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.


Anne R said...

Well said. Worth noting that Betty White is routinely referred to as "America's grandmother" despite the fact she doesn't even have children. My mother, age 60, tells me that once women pass a certain age they become socially invisible. Of course this is obvious with the lack of media representation, but she says it also happens just walking down the street. I wonder if some older women are eager to become grandmothers partly because it visibilises them again with a social role. Esp because, like you said, it gives an avenue down which to transmit knowledge, which god knows older women don't get much elsewhere.

Giovanni Tiso said...

I'm not sure it's necessarily an actual avenue, I think the role is mostly honourary these days. Still heavily symbolic, though, as White's nickname underscores nicely.

Helen said...

When I became a grandmother at 40 the reponses from other people were jocular and at times admiring. Four more grandchildren later, grey haired and about to turn 65 the story is very different. Our culture now perceives me as fitting a stereotype which includes the following assumptions: I am asexual, desperate, on the way out, incompetent (especially around technology), envious, slow witted, ugly and deaf. But there are a few faint vestiges of the grandmother as archetype in our culture. When I am read in this light, I know right from wrong and I know how to bake a good scone.

George D said...

I have an idea for a movie in which we find out that Soylent Grandmother is people.

(Because we have run out of nutrition it is recycled for our consumption, through a clever and efficient machine.)

My mother recently became a grandmother, and her and my father's mother became great-grandmothers. I have not noticed an increase in scone quality.

Giovanni Tiso said...

Helen: I'm not sure if this is relevant, but my grandmother occasionally lamented how she had been a daughter-in-law but never a mother-in-law. By which she meant that she grew up at a time when mothers-in-law had real power - as hers had over her when she married - but by the time her children married the war was over and the world had changed and nobody had to obey her.

Robyn said...

About 10 years ago, my mum (in her early 60s) went to the doctor with a sore neck and saw a locum. He said, "A sore neck, eh? Have the grandkids been swinging around your neck?" Except Mum didn't have any grandkids, so suddenly things got a bit awkward. But we laughed when she got home and shared the story. And she's still not a grandmother.

Helen said...

Giovanni: It is about loss of power and also about unwarranted degradation, all tied up with loss of fertility of course. Maybe that's why old men are less of a joke than old women.

Giovanni Tiso said...

I should add - without getting into the intimidate details as it's not my place - that in a literal twist my grandmother's sexual life was also arbitrarily and appallingly cut short by a surgeon. She wasn't going to have any more children at that point anyway, must have been the logic.

Anonymous said...

4003 ebreft
Giovanni: Like your grandmother, my reproductive life was also cut short by a (male) surgeon, who decided I had had enough children. There would be many more stories under that stone I think. Power. Control. Arrogance. I suppose the medical profession is still at it. It'll be interesting to see if there's any shift in attitude to older women as more and more women are having babies later in life - or, alternatively, will the shift be against the notion of motherhood' as an ideal status?

Daleaway said...

I do wish Germaine Greer and other Second Wave feminists had been more successful in their quest to reclaim some status for the word "Crone".

Many of us who will never be grandmothers could be really swingeing Crones, given encouragement.

It's the underlying assumption that older women have no more important social role than being a grandmother that really steams up my specs.

Megan Clayton said...

A grandmother presses her jaw
into the nailed corner of the frame
to see what fits.

A grandmother cracks her knuckles
over black brunch at the Blasted Heath,
where you can smoke outside.

A grandmother Facebooks
until her nouns grind into verbs.
She is not yet forty.

A grandmother remembers the Depression
as all grandmothers must do.
There was a riot, and a queue.

A grandmother jaws, stubs out the benefit.
She has no children.
She is a blurry resting place.

A grandmother swims in the ideologue lane.
Under the water, all one can see
are the ageing soles of her feet.