Roehampton University, UK
WS171: Age, image, identity: Exploring ageing and ageism in contemporary Britain
It has been argued that, in recent decades, there has been a redefinition of what it means to be an older person in Western societies. Featherstone & Hepworth, (1991:371), for example, refer to a ‘uni-age’ style to describe the merging of experiences, lifestyles, behaviour and dress across the generations.
In this presentation I will be testing these claims using data from articles in women’s magazines and data from interviews with magazine readers. On the surface, the redefinition appears positive and seems to bring ‘good news’ for today’s mid-life woman. But closer analysis reveals that the ways in which becoming older is talked about and discussed in the articles are underpinned by several ‘myths of ageing’ which I identify. These myths appear to be challenged within the articles to some extent, and indeed, myths are often sites where struggles for meaning occur (see Thwaites et al, 2002). Moreover, the articles are interesting to the readership precisely because they appear to challenge these taken-for-granted cultural myths concerning older women, for example: that they are not attractive; that they are not capable and so on. However, I question as to whether what is written really presents a challenge or, in fact, works towards supporting and reinforcing those myths. This is because there is a continued emphasis on appearing “young” physically and mentally and this remains the default position. On the other hand, it is possible to suggest that certain key phrases (which I will identify) signify that perceptions are indeed changing towards older women in UK society today.
I base my analysis on a semiotic framework (the study of signs), in which I draw on Barthes’ conception of denotation, connotation and myth (Barthes, 1972). I distinguish between the different levels of signification: the words and the images used in the articles and the interviews, and the associations attached to them. I discuss how readers make sense of what is presented using cultural knowledge assumed to be shared between text producer and reader, that has become ‘normal’, ‘naturalised’ and ‘universally true’ in today’s society.
Barthes R (1972) ‘Myth Today’ in Lavers A (trans) Mythologies London: Granada Publishing Limited pp109-137
Featherstone M & Hepworth M (1991) ‘The Mask of Ageing and the Postmodern Life Course’ in Featherstone M & Turner BS (eds) The Body: Social Process and Cultural Theory London: Sage Publications Ltd pp371-389
Thwaites A, Davis L, Mules W (2002) Introducing Cultural and Media Studies: a semiotic approach Basingstoke: Palgrave
Age, image, identity: Exploring ageing and ageism in contemporary Britain
Saturday, April 5, 2008, 09:00-10:30