So the Academy Awards® are over, and a new batch of Oscar® winners is basking in a career triumph. With the largest Oscars audience in a decade, it was a night that celebrated new ideas and fresh perspectives in film and fashion, championing the fun and the slightly outrageous. The night was a triumph for host Ellen DeGeneres as well, aided by a great script—with perhaps one notable exception.
I wish the talented writers for this show wouldn’t put words in people’s mouths that cause them to appear insensitive to others, especially things that are out of character for the presenters. If Hollywood culture is all about tolerance and appreciation for individuals, there was a touch of irony in humor perpetuating a stereotype of aging Americans as less than vital and—in this case—universally hard of hearing.
The joke in question was directed at 84-year-old nominee June Squibb. Here was the line:
“June Squibb is nominated for Nebraska. At 84 years old, she is the oldest nominee. She was wonderful in Nebraska. [Then speaking loudly to June] “I’M TELLING EVERYONE THAT YOU WERE WONDERFUL IN NEBRASKA. THE FILM THAT YOU DID. WONDERFUL.”
The joke about June’s age kind of overshadowed the reality of her talent. It colored the world’s perception of her in a shade of gray—as in “old and gray.” The implication: no matter how talented or experienced, older adults are still in a sense “damaged goods.” Unfortunately, this kind of language is still rampant in America, persisting oddly at a time when more Americans are entering their senior years than ever before.
I feel certain that Ellen would not have made any kind of reference like this on her own show. However, because she delivered the line, people will assume that it is her point of view.
I work for a marketing agency, Forté Group, Inc., that exclusively serves the senior living industry. My colleagues and I interface with senior Americans every day and know them to be incredibly able to make active contributions in every area of life. Yet we come across marginalizing speech and images far too often.
In fact, we have developed a term that addresses this kind of language. We call it “graying” someone or something (see “Say it, Don’t Gray It” by Grant Miller). To “gray,” in this context, means to refer to older adults in a way that directly conflicts with their personal identities and perpetuates negative perceptions of aging, such as diminished capacity.
Happily, in recent years Hollywood has done a much better job showcasing the talents of older actors, with seasoned male performers such as Sir Ian McKellen, Clint Eastwood, and Harrison Ford still making box office success. Likewise, the long-held idea that acting is a young woman’s craft has been overturned by great female talents including Helen Mirren, Judi Dench, Meryl Streep and June Squibb.
We hope that this progressive attitude is the new standard moving forward.
Older Americans may be advancing in age, but that doesn’t mean they’re “old.” They may have wrinkles, but that doesn’t mean they’re “slowing down.” They may not be working, but they’re hardly “retired.” And they still deserve to be recognized as vital persons, irrespective of age.
So the next time a writer or producer hands out an award-show host a script and it “grays” someone else—we hope the host just says “no.”
It’s time to “wash the gray out” when talking about older people, don’t you agree?
Watch the compliment, turned to an insult below, starting at :40