Editor’s Note: This post is the first publication for a new blog within Avonews Online, currently titled “The 11%”.
Current Avonews staff falling within the district’s statistics for minority population are invited to add perspectives, reflections, and commentary in a platform centered within a minority viewpoint.
Gbemi Odebode, class of 2025:
I recently had the opportunity to rewatch Home Alone. First hitting theaters in 1990, the film is among the most classic and respected American Christmas movies. While rewatching it, something stood out to me far more now than in years past. Kevin’s older brother and cousin tell the story of their next-door neighbor, an elderly man they accuse of murdering “his entire family and half the block.” When they were gossiping about him, he was shoveling and salting the neighborhood sidewalks out of the kindness of his heart. They did not know this man, rarely speaking to him. Yet, to those kids, he had to have been evil. Kevin only learned his story, humanizing him, when the elderly man spoke to him first. Sure, kids speak a lot of nonsense, but how a society represents its most vulnerable in media speaks volumes about its values.
The ostracization of the elderly in Western media first stood out to me years ago in Grimm’s Household Tales. As the single most popular collection of classic European fairy tales, the stories fascinated me as a child. From Rumpelstiltskin to Hansel and Gretel, the triumph of good against evil was cathartic and addicting to read. Evil witches who poisoned young princesses were always brought to justice by dashing knights. It was the epitome of justice and righteousness– until I spoke to my father about the stories. He could not understand why the villains in my stories were always older, typically women. From his perspective, the book demonized the elderly. Lonely and aged, they only sought to wreak havoc on unsuspecting passersby. My dad warned me not to allow these fables to skew my perspective on the elders in my life. In Nigerian culture, elders are at the very top of the social order and their age was the currency that bought them respect, regardless of character. I had been taught from a young age that the generations before me were to be revered, not feared.
These caricatures lay in stark contrast with the elders I know. Graceful, stern, and wise, my maternal grandmother is the personification of reverence. Although the time I spend with her is limited by distance, she holds a distinct place in my memory as my first introduction to tact far above my caliber. The perfect combination of strict and nurturing, she is among the first people I ever admired. None of her traits, like her strength and determination, are represented in the grandparents in the American media. I could not imagine treating her with anything less than the respect she has earned. Likewise, my paternal grandmother is kindness personified. Although our communication is limited by language, she has shown me that love has no barriers. During a visit to Nigeria, I got to see her again for the first time in half a decade. This visit reminded me of the intrinsic nature of my more venerable relatives. She is a wealth of information that I have the privilege is getting to know, and if I am not careful, can quickly lose. My elders are what I aspired to be, not the obstacles in my way.
Initially, I ignored the dichotomy, but my interest in the phenomena grew with my media literacy. Examine almost any form of media. The elderly will fall into one of two categories: the helpless plot devices, who help move the main characters’ storyline forward and invoke pity in the audience; or the antagonist, who stands in the way of a perceived good for almost no real reason. Rarely, if ever, are they given developed, nuanced characters with individual importance. This categorization in media is mimicked in real life. In more collectivist societies, like those typical of the geographic “east,” placing elders into living facilities is almost unheard of. Regardless of how they lived their lives, the elderly are entitled to care as a reward for their years. However, the further west you travel, the weaker this sentiment becomes. In ultra-individualist societies like the United States, seniors are burdens rather than wealth’s of information and wisdom. To me, this perception is intricately tied to the values of our society. Because the elderly can no longer produce the same economic output as they did in their youth, and as knowledge and wisdom are rapidly devalued, our society turns a cold shoulder to them (this ageism connects to several other societal factors as well– this is the basis of sociology, the study of societal structure and function). Our media reduces them to caricatures because we as a society already have. Of course, Kevin and his cousins thought the old man was evil, they had never seen him represented in any other way.
This is not an argument in favor or against Western philosophy, nor is it an attack on the media that brings so many people joy each year. This is a warning call. If we are not careful, we risk losing sight of factors with more value than money. Enjoy your favorite movies, and consume classic media, but always remember the underlying message and bias inscribed in it. Nothing is created in a vacuum. Art ultimately reflects the situation within which it was built. Examine your media critically, and protect your values from covert influence. Next time you watch your favorite movie, ask yourself why that person is represented in that way? And if you have the privilege of having elders in your life, show them you appreciate them, they know more than most could even imagine.