At any age, to partake in ageism is to lay the foundation for your own irrelevancy.
An earnest but clueless young woman was talking with me recently and said "You must have been really hot when you were young!"
What? I'm only 60! I squashed my longing to kick her in the shins -- hard -- and instead replied, "Some people think I'm still hot!" But that was also a stupid thing to say. My worth, or any other woman's relevance, should not be based on how "hot" we are -- what I call the Breedability Quotient or BQ -- unless we subscribe to that disempowering social view that young is superior. We should honor older women; not disgrace them.
Ageism sucks. And the truth is, we all get old; no one can avoid it. Not sure what ageism is? Watch Paddy and Nico's astounding YouTube clip from "Britain's Got Talent," and observe the horrified facial expressions of audience members before the duo blows everyone away with their astounding Salsa dance routine. Note Simon Cowell's obvious disgust (and later, yawn) when he sees Paddy -- a 79-year-old woman going on 80 -- dare to walk out on stage with Nico, her much taller and much younger dance partner. Look at Judge Alesha Dixon's face as she reacts to Paddy; like she's just caught a whiff of dog poop on her shoe. Paddy and Nico have prepared themselves for the snark, which they endure with grace. Would the audience and judges have behaved so dismissively with an older man and a younger woman?
Who exactly benefits from an "ism?" Anything that makes one group feel superior over another group is usually the basis for phobias or isms. It's conventional wisdom that the so-called superior or dominant group doesn't really benefit from the suffering they "bestow" on others. In other words, no one really benefits from sexism, ageism, racism or homophobia. Even though we live in a youth and straight-male dominated society, I assert that men, and the women who worship them, are not better off for squelching the dreams and talents of the rest of us.
So what does ageism cost us? Years of experience and talent. I think of the dignity afforded men my age and contrast it with how I'm seen, and it's infuriating. I am at the top of my game, and yet I'm measured only on the hotness scale?
Notice how Hillary Clinton was treated in the press when she ran in 2008. For an infuriating trip down memory lane, I recommend reading Dirty Words On Clean Skin: Sexism and Sabotage, a Hillary Supporter's Rude Awakening by Anita Finlay, a political memoir about the sexism and ageism we witness on a daily basis. I, along with my contemporaries, feel every blow: we have committed the disgrace of living past our ability to breed. The unspoken reality of ageism against women is "Would I want to have sex with this person?" Men do not have to deal with the BQ factor, and it is a BIG deal. It feels awful to know I become more invisible with each passing day, and it takes more energy just to walk in a room knowing how many people are judging me.
Just a few months ago, a woman -- whose own BQ is in decline -- commented on my fighting skills after seeing me in a self-defense staff training session. She said, "Wow! That was really good for ..." and stopped herself.
"For someone my age?" I said, finishing the sentence for her. I'm glad she at least looked sheepish. Substitute, "That was really good for a girl" or "Jew" and you see how this qualifier is not really a compliment.
Did you follow the recent flap about Saturday Night Live and their inability to add an African-American woman to the cast after so many years? After the two black male cast members proclaimed they would no longer dress up in drag to do black female characters, the situation was quickly solved with the hiring of Sasheer Zamata. Great! However, no one in the youth-skewing cast, or at the network, or in the press, or even the public -- ever stands up for the M.I.A. older female comics, no matter what their color. Ageist. (SNL has, in the past, featured male cast members in their late 40s, although not now.)
Harold and Maude, the legendary cult classic directed by Hal Ashby and starring Bud Cort and Ruth Gordon, strikes at the very core of ageism. The premise is that Harold, a young man, gets his jollies stalking death by visiting funerals and staging suicides. Harold and the ageless-in-spirit Maude meet at a funeral. Harold falls hopelessly in love with Maude. However, Maude isn't really ageless, she is ancient: 79, going on 80... just like Paddy. The movie then skips us through the inevitable disgust that figuratively and literally gags people when they think of Harold mixing it up sexually with Maude. The intergenerational gap (more like a chasm) is just as obvious as, let's say, Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones.
Harold and Maude premiered in 1971. After 43 years, it remains a radical film which proposes that age should have no bearing on people's abilities to cherish one another. The film would never have worked if we had a young girl falling in love with an old man because that, my friends, is the privilege of being a patriarch in a patriarchal society. The situation is not nearly as scandalous, because it's far more common. Inevitably the young girl will be seen as either a "gold digger" or a trophy, usually at the expense of the much older former wife.
It is fools' game to dismiss older men and women. At any age, to partake in ageism is to lay the foundation for your own irrelevancy. I refuse to be irrelevant, and will do everything I can to illuminate and refute ageism whenever I see it.
I am hot in my mission to value everyone, including myself!
NOTE: This article is an updated and expanded version of my column in the Pasadena Weekly that originally ran on April 24, 2014