We all know the reputation of cat ladies – warranted or otherwise. We also know the assumptions we make as soon as a person’s age is revealed.
Naturally, age is even more prejudicial if we haven’t met in person, regardless of context. And I specifically note “in person” as there are too many facets of any personality (and individual experience) to capture accurately in email, snail mail, text, chat, photo or video – despite what we may tell ourselves to the contrary.
Is Age Prejudicial, No Matter What?
Absent any indicator except age, what do we assume based on the simple provision of a two-digit figure that accompanies a name? What exactly does this have to do with counting cats?
The New York Times Styles Section offers us an exploration of the cat lady in all her 21st century, evolutionary glory. Expounding on the ways in which the stereotypical woman (with cats) is no longer viewed as the doomed and lonely spinster she once was, writer Stephanie Butnick mentions any number of female notables with cats. However, my light bulb moment has nothing to do with our pet loving habits. Rather, it is all about age, ageism, and journalism.
Now if only I knew Ms. Butnick’s age, I could have said: “Writer Stephanie Butnick, 25, mentions” or “Writer Stephanie Butnick, 55, mentions…” Does her age somehow add or detract from what she has to express?
The inclusion of age skews our impressions, not unlike specification of other demographics. But is it even more damning than we realize, however subtle the influence?
Inclusion of Age… Serves What Purpose?
As is the case in most reporting, those mentioned or cited in the article are qualified by an age inclusion. For example, “Ms. F, 26, says…” or “Ms. M, 40, got her first cat when…”
Please note, I am paraphrasing, and nor am I explicitly picking on Ms. Butnick or this article (which I enjoyed, by the way).
Yet I have often found myself irritated by the mention of age in journalism. There are times age is included and it is relevant, descriptive data. Increasingly, however, I find it irrelevant, as though its only role is to slyly bolster or diminish the authority of the subject, depending on context. One could argue that this is not intentional whatsoever, which doesn’t alter the result. In those cases where age is irrelevant, I find it prejudicial; my opinion of the person being described or quoted is (unduly, unnecessarily) influenced by knowing they are 20-something or 60-something.
Is this potentially informative detail in some circumstances? Obviously, yes – and in profile pieces, even more so. But as standard fare? Why not include height and weight as well? And while we’re at it, the state of the ring finger – as we frequently make judgments on marital status, particularly in concert with age and sex?
Couldn’t that provide equally prejudicial (positive or negative) input? Having read several other articles prior to the one I mention – all following the same standard of “name, age, occupation” – the age mentions were utterly unnecessary, and did lead me to form opinions about the speakers that may not hold water.
How Pervasive are Ageist Assumptions?
Don’t we make assumptions (of inexperience) when we know a speaker is 23? Don’t we make different assumptions when the speaker is 33, likely to be more neutral in nature? At 53, the same words and scenario conjure other images and impressions, don’t they?
I may be all for counting cats (and in particular, kindly inclined to those who are giving a home to rescued cats); I may be all for shooing away the image of the dejected, aging woman whose only companions are feline; I may even recognize a measure of relevance for including age in an article that debunks the notion that cats are for older women. I understand the specification of age in reporting where it is has some applicability, but why are we continuing to use this indicator of time on earth as insight of any sort – when so often, it isn’t?
Assumptions relative to age? We all make them, just as we make assumptions based on a variety of demographic factors. But too often, they have no bearing on what we are reading, while creating impressions of the subject or speaker that reinforce our tendency to categorize and judge.
And I wonder – Is this journalistic practice unconsciously institutionalizing our ageism?
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