Age and Oral culture – ‘More than a thousand years will pass and many more….’

As is well established, oral culture aims to pass on knowledge and experiences from generation to generation and has proved to be an effective means of communication of certain content, hardly touched by power, money or the Academy. In this way, oral culture manages to preserve values and traditions, which, were they to come through other channels, would not have resisted the passage of time.

However, we shouldn’t deny the paradox at the centre of its essence. In this huge cauldron of knowledge rooted in people’s daily experiences, cultural and existential ideas persist that go against progress, equality and universal justice. And this is exactly what is happening with stereotypes and the subsequent gender identities they sustain. To paraphrase a famous ‘bolero’, we could say that these very stereotypes have travelled to us from far, far back in time, through words and images and intend to stay alive in a future, which, let’s hope does not last the thousand years that the song foretells.

Our folklore, defined by legends, proverbs, sayings or romances, is full of examples, which transmit and perpetuate a vision of woman as a fragile, dependent and vulnerable being. Our oral culture, rich in messages, which, since ancient times, tried to educate and entertain a poorly informed and varying crowd, attaches a completely different concept of age to women and men. In our ‘refranero’, the idea of ageing is considered a real disaster, which devalues and belittles women whilst seeing men grow in both wisdom and social recognition, a fact which repeatedly gives them both power and status within the community. So, as time marks and deteriorates the body, men seem to ‘mature’ and their experiences and knowledge replace the beauty and strength that their ever- vanishing youth washes away. But does the passage of time really make them more valuable and wise compared to women in the same situation? On the contrary, our tales and sayings are full of women who, as they age, lose all that society demands of them, a wonderful body and the innocence of their youth. In this way, that which is defined as experience in men is perceived as danger in women and it is often mocked or rejected.

Older women in oral culture are often depicted as evil stepmothers, witches or mothers in law (let’s pause to recognise the complete lack of male counterparts at a certain age) who must be feared or escaped. An old Castilian saying ‘a certain Adam, who didn’t have a mother in law, is a good example.

Nowadays, sayings are much less effective in promoting values and fostering knowledge; however, advertising which floods our society has taken it upon itself to transmit and perpetuate highly stereotypical visuals when it comes to the ageing process in both women and men.

A picture is worth a thousand words

I am going to focus on another very important aspect of current popular culture which has seen images displace in full the saying, proverb or phrase, It boils down to observing with a critical eye the role which images ‘decorating’ our daily lives exert, whilst simultaneously verifying and contrasting that which has been previously said via the anonymous word.

I am referring to that ‘iconic universe’ which strongly appeals to our feelings and not to our rational mind, which populates our public space or is hung up in our houses and which subliminally reinforces that which was said about both men and women in the olden days. Therefore, this has to be about analysing from a distance, generic representations of human beings and images of ageing engrained in popular culture.

Of course, I am not talking about the image in art, which can be interpreted in so many ways; neither am I talking about the ability to expertly deconstruct, analyse or offer new meanings to a given visual. I am actually talking about all those iconic representations made to transmit a unilateral, one-tracked message in a diverse and multicultural social context; or rather the production and distribution of images absorbed by cultural, political or economic powers and which allow immediate recognition and interpretation.

Given that contemporary society produces, consumes, digests and disperses millions of images per second without leaving any visible mark, I am going to focus on those images, which, in the public space, transmit a powerful message of ‘social power’, which is collectively recognised. Statues which adorn our parks and squares, advertising billboards or bus and metro adverts (none of them showing men or women of a certain age, of course) I am becoming, for all intents and purposes, an observer and I refer to my experience of being a woman well into her sixties who can hardly find any images with which I can identify in modern culture. The examples to which I refer cover a very short period of time, the first twenty days of this July and do not have much greater relevance than coming from my very own experience.

I am walking through streets and squares of the European city of Athens, the inventor of western democracy (from which women, slaves and children were excluded by the way). As tends to happen when we move in unknown spaces, the images, which populate it, acquire an added value when outside our daily routine. ‘They speak’ without words of events, values or public recognition and we hear and interpret strange places much more than a foreign language can convey.

I do not want to dwell on the exalting of the young male body which classical Greece defined (multiply reproduced to death in ceramics, t-shirts, post cards and a long list of riff raff for tourists which assault you every which way) I will just stick to talking about ‘pro-hombres’ defined according to the Royal Academy as an illustrious and respected individual of great importance within his class) which are ever present in central streets and squares. Aged men who were politicians, athletes, strategists, liberators, philosophers, writers represented and recognised publicly occupying a place in society for their contribution to the greater good. And what about women? How have they been represented? Who remembers Safo, Diotime or Aspasia of flesh and bone who contributed with their pen, their word and their intelligence to a civilisation who denied women access to participate in the Olympic games (so they would not see men’s naked bodies) or the ability to interpret female roles of their famous tragedies?

Almost at the end of my journey, I stumbled upon a huge advertising billboard, on which an old lady, wrinkled and wearing black (a completely conventional representation of feminine old age) was putting a loaf of bread onto the stove. All these symbols were directly linked to a chain of bakeries claiming to have ‘the best bread in Greece’, the message being that they always do it with love, dedication and how it should be done.

I return to my city and focus my attention on the public spaces with the greatest visibility and the most visitors, both local and foreign. The same statement; plaques, statues busts of important men (I try to imagine the term ‘promujer’ or important woman or another which may substitute the word ‘homage’ for another more neutral term) And yes, here we also have an overrepresentation of charming old ladies who counteract the witches, mothers in law and other evil women of the same age. You look at them and you feel that they ooze love for their families, that they are the carriers and purveyors of homely values that should never have been lost and are now branded, packaged and sold to those who hark back to a better time.

How can we ignore amongst others ‘Grandmother’s soup’ from Knorr, the pizzas of Tarradellas house, made with such love by that granny who is always waiting for you to come home to the countryside or the recently baked cakes or the menus of ‘Cazuela de la abuela.’ And what about the frankness of “the seamstress grandmother’ who, if any of our young people had any remaining doubts about what a grandmother should be, decorates its shops with a big doll more suited to a children’s fairy tale than a modern business.

A change of heart: distracted, I flick through the Saturday fashion supplement in El Pais (12th of July). As always, the lack of diversity in gender representation, especially that relating to the third age, is evident. A central report in the supplement ‘the verbs which count on the retrograde’ (read the back/ behind) invite us to treat our intimate parts by putting them through intensive surgery for the modest price of a few thousand euros yet warning that it does come with a risk. You must combat the so-called enemy that is age and ‘maintain, replace, eliminate or increase’ according to what our bodies may need.

Check out the details! It is also possible and, of course, desirable, to rejuvenate our vagina.

Finally, a title ‘super heroines against sexualisation’ gives me the hope of finding images which relate more to reality and in which we can recognise middle-aged women. One of the innovations is talking about the launch of a Barbie doll (at 83 years old and still a model, it has become a revolutionary doll, says the footnote), which except for its white hair has the same appearance as a woman 50 years younger. This denial of the passage of time is once again, pathetic. The message that these images convey to women is harrowing. As an important dermatologist takes it upon themselves to mention in an article of the same supplement ‘ it is very important to combat any sign of ageing’ in women, of course.

About to succumb under the weight of age and the cruel design that time reserves only to women (it is a well known fact that ‘ with age, either you sink or swim’) I find myself facing a comforting image of a 90 year old man calling out from a bus advert ‘every day I am more handsome. I’m not joking’ and ‘ oh marvellous’ He has managed it without surgery and without costly beauty treatments, without collateral damage. Only by being consistent with his health and with Campofrio!

Irony aside and all things considered, I finish this article by proposing a critical awareness of all those manifestations of popular culture, be they oral or visual that, seemingly neutral, are a vehicle for the same generic stereotypes as usual. Coming back to the Refranero once again, let us know how to surprise and denounce ‘old wine in new bottles’.

by Elena Vera

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