You know how sometimes you get a song lyric stuck in your brain and it won’t go away? It drives you crazy for a couple of days until it returns to wherever it came from and life is good again.
Something like that has been rolling around inside my head not for a day, but for a week now. And it won’t go away. It is a promo for an episode of a television sitcom named The New Adventures of Old Christine which airs on CBS-TV.
Until last week, I had never heard of this show but – call me a snob – I don’t watch sitcoms, so there is no reason for me to recognize the title. I’ve since learned from poking around the web that it stars Julia Louis Dreyfus, past of Seinfeld, as a divorced mother who remains friendly with her former husband.
The reason for the title which, apparently, provides the underlying tension for the comedy is that Christine’s former husband takes on a girlfriend also named Christine who, at 25, is ten years younger than “old” Christine. Get it? New Christine, old Christine. Young Christine, old Christine. It’s a sort of clean double entrendre.
Because all the main characters on this program are younger than 40, it could be safely presumed, one would think, that it is free of age bias toward elders. But you would be wrong. Last week, clicking through channels, I encountered Ms. Dreyfus as Old Christine uttering this line in a promotion for her show – the line that’s been stuck in my head ever since:
“You can’t be a grandfather. Your hands don’t shake and you’ve heard of TIVO. (canned laughter)”
Does it never end, this gratuitous elder bashing? Let’s give it the standard TGB Bias Test: You can’t be a woman. Your hands don’t shake and you’ve heard of TIVO. Or, You can’t be black, your hands don’t shake and you’ve heard of TIVO.
Those two sound silly, don't they. Nonsensical. So why didn't anyone at the show or the network think it's nonsensical about a grandfather? Because jokes that cast old people as infirm and uninformed (and worse) are as common as dirt.
It should concern everyone that the young people who wrote that line and the actress who delivered it (who herself will soon be too old by Hollywood standards to star in a show) think it’s funny, and that a major network broadcast it.
These things don't happen by accident. Like the old song says, "They have to be carefully taught". They happen because people have heard ageist language all their lives, and when no one objected, when no one ever said, "This is wrong," it entered their belief system. Then the notion that elders are lesser beings became so ordinary, so deeply held, so ingrained, they don't even recognize its hatefulness.
This is why apologies from those who are occasionally called to account for their prejudices have no meaning. As with Mel Gibson's mea culpa following his drunken hate speech against Jews, it is not enough to say I'm sorry. Perpetrators must actually change their beliefs and live those changes. Unless that transformation is forthcoming, they remain unreconstructed bigots whose language teaches the next generation that elder bashing is acceptable and the cycle continues down the years.
It is the constant denigration of elders in circumstances as small as this little sitcom, in all forms of media, that upholds and preserves age bias as an acceptable cultural norm. And I am so tired of hearing this same old song.