Monday, March 25, 2013

Of grandmothers and beneficiaries

It's such a curious creature, the modern grandmother. It was not something she herself did – bearing children – that defines her, but the fact that some of her children have borne children of their own. Yet she stands in some ways even more than the mother for the moral as well as material continuation of the species.

The grandmother is a model of virtue, the transmitter of matrilineal knowledge and wisdom who presides from a certain distance over the institution of the family. She’s a woman, but has been sexually deactivated. (Ads for Viagra or Cialis typically feature grandparent-aged men and women in domestic settings but you never see a grandchild in the house, do you?) At the cost of belabouring the point, it is a younger woman’s fertility that makes her who she is.

Image of a grandmother from a stock photopgraphy website. Possibly also an actual grandmother.
For some time – should I even be telling you this? – I have been collecting items in the press concerning grandmothers. I am particularly fascinated by the use of the word ‘grandmother’ in newspaper headlines. Take ‘Cannabis-dealing grandmother jailed’, a report from the end of last year on the sentencing of a pot dealer who operated in the Wellington suburb of Newtown. The presumed grandchildren of Sandra Jacqueline McMahon, 68, are not mentioned in the article at all. They appear to be immaterial to the story and unrelated to her offending. Yet it’s having grandchildren that makes McMahon’s vicissitudes interesting to the press (albeit it in a latest in a long line sort of way). I think it’s the confounded expectation. Grandmother equals good. Dealing drugs equals bad. So the headline immediately creates a tension. It makes you want to know more about this story. How did this happen?

Or consider ‘Man threatens grandmother with a metal pipe.’ This refers to an incident that took place in Feilding last year, when a man whose motorcycle had been stolen thought he heard its engine being revved at a neighbouring house and went with his grandmother to demand restitution, whereupon the man at the house grabbed a metal pipe and took a swing at the man at the door, which caused the grandmother to flee the scene. At the sentencing of the pipe-wielding man, Judge David Smith is reported to have reproached the defendant thusly:
He came to get his bike back, with his grandmother. You responded by arming yourself with a metal pipe. [The victim's] grandmother ran away screaming. She was certainly frightened by your behaviour.
I don’t know if there are specific laws in the books against frightening grandmothers, but on the evidence of this article perhaps there should be. Although in fairness the man didn’t threaten the grandmother with a pipe, as stated in the headline. He went for the grandson. But the story needed a hook and the grandmother was it. The judge concurred.

Even in the items that are thoroughly unamusing and lacking in curiosity value – see for instance ‘Grandmother dies after falling into 14ft-cesspit in her garden’ – the preference accorded to the noun ‘grandmother’ over the noun ‘woman’ (or retiree, or former teacher etc) is a source of some puzzlement to me. Is this how most women who also happen to be grandmothers self-identify? Is this how most people who aren’t journalists think of them? Or is this some kind of normative nominalism that reduces the individual to the most malleable abstract category available, furnishing a convenient peg on which to hang one’s preconceptions?

Of course this doesn’t happen only with grandmothers. I just wish that in the course of my collecting I hadn’t come across this.

I call the screenshot above, which I captured on Saturday, my thousand-word essay on New Zealand journalism, although it wouldn’t surprise me to hear that similar examples flourish abroad. Everything about it is abhorrent. The headline, the prominence – dominating the home page of the country’s most authoritative newspaper – the stock photograph chosen. I think you need to have displaced your humanity to produce an overall piece of journalism of this kind. And I don’t care that in time the headline was downgraded to the less turgid ‘Man killed lighting cigarette’, or that the report was pushed back into the regional section, whence it came. It still opens with that phrase:
An invalid beneficiary from Gore died from burns after he tried to light a cigarette while connected to an oxygen supply...
which suffices.

It wasn’t a man who died, you see. It was an invalid beneficiary, that is to say a person defined by the inability to work and the dependence on the taxpayers’ collective largesse (to the tune of a princely $14959.88 gross per year for a single adult, taxed at the source at the prevailing withholding rate). This person was further defined by his expensive vice, to the point of metonymical substitution via the image of a cigarette in the process of being stubbed out – which neatly doubles as a visual metaphor of the man’s death – then processed into a hit generator, a little pellet of news to be thrown to those (like me) who crave constant information on the affairs of the nation. This group in turn is comprised largely of taxpayers, that is to say people whose right it is to be informed of the circumstances of such deaths. We were paying for the guy’s oxygen, for chrissakes.

Most grandmothers in NewZealand are highly likely to be superannuitants, which is to say beneficiaries, but you wouldn’t call them that. There is politics, too, in such decisions, which however for the professional soon cease to be decisions and become automatic reflexes. Mother, grandmother, immigrant, beneficiary, Maori youth, unemployed: this isn’t who we are, but who we become when reality needs to be described in dispassionate shorthand. As if it were that simple. As if that human taxonomy didn’t contain, in highly compressed form, an entire ideology. As if the function of those common nouns weren’t to ensure that all of those stories – from the most trivial to the most tragic – taken together will reproduce, in mosaic form, the society we have come to believe in.