Sunday, 1 March 2015

Ageism in Cartoons

I don't normally share academic work, but this was a fun and eye opening project on ageism as a ubiquitous influence on cartoon characters.  I learned the Jefferson Transcription System for Language and Social Development last year and it has actually come in handy a few times since then.  Oh wow, university education can be useful!

Ageism and Society – Cartoon Analysis of Aging Stereotypes

     This essay will focus exclusively on the portrayal and perpetuation of ageist stereotypes in cartoons. Cartoons are an interesting platform for conveying social norms due to the diversity of their target audiences and often satirical tone, which can be problematic because “older adults appeared in 1.5 percent of all television portrayals, and mostly in minor roles”, casting a negative light on older adults which often emphasizes “stereotypes of their physical, cognitive, and sexual impotence” for comic relief (Montepare & Zebrowitz, 2002, p. 107).  In other words, older adults are not well represented in the cartoon genre and often used as comic relief instead of displaying more realistic and empowering qualities of living into the third and fourth age (Laslet, 1987).  The goal of this paper is to identify some of these common stereotypes across cartoons geared towards older audiences , the family, and children.  A simplified version of the Jefferson Transcription System (Jefferson, 2004) is used to present the dialogues from each cartoon excerpt.
Example 1: Positive and Negative Ageism of wily Grampa Simpson in Last Exit to Springfield (1993) from series The Simpsons 16:20 -  17:20
            Mr. Burns, the nuclear power plant owner, asks his assistant to hire a security team to keep his striking employees at bay during a union dispute for their dental plan.  A crew of five elderly gentlemen appears at his desk, in tattered civil war uniforms, led by Grandpa Simpson, known throughout the series for his convoluted and long winded stories.
Mr. Burns: Smithers, get me some strike breakers, like the kind they had in the 30’s.
Grampa: We can't bust heads like we used to. But we have our ways. One trick is to tell stories that don't go anywhere. Like the time I caught the ferry to Shelbyville. I needed a new heel for m'shoe. So I decided to go to Morganville, which is what they called Shelbyville in those days. So I tied an onion to my belt, which was the style at the time. Now, to take the ferry cost a nickel, and in those days, nickels had pictures of bumblebees on 'em. "Gimme five bees for a quarter," you'd say. Now where were we... oh yeah. The important thing was that I had an onion on my belt, which was the style at the time. I didn't have any white onions, because of the war. The only thing you could get was those big yellow ones...
            The scene begins with Mr. Burns sitting upright and alert with his hands tented.  As Grampa rambles on, Mr. Burns, who is famed for being ambiguously ancient, frowns at Grampa in exasperation with his head resting on his hand from boredom. He is also tapping his finger on the desk as Grampa talks, signaling impatience. Mr. Burns starts to close his eyes and then he and Smithers mutually roll their eyes at each other as Grampa continues on with the convoluted yarn.
            Grampa Simpson seems completely aware that his stories go absolutely nowhere, by referring to his tales as a “trick” to keep people in line. He seems to enjoy playing the part of the senile old man.  A common stereotype is that the elderly love to ramble on regardless of the dismay and discontent of their conversation partners.  This clip is an example of positive ageism because Grampa is being a bit of a trouble maker, and willfully abusing his elder status as an outlet for his rambling stories to torture those who will listen because he is still sharp and has a sense of humor.  To remedy the ageist stereotype of the senile elder, Grampa could have played up his amusement of torturing listeners with his stories that don’t go anywhere.  The clip leaves ambiguity if it is really for Grampa’s amusement and not because he actually has lost cognitive capacity.
            Mr. Burns is also an older adult, who is possibly older than Grampa, but he was dressed in a modern suit, giving him a timeless appearance appropriate for a business mogul. The shabby uniforms signified that the older men are an “other” group, and living in a different world or time period separate from modern society because of their status as elderly (Johnson, 2011).  The band of older men could have been dressed in normal street clothes or in an updated uniform instead of in the tattered civil war re-enactment outfits to show that they are accepting modernity, or not holding on to their pasts.
Example 2: Quirky, Senile Granny Defying Some Expectations and Confirming Others in Parents Day (2000) from the series Hey Arnold! 17:35 – 18:40
            Arnold, a 4th grader at an urban public school in New York, is competing in a Parents Day tournament.  His parents went missing on an archeological expedition when he was a toddler, so he has been raised by his quirky grandparents in their boarding house.  After losing the egg toss to Arnold and his Grandpa, an overly competitive parent slanders the unorthodox family and puts Arnold in a funk over the peculiarity of his situation.  Arnold asks his grandparents to withdraw from the tournament but has a change of heart when his grandpa tells him the real, unembellished facts surrounding his parents’ disappearance.  The next morning, his Grandmother is wearing a black-belted gi and is making miso soup for breakfast.
Arnold: uuh, I was thinking, maybe we could go back to the parents tournament?
Grandpa: really?  But I thought you said it was just for kids with actual parents?
Arnold: yeah, but for me that means you and Grandma.
Grandma: then it’s time to man the battle stations!  We’ll fight ‘em in the trenches, we’ll fight ‘em on the beaches!  We’ll give ‘em heck, Harry!
            As Grandma gives her battle speech, she stands on the dinner table and her robe exposes defined varicose veins on her calves, the table creaks and groans, and collapses, sending her flying into Grandpa’s arms.  The whole family embraces.
            This example assumes that older adults become senile after a certain age.  Although Grandma Pookie and Grandpa Phil are loving caregivers, this piece of cartoon reinforces that grandparents are fundamentally different from parents. Even though the intention of the cartoon is to show that family can be diverse, and it is raising a child with love and compassion that matters, the negative stereotype remains by making the Grandma into comic relief with her senility and kookiness, she consistently may not be a reliable and competent caregiver due to her unpredictability.  When Grandma gives her clarion call on the table and it collapses, it not only uses her energy and enthusiasm as an element of surprise because it goes against the stereotype of the withdrawn, out of the loop elder, but it also makes the viewer question what is safe for an older adult.  Drawing attention to her varicose veins is an interesting and subtle technique to implant the notion that although her spirit is strong, her body is deteriorating.  A younger character would probably not break the table and the whole scene would have been very triumphant, but instead it was wrought with comedic relief in an otherwise emotionally charged episode.
            Grandma, a white, lower middle class New Yorker, is a very unexpected person to be well versed in Japanese culture (the miso soup), and certainly not karate.  I think those unexpected elements of her character are essential for the show’s dynamic; however, making her completely senile perpetuates a hurtful stereotype for the elderly.  People can be weird, quirky, and have a tricky sense of humor, but by keeping her short term memory sharp, it would help give young viewers a more positive outlook on cognitive aging and hopefully garner more respect for their own grandparents.  Grandpa Phil acts as the voice of reason.  Grandpa delivers his line about “actual parents” in a tone signifying that he already knew Arnold had had a change of heart, but he wanted Arnold to come to a conclusion on his own.  Grandpa Phil is perceptive and caring: if Grandma’s craziness was toned down and she was more consistently involved with parenting Arnold, then it would help convey a more respectful portrayal of an otherwise enthusiastic, quirky, and theatrical grandmother as caregiver.
Example 3: Ageist Stereotypes of Physical and Sensory Deterioration, Incontinence, and Loss of Mental Function from Dexter’s Laboratory: Ego Trip (1999) 23:48 – 25:38
            Dexter, a boy genius super scientist, travels into the future to band together with his 20-something year old self to save the world from an unknown evil.  Once in the distant future, Young Adult Dexter and Boy Dexter come upon the beacon tower of elderly, world saviour and scientific deity, Elderly Dexter.
Boy Dexter: We must be at the top a-runnink the whole show! (sniffles and wipes away a single tear) I did-a not think it could happen, but I am more of a gen-i-us than I already am! Shall we?
Young adult Dexter and Boy Dexter approach the door of the impressive tower and ring the bell.
Boy Dexter:  We are the Dexters of the-a paaaaast.  We have come from the paaast to find out how we save the fu-ture, your all knowink presence.
From the outside, Dexters can hear a toilet flush and the clanking of Elderly Dexter coming down countless flights of stairs and huffing for breath. 
Clanking and huffing continues until he can be heard screaming and tumbling down the stairs.  He eventually crashes at what we assume is the exit of the tower.
Elderly Dexter:  AHHHHH MY HIP!
The doors to the tower finally open and a binding green light bathes the younger Dexters.  A wiggly little arm using a wrench as a cane is the first visible part of Elderly Dexter.  He shuffles over to the other Dexters with squinting eyes. 
Elderly Dexter:  Hello!
Young Adult Dexter: HI!
Boy Dexter:  Hello!
Elderly Dexter: hmmm
Young Adult Dexter: HELLO!
Boy Dexter: Hey!
Elderly Dexter: (looking concerned) What?
Young Adult Dexter: HELLO!
Elderly Dexter: Hi!
Young Adult Dexter: HELLO!
Boy Dexter: ...stop it.
Elderly Dexter: Who?
Young Adult Dexter: what?!
Elderly Dexter: HELLO!
Young Adult Dexter: HI!
Boy Dexter: ...stop it!
This sequence carriers on about 3 more times.
Young Dexter:  STOP IT!
Elderly Dexter: (3sec) Where are my presents?
            There are many elements at play which combine to form an elderly caricature complete with the most daunting aspects of aging while exuding comic relief.  Even before Elderly Dexter leaves his tower, it is insinuated that he is frail and incontinent because viewers can hear him flush the toilet before venturing out into the world and can hear the metallic clang of a walking aid as he struggles for breath down the stairs.  His voice is hoarse, subtlety signifying that he has to yell to hear himself speak because he has lost most of his hearing.  Throughout the verbal exchanges with his past selves, exemplified by the extended greeting process, he seems to first miss the initiation of greetings because he cannot hear, then seems to have his memory reset every few seconds so that the process of greeting becomes drawn out and painful for Boy Dexter; however, Young Adult Dexter is oblivious to the frustration and confusion. 
            Although Glass (1996) states that seniors do experience stiffer joints, weaker lung functions, hearing loss, and reduced bladder capacity, Elderly Dexter is a shuffling ageist stereotype.  He could be an example of successful aging at its finest, considering that Dexter is supposed to be the greatest scientific mind in the history of the world.  He could have easily been a beacon of hope to children about aging, by having a brilliant intellect, quick humor, and mature conversational skills.  Instead of shuffling with a wrench for a cane, he could have made an awe-inspiring mechanical walking aid or power suit to cushion his joints, which would also discreetly reinforce his intact procedural knowledge for mechanics and physics.
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