ageism relevance

Jane Fonda and Norman Lear

Age doesn’t determine your relevance, relevance does

Two Golden Globes speeches and a recent Quebec media dispute say a lot about ageism and relevance in acting, politics and beyond.

This year’s pandemic edition of the Golden Globes was a mixed bag of funny and awkward, but, as the end credits started rolling on the awards show, one thing suddenly occurred to me: The two celebrities that made the biggest impression on me, and who I spent Sunday night fawning over, were both well over 80.

First, 98-year-old TV producer Norman Lear was honoured with the Carol Burnett Award for Achievement in Television. His speech was eloquent and full of humanity. As the highlight reel showed everything he’s produced and written over the years, I was struck by the timelessness of his work. All in the Family, Sanford and Sons, Maude and The Jeffersons remain iconic shows today, tackling touchy subjects like racism, women’s rights, anti-semitism and inequality, while also managing to be very funny. In many ways, his work revolutionized the industry and made it possible for TV to be socially impactful and honest in a way it had never been before.

Later that evening, 83-year-old Jane Fonda received the Cecil B. DeMille Award for her decades-long career. Instead of focusing on her impressive body of work, the lifelong political activist and feminist came on stage and delivered an impassioned speech about inclusion, diversity and elevating all voices (the kind of speech that would probably get her branded a “radical miltant” or part of “les wokes” here in Quebec by some pundits) and she did it with the kind of energy and conviction I rarely see in people half her age.

Amplifying marginalized voices

“I have seen a lot of diversity in my long life and at times I have been challenged to understand some of the people I’ve met, but inevitably, if my heart is open and I look beyond the surface, I feel kinship.”

Fonda comes from a Hollywood dynasty. She was born with the kind of privilege, talent and bombshell good looks that could have allowed for an easy ride. She could have ignored all the injustices in the world and focused on being just another leading lady. But she has never hidden behind that privilege. She has spent a lifetime advocating for global peace, human rights, equal representation and fighting for the underdog — whether that was during the Vietnam War in the ’70s, or when she signed her best actress acceptance speech in 1979 because the Oscars Academy wouldn’t offer closed captions for the deaf, or just last year, when she was arrested and jailed multiple times protesting climate change.

“Why be a celebrity if you can’t leverage it for something that is this important?” she was quoted as saying in a 2019 New York Times article.

Why, indeed?

During her acceptance speech, she pointed to “which voices we respect and elevate and which we tune out,” and “who’s offered a seat at the table and who is kept out of the rooms where decisions are being made.”

How to age well

The reason her speech resonates is because it goes beyond the movie industry. Fonda’s plea for us all to “be in step with emerging diversity” is an important one. Both Lear and Fonda have managed to hold on to the one thing that keeps people relevant as they age: staying in tune with the world around them and listening to the concerns and perspectives of younger generations without dismissing them as unimportant or trivial. When people downplay casual racism in older people by explaining that “they grew up in different times,” they’re often giving them a convenient ‘out’. Sometimes they’re just racists who happen to be old.

I admire people who remain relevant and willing to be challenged as they age. It’s not a given and it’s not always an easy thing to do. It’s why so many people don’t even bother. Instead, they fall into self-serving patterns, play it safe, prefer not to question or de-program long-standing societal biases and prejudice. They don’t fight the status quo that benefits them, they stay in their echo chambers, comforted by the voices of those like them. They eventually become the “Old Man Yelling at a Cloud” Simpsons meme, forever telling people to get off their metaphorical lawn, uttering “In my day…” and “You kids…” in a constant loop.

But the secret to remaining relevant as you age, in one’s career and one’s life, is to never stop learning and challenging your own beliefs. You need to stay flexible, open-minded and humble. In fact, staying changeable is probably one of the most important factors of successful aging. Learning how to unlearn what you think you know, as the world evolves and changes, and demographic shifts allow for new voices and new generational concerns to be prioritized, is vital in remaining current.

How do you remain relevant as you age?

Journal de Montréal columnist and novelist Denise Bombardier was recently a guest on Dans les médias, hosted by journalist Marie-Louise Arsenault. During her appearance, Arsenault asked 80-year-old Bombardier how one remains relevant at her age.

Arsenault later faced several accusations of ageism, with critics insisting the question shouldn’t have been asked at all. Bombardier herself wrote a column stating that, “In Quebec, age is an obstacle” and that viewers were shocked by the “brutality of the question.” I found the question neither brutal nor inappropriate, but perfectly relevant within the context of the interview.

Bombardier’s shock was particularly ironic, considering the decades-long uneasy relationship the two journalists have had, which started when Bombardier herself accused (or, at the very least, strongly implied) that young journalists like Arsenault weren’t reading her books or doing their research before interviewing her. In a now-iconic take-down, Arsenault confronted her and challenged that false statement.

Bombardier can often have a smug, self-congratulatory way about her that isn’t necessarily everyone’s cup of tea but has probably gained her many fans over the years. People like certainty in their pundits. It reassures them. But these are also character traits that don’t allow for much self-reflection and the ability to admit error. In her column, she complains that younger people today don’t respect and “revere” their elders, and that senior citizens are undervalued and ignored.

I don’t think anyone owes anyone any respect simply because they’ve been around longer. Respect is earned, not doled out by date of birth, and I’ve seen plenty of smart, driven young people get maligned by older generations simply because of their age. Bombardier herself wrote a column in 2019 after Greta Thunberg came to Montreal for the climate march, complaining about the phenomenon of “older people idolizing the young” and insisting that Greta is being “used” because God forbid that a socially conscientious young woman with strong convictions might have a mind of her own!

Ageism exists, but relevance is still earned

But Bombardier is right about ageism. Seniors in Quebec (and elsewhere) are not treated well. The COVID pandemic and the CHSLD catastrophe showed us first-hand that the conditions they live in and are exposed to daily are deplorable and deeply tragic. Even Jane Fonda, in promoting season 5 of her show Grace and Frankie said, “You get old and then who gives a f*ck anymore?”

Only change I did to the house was install a stairlift

Bombardier is right in decrying ageism. There is no denying it’s a real thing. We live in a world that prizes and celebrates youth — particularly in women — to the extent that it is often valued above many other, far more important assets. A youth-obsessed world, coupled with the unrealistic standards imposed on women, leads to them often not allowed to age the way men can. But Bombardier isn’t an actress, she’s a writer. And if you have something interesting and of relevance to say, people will continue to listen, regardless of age.

If Bombardier feels that she’s increasingly being treated as irrelevant by younger Quebecers, maybe she should question why that is. Perhaps old age isn’t the culprit she thinks it is, and her often-conservative, xenophobic, increasingly sclerotic, narrow-minded views of Quebec and a lack of interest in current social challenges have contributed to her image.

As Jane Fonda, who’s Bombardier’s senior, demonstrated this past Sunday, age doesn’t determine your relevance — your relevance does. ■

Read more editorials by Toula Drimonis here.