Wednesday, August 31, 2022

A Touch of Grey: Some Thoughts on Aging (and Ageism)

There's a commercial for a nutritional drink called Boost in which a woman says, "Age is just a number. And mine's unlisted." Every time I see that commercial, it reminds me how even in 2022, women are taught that they shouldn't discuss their age. In past generations, women were even told to lie about it-- to say they were younger than they actually were. Actresses always did this: evidently, studio moguls didn't want to hire a woman who was "too old."

It was a factor on TV as well-- older men were distinguished. Older women were... invisible. And if you think I'm exaggerating, look at your local or national news: chances are if the person doing the weather is a guy, he's conservatively dressed in a suit and tie; but if it's a woman, she's wearing a sleeveless dress (even if it's winter), and more often than not, the dress is tight enough to show that she has sex appeal (even if she also has a degree in meteorology). Agreed, things have improved a little from a generation ago when guys could be balding and paunchy and still be on TV, while women had to look eternally young and cute if they wanted to get hired. Today, there are a few veteran female reporters and anchors who are older, but very few of them look their chronological age. Nor are they supposed to.

What brought all this to mind was a recent story from Canada, where a widely-respected and very popular CTV news anchor named Lisa LaFlamme was fired. All across Canada, people wondered if her age (she's 58) was one reason. And then, there was her hair. During the pandemic, like many of us, she wasn't able to get to a salon for a good haircut, nor was she able to color her hair. So, she began anchoring the news with grey hair. Somehow, the republic didn't fall. Viewers who liked her before liked her with her natural hair color. But evidently, this was upsetting to some folks in management. Also upsetting: when everyone came back to the office again, she decided to continue wearing her natural grey hair, rather than getting it colored. 

This shouldn't have been controversial, but for some folks, it was. Of course, her managers insisted that wasn't why she was being fired-- it was a business decision, they were taking the newscast in a new direction, etc. etc. But her fans put two and two together and came to the conclusion that she must have violated the unwritten taboo about women on TV not being allowed to look "too old." There's a segment of the viewership (and perhaps even the ownership) that still expect us to be "eye candy," it seems.

In Boston, in the 1980s, veteran news anchor Shelby Scott had something similar happen to her. I was quoted in an article about it in the Boston Globe recently, after she died: folks who remembered her called her an outstanding newswoman, a respected voice in Boston news... but back in the 1980s, when she reached her mid-40s, she was suddenly removed from anchoring in favor of someone much younger. And her male bosses defended the decision, saying it was time for a new direction (which is code for "it's time to hire a younger female"). Interestingly, the only people who defended her were other women who had encountered the same attitudes.

I understand that TV and movies are visual, and whether you're male or female, looking good on camera matters. But who gets to define "looking good"? I have watched lots of guys who are not exactly movie-star handsome, but they are informative and interesting. The same standard should apply to women. Having watched Lisa LaFlamme, and veteran reporters like Judy Woodruff and Christiane Amanpour, I find them personable, and they're comfortable on camera; but more importantly, they write well and they know their stuff. So, they have a few wrinkles. So, Lisa's hair is grey now-- why does any of this matter? Are we still stuck in the belief that women in media are not allowed to age? And if that's where we are, could someone please tell me why?

Monday, August 15, 2022

What Happened in Vinton (and why it matters)

I've never actually been to Vinton, Iowa, but I feel as if I know something about the place-- in fact, back in the late 1990s, I wrote a historical article about a momentous event that happened there: the first radio station ever owned by a woman went on the air in the summer of 1922-- WIAE in Vinton, owned and operated by Marie Zimmerman (and built by her husband, city electrician Bob Zimmerman). Not much was digitized in 1998, so I did my research old-school. I located living relatives and wrote letters to them, I looked through reels of microfilm, I contacted several Iowa newspapers, and I called the Vinton Public Library, where I chatted with the reference librarians. The folks at the library were very kind, and very helpful. They were also very interested in my research. Marie Zimmerman was one of the many forgotten women in the history of radio, and since she was from Vinton, the library was eager to see a copy of the article I was writing. Later, they even posted it on their website.

Fast forward to the spring of 2022, and all across the country, a well-organized group of conservative parents has been demanding that certain books be removed from libraries-- not restricted, but removed entirely. In some cities, these folks have demanded that specific books, those that allegedly have a "liberal agenda," be taken off the shelves:  books about Joe Biden or Barack Obama or even Martin Luther King, books about combating racism, books about LGBTQ issues, and books about sex education. When librarians did not comply, some folks simply checked those books out and then refused to return them. 

But at other libraries, the staff found themselves barraged with hateful phone calls, threats (including death threats), and online abuse; they were accused of hating America, of promoting pornography, of indoctrinating children, etc. etc. Some staff members, including several library directors, got so intimidated by the relentless abuse that they resigned. And some libraries even closed-- perhaps that was the goal all along.

I wish I were making this up, and I am sure some of you may think I'm exaggerating. I'm not. In city after city, this same thing has been happening, which is why I'm firmly convinced that this is all part of an organized effort to control what is in libraries, and keep certain ideas away from the folks who might benefit from learning about them.  

Much to my disappointment, one of the communities where the campaign of threats and intimidation occurred was Vinton, Iowa. As one publication reported several weeks ago, "The [Vinton Public Library] went on a temporary hiatus after a series of heated public board meetings, where angry community members blasted the library for its LGTBQ children’s literature and kids’ books by first lady Jill Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris." Community members also demanded that gay staff members (or those who "seemed" gay) be fired; and since the community was predominantly Christian, they insisted that the library must carry more Christian books.

Don't get me wrong-- I'm fine about libraries carrying Christian books, or Jewish or Hindu or whatever else (including books by atheists). I'm also fine with parents wanting only age-appropriate content for children to read. But I am not fine with censorship. I am not fine with parents saying a library cannot carry books about people whose religion is different from theirs, or whose politics they disagree with. Nor am I fine with saying that someone who might be gay should be fired, or that books about gay people be removed. And above all, I am absolutely not fine with angry and hateful phone calls or online smears directed at hardworking librarians. So, the Vinton Public Library was forced to close, depriving kids, and parents, of books and computers and quiet spaces to study-- how is that a good outcome?

But this is where we are. There are some folks who believe they have a right to scream at librarians or force libraries to shut their doors, or try to get certain books banned. Of course, the effort to ban books isn't new, and both sides have done it over the years; it has also occurred in countries all over the world, and it usually does not end well.  Censoring books, or censoring ideas-- even ideas that are controversial-- that's a slippery slope. When I was growing up, I am sure my parents didn't want our local library to carry certain books, but I can't imagine my parents, or anyone from that era, screaming at librarians or trying to close libraries down. As someone posted on the Vinton Library website, "If you have a closed mind, you get a closed library." And that seems to be exactly what we are getting these days.