Gero-Punk Analysis: #geropunkjenny

Early on the morning of Tuesday, February 5th, two days after Super Bowl 47, while I was still in bed and easing slowly into my day I checked my phone for email messages.  I didn’t have my glasses on, it was dark in my room, and I was still in the sleep-to-wakefulness transition, so I was just skimming messages, kind of poking about to see what was what. Suddenly my attention was activated and arrested by one message in particular and when I read it, I had to catch my breath. Let me tell you, I was suddenly fully awake upon reading that Dr. Bill Thomas had mentioned my Gero-Punk Manifesto on his blog ChangingAging.org.  If you don’t know who Dr. Thomas is, you should find out, as he’s a real mench, a visionary geriatrician who founded the Eden Alternative and Green House Project, and a fellow-traveler who thinks about adult aging and later life in really radical, profoundly beautiful ways. I have been following his work for quite some time, he is a colleague of some of my colleagues, and I even helped bring him to Oregon a few years back for a training co-sponsored by the Oregon Gerontological Association. But I’ve never had the opportunity to meet Dr. Thomas in person.

So, here’s the back-story. Apparently there was a Taco Bell ad that ran during the Super Bowl. And apparently the ad provoked some very strong feelings on the part of many viewers, including Dr. Thomas, who felt that the ad was patently ageist. Dr. Thomas was inspired by the “mini-controversy” around the ad, as well as by his own perplexing experience of viewing the ad.

Here’s where I come into the story (I’m sure you are wondering!): Somehow he came across my Gero-Punk Manifesto (I don’t yet know how nor when), and something about it caused him to reflect upon and actually revise his initial reaction to the ad. In his post, he excerpted the Manifesto and wrote some awesome things about what he thinks it means to be a Gero-Punk, and, in homage to the Gero-Punk Project, established a new Twitter hash tag, #Geropunk, as a way to expand and keep the conversation going. Dr. Thomas also encouraged his readers to engage in their own critical thinking about the Taco Bell ad and to enter into the conversation, sharing how they felt about the ad when they saw it, about whether or not they considered the ad to be ageist. (Read the full article on ChangingAging.org).

I didn’t have a chance to really explore Dr. Thomas’s #Geropunk blog post until much later the day it was published, as in between finding out about it and finally getting to read it in full, I had to get my daughter Isobel and myself up-and-going, and engage in a long, busy day. Throughout the day I received email messages, texts and FB posts about Dr. Thomas’s blog post, as well about the “controversy” (including an email message written to Dr. Thomas by my mentor, Dr. Harry Moody, on which I was copied and in which I was referred to, but not directly addressed). Let’s just say it was a surreal experience, as I hadn’t done much more than quickly read the post and skim the responses to the post. My predominant feeling about the whole thing was that I felt quite honored that my little blog had been discovered, especially by someone as cool as Dr. Thomas, and that perhaps more folks would engage with the ideas explored here, maybe even contribute their voices to the Gero-Punk Project.  But I really had no idea what the heck was so controversial about the Taco Bell ad, nor why or how my manifesto was being used in response to the controversy.

Let me confess now that I did not watch the Super Bowl (I did my taxes and re-watched Harry Potter: The Sorcerer’s Stone for perhaps the 6th time.). Thus, not only did I not see the Super Bowl, I didn’t see the Taco Bell ad, nor any of the other ads, nor the half-time show, etc.

In fact, I didn’t watch the Taco Bell ad until six days after Dr. Bill Thomas wrote about the ad in his post #Geropunk on his ChangingAging blog   I decided to watch the ad because I wanted to understand what the “controversy” was about, as well as to understand how Dr. Thomas might be using what I wrote in the Gero-Punk Manifesto as a way into thinking about the ad in a less reactive, more expansive way.   I also wanted to understand the responses that Dr. Thomas received on his blog in reaction to his post–a mini version of the larger “controversy” seemed to be playing out.

I also figured I better watch the ad because I had been contacted by a journalist who wondered if he could interview me about my opinion regarding the “Taco Bell ad controversy,” specifically whether or not I considered the ad to be ageist.  He wanted an official Gero-Punk statement, I guess.  (In my email correspondence with the journalist, I asked him if he’d interviewed any old persons about their experiences of and attitudes toward the “controversy.” He had at that point spoken to one old person.)

I watched the Taco Bell ad a total of one time. As far as I am concerned, it wasn’t interesting enough to watch more than once. It was just interesting enough to watch just once. I have more important things to do than fret over whether or not the ad is ageist and seeing it once was sufficient for me to form an opinion. With all due respect.

But since I was asked for my opinion – Is the Taco Bell ad ageist? — let me say that to my way of thinking, and I’ve been a gerontologist for more than half of my 46 years on earth, ageism is the result of treating all older persons as if they are the same rather than as individuals — e.g., making a category error, assuming that “old age” or “later life” are such unifying, totalizing conditions that once you are old, once you dwell in the land of later life, you pretty much lose your complexity, your individuality, all the stuff that makes you you.

So, to be more concrete, I’m asserting that it would be ageist to assume that all (or most) old persons are conservative, stubborn, demented, sexless (or perverted), that they sit around reminiscing all day (and are living in a nursing home because they’ve been abandoned by their families). Conversely, it would be ageist to assume that all (or most) old persons were wise, peaceful, generous, and have time on their hands to volunteer and babysit their grandchildren or take vacations. It isn’t that old  persons do or don’t embody these characteristics or attitudes, nor that they do or don’t live in institutional settings or do or don’t have time on their hands, it is that old persons are complex individuals first and foremost, not members of a simplistic age-based category. (And, by the way, age in and of itself isn’t a very good indicator of anything except how many trips around the sun you’ve been on.)

In other words, any way that a human can be at other life course stages — kind, selfish, wise, frail, strong, radical, conservative, etc.– a human can be in later life. And to throw a bit more complexity into this discussion, let me also say that humans experience both continuity and change as they grown older. That is, we continue to be and become who we’ve been earlier in our life course, AND, we can through intention and hard work change and learn and believe and act in new ways until the day we die. The longer we live, the more we experience, the more complex we become; and adult aging and later life ask of us – demand of us – a great deal of courage in order to adapt to our changing embodied selves. We may or may not be up to the challenge, we may or may not have the skills and sensibilities we need to adapt in the face of life-altering changes, but it does not follow that we can’t as old persons learn to think, feel and live in new ways until the day we die. But this is the topic for another blog post. Back to ageism.

Here’s the punch line:  Ageism is a form of stereotyping, and stereotypes can be negative or positive, but whether negative or positive a stereotype functions the same way, which is to reduce complex human beings into types that can be more easily labeled and categorized (and controlled!).  In doing so, or in being done so to, we lose our fantastic hard won self-hood that we develop as we travel through our life courses.  Here’s another punch line: We actually become less alike rather than more alike as we grown older because of the accumulation and synthesis of our life experiences and our deep development as humans over time.

(There are some important and paradoxical questions we will want to ask in the context of future Gero-Punk conversations – When are age and generation important “variables” and when aren’t they? In other words, what can be said about what is special about particular ages and life-course stages? When do individual differences rule, and when don’t they?)

So, back to the Taco Bell ad.  My reaction to my single viewing of the ad was: Ha! Really? Wow.  Well, why the hell not? (And when am I gonna have the guts to finally get a tattoo?)

Not to open a new line of discussion, but we are all of us — young and old and in between, as well as across all income strata — exposed to the same global consumer capitalist stuff (and by “stuff,” I mean “crap.”). Because of the ubiquity of entertainment media and marketing, our lifeworlds are colonized, ala Habermas. In fact, some of my colleagues suggest that in contemporary U.S. and Western European societies there are fewer differences between generations and economic classes than there are similarities when it comes to how we spend our time and money (I can give you citations if you’d like them) because we are all exposed to the same messages about how we should spend our time and money, what we should desire and how we should find fulfillment of desire.

But back to the “controversy.”  For me, the Taco bell ad speaks more to the effects of global consumer capitalism than it does to ageism.  I mean, what is ageist about having real old people in the ad doing wild stuff? Getting tattoos? Partying? Staying up so late that they need to get a “fourth meal”? It seems to me that it would be ageist to suggest that old people wouldn’t do these things, that they’d be too bored or sick or frail or demented to be interested in booty and junk food and transgression.

Think about it! Why would someone who enjoyed such things earlier in their life stop enjoying such things in their later life unless they were told –socialized through ageist discourse– that they should?  And: Why can’t an old girl decide when she is 80 to become a hot mess?

Don’t get me wrong–surfacing, calling out and fighting ageism is crucial to creating a society where all humans can be free of oppression.  However, if I have a qualm with the Taco Bell ad it is that it glories fast food and consumerism, both of which are side roads to hell, IMHO.

Perhaps here’s where the Gero-Punk Manifesto comes in to the story and why Dr. Thomas called upon it in his critical reflections about his reactions to the Taco Bell ad  (BTW, props to Dr. Thomas for enacting real-time critical reflection and thinking for us in his blog post—I loved that his mind changed, and he admitted it!).

My point – and Dr. Thomas’s, too, I think  — is that we would be well served to develop a form of consciousness about adult aging that allows us to think critically about this stuff, that helps us to ask really powerful questions about why we react to things like the Taco Bell ad the ways we do and why others react they ways they do, that invites us be more honest about what we actually feel and think about aging and later life, and that inspires us to think in more capacious, complex ways about aging and later life so that we can all engage as deeply as possible in this really cool opportunity to travel through the life course, changing and staying the same, and using the time and energy that we have for however long we have in ways that are meaningful and spectacular.

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About Jenny Sasser

I am currently Chair of the Department of Human Sciences and Director of Gerontology at Marylhurst University. I joined the faculty as an adjunct member of the Master of Arts in Interdisciplinary Studies program in 1997 and since that time, I've been involved in designing many on-campus and web-based courses and programs for adult learners, including in Gerontology. As an undergraduate I attended Willamette University, graduating Cum Laude in Psychology and Music; my interdisciplinary graduate studies at University of Oregon and Oregon State University focused on the Human Sciences, with specialization areas in adult development and aging, women’s studies, and critical social theory and alternative research methodologies. My dissertation became part of a book published in 1996 and co-authored with Dr. Janet Lee--Blood Stories: Menarche and the Politics of the Female Body in Contemporary US Society. Over the past fifteen years I have been involved in inquiry in the areas of creativity in later life; older women's embodiment; sexuality and aging; critical Gerontological theory; transformational adult learning practices; and cross-generational collaborative inquiry. I am co-author, with Dr. Harry R. Moody of Aging: Concepts and Controversies (8th edition). I live in Portland, Oregon my dog Happy. My daughter Isobel is a Freshman at Bard College in New York state. I have been on the planet 47 years.
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5 Responses to Gero-Punk Analysis: #geropunkjenny

  1. Dr. Bill Thomas says:

    Excellent.

  2. Mary Sutherland says:

    I love this! As a Marylhurst Alum I think critical thought and response is important to all sorts of social issues. Although, I did not watch the super bowl or see the Taco Bell advertisement during the game I do have a few thoughts on the matter. I just watched the ad in order to write an informative thought and instead of ageism being the issue I question whether or not it is offensive and what it means to be offended. I do not see agism being the issue here, but more and more I notice that society takes offence to certain subject that at one point would never be questioned. I do have to keep in mind that I am only in my 20’s so I may have a different perspective then others.
    As a social scientist I believe that is a good thing to keep these matters in the forefront out our thoughts. What my immediate question after watching this add was “Is this offensive?” What does it mean to be offended? On one hand I feel like it is a state of mind, on the other it is a gut reaction. Also, we have to take in consideration perspective. More often than not this is what is being miss communicated.
    I think about my 92 year old grandfather and I know he would laugh at this commercial. If someone who may be the target of humiliation can find the humor in this add then why should younger generations feel the need to come to their defence?
    Is it a matter of taking life less seriously and not jumping to conclusions? OR is this an issue worth being concerned about?
    Whole Heartedly these are only thoughts. I have never studied Gerontology, but I am interested in learning more from experts in this field.

  3. Libby Hinze says:

    Well stated. I especially enjoyed the part where you say, “Why would someone who enjoyed such things earlier in their life stop enjoying such things in their later life unless they were told –socialized through ageist discourse– that they should? And–why can’t an old girl decide when she is 80 to become a hot mess?”.

  4. helen says:

    I think you are amazing and as usual, have caused people (myself included) to take pause and examine their own ideas. Well done.

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