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August 01, 2018 Book Review

Ending Ageism or How Not to Shoot Old People

by Margaret Morganroth Gullette

Reviewed by Liz Milner

The cover of this book is living proof of Picasso’s dictum that “Art shakes the dust off ordinary life.” It features a striking photograph of an older woman. The image was once part of a mural that deteriorated, leaving just the woman’s face and upper torso. Despite the mutilation, the witch-like figure radiates power: she is vitally, disturbingly alive, and oddly beautiful.

The cover illustrates Gullette’s project of breaking out of “the youth ghetto of our visual culture” to create a new vision of ageing. The subtitle of this book, “How Not to Shoot Old People” refers both to the stereotyped photos that depict older people as “dejected bodies without agency,” and to “duty-to-die” public policies that prioritize the economic and health care needs of the young at the expense of their elders.

Margaret Morganroth Gullette is a cultural critic and prize-winning writer of nonfiction, an internationally known age critic, essayist, and activist.

Dubbed an “anti-ageism pioneer” by the press, Gullette, who invented the term “ageism,” has been America’s primary theorist and practitioner of age studies.

Agism, Gullette says, is an ethical issue that our society portrays as a neutral health issue. It is our society’s last socially acceptable prejudice. Just as racists in previous centuries portrayed the subjugation of other races as ordained by natural law and therefore predetermined, our culture is steeped in a pervasive ageist ideology that depicts ageing as a loathsome disease requiring that older people be shunned, quarantined and, in extreme cases, put to death.

Age, she argues is more a cultural construct than a natural process and decline is the dominant narrative that justifies “micro-” and sometimes “macro-agressions” against older people that range from ignoring them in social situations to over-drugging and under-treating them in healthcare facilities.

In this book, Gullette argues that our culture has become steeped in ageism — a pervasive climate change that engulfs society “diffusely, like toxic gas.” How does one grapple with a cloud? Gullette tries to approach ageism from a mind-boggling array of perspectives. She challenges her readers to “connect the dots” in an argument that ranges (and rages) from ageism’s impact on photography, university education, the future of agriculture, ecology, genocide tribunals, the delivery of medical care, end-of-life decision-making and euthanasia.

Though Gullette is an academic who often slips into the jargon of psychology and sociology, her “academese” is peppered with striking images, witty observations and telling details. For example, she describes the beauty of the subject of an Annie Leibovitz photo as “stored like treasure in the vitrine of an old face.”

Her insights are amazing, but the force of her argument is blunted by a lack of focus. I suspect that many of the chapters in this book began as essays; the one thing Gullette’s argument is short on is connective tissue. Theories that seek to explain everything often are too broad to explain anything. Gullette has spread her net a little too wide.