Our names are Alleen and Don Nilsen. Arizona Humanities Council.

Our names are
Alleen and Don Nilsen.
Our presentation is sponsored by the
Arizona Humanities Council.
The Home of A.H.C is:
Ellis Shackelford House 1917
What Folk Humor and Language have
Taught the Nilsens about Growing Old
First, We Learned There Are
Many Facets to What Really Is a
Challenge, e.g.
Growing old as a man
is different from
Growing old as a woman
Growing old in a primitive culture
is different from
Growing old in a capitalistic society
Alleen: Here is an Afghan proverb we heard when we
were teaching for USAID between 1967 and 1969.
• I was horrified, but in my youthful naiveté, I
dismissed it because as an American, I would never
become “old” in the way of Afghan women—missing
teeth, bent backs, walking sticks, and practically no
health or grooming care.
• Besides I vowed to get educated so that when I grew
old I would still have something to contribute to my
family and to society.
Don: I was pleased at the
male part of the proverb.
I thought about the
Afghan phrase
“Safid riche,” which
is a term of respect
for a “white beard,”
i.e. someone able to
give “grandfatherly
Alleen: I Came Home From Afghanistan a
Confirmed Feminist
• But when we returned to the University of
Michigan, the “real” feminists in 1970s Ann Arbor
frightened me so much that I decided to study
sexism in the dictionary rather than in life.
• I thought I could study language without having to
get involved in social issues.
• But one of my first dictionary discoveries was that
the contrasting American terms of Grandfatherly
advice and Old wives’ tales send the same
message as does the Afghan proverb.
A Further Surprise
• After we moved to
Arizona, Alleen began
reading about the life
of her paternal grandmother, who lived her
whole life in northern
• She lived much the
same life as did the
Afghan women, e.g.
• Even in her wedding
portrait she is not
smiling because of a
missing tooth.
…Gave birth to ten children.
…In effect, was a single mother because her
husband was out of town teaching school.
…Never had running water or electricity.
…Was a community leader, instrumental in
founding the PTA in both Navajo and Apache
…Made sure that four of her five daughters
graduated from college and had successful
teaching and family careers.
Alleen: My father came to my 48th birthday party,
and sadly observed that his mother died at age 48,
“and she was an old woman.”
Don: It was a big surprise for Alleen to
discover how closely language and social
issues are connected.
• Now that we both have lived with this idea for
more than 40 years, we see linguistic evidence
pointing to society’s differing attitudes toward
growing old as a man and growing old as a
• Some of the revealed prejudices are against
females of any age, but they are stronger when
the target is old and so they are more obvious.
The main reason for negative feelings
toward growing old, is our fear of death.
Even popular books for
young readers focus on
the desire for an afterlife.
Most religions promise an
afterlife, a resurrection or
• And think of all the
stories we have about
Heaven and Hell.
• And look at all the folk
stories of the world that
feature ghosts and
communication with
“the dead.”
• Rick Riordan’s Percy and the Olympians books, are filled
with mythical creatures all illustrating immortality.
• In the Harry Potter books, Lord Voldemort (whose name
means something like “Running from Death”) is trying to
gather up the seven parts of his soul planted as
Horcruxes, in the hope that he can live forever.
• Alleen: I am depressed by the success of Stephenie
Meyer’s Twilight books where Bella repeatedly tortures
herself—and readers—by obsessing on the awfulness of
growing old while Edward (the vampire) will stay in his
beautiful and perfect 17-year-old body.
• Don: The Twilight books depress me because Edward is
so “perfect” that as a male I could never compete.
To Keep from Being Reminded
of Death, We. . .
• Illogically avoid calling someone old, and instead say
they are older, elderly, or grandmotherly.
• Refer to old people as seniors or senior citizens, who are
living their golden years—not in old folks’ homes, but in
assisted living or retirement communities.
• Give retirement communities such names as Sun City,
Leisure World, Green Valley, Golden Hills and Friendship
• Instead of saying someone has died, we say the person
has passed away, crossed over, or gone to join a loved
Although Alleen’s Father built his own coffin—and
inlaid his cattle brands on the sides of it—we were still
surprised to see a coffin at a yard sale.
We make jokes about growing old to console
ourselves that we aren’t the only ones.
We like to, at least, try to keep up
with our grandchildren.
Here are a couple of our favorite Morris Udall
jokes about old age and death.
• At a time of crisis during
the Civil War, Abe Lincoln
was awakened one night
by an opportunist who
reported that the head of
customs had just died.
• “Mr. President, would it
be all right if I took his
• “Well,” said Lincoln, “If
it’s all right with the
undertaker, it’s all right
with me.
• Old politicians never
forget. They are like the
fellow bitten by a rabid
dog. When the doctor
entered his room and
found the patient
feverishly writing on a
legal pad, he said he
didn’t think there was a
need for a will.
• “Oh, this isn’t a will!” said
the man. “It’s a list of the
people I’m going to bite.”
Jokes based on Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s
response to being fired by President
• Old soldiers never die, they just fade away.
• Old teachers never die; they just lose their
• Old athletes never die; they just lose their
• Old robbers never die; they just steal away.
• Old editors never quit, they just write away.
• Old blondes never fade; they just dye away.
• Old deans never die; they just lose their
Attitudes toward aging are more negative
when talking specifically about women.
• Re: Women’s right to vote, Mark Twain said it was a moot
point because women would never give their age.
• When the legislature changed a law about drivers’
licenses, the Republic headline read, “No longer a felony
for women to lie about their age.”
• Years ago the media made a big deal about Gloria
Steinem turning 40. She responded with “Yes, I’m forty
and this is what 40 looks like….If all women would be
honest about their ages, people wouldn’t be so
Animal Metaphors Reveal Human Thinking
• When comparing females to young animals, the allusions
are positive, but when the same animals are old, the
connotations are negative as in filly vs. nag, and bird vs.
old crow or old bat.
• A young girl is called a chick, but later she goes to hen
parties and cackles with her friends. Once married, she
feathers her nest, but soon feels cooped up and begins
henpecking her husband and turns into an old biddy.
• An especially mean-spirited comparison of women to
chickens appeared during the 2008 presidential campaign
when pundits created an anti-Hillary Meal Deal mug:
“Two fat thighs, two small breasts, and a bunch of left
• Parents used to name little girls, Kitty, and
encourage them to act kittenish. Older girls were
more likely to become catty, and to engage in cat
fights or live in cat houses.
• Puss, an alternate name for cats (and vaginas), is
cognate with pouch and purse. Its connection to
sexuality was shown in one of the James Bond films
about Pussy Galore and Her Flying Felines.
• The most recent cat-related term to come into
general use is the word cougar for an older woman
who goes “prowling for young men.” Whether
cougar is a positive or a negative term differs
depending on one’s point of view.
Males Aspire to Adulthood While
Females Cling to Youth.
• Boy Scout leaders address 12-year-olds as Men,
while 50-year-old exercise instructors address their
50-year old participants as Girls.
• Black male teenagers address each other as Man!
while black teenage girls address each other as Girl!
Women’s cosmetics are marketed under such names
as Cover Girl and Breck Girl.
• Mother-daughter look-alikes are often featured in
advertisements and illustrations. A mother is
flattered to be mistaken for her daughter but a father
does not want to be mistaken for his son.
Even the old-goat metaphor is more positive than
negative, as it relates to ram metaphors. Consider
the metaphors that could be used about a player on
the Los Angeles Rams football team.
He is so loved by LA fans, that they buy him a Dodge
Ram truck, which he is careful not to use as a
battering ram. He has inherited his grandfather’s
Civil War ramrod muzzle and while he stands
ramrod straight on the football field, he tries not to
ram his ideas down the throats of his friends.
Nevertheless, he eventually turns into an old goat,
otherwise known as a horny old man.
Changing Attitudes
• We’ve recently been encouraged to see a few
women proudly making associations between
themselves and concepts related to being old.
• In September of 2011, when Barbara Boxer was
conducting a Senate inquiry into a military matter
and kept being addressed as Ma’m,” she asked the
speakers to address her as Senator rather than as
Ma’m because she “had worked very hard to become
a senator.” Senator is cognate with senior.
• Sandra Day O’Connor in a recent interview said that
she thinks that a decision made by “a wise old man
or a wise old woman” will be the same, but still it’s
nice for the public to know that women are being
included in decision making.
How Healthy Is Our Present Emphasis on
Body Image?
• Certainly, we have made progress since the early 1900s when
H. L. Mencken declared that “Woman’s body is the woman,”
and when “respectable” women had to be laced into tight
corsets and hobbled by long skirts and petticoats.
• But today’s commercialization of beauty products and
procedures makes us wonder if women—either young or old—
are welcome in American society mainly because of how much
money they will spend on non-basic items.
• One of our doctoral students, Laura Walsh, just completed her
dissertation in which she showed how the most popular teen
magazines for girls, repeat the same body image as do the
advertised products to help girls achieve this image.
In a capitalist society, concerns about body image are
good for business. Doctors love cosmetic surgery
because one procedure nearly always leads to another.
• In the 110 years since the first face-lift was performed in Berlin,
attitudes have changed dramatically. Acceptance of plastic
surgery has soared so that 69% of Americans now have
positive attitudes toward it.
• At the 2011 Fab Over Fifty Beauty Bash in Manhattan, attendees
could consult with “menopause makeover” specialists, and
experts in “Great Breasts After 50,” “Lifts, Implants, and
Reductions,” and “A Sexy Smile & Fresh Lips.”
• Between 2009 and 2010, Americans spent considerably less on
food, housing, clothes, and entertainment, but 8 % more on
eyelid surgery and a whopping 24 % more on butt lifts.
The Harvard Women’s Health Watch (Feb., 2012) newsletter
made these points:
• Half of Americans in their late 60s and early 70s say that
they feel ten to twenty years younger than their actual
• This is fine, except when we look in a mirror and discover
that we do not LOOK ten or twenty years younger.
• Between 1995 and 2005, the number of older women
suffering from eating disorders (strict dieting, fasting,
and purging) tripled—a bad sign for both emotional and
physical health.
Here is a sampling:
Breast Augmentation = $3,797
Tummy Tuck = $5,332
Butt Lift = $7,904
Collagen Injection = $673
Eyelid Surgery = $2,912
• Cosmetic surgery for seniors has increased
30% within the last 5 years and 1 out of 4
kids (11 to 16) has considered it.
The Fembot: Heidi Montag
The Wind Tunnel: Taylor Armstrong
The Stoic: Nicole Kidman
The Trout: Meg Ryan
The Mean Judge: Simon Cowell
The Valentine: Bristol Palin
The Beauty Business:
Then and Now
• Year’s ago, dyeing one’s hair was to be kept secret as shown
by the slogan “Hair coloring so natural only your hair dresser
knows for sure!” Today it is almost mandatory.
• Actually, we are damned if we do and damned if we don’t.
People constantly watch for signs of “enhancements,” eg.
Flabby necks with tight faces, or for the kind of glamorous
makeover, Governor Jan Brewer had.
• Kathie Lee Gifford was pictured in our local Sunday paper
saying, “I have no lines in my forehead. What do you think I
do? Iron it every morning? You think people don’t know I use
• Last year, an especially nasty campaign sign displayed at
a venue for a speech by Nancy Pelosi read, “BOTOX
• Alleen: At ASU, I prepared student teachers for going
into high school classrooms. I would give them a talk
about modest dress and how they shouldn’t let their
breasts show even when they leaned over. Don accused
me of trying to rid the world of small—or sometimes
• Finally, the Director of all ASU student teachers gave up
on her “dress appropriately” speech because she grew
tired of arguing with girls who would say, “I paid a lot of
money to look like this and I’m not going to cover it up!”
A 2009 Newsweek Magazine feature pointed to the
Oprah Winfrey Show as an Example of Hysterical
Marketing of Health and Beauty
• The editors devoted nine pages to a discussion of
what they called Crazy Talk:
• Suzanne Somers, a 62-year-old actress and self-help
author, each morning rubs a potent estrogen cream into
the skin on one arm. Two weeks a months, she smears
progesterone on the other arm.
• Next she swallows 60 pills—40 supplements in the
morning, 20 in the evening. She starts each day by
giving herself injections of human growth hormone,
vitamin B12, and vitamin B complex.
• This is only a sampling of what she does because she
believes that with nanotechnology patches, chelation
therapy and biochemicals she can be her same beautiful
self while living until she is 110.
Don: Today Men Are the New Market, but it is
Still Controversial
They are experimenting with Touch of Gray. Donald Trump is
teased for his elaborate comb-over and almost any man wearing a
wig is accused of wearing a rug. The first joke we heard about
Arizona’s former Governor Meacham was about the shame of
“wasting a $400 toupee on a two-bit head.”
• Even more than with women, the emphasis is on “staying
young” and “virile.” Virile is based on the old Latin word vir,
meaning “man,” which is seen in such words as virtue,
virtuous and werewolf, and is suggested in the brand name of
• The “promised” rewards for using Viagra opened the door to
the way that commercial interests are now beginning to treat
men much like women have been treated for decades.
Is the Traditional Male Endangered?
This Newsweek
cover illustrates the
changing times that
are making both
men and women
nervous. The story
went on to question
whether (or how?) it
is time to rethink
“I Feel Pretty”
by Joel Stein, TIME October 25, 2010
TIME magazine printed a half-humorous piece connecting
capitalism to the idea of health and beauty treatments for men.
• In 1997, skin care products for men (aftershave, eye gels,
wrinkle erasers) was a $40-million business.
• In 2009, it had climbed to a $207-million business.
• L’Oreal’s line of cosmetics for men went up 30% in the first half
of 2010.
• Menaji, a rival company, has grown 70% each year since its
founding in 2000.
• Founder Michele Probst, told Stein she was just back from
mailing 18 packages to soldiers overseas.
• Her concealer is called camo, and it comes packaged like
chapstick. Her bigger packages resemble cigar boxes.
• Lisa Ashley, a make-up artist whose clients include Charlie
Sheen, Howie Long, and Terry Bradshaw, told Stein that “The M
work [make-up] is cancer to us…We are skin care that looks
• What Stein calls his “Homer Simpson lines,” Ms. Ashley refers
to as his nasolabial crease, a term that made him feel so
“unmanly” he knew he would never apply the product himself.
• He was amazed at the cost: $55 for 0.33 oz. (9 grams) of eye
moisturizer—until Ashley dropped some Toppik powder on his
hair line and his balding disappeared.
• He bought the largest jar she could find, which was either $45
or $12,000. He can’t remember, but he does know that it is not
makeup and he will never leave the house without it.
In Conclusion
• We started this PowerPoint thinking we would do a “Ms.
and Mr. Debate about Gender Issues,” but we soon
realized that growing old is a challenge for both men and
women, but fortunately today we have more time to learn
how to manage it.
• Think how much you learned during four years of high
school or college. Today most of us will have more years
than that to learn how to be old.
• When Social Security was begun in 1932, the average life
expectancy was 62 and it wasn’t distributed to people
until they were 65, which is what made it so cost
• Today, if we are in our 70s and in pretty good health, we
have a good chance of making it into our 90s.
Growing Old in a Capitalist Society
Fold-up Canes
Disabled License Plates
Hair Coloring
Dental Care
Senior Discounts
Airport Advantages
Handicap Facilities
• A Gazillion Salespeople
• False Promises of
Everlasting Youth
• Complicated Money
• Complicated Insurance
• Media Images that We
Can’t Keep Up With
• A Loss of Control
Things That Get Better with Age
• We can start bragging—instead of lying—
about our age.
• We have an excuse for not doing those
things we didn’t like to do anyway.
• As our skin gets thinner, old scars come
back and like a scrapbook remind us of our
adventurous lives.
• We begin to look better in our old photos.
• People who have felt bad about having crooked
teeth, can rejoice at still having their own teeth.
• Alleen: I always hated being taller than 90% of
the boys, but now that I’ve shrunk two inches I
have a whole new circle of eligible men. Also, I
don’t have to shave my legs as often because
with bifocals, I don’t see the hairs.
• In conclusion, think of the elderly woman who
responded to her doctor’s worried confession
that he couldn’t make her any younger with “I’m
not asking you to make me younger. I want you
to make me older.”