Reductive stereotypes stifle middle aged women

by Jackie Roman / Beacon Staff • October 16, 2014

When former first daughter Chelsea Clinton gave birth to her first child in September, headlines circulated about everything from the significance of the infant’s name to whether there should be talks about preparing the White House for a nursery. Though Politico decried much of the speculation surrounding the newborn as “a bit premature and, frankly, more than a little ridiculous,” it wasn’t baby Charlotte Clinton Mezvinsky that got the worst end of the media attention—it was her grandmother, Hillary Rodham Clinton.

As political junkies and reporters look to moon phases and tea leaves to try to foresee if Hillary Clinton will run for president, the former secretary of state has remained mum on the issue. Her new status as a grandmother has only provided new fodder, with headlines like ‘New grandma Hillary skips Maryland fundraiser but sends Bill’ by the New Haven Register.

Clinton is a powerhouse, but whatever title or accomplishment she has, it is always prefaced with her age. With headlines questioning her new status as a grandmother and its effect on her political future, it’s not that she’s a woman that opens her up to criticism, it’s that she’s an older woman. 

As a school that specializes in communication, Emerson classrooms are full of students that aspire to be influential professionals in the media industry. With this comes a responsibility of proper representation; though we might know that our mothers, aunts, grandmothers and other female figures can be much more than the archetypes that populate our newspapers and TV shows, it’s important to actively work against these reductive stereotypes.

Clinton is only one example; sitcoms often problematically show elder women as erratic, witless, and dependent—on both people and substances. Think about Jessica Walter as the controlling, alcoholic matriarch of the Bluth family in Arrested Development. The same is true of Kitty on That ’70s Show: a seemingly silly stay-at-home mom that dotes on her son and (surprise, surprise) has alcoholic tendencies. Alcoholism appears again with Meredith, a middle-aged character from The Office who makes seemingly uninvited sexual advances toward younger coworkers and is seen by the characters as eccentric. The message sent, in short, is that as women age they unravel.

Talk shows are another format where older women are once again misrepresented. The most significant example is Kathy Lee Gifford, co-host of The Today Show’s four-hour broadcast. The audience is often told to laugh about her early “wine Wednesdays” and seemingly nonsensical dialogue. While some of what is pictured might be Gifford’s personality, she is still a multi-faceted person whose writers give her little room to show that. In what might be a surprise to her audience, she has actually penned nine books, written two musicals, and launched a podcast. But her counterpart, Hoda, is the one who plays a more serious role on their morning show, and it is not a coincidence that she is also younger. 

This concern is centered specifically on women because, frankly, older men can still play the debonair character with wealth, handsome looks, and power. In Fox’s House, Hugh Laurie’s titular character walked not only with a cane, but also professional power and sexual prowess. Matt Lauer is consistently assigned serious news stories on Today, and John McCain’s age wasn’t nearly as notable of a voting issue in his 2008 bid for the presidency. Women over 40 face a different set of consequences; on TV, they are the sexualized bosses or the asexual power-hungry crazies that shirk relationships for success. In life, they’re the calculating politicians or the batty aids.