a life stage I’ve yet to reach? Why do I feel I have a best before date? Literary fiction provides secret insights into how a society feels about ageing and its ageing population. It seeps into our psyches and becomes the collective consciousness of ageing. We have to challenge whether the negative stereotypes are right.”

Ageism Awareness Day on 7th October, being promoted by the advocacy campaign EveryAGE Counts, draws focus on telling statistics, noting that 23% of Australia’s population will be aged over 65 by 2066.

While Ms Carpenter-Mew points to the ‘greyvolution’ of older women being recognised by such popular podcasts as The Aging Project, Age Against the Machine and Mamma Mia No Filter, and through hit contemporary shows How to Please a Woman, Good Luck to You, Leo Grande, Gold Digger and On the Verge, she laments that literary fiction, on the whole, lags behind.

“Literary fiction has problems with its depiction of older women,” she explains. “The social imaginary of ageing for women emerges from sedimentary layers of Western cultural scripts historically rooted in viewing age as something of which to be cured. Either consciously or unconsciously, authors employ a kind of benevolent ageism, good natured in intent but negative codes are subtly presented as natural and unavoidable.

“Readers could be more cognisant of the feedback loop of ageist cultural scripts. We may ask if these stories are the best way to depict ageing.

“Our acceptance of current boundaries of ageing reveal we live in a society that doesn’t push or challenge the negative codes of dominant discourse in celebrated literary fiction. We seem to accept without question narrow images of women ageing – and I believe this needs to change.”

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