I feel bad for Madonna. People have been making fun of how old she is ever since she danced during her Super Bowl halftime show in an unflattering black short dress and long black cloak. Everyone knows only young people can dance in bad-looking clothes and make them somehow look good, so what was she thinking?! Still it’s ageist to say so. In fact it’s ageist to criticize anyone because of their age. We’ve all been through it, yet we can’t help but carry on this cruel practice to generations that follow.
At the age of five, I too was a victim of ageism on a daily basis: in school I could only have lunch with kids my age and on the playground, eight-year-olds laughed at me when I asked to play with them. “You’re a kid,” they’d yell, “play with someone your own age!” During my sister’s high school ragers, her teenage friends would put me in a closet and not let me out. Back then I thought it was because I was Catholic, but in hindsight I realize it was because of my age. Then like a bad cliché straight out of a psychology textbook, I took what I learned from my experiences and turned into a practicing ageist myself. When my little brother asked to play with me and my friends, I rejected him solely based on his lack of years and experience in playing. I should have stopped the cycle of prejudice but I was too weak. Some would even say, too young.
In elementary school girls my age would gush over Ricky Schroeder, but by this time I was a full-time ageist. I made fun of them and anyone who liked him. “He’s just a boy,” I’d say, then I’d proudly declare my love for older men, in my mind “real men,” like Han Solo and Indiana Jones. This way of thinking limited my dating possibilities. In High School I refused to date anyone younger than me and I was so blinded by my bias, that I could only find older guys attractive. My first boyfriend was a senior when I was a freshman and my second boyfriend, though not quite old enough, was at least one year older. After we broke up, a hot blonde kid with a body like young Brad Pitt was interested in me and asked me out. Alas, he was a year younger. But it wasn’t his fault that he was born a different year than you. True, but I could not compromise what I saw as my principles at the time. So like a nasty ageist, I told him I couldn’t date him because of his age. Still I let him take me to his homecoming dance.
But ageism is tricky. Just when you think you’re the one calling the shots on who to be with according to their years on earth, ageism comes to take you down. Years after college, a talent agent I interviewed with once asked me my age. He kept prodding until finally he coerced me by saying, “Well if we sign you anyway we’ll find out sooner or later.” I told him I was 30 and immediately he pushed back his chair and smirked as if there was nothing he could do for me. In his eyes I was 500 years old and not in a cool Vampire way. He told me I was too old for this business, rolled his eyes and thanked me for my time. If this agent had been around, he probably would have passed up Phyllis Diller when she first started doing stand-up, since she didn’t get to doing it until she was 37.
Being placed back on the receiving end of this narrow-mindedness, I started to see how thinking this way even limits our appreciation of life. How much more attractive would the general population be to us if we saw people of all ages as beautiful. I once met Carla Laemmle at her home. A silent movie star and niece of Carl Laemmle (Universal Pictures founder), she opened her door and I was struck by how beautiful she was. She was wearing this intricately designed silk house robe, had stunning blue eyes with even white skin and a thick mane of hair that matched. I could not stop sharing with friends how gorgeous this woman was. No plastic surgery–at least no facelift or Botox by what I could see–just old-fashioned beautiful. But she’s old. So? She’s 102!Everyone I told looked at me like I was sick. In fact, people even seemed grossed out by the thought that a woman her age could be considered gorgeous. Finally someone made sense of what I was saying by adding, “For her age.”
I don’t fault anyone for their inability to respect the young or the old. After all, ageism in our country is ingrained and structured by law: DMV’s nationwide don’t let people drive until they’re 16 (unless you get a hardship license which always makes the driver sound young with a sad home life), our nation doesn’t let us vote or join the army until we’re 18, courts don’t allow citizens to sleep with anyone over the age of 17 until they turn 17, discounts at theaters and amusement parks are given age markers of 21 and 65, and before you are finally allowed to drink alcohol at the age of 21, you are given the ageist name of “minor”. Still it’s something we can be aware of and another thing we should consider adding to our “Please Be Sensitive To This Subject” list.
Now Madonna isn’t necessarily a champion against ageism herself–she seems more interested in being seen with young already established artists rather than older ones, but what she did do was make public a hidden discrimination. Madonna is not afraid to do whatever she wants at an age most people believe you should no longer think you can do whatever you want. This prejudice though is not just for those over 50, but rather people generally feel the need to stunt everyone and tell them what they can and can’t do at any age because of their age.