Tag Archives: ageism

A Preemptively Curmudgeonly Prediction

Given the number of young people today who rarely look up from their electronic devices when in the presence of other people, and the lack of parental figures saying “hey, turn that off,” it would not be at all surprising if in the near future, this type of scene were no longer considered rude. Digital/electronic communication would gain primacy and precedence over face-to-face interactions. Tending to one’s far-off acquaintances via a mobile device would be prioritized over tending to one’s here-and-now relationships. Indeed, would the very meaning of “here and now” change, or merely be transferred over to those relationships that exist in the ether? Will anyone look at one another in the future? Will that be rude? Existence will be acknowledged primarily through electronic/digital/whatever-they-think-of-next media.

In the interest of forestalling evil cultural change and saving the hug as we know it, we must either institute some serious programs to teach kids-these-days some goddamn manners, or somehow stop them from gaining power and taking over society as they are destined to do like every generation before them. Hell in a hand-basket, I say! Who’s got an immortality pill?

Hey, you damn kids! Look at me when I yell at you to get off my lawn!”



1 Comment

Filed under Sweeping Generalizations, Technology

Heroic Temporal Authority: What Do You Know About Space, Old Man?

Once again, I’m going to use an incident as a jumping-off point for a more general thematic discussion, largely ignoring the issue itself. This time, it’s about authority, technology, and situated knowledge. And SPACE!

There was a story broadcast by a newsmagazine program about a week ago (might have been 20/20) about the advent and current ramping up of privatized space exploration. A man in charge of a large corporation that develops spacecraft was the primary interviewee, but I would like to discuss a small segment within the larger story. At one point, the interviewer brought up the fact that an Apollo astronaut (we’re going to go with Neil Armstrong because I’m pretty sure it was him, although I wasn’t taking notes at the time) testified in front of Congress against privatized space travel. He stated that no one but the government (NASA) had the technology or training to safely venture into space. Period. The interviewee was very sad that one of his heroes had spoken out against his dream.

Let’s unpack a bit before we blast off. Not that we’re going to blast off, because we’re not NASA and unpacking is the journey/focus here and deal with it. I’m not going to get into the private vs. public -ness of space travel at all. Rather, what I want to discuss revolves around issues of rhetorical authority–who has the authority to speak and about what subjects–historically situated knowledge, and hero-worship. These are all intertwined within this case and exemplify larger patterns in American culture.

1. Neil Armstrong is arguably held up as a national hero. He not only flew into space on a rocket, he walked on the moon! Our culture has remembered him as an icon of our incessant urge to conquer things. A living symbol of the American spirit. Someone who has inspired many a six-year-old to declare that someday, they are going to grow up to be an astronaut. This hero status affords people it is bestowed upon a certain measure of authority: we tend to listen to what they say. Even if they might not know what they are talking about…

2. Knowledge is situated. You know what you know because of your position in society (think occupation or whatnot) and in time (someone in 1670 wouldn’t know how to work my computer, and I don’t know how to work a plow). As I listened to the excerpt of Armstrong’s testimony, I blurted out “but what does he know now?!!” Armstrong was an astronaut in the 60s. Fifty years ago. As I’ve discussed before, as technology changes it tends to pass most people by. Unless the good astronaut has kept abreast of all the technological developments over the years, he has no way of actually knowing how capable a private company is of safely venturing into space. Armstrong’s knowledge–the knowledge he’s using to bolster his credibility as someone whose testimony matters–is situated in the quite distant past, technologically speaking. These issues of credibility bring us to…

3. Authority–where a speaker or writer gets the authority to speak on a topic. I’d argue that Armstrong’s authority is firmly planted in his status as a hero, although he is ostensibly drawing upon his scientific knowledge and that is partially how he is presented at the hearing and probably understood by the audience. But the point is that he’s given the benefit of the doubt when it comes to his actual grasp of this technological knowledge because he’s a hero and has the public’s respect. The public sees him as an authority on all things space travel because he went into space and we have spent 50+ years celebrating him for this accomplishment. He’s the face of all the (old) technology he’s alluding to. Because of his hero-status, we–the public and Congress–overlook the fact that his understanding of today’s technology (and arguably economic markets, as that plays into this whole debate as well) is out-dated. His argument is based on credibility that isn’t there anymore and charismatic authority (hero-status).

It’s fairly dangerous when we allow our heroes to influence our thinking–and our national policies–without first thinking critically about what they know and if we should give them the authority to speak about it. Since rhetorical authority is granted by the listener/reader, one has to wonder if his testimony was taken seriously. If it was, then Congress is as blinded by our culture’s tendency to lift our heroes up to infallible heights. (Of course, Armstrong may actually know what he’s talking about, technologically speaking. Unfortunately for him, my analysis about the interconnectedness of rhetorical authority, hero status, and situated knowledge assumes that he is not because that’s what I felt like writing about.)

Leave a comment

Filed under Contemporary, Technology

We Cannot Prepare for the Future: The Inescapable Exclusion of Segments of the Population from Society on the Basis of Age*

Can we, the youth, imagine a time when we won’t know what’s going on? Because it’s going to happen.

Culture changes, usually. This is natural. In Western societies, these changes are intertwined with technological “development.” As different technologies and ways of doing things are adopted by society at large, the old are often left behind. Technology kills parts of culture, altering them to nearly unrecognizable states of being. As new technologies are taken up, not everyone can keep up. Those set in their ways are left in the dark, relegated to less participatory modes of existing in society. This happens especially to the older generations. Perhaps it is because they are not as involved in the development of these new technologies, these new modes of societal interaction. Perhaps they have hit maximum capacity when it comes to learning new things, to keeping up with all these changes by reading about them. After all, when you aren’t immersed in these changes, you start to lose the background necessary to comprehend all that comes after. The young inherit the earth, and infuse the society at large with their culture. Hegemonic change disenfranchises the older generations.

This will happen to us, too. Sure, we can keep pace with new technology now, but we won’t always be able to. There comes a time, for most of us, when we decide it’s enough: we have all we need; we can exist in a current mode. And we stop adopting the latest things. When this happens in one’s life cycle varies, but it isn’t a problem at first. Who cares if we don’t understand every little thing our kids or nieces and nephews are talking about? We’re functioning just fine as adults in the world, thanks. We have all we need.

But as we age, we become less able to care for ourselves. We rely on others, younger people who have kept abreast of cultural changes; who know the newest technologies. And their knowledge of the world suddenly overcomes our own: we are no longer in charge of ourselves. We do not know quite how to operate in this brave new world taken over by the young with their new-fangled gadgets and ways of communicating. This loss of control, of knowledge, of feeling like you can exist competently, invades even the smallest, most mundane aspects of culture.

A few years ago, a 90-year-old friend of mine complained that she could no longer do the crossword puzzles in the newspaper because there were so many words she did not know. Words like “iPod.” Trying to explain these words to her and what they represented in the culture just caused her to wave her hand at me, as if to suggest that keeping up was a lost cause. (She could still watch Jeopardy, though, turned up to ear-splitting level.)

At any rate, as members of the current youth generation, the ones employed in sectors that develop and/or use new technologies we feel on top of things. We don’t understand or use every single little gadget that comes out, nor do we understand every nuance of society shifts, but we still feel generally confident about making our way through the world. This confidence allows us to harbor the fantasy that all the changes we are living through are becoming the new status quo–and will remain hegemonic. But at this rate of change–or any rate of change, really, this cannot be the case. There is no way to prepare for how out of touch we will become as we age.

Just look at how things such as the car changed society. Entire infrastructures, ways of procuring food, distances considered manageable, all changed. Changes in media technologies are also a good example. Radio and television changed the way we learned about the world, and how wide a radius of the world we knew about. It changed the ways in which we interacted with people: family, friends, strangers on shows, even. And who on earth was prepared for what the internet has done? Talk about altering the fabric of society with a “simple” medium of communication.

We simply cannot conceive of what’s coming and the changes new ideas and technologies will trigger. The flip-side of this–or at least, a related consequence, is the loss of cultural knowledge. Those of use alive in Western societies today would not know how to operate in a world without natural gas, or telephones, or national voting systems, or any number of things. We do not as a society know how to grow food for our families, wear knickerbockers, or make candles.

Societal and technological changes are constant and mutually constitutive: there is no escape. Not from the loss of culture, from the generational disenfranchisement, from the often sudden incongruity of life experiences. We cannot prepare for how lost we will feel in the midst of future changes. Everything will be different: some things slightly, some things radically. But at least we can count on our grandkids or grand-nieces and grand-nephews rolling their eyes at our ignorant, old-fashioned ways.


*I’d like to extend thanks and partial credit to a friend of mine for originally introducing me to this phenomenon in 2006. Without her, it would not have occupied my thoughts and driven me to write this post.


Filed under Contemporary, Historical, Sweeping Generalizations

Heineken attempts to insult women less, fails

The Heineken beer company somewhat recently (let’s say in the last few months, with increased air time during the holidays) began airing a commercial in the U.S. During this commercial, a young man successfully wins the favor of a young woman by ever-so-graciously offering to dance with what appears to be her older female relative. Soon after it aired, a word was changed in the commercial’s voice-over. Both versions begin with the unseen male narrator saying the following [disclaimer: I could not find a clip online, so this probably part-paraphrase]:

This is a jungle…disguised as a wedding. In it, there are two kinds of tigers.

As we hear the narrator’s monotonously baritone, semi-disinterested voice, we see a lively tent filled with people of all ages in fancy dress. There is music and drinking and general revelry, and it seems as though this party has been in full swing for a while. The camera follows a young man as he weaves through the crowd, his eyes on a particular young woman sitting at a round table.

It is the Unseen Narrator’s next utterance (he is the only one we hear throughout) that contains the word-change. As far as I can tell, the images we see on the screen do not change from one version of the commercial to the next. As Unseen Narrator says this next sentence, we see another young man approach the young woman that initial guy has his eye on. He offers her a drink and she dismisses him. Initial guy smiles and heads in for what may appropriately be described as “the kill” in this jungle-wedding universe, under the simultaneous cloaks of night, chivalry, and erected wedding tent. As all this goes before us, Unseen Narrator continues his interpretation of the scene, uttering the sentence under scrutiny:

One, who goes straight for the prey...” (at this point Inferior Tiger is being dismissed by the young woman)

“…and the other, who lets the prey come to him.”

At this point, Tiger #1 (initial guy who has crossed the wilds of the tent to reach his young female target) places two bottles of Heineken (what, you were expecting domestic?!!) on the table and invites her older female relative to dance. Young Virile Woman melts into a surprised and grateful grin, eyes ablaze in admiration. On the way to the dance floor, or possibly while engaged in semi-tandem movement that defies description, Tiger #1 steals a triumphant smile back to/at his prey. And everyone presumably lived happily ever after with Amsterdam-crafted beer (except granny/auntie, who may have eaten it mid- poorly-executed spin).

Allow me a melodramatic eye-roll. Now, I am not the only one who could (and seemingly did) rant about this commercial as it originally appeared. But I’d rather rant about both versions and the change that took place and its implications. The fact that there are two versions, the second quietly replacing the first, points to the complex conceptions that Heineken, its marketing division, its advertising firm, and American viewers have of gender relations, and the politics of negotiating them. What I find to be most interesting about this commercial is that at one point early into its run, the word “prey” was unceremoniously changed to “prize.” Same invisible, disinterested-yet-amused male narrator interpreting the scene for us. Same lovely images. Different word. But, I would argue, very similar meaning, however well it may have placated those who raised the initial fuss. Allow me to deconstruct:

In the second version (single woman=“prize”), we’re not longer just in the jungle. We’re now at a jousting match or something…in the jungle wedding. Young, attractive women are objects and goals rather than targets for mauling and eating. Great. The underlying conception of young, virile, single, conventionally attractive women remains fairly consistent. In the meantime, men are still tigers–active and in pursuit of said Young Virile Woman. In both versions, women are passive sheep over whose eyes wool may be pulled so as to get into their cotton pants. (Apologies for implosion of that half-woven textile metaphor back there.) Women remain goals in an elaborate game during which men are the players, and these men must reach these goals not directly—which would be a far too simple and inferior method, one for the inexperienced losers–but via an elaborate route that panders to the gendered goals’ uncontrollable emotions and affections toward older relatives. Relatives for whom they may feel responsible. With all of this firmly in place, how can Young Virile Woman react with anything but: Oh my stars–you’ve so graciously asked my grandma/great-aunt Norma to dance with no hidden agenda! I may swoon! What a gentleman! You must see in her the awesomeness that I do! Oh, I do! I do! After this dance, let’s ditch her, down these overpriced beers, and go fuck in the coat closet.

To be clear, this is a “reading” of the commercial for tropes and implicit meanings. I have no idea how these were produced, what the intended meanings were, what decisions were made and when, etc. All I know is that two versions were made and aired, and that one word was changed. This indicates that there were complaints to and/or a change of interpretation on the part of the company. I have no insider information, just common cultural background and vocabulary, each of which can be mined and deconstructed for meaning within particular contexts. We all (meaning primarily TV watchers in the U.S.) know the tropes, and it’s my pleasure to unearth all of them and their many sometimes-harmful implications.

Related to the idea that we share certain socio-cultural knowledge is the argument that since this is a commercial, it is designed to appeal to a certain segment of the population–hopefully a wide one–that will buy this product and increase Heineken’s profit margins. Thus, it panders to shared socio-cultural categories. That this commercial is merely reflecting back those very images and tropes and gender roles that the general U.S. population is perceived by Heineken and its marketing partners to identify with, understand and approve of. (For a great dissection of the American advertising industry and its practices, check out Roland Marchand’s Advertising the American Dream. I’ll try to review this fully in a different post.)

These commercials and the one-word difference between them could be upheld as an acceptable version of how the TV-watching public is thought to be comfortable with presentations of courtship, masculinity, and femininity. Women are prey while men are predators, and in the ostensibly more-PC version of hegemonic gender roles, women are prizes while men are winners. The male change of gendered role is much less negative: in the first version men are portrayed as the inverse of prey: the predatory tiger. The category of predator is a negatively charged one in U.S. culture, so changing the Tiger from a predator to a sort of knight/winner is a more positively conceived cultural category that further serves to place the audience on his side. This also implicates the watchers of the commercial in the male gaze, partially erasing it from the viewer’s consciousness.

While the dichotomous gender roles are placed in different guises/categories, both versions of this highly gendered commercial put forth the idea that women don’t want to be approached directly, as equals, as people, as fellow tigers. Rather, they want to be lured under false pretenses. They want to be made to do the work–to walk right into the tiger’s den. They want to be duped like the clueless prey/prizes they are. Thanks, male gaze.

In both versions, the young, conventionally attractive female is the passive object of both tigers’ active intentions. Also in both cases, the older family member woman is used. She is a pawn in this risky game of jungle chess. And yet she is a grateful pawn–delighted at being part of the game/chase at all. She is portrayed as blindly grateful to be the ostensible object of the young tiger’s honorable attentions. Both females are powerless to resist his clever ruse. No, this Tiger #1 fellow is the winner. And both seem happy about it.

Side-gripe: why is Granny/Great-aunt Norma not the prize? That’s ageist! Plus it points back to the whole virile-young-thang category that Young Virile Woman, who is under constant pursuit by the relentless tiger knights, has been thrust in, sans personal agency. (Thanks again, male gaze.) Besides, Granny/Great-aunt Norma’s gonna have a hell of a lot more interesting things to talk about, and many more years to draw on. (Okay, well maybe just in my opinion.) And even though she is but a barely-tolerated stop on the circuitous journey to the prize, Great-aunt Norma is likewise cast in a passive, somewhat dim-witted role here. As a woman, she, too, is unable to see—or perhaps expects or even enjoys—this ridiculously complicated and misogynistic courtship ritual.

This brings me to another point I’d like to go back to: why must there be all this deception? It’s presented as more noble for a young man to approach a young woman via the guise of taking interest in her older relatives than it is to approach her directly. Even as the Unseen Narrator seems to be sharing a secret with the audience via his interpretation of the events that unfold, he does it with a wink: we recognize both the situation and its deconstruction/metaphorization. It’s presented as normal and expected that people play these games; as if that were the Right and Honorable way of going about meeting people you want to bang and courting them.

Now, it is true that we the audience have no idea what Inferior Tiger said to Young Virile Woman. Maybe he was a total cad. But we don’t get that information. All we are shown is how each tiger chose to actively pursue this passive prey/prize. And to tie this in with the above discussion of ageism, why must talking to the relatives of young women you want to bang always be about “getting-in-good” with them and their clan? That inherently cheapens whatever activity you’re doing with said relatives, which with a little reflection on the parts of both Young Virile Woman and Great-Aunt Norma, rather undermines your whole agenda, Tiger. (Not that either woman is allowed the possibility to deconstruct along with the Unseen Narrator and his audience minions, slave to the male gaze beer googles he so cunningly places over their eyes.)

Finally, the second version is arguably worse than the first with regards to its implications, as the “prize,” of course, is sexy fun times with Young Virile Woman. Maybe a relationship, but let’s not kid ourselves. If, like Inferior Tiger who was too forward, Tiger #1 has just noticed her across the crowded tent (in his pants–hey-oh!) then this is no West Side Story. Tiger #1 wants to bang her (all right, so did Romeo/Tony). Maybe that’ll be the first step in getting to know her better as a person, but in the champange-and-Heineken hazed hangover morning, they’ll both probably just shake hands awkwardly and go to their respective homes. Sure, Disinterested Unseen Narrator assures us that Young Virile Woman is ostensibly the “prey/prize,” but are we really going to let a beer-goggled-brewery and its invisible male spokesperson convince us that there is love and first sight? Gag me with a green glass bottle. This is an ad, after all–it’s all a gorgeous, and some might argue delicious, lie.


Filed under Contemporary, Deconstructing Commercials, Wordplay