Mary Beard wants us to reclaim the word “old.”
The British classics scholar and television presenter (her BBC 4 show is called “Oh, Do Shut Up, Dear”), is famous for having beaten off a public attack by journalist AA Gill, who called her “too ugly for TV.” Now Beard is on a campaign to turn “old” into a valued term – just as “queer” was rehabilitated by the gay community- and create an “old” movement to encourage people to take pride in being “of a certain age.”
Speaking with Lynne Segal at the Cheltenham Literary Festival earlier this month, Beard, 59, called the “You don’t look your age!” compliment “one of the weirdest bits of double-think in our culture.”
“I think we have to look quite hard at the vocabulary we use to talk about ourselves and our aging,” she said.
She pointed to the leaflets for British senior rail discounts, which feature an older couple going to see their grandchildren. Why not show the professional Professor Beard on a regular trip to London, she asked?
Along with older women wanting to look younger, Dr. Beard also questioned the desire to keep being visible. Referring to the “builder’s whistling test,” she said she was thrilled when men in the street stopped noticing her – just one way in which age can bring “an enormous amount of freedom.”
Her role model? Agatha Christie’s Mrs. Marple: “Sometimes invisibility has its advantages. Look at Miss Marple. Agatha Christie did create a woman, un partnered-up, who exploited her invisibility to be a hero.”
But that doesn’t mean being OK with the hunched old lady stereotype; older women might be invisible, but they should not be unheard. “We can do something about it, she said. “The sense that elderly women have a voice that you can’t ignore is going to trickle down every food chain. ”
‘‘I hope by the time I die, old will be something that makes people fill with pride.”
What do you think? Are you ready for “old”?