I dislike it when the media labels any woman over a certain age as “grandmother.” Especially if that age is, say, 45.
It seems that if someone has gray hair and presents as female, journalists don’t know what to call her. They’re certain “old broad” isn’t right and “elderly chick” doesn’t have the right ring to it either. So, they go with “grandmother.” In contrast, in most news stories about men the same age, the word “grandfather” (or even “grand-dude”) is almost never tossed around. Instead, reporters write headlines such as “83-year-old man finishes marathon, then wins chess game with trained pigeon.”
If we’re being truthful, the word “grandmother” conveys a lot more than age. It brings to mind a woman who saunters around in slippers and a housecoat, her pockets full of butterscotch hard candy and tissues. A woman who looks forward to Bingo Tuesdays and knits sweaters for her 27 cats. What it doesn’t paint a picture of is a woman who has lived a long life in which she was and still is a unique individual whose stories might just blow away everyone’s stereotypes (if anyone stopped to listen).
I’ll be 63 this week. I don’t have gray hair (thanks to good genes and vegan hair dye). I am not a grandmother – because I forgot to have children. Oops! I’ve never knitted sweaters for cats, although I did recently search for matching sweater sets for humans and dogs on Etsy. (I want the sweaters, but I don’t want to do the work to knit them myself). But, because I’m a comedian who occasionally curses like a pirate; who knows how to use Twitter, Tinder, and Venmo; and who often dresses in tutus and pigtails, people have no idea how to label me. I’ve never heard anyone call me a “grandmother.” Once after I had just taught first year college students about gerunds and infinitives while hula-hooping, I overheard one of them tell another I was “weird,” I piped up and said, “I’m so glad you noticed. You should try being weird. It totally rocks.”
“Weird” is my preferred label.
Society has trained us to look at older women as too slow (btw, I will challenge you to a race-walk and win), uninteresting, too chatty, unable to use technology, and probably virgins (except for the number of times equal to the number children they have). After all, if women over 45, 55, 65 were interesting and vital, surely men the same age would date them and be paired up with them in movies, right? And we wouldn’t all be so shocked when Keanu Reeves, 55, dates Alexandra Grant, 46 and gray-haired.
As a woman of a certain age, I am blessed because I have watched some of my most interesting girlfriends age and I can see that they are just as interesting, funny, and weird now as they were when we met. I have also had experiences with women older than I am who are not related to me. All of these “don’t call us ‘ladies’” moments have left lasting impressions.
Let me tell you a few quick stories about some women that would otherwise be tossed on the “grandmother” pile:
- A woman in her late 70s registered to take my stand-up comedy class several years ago. As she introduced herself at the beginning of class, she said she had enrolled because “all my friends have died.” (I have to admit, that was an unusual start to class.) Two years later, at 80 years-old, this woman entered the annual comedy competition I organize. She hobbled out onto the stage with her walker, sat down, and proceeded to tell jokes about vibrators. “My vibrator is so old, I call it ‘Ike.’ I like Ike.”For the younger among you, “I like Ike” was Dwight D. Eisenhower’s campaign slogan when he ran for President. She then removed her jacket and had “I like Ike” bedazzled on her t-shirt. She easily won the competition that year.
- A few years back, I got invited to entertain a group of Red Hat ladies at their holiday party. The Red Hat Society is a social group for women over 50, although from my experience the vast majority of members are 65+. This group decided to hold an ugly Christmas sweater party in the private room of a local pizza place. The only distinguishing feature of this room was that it also happened to be where the video poker machines were located. About 20 minutes into the “meeting,” each woman modeled her sweater, most of which were exactly what you expect.One woman, however, had a sweater over her ugly sweater and when she revealed what was underneath (just as a young man came in the room to play poker), she exposed a green sweater with gold tassels at nipple-level, both of which were decorated in Christmas lights. And when I say “revealed,” I mean she had those tassels moving counter-clockwise like a pro, which she may well have been years earlier. (The young man left the room without saying a word.)
- In the past almost three years, I have been to 15 marches and/or rallies for climate change, reproductive rights, science, economic justice, racial equity, and impeachment. At every march and rally, I meet women in their 60s, 70s, and 80s who have been organizing and showing up to try to improve the world and the way it treats marginalized people for decades. Imagine fighting the same fights for 30, 40, 50 years and never giving up. One my favorite organizers – who spends her retirement standing on street corners and bridges with protest signs and registering people to vote – is a septuagenarian who is also a prize-winning ballroom dancer.
There is nothing wrong with being someone’s grandmother; in fact, the women in my life who identify as grandmothers say it is one of the roles they love best. But if we only see older women as having value because of the generations they spawned, we devalue all women, including ourselves.
My suggestion is to make friends with an older woman as quickly as possible (before you are one yourself!) If you’re lucky, you’ll end up with friends like mine – friends who dye their hair purple, tassel-dance in pizza joints, stand on bridges with protest signs, and tell dirty jokes from their walkers.