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June 14, 2022

We Are Capable: It's Time to Empower Women and the Elderly With Susan Douglas

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We Are Capable: It's Time to Empower Women and the Elderly With Susan Douglas


When did we decide to box out women and the elderly from the rest of society? Despite being just as capable (if not moreso) than the rest, there is a tendency to withhold opportunities for women and the aged. 

Susan Douglas points out that there are more women over 50 in the United States now than ever before. So what does this mean, and what kind of paradigm shift can we expect? 

How the Media Shapes Perception, Creates Bias

For decades, media industries have been governed primarily by older white men. This means that the perspective of women—especially older women—have been left out. In addition, the advertising industry is incredibly youth-oriented. Susan believes that this is caused by the misconception that if you start liking a product when you’re young, they have your attention for life. 

These two industries have created an interaction in bias where older women are no longer relevant. But what’s interesting is that there is a steady trend of older female celebrities who are fighting back. For example, the Grace and Frankie show on Netflix became a huge hit because it’s giving society a chance to look at older women in a new perspective. The reality is that older women on the ground are living their lives very differently than their peers of a previous generation—and thankfully, Hollywood is beginning to catch up to this demographic revolution.

Women Coming Together for Dialogue

“Feminism does not end when you're 50 years old, right? Feminism should be a mode of support and sustenance and activism throughout your whole life.” - Susan Douglas

Susan points out the need for older women to reach out to younger women, starting discussions on what it means to be a feminist and what it means to age. We are bombarded by advertisements that encourage older women to “defy aging,” as if it isn’t an inevitable biological process. 

We need to address ageism in our society. It’s the one issue everybody has to go through eventually. People in their seventies and eighties aren’t lonely, decrepit, antisocial creatures. They are fully functioning human beings who enjoy being physically and sexually active.

Closing Remarks

The United States is lagging behind when it comes to age equity and quality of life for women. It’s time we change that narrative by focusing on structural change. This includes the inequitable distribution of wealth and gerrymandering, for example. 

Change will take more than a shift in perception. We also need to act on structural barriers for the disenfranchised. And this goes beyond women and the elderly.

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Feature Image Credit: Envato Elements

For those who are hard of hearing – the episode transcript can be read below:


Alexander McCaig (00:08):

Hey, Susan, thank you for joining me today on TARTLE cast, really appreciate having you here. You recently wrote a book in 2020 on aging, but more specific to aging, was aging combined with aspects of feminism that we need to focus on. Where not only do people get segregated in our current society because of race, color, creed, but then when it comes to the age of their body, the physical thing that no one can stop or can control, people tend to isolate these individuals from opportunities. And then to go even further, if you find yourself in some marginalized, subset of a biological factor or a gender choice, that you may find it more difficult for you to find these opportunities in our current society, being a woman, choosing to be a woman. And then if you're an older woman, the odds are really not in your favor. So how is it that you came to, first of all, writing this book? Why is it such a focus? Why do you think they need to have such a voice right now? Why is it timely?

Susan Douglas (01:15):

Well, I have been writing about the images of women in the media for quite a while. And I have to confess it has had something of an autobiographical element to it as I've moved through my own life and also watched my daughter grow up and some of the media fair that was on offer to her. And so when I became, as we say politely, a woman of a certain age, I became quite in interested in the images of women, or really the lack thereof, of older women in the media and what that meant for public policy, workplace practices, women's economic success and security. And a really striking thing here, Alexander, is that there are more women over 50 in our country than at any other time in our history. So this is a real demographic revolution and it's something I thought we should begin to pay attention to because ageism and especially gender to ageism, remains one of the most persistent and really acceptable biases in our country.

Alexander McCaig (02:33):

Interesting. And so, I thought that you had interesting data around this point. Now we live in a world of perspective. And so when we're inundated with marketing material in media, that gives us sort of this synthetic perspective of how the world should operate, the truth is distorted. And then from that, the natural factor that's going to occur is that people are going to put people in boxes. And you made this point about, and there's a study on Hollywood for, if you're looking at men in films over a certain age, as opposed to women, I think it was like, what, 3 to 1, 4 to 1, 5 to 1, 6 to 1, the ratios completely off.

Where does this begin? Is it because media drives it or is it more of the patriarchal society that we have, the patriarchal design of finance and how we've towed away from matriarchal societies, which are things of the early ancestral past that humans used to have? What is it that continues to put this male focus in play, where that's where the power is and that when people see age come in and then gender, the value of humans seems to tailor off? But I find that wisdom increases with age, one would hope. So why do we see that inverse?

Susan Douglas (04:00):

Well, look, we've always had a patriarchal society here in the United States. And of course that means that media industries have for decades and decades been governed primarily by white men, including older white men. And when you don't have women, period, let alone older women, in the media, their perspectives are simply not there. Couple that with the fact that the advertising industry, in particular, is very youth oriented. They want to get people when they're young, because they have this, I think, misconception that if they get you to like a certain product, when you're 12, 14, 20, they have you for life. And that's actually not true, but particularly since the baby boom became such a huge market. Madison Avenue and the media they support have been very youth oriented. So you have an intersection between a biased focused towards the young and especially young women and a media system that regards older women as past their prime, as dispensable, as not relevant anymore.

Alexander McCaig (05:15):

That doesn't make any sense considering the fact that if women are living longer, if they have higher access to education now than they ever had, in the United States here in particular, they have more resources, financial resources. And if I understood one of the Nielsen studies correctly, the data says that individuals 60 and over, watch far more TV and media, then the younger millennials, which they're focusing the ads on to even capture revenue from them. So why is it that the generation of older women are being pushed to the side? Why is it that the focus doesn't make any logical sense? What is with that?

Susan Douglas (05:56):

It doesn't make any logical sense. I mean, for years, Nielsen didn't even count people over 50, they were irrelevant and this was crazy. So much television, as you pointed out, skewed older. Now I do think, and the study you cited, which was something that was done by The Annenberg School, at USC in 2016, found that nearly 79% of the older characters in film, 73% of the older characters on broadcast TV and 70% of the older characters on cable were all male, even though older women, after a certain age, outnumbered men. And this is a residue of age old biases about older people in general and older women in particular. Having said that, we are seeing now, and we are in a turn style moment, because older female actors, whether it's Meryl Streep, or Diane Keaton, or Bette Midler, or Jean Smart, they are not wanting to be put out to pasture. Some of these women actually have clout and they are starting to get really important parts, both in cable and streaming services and in movies.

So older female celebrities are pushing the envelope. You look at Grace and Frankie, a huge hit for Netflix. You know, now in its sixth season, I believe, why is that? Because everyday women who are over 50 are also reinventing what it is to be an older woman. They're working longer, 33% of women between the ages of 65 and 70 are still working, 17% of women 70 to 75 are still working, some of them because they love their jobs and don't want to quit and some of them, because they have to. So older everyday women are out in the world, living their lives very differently than older women of a previous generation and Hollywood is very slowly, but it is beginning, to catch up to this demographic revolution.

Alexander McCaig (08:30):

You know, that's really interesting. So, I told you earlier, I'm currently down in Florida and from the places called The Villages and everywhere else, they're not retirement communities, they're 55 plus. And I tell you, there was more spending money, more leisure time, and more of those people in that age bracket, men and women alike, doing more physical activity than I even do, right? I'm nowhere even near that, right? But to watch that, it's like, if anything, it's untapped. You know, in the retail market for people moving into housing, home ownership, inside these places, they get it, it makes a lot of sense. But the perspective from the outside is that people have these stereotypes and they think that value drops with age.

And I think that we need to work to invert that because there's so much data, even in the medical sense, which you talked about, to say that when doctorate students, students that are getting their MD, if they don't establish a relationship in their studies with people over the age of 55 and up, 60 and up, what they find is that there's a lot of misdiagnose for what's going on because they think it's just a function of age when it really could be the same thing that might affect an infant or a millennial or anybody in between. And I think it was right here, this was the quote, "And as soon as you hit 65 and go to the doctor's office, you're bombarded with questionnaires about falling down, how good your memory is, whether you had a bowel movement in the last fortnight".

Listen, I understand that there are some stereotypes, the body like anything else, with age things change, but it doesn't mean that absolutely everyone begins to have certain failures at the same point. So I think that false perspective is actually doing a disservice. There's a lot of older women, specifically in the United States, that have so much value they can deliver, even in the workplace, outside of it. But there are a lot of opportunities that aren't available to them. So where do we look for that sort of solve? Because outside of medical research, with misdiagnosing because of ageism and then moving into the economy we're currently in, how do we start to make those opportunities ripe again, Susan?

Susan Douglas (10:51):

You know, I think that older women are needing to and beginning to reach out to younger women. Feminism does not end when you're 50 years old, right? Feminism should be a mode of support and sustenance and activism throughout your whole life. And so what are older women told, the biggest word that bombards us is defy, defy aging, as if we can defy an ineluctable biological process.

Alexander McCaig (11:28):

That's my point. Yeah.

Susan Douglas (11:28):

That affects every person, unless you die young. It's the one ism, ageism, no one can escape. And this is why it is very important to have older people and younger people, older women and younger women, talk to each other more, become more active politically across the generations and to make younger people aware of the pitfalls of ageism, as you very rightly point out. There are now some programs at hospitals in New York, where medical students are being introduced to people in their seventies and eighties, not patients, just regular people and they're learning that these regular people are not sick all the time. They're not decrepit, they're not lonely, they're not losing their minds. They are fully functioning, many sexually active and physically active people.

And these kinds of training programs are actually helping to counter the sorts of stereotypes that you're talking about that will lead a doctor, say, to ascribe something you're feeling as in your head, or just a sign of age, when in fact you actually have some kind of infection. So, really countering these stereotypes across the board is really important. You know, I've had older women tell me that as they're raising their own consciousness about age and ageism, and it's tiny steps, they'll be in a restaurant and let's say they're 75 years old and they're there with adult children. And the waiter will not talk to her, but talk to the adult children. And these women are saying, "Excuse me, I am here and I'm the one paying the bill". You know, older women are beginning to speak up in the workplace when they are overlooked, when they are interrupted, when their comments are ignored and saying, excuse me, citing their experience and insisting that they not be interrupted. There are all kinds of steps, large and small, that older women are taking because they're fed up.

Alexander McCaig (14:02):

You know, the data is showing us, it's telling us, there's a difference between telling and showing. The data is telling us that there is a social conditioning that has happened in our society, that marginalizes people and how we look at things is incorrect. The data is telling us that. But, and if we look at the stance of those doctors establishing relationships with individuals outside of the hospital, it's almost like you need to bring the data close to home. You have to make it personal for people, for them to really understand. That's one of the greatest difficulties, is you can have studies all day long, all this information, but the only time human understanding occurs is when people can actually experience that thing. So the data can be screaming at us, but people need to experience the truth that is out there, that the data is telling us to look for, essentially where to look.

So when I see this and I see these studies, how is it, do you think, that we should take this data and make these experiences personal? How is it that we take what we see here, even in the United States and the data we have and how do we apply that to other cultures, where there's even stronger patriarchal structure, whether it's in the house itself or things outside of it, or women at all, having any opportunity to get into the workplace? Because there're women who listen to this from 222 countries across the globe, so it's like, how do we continue to transition it and make sure not only it works in the United States, but it also works for women everywhere?

Susan Douglas (15:48):

Well, we like to think that we've made a lot of progress in this country, but we are actually doing terrible when it comes to gender equity and we're also doing terrible when it comes to age and age equity. The World Health Organization, just this last year, has named ageism as a global problem that is really serious around the world. But let's try to compare ourselves first to countries that are doing much better than we are.

Alexander McCaig (16:26):

Who's doing much better? Don't say Sweden, because that's not fair. They're always at like the top.

Susan Douglas (16:32):

They are. Iceland, Finland, Norway. Yes, the Nordic Countries. Iceland, 47% of people in their legislature are women. Finland, 47% in their legislature are women. And there are major studies around about gender equity around the world. And we're actually behind Tunisia, Ecuador and Bolivia in terms of how we are performing across women's political involvement, women's economic security, women's health and women's educational attainment.

Alexander McCaig (17:16):

Wait, that's really interesting. Are there examples for that so that I can understand that, when people say we're behind, well comparatively, like how far up the highway is the car compared to where you are? Are they doing a hundred miles an hour, supporting women, women of age? What's the differential look like comparatively to us here in the United States?

Susan Douglas (17:38):

Well, in terms of women in general, we rank 75th in the world in terms of the number of women in national legislatures. And this, even after the 2018 election, when more women were elected, 75th, we rank 55th in infant mortality rates. We're lower than we were in 1960. And we're behind Cuba, Estonia, Slovenia, not to mention the developed European Countries. So overall, when you look at women as a group, America is so behind, only 4.8% of fortune 500 companies have a female CEO. So, across the board, when it comes to sexual harassment assaults on women's reproductive health, which is huge right now in our country. The glass ceiling, pay inequity, job segregation, no childcare. We are an embarrassment when it comes to paid maternity leave, paid paternity leave and decent affordable childcare.

You know, so you take that as all women and then you think about older women and the poverty that older women, many of them face. In 2019, half of all older adults had 27,000 annually in yearly income, in 2019, the annual median income for men over 65 was just over 36,000, for women, it was 21,000. So I know you're talking about seeing these semi gated communities where privileged, mostly white people, live and it can give the impression that older people are rolling in dough. Now Nielsen did a study in 2012 excoriating advertisers for ignoring baby boomers because many of them had so much disposable income and nothing was being advertised to them except the big pharma stuff that bombards us on the nightly news and the weather channel. But on the other end of the spectrum, Alexander, our country is terrible when it comes to older people without resources. They are trying to live on money that puts them below the poverty limit. And it so frustrating to me that Biden's build back better agenda, which is such a female and family friendly agenda, can't get through Congress.

Alexander McCaig (20:48):

Well, you got to think about how the people who are in our Congress, right? It's the exact same thing that you're trying to speak up against, that sort of structure, right? It's glaring at us, it's in our face, but it's very hard to make that sort of change in those systems. So how is it Susan, that we're going to take the data, we're going to take the experiences and we're going to take the people that are truly affected and other individuals that support those people that are affected and get them to come together and facilitate the proper change and opportunity needed for those groups. Where do we set our focus? What is the first target we need to look at and how do we do it collaboratively?

Susan Douglas (21:46):

Well, the first target, which is the biggest problem facing the United States, is the inequitable distribution of wealth. That is our biggest problem and it of course affects women, it of course affects people of color and it seems to be an almost intractable problem. Not because everyday people don't support fixing it, they do. Everyday people, you look at public opinion polls, people want the super wealthy taxed. They don't want the super wealthy shoving all their money off into offshore tax havens. They want Jeff Bezos to pay his fair share of taxes. So I'm telling you, I don't have a good answer to your question because you're asking a very big and important question. How can we remedy our political system so that it is not constantly always working for the rich at the expense of everybody else?

And our big problems that contribute to that are gerrymandering, for example, the structure of the Senate, where you have states like Wyoming and North Dakota and South Dakota having the same representation as New York and Texas and California. So we have really big structural problems that many of us recognize, and we just shake our fist at the cosmos in terms of trying to fix that big problem. And that's the big one from which everything else stems. And so, various of us are out there writing our books, giving our talks to whoever will listen to us about the need for social justice and equality across the board in our country. And we're very passionate about it. And sometimes it just feels like there aren't enough podcasts and public lectures in the country to affect the kind of changes that the majority of Americans want.

Alexander McCaig (24:17):

So, it's not going to happen anytime soon, not in my foreseeable future or probably many generations after me, that a completely socialist agenda, which you may find in more Scandinavian countries of the sort, would come in, offering more public services to help those who lack opportunity to access to healthcare, childcare, things of the sort. And even more so, those groups, which are 60 plus and even more so, beyond that, women, right? So if I understand it correctly, it's not so much about taxing the rich, it's people actually asking for resources like the ones I just stated that can help them regardless of the income level, because these are the things that are typically most difficult for them to get, to find the time to actually achieve that, unless you have more exorbitant amounts of wealth, which are brackets they actually just don't sit in. So is that really what it is?

It's not so much of the politically coming in saying, tax those people that are wealthy, but really change the structure of our spending so that it adds more social programs in place that afford those the things that are actually needed for them. Because money actually doesn't solve anything. But giving people opportunity, putting the systems in place and the ability for them to go use it, I would see that would be a different sort of change. Do you see where I'm headed with that?

Susan Douglas (25:54):

Well, I do think money matters. I think if you took some money out of our completely bloated defense budget...

Alexander McCaig (26:01):

Oh, I know, the F 22, all that stuff, that I get.

Susan Douglas (26:05):

Which passed, Alexander, several weeks ago, not a peep, right? But this $3.5 billion build back better plan, which nobody talks about, oh, it's spread out over 10 years. It is actually affordable. Yeah. If you got rid of a few of those aircraft carriers and fighter jets that don't work and you put that money into affordable childcare, paid family leave, an infrastructure, a human infrastructure for more teachers, to pay childcare workers what they're worth, to have more support for older people who do need in-home care, the money does matter. And you know, but you're right, people have to agitate for it.

Alexander McCaig (27:05):

Yeah. It's tough. It's tough. Well, listen, I got to tell you, Susan, you've written a book, which is for some people, a very hot topic and for others, it's a topic they've never even focused on. So the work you're doing does not go unnoticed and it's important that we have these conversations so that individuals can understand the full complexity of really what is going on here and that when they walk outside, walk out of their homes, or even look to their own family members, maybe there is a 1% shift in perspective, because that 1% shift across billions of people or 330 million in the United States can make a dramatic difference.

Susan Douglas (27:48):

Well, I think it is very important to raise people's awareness of ageism. You know, it's so woven into the weft and warp of our society, that it goes kind of unnoticed and taken for granted that older people can be dismissed, that they can be marginalized, that they're thought of as lonely, decrepit, sick all the time. And so, I teach at a university and I teach about the media and of course I have to teach about how the media represents certain kinds of identities, gender, race, et cetera. And so I've started teaching about ageism and it is one of the isms that my students are most taken aback by because they haven't even thought about it.

Alexander McCaig (28:38):

Right. That's my point. Yeah.

Susan Douglas (28:40):

And so the more you can make people aware that this is an ism that is destructive, marginalizing, has severe economic and political consequences and will affect every person because we all age, unless we fix it, it's not going to get better. So people in their twenties, thirties, and forties, they need to start thinking about this in alliance with their parents, their grandparents, older people they know and love.

Alexander McCaig (29:13):

Right. Well, listen, Susan you've said it and the data's there that supports what you have to say about this. And so just as much as we have a global pandemic, there are other longer, more entrenched things that are just as crippling to our society that require our focus and attention. So thank you very much for coming on today to speak to me about it.

Susan Douglas (29:33):

Well, thank you for having me. It's been a pleasure.

Alexander McCaig (29:35):

Most definitely. And if people want to read more about your work, your studies, the books, anything regarding that, where should they go?

Susan Douglas (29:44):

Well, the book is called, In Our Prime, How Older Women Are Reinventing The Road Ahead. And of course it's available in local bookstores and of course, Amazon.

Alexander McCaig (29:58):

Jeff Bezos, pay your damn taxes, but sell my book. That's too funny. And you have a personal website that people can go to learn more about you?

Susan Douglas (30:10):

Yes. It's susanjdouglas.com.

Alexander McCaig (30:15):

Beautiful. Listen, Susan, seriously, thank you again for coming on. I really appreciate it. It helps enlighten me. I'm more educated now... Can't even talk straight. And also helps educate those that get to listen to it and that's really important.

Susan Douglas (30:26):

Well, thank you very much, Alexander.

Alexander McCaig (30:29):

Appreciate it.

Speaker 3 (30:36):

Thank you for listening to TARTLE cast with your hosts, Alexander McCaig and Jason Rigby, where humanity steps into the future and source data defines the path. What's your data worth?