a chilling term for ageism in the media: “symbolic annihilation”

 “A friend knows an actress whose alarm code—2828—reminds her of the age she must never surpass. (The repetition adds a touch of hysteria, which I like.),“ writes Carina Chocano in an essay in last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine. It’s a sharp reminder of how early ageism kicks in for women, especially in LA, where Chocano lives. All around her actresses in their early thirties are playing characters unhinged by their reduced prospects and panicking about their careers, and with good reason. 

“Women 40 and older make up 47 percent of the population but only 26 percent of the female population on TV,” according to Martha M. Lauzen, Director of San Diego State University’s Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film. There’s an academic term for that says Lauzen: symbolic annihilation. It’s defined in Wikipedia as “the absence of representation, or underrepresentation, of some group of people in the media. . .  understood in the social sciences  to be a means of maintaining social inequality.” The divide is cruelest where the worlds of acting and fashion converge and women face the one-two punch of sexism and ageism combined. (So much for my “greying of the cover girl” trend, sigh.) 

Fertility notwithstanding, why on earth, asks Chocano, do we privilege “the tragic, grotesque, totally unfair and yet unassailable ephemerality of a woman’s so-called prime . . . over any evidence to the contrary? We expect women to submit to its incontrovertible veracity with equanimity and shame, and we expect men to be gracious about it and try not to gloat. Mostly, we expect nobody to notice or question the different ways in which ‘primeness’ is constructed for each sex, which is not based on the same criteria at all.” Now that she’s in her 40s, Chocano understands how damaging it is to equate youth with worth. “I look back at this now—at how bad, how ashamed I felt for letting myself turn 29—and I can’t believe how much of my youth I squandered on feeling old.”

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