July 09, 2012

Breaching Age Norms on Television

ksternheimerBy Karen Sternheimer

While channel surfing recently, I stumbled upon Betty White’s Off Their Rockers, a hidden-camera show featuring elderly cast members who approach younger people in public places and catch them off guard by breaching norms.

Many of the brief segments include elderly women sexually propositioning much younger men, while other pranks include eating off a stranger’s plate at an outdoor café, making out with a blow-up doll in public, and a gray-haired lady standing outside a liquor store who asks a young man to buy her beer because she forgot her ID.

Norm breaching tells us a lot about the unwritten rules of social life. When everyday norms are violated, people often become very uncomfortable, as the hapless prank victims are on this show. Since we are in on the joke, we can laugh, but when we experience norm breaching it can be very unsettling because we no longer are following the unwritten social rules that guide our behavior. Many of the prank victims laugh after looking bewildered. In one case, an elderly man told a young man walking down the street that he had violated the "no cell phone zone" and his phone would need to be confiscated; instead of laughing or looking confused, the younger man began cursing out the prankster.

Many of the targets for the pranks appear to be in their twenties or thirties, and several of the breaches take place at a beach hangout known for its party atmosphere. The very fact that an elderly person is there, let alone initiating conversations with young people, is a powerful breach. When elderly women confidently hit on younger men at the beach, the norm of men approaching women is breached, as is the notion that elderly women are asexual. None of the pranks I saw involved older men hitting on young women, which is less of a breach (and might seem creepy rather than funny).

But the biggest norm breaching of all seems to be elderly people appearing on television at all. Sure, they appear in ads for blood pressure medication and medical alert bracelets, but almost never as anything but representations of being old, sick, and vulnerable. In this show, the older people are in on the joke and the young people are not, another reversal of the stereotypical image of an elderly person as simple and easily confused.clip_image002

For the last few years, Betty White herself has defied this norm, first by her appearance in an ad that ran during the 2010 Super Bowl, followed by a Saturday Night Live appearance, a starring role in the sitcom Hot in Cleveland, and numerous movie appearances.

White is clearly a funny and talented performer, and she has really never stopped working throughout her eight-decade career, but her recent “rediscovery” makes me wonder how many other legendary talents remain vital and yet are seldom considered for work in Hollywood, simply because of their age.

Older performers often appear as guests on talk shows; earlier that I week I saw one sitcom veteran in her sixties who appeared on a talk show discussing her “age-defying” secrets. Her face was plumped from a variety of cosmetic fillers and her skin smoothed by Botox, making her look like someone desperately trying not to look old. The entire interview focused on her age and appearance, a common topic of interviews with female celebrities who are over forty.

Aside from her comedic talent, what is so uncommon about Betty White is that she does not appear to be engaged in a battle with the aging process. She has white hair and wrinkles, and she seems to embrace her age. None of the other performers on Off Their Rockers seem to be trying to defy their age, but are instead talented comedians who can keep a remarkably straight face while approaching strangers with outrageous requests.

We have an aging population, and as baby boomers are gradually reaching retirement age, there will soon be millions more Americans over sixty-five. There is much more to life as a senior citizen than facelifts or erectile dysfunction medication, and yet we seldom see full and varied representations of people who happen to be elderly. Why do you think that is?

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Comments

Nice article! I think people find it simpler to think of people in terms of stereotypes. Our culture focuses on youth as important for beauty and happy living, thus we tend to view aging as debilitating. The ads on television which focus on the negative aspects of aging like waning good health (life alert, blood pressure medication, etc.) rather than positive aspects of aging like wisdom and experience show this.

I appreciate the blog on breaching age norms, but I disagree that elderly individuals don't appear on TV. Holland Taylor is a regular on 2 1/2 Men. Ed O'Neill is on Modern Family. Tom Selleck is on Blue Bloods. Sally Field was the matriarch on Brothers & Sisters. As the society ages, there will be more elderly actors and actresses on tv, and we'll be less likely to see it as abnormal. Its also great to see more intergenerational families on tv as well.

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