Ageism in the Arts
by Elena Greco
Typical reading time: 12 minutes
July 14, 2011
Let’s face it: we’re just not allowed to grow up. As performing artists, we don’t dare let anyone know our age, don’t dare let a wrinkle show, don’t dare give a hint that we might have grown a year older. We have to remain stuck in time.
I don’t know about you, but when I was eight, I wanted to look ten. I couldn’t WAIT to be 12. I wanted to hurry and grow up. Each year I gained gave me new privileges, new experiences, new respect (or so I hoped). But aren’t we still growing up? Don’t we become better with each passing year? Why would we not want to acknowledge that? Or even look forward to it? It’s not like we really have a choice. We are going to get older. And by making being over 30 somehow taboo or embarrassing, we are depriving ourselves of the celebration of maturation. Discounting people or discriminating against them because of age—or race or religion or sexual preference—means stifling an aspect of ourselves as humans, and can only lessen our experience of life and our contribution to it.
There is a term for discrimination based on the number of years someone has lived; it’s called ageism. I’m writing this post specifically about ageism in the performing arts, and even more specifically about singers. But ageism exists throughout the breadth of the arts, and in every other profession, as well. It is a sickness in our society.
Why do people think aging is so terrible? I think one reason is that when we think of people who are older, we think of people in nursing homes, people who are feeble or ill, but this is not a representational view of older people. In reality, many people across all of the creative arts did not hit their stride until they were in their 70s, and many created their most respected and memorable works in their 60s, 70s, 80s or even 90s. Following this blog post is a link to a list of some of these people. When you see the list I have posted, you will be astounded that you ever thought that “middle age” or even “old age” was a time when people become unable to perform. This is simply not true! We have been brainwashed, and it is time for everyone to wake up and enjoy getting older instead of fearing it. And for music professionals to take note!
I think ageism is the ugliest form of discrimination there is. It means that we are disgusted with our future selves, embarrassed or ashamed at our ability to survive many years and show on our face the life we have lived, that someone might see the pain we have survived, the joy that we have felt. It is as if we do not want our living and experience to show. Why would I want to look 21, like someone who has not yet fully experienced life, attained the vast store of knowledge I have gathered in the last decades, or had the variety and depth of emotional experience and the tremendous challenges I have survived by prevailing against enormous obstacles? I can’t honestly say that I love my wrinkles, but when I look at pictures of myself at a much younger age, I can honestly say that I think I look better now. I don’t see my authentic self, the self I have become, in the younger pictures.
I’m not talking particularly about discrimination with regard to job hiring, although that is a problem, too. I’m concerned here about a prejudice against any physical signs of aging, a fear and loathing of admitting how many years you have lived, and a lack of appreciation and respect for the positive attributes of aging. I find that even when I write the word “aging,” I can’t help but feel it as a negative concept because that is so ingrained in me. And yet, when I think about it, aging is something I aspire to! I wish everyone would aspire to it.
Discrimination in the form of ageism in the opera world has increased dramatically in the last decade (much more so than in other genres of music). Video has changed everything, now that opera singers can be viewed up close and personal while performing. Nobody wants to watch the fat lady sing any more, and definitely not the old lady. In addition, classical music seems to be trying to attract younger audiences—which are not coming to classical music concerts, particularly opera, as much as older ones, and audiences overall have dwindled dangerously—by using glitz over substance. But people over 50 have buying power, too, often more so than younger people, something commercial advertisers are just beginning to realize, and those people tend to go for substance rather than glitz or superficial beauty. Opera companies and directors should take note. They cater to the younger audience, because they can no longer survive solely on the elderly; however the new middle age, also an important audience, is not into staid predictable art, and neither do they appreciate superficiality as a rule (or so I hope). And in catering to youth, they seem to think singers have to be youthful (and beautiful, of course, which in our culture, means young), although great voices don’t mature until at least the 30s and often later.
Instead of cheapening opera, maybe we could help students learn to value artistry by teaching them about the arts when they’re young. If the schools won’t do it—and apparently they will not at this time—then parents can step up to the plate and make certain that their kids are exposed to all of the arts and given at least a smattering of understanding that they can carry into adulthood. Please don’t teach them that signs of living longer, in the form of wrinkles and other physical changes, are something terrible that must be corrected by surgery; teach them that maturing is something of value, something to look forward to. To do otherwise teaches them that only the external matters, that their essence is not valued, and encourages them to resist who they are becoming, resisting change and growth instead of embracing it.
Just as the body ages at different rates for different people, so does the voice. An older instrument is not necessarily a less desirable one, just a different one. Also, as you will see if you continue to read, there are unexpected benefits to aging. And please don’t assume that age has anything at all to do with artistry or quality. There is plenty of evidence from accomplished artists who continue to perform into their 70s and beyond (see the list at the bottom of this post) that artistry and ability to do not necessarily decline with age; they simply change, as everything else in life does.
It’s the Law
For opera companies to believe that singers must look young in order to sell their product is to shortchange themselves of singers with depth and artistry. It’s also illegal. Although there is federal law protecting those over 40 from age discrimination with regard to hiring (the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, known as the ADEA, a part of 29 U.S.C.), opera companies and competitions will sometimes list a few reasons that they allegedly need for a singer they hire to be under the age of 30 or 35. Except in the case of some Young Artist Programs (which are specifically for young, inexperienced singers), I don’t believe that these reasons would hold up in court. They definitely don’t hold up in my mind; I don’t think anyone should be above the law. Yet I don’t know of a single instance in which these organizations have been challenged. No one should ask your age or your birthdate before hiring you or allowing you to apply for a job; that is illegal. Singers are too afraid to question the practice for fear of not being hired by other companies. There is a lot of fear in the opera business, and fear is the total enemy of creativity and artistry.
Ageism is certainly not limited to women, but as with many things in Western society, women are hit harder by this because they are expected to look beautiful, and our current ideal of beauty is extremely young. Our society has a malignant belief that physical signs of getting older are ugly, and it saddens me to see even talented performers who ought to know better fall victim to this belief, slicing up their faces with plastic surgery that makes them look like someone else and spending enormous energy and resources on retaining a youthful appearance. I hope that we can start respecting ourselves and our artists more.
There is an embarrassment in our culture about being older and about the physical signs that come with advancing years, and a belief that we should fight signs of aging at all costs. It is hard not to believe this when we are bombarded with advertisements that tell us so every time we turn on the television or open a magazine, or when we look at movies or photographs of our favorite stars, who are retouched, airbrushed and surgeried to Barbie-like perfection – if you call a face with all signs of having lived a life removed from it “perfect.”
I hate seeing women (and men) erase the physical expression of who they are with surgery. The hills and valleys in a person’s face let me know what kind of life they’ve lived and what kind of person they are. I prefer a human being to a mannequin any day.
A New Beauty
I really believe we need to open to the possibility of a new beauty, one which includes wrinkles and a more mature-looking face. I don’t mean someone who looks wrinkled or dull due to unhealthy living, which is a different look altogether. But the wrinkles that come from laughter are not such a bad thing, are they? Why can’t there be different kinds of beauty? We have learned, or are learning, to see beauty in different colored skin, in faces that are different culturally from ours, and yet wrinkles and any sign of age are still taboo. Older faces can be beautiful, too.
Popular music is not immune from ageism, either. Witness Madonna’s latest face lift. There are mature singers who refuse to give in to this, who remain true to themselves and their art—Annie Lennox and Bonnie Raitt come to mind—but they are the exception. I find myself wondering what beauty looks like on a mature face because there are so few examples in the media. Vanessa Redgrave is one person who comes to mind; Leontyne Price is another. I’m sure there are many others. Can you think of women over 50 that you think of as beautiful? Please share!
I love and am inspired by beauty in all things, including human faces. But I refuse to have my ideal of beauty imposed on me by advertisers – which is where this whole mindset of erasing who we are comes from. I want to decide for myself what I think is beautiful. I hope that our ideals of beauty will expand.
Maturity Equals Freedom
Ageism is just another prejudice we need to break down. Denigrating signs of maturity is another symptom of what’s problematic with our society in general, a symptom of the current superficiality and lack of appreciation for depth and meaning. And of course it’s more exaggerated in singing, particularly classical singing, because it’s such a flamboyant art, such a huge representation of our own inner being.
Right at the beginning of a promising opera career, I left the business and quit singing for 15 years. I recently started singing again, and I find that, if anything, the voice is better than it was. It is a different voice than it was 20 years ago, but it has nuance and character that were not there when it was a younger instrument. What is totally different now is my relationship to music and my expression of it. I so enjoy expressing the composers’ creations from my authentic being – something I simply could not have done a couple of decades ago when I was immature – and moving an audience with a mature and appreciative understanding of the music and a personal expression that is grounded in knowing fully who I am, and what needs to happen in order for me to be a vessel for the music instead of an impedance to its expression.
I particularly like that I am the boss of me. No more am I concerned whether someone will decide to hire me to sing. I don’t need permission! I can sing anywhere, whenever I feel like singing. I am filled with ideas for musical projects, and the creative juice is flowing so fast I cannot keep up with it! I never felt this way when I was a young singer. I was so worried about being accepted, getting work and being successful. Now I’m only concerned with authentic self-expression and how well I can move an audience. In talking about this issue with other mature singers and in reading about this issue, I found this idea echoed by virtually everyone. Passing 40 is like being given the keys to the kingdom of self-acceptance and freedom. It does, of course, require a little work in terms of self-exploration in order to achieve that freedom, but it is totally available in a way that it is often not at a younger age.
Now that I’m singing again, following my dream and my creative impulse is so much more fulfilling. In my current incarnation as a multigenre singer I plan to audition for opera directors only when a role or project really appeals to me, and otherwise to focus on producing my own creative projects. I will not allow anyone to decide whether I’m too old to sing – there is no such thing!
A Voice for Change
And here’s where I’m going to say something shocking. I don’t intend to honor any age restrictions in the few jobs for which I want to audition. If a company or director seems to be turning me down for an audition based on my age, I will ask them respectfully if they have considered what ageism is, and if it might be affecting them unknowingly. I will then ask again to sing for them, even if they have already decided not to hire me based on my age. The only way this stereotype is going to change is if we ask people to take a look at their beliefs. People really must start talking about this if we hope to make it go away. If we all remain silent, it will never, ever change.
I can already hear singers telling me indignantly that I just don’t understand the reality of the business. I do. I know that it is hard for someone who is 40 (35 being the usual cutoff for auditions) to contemplate letting anyone know how old they are or to be vocal in questioning this, since they are afraid of losing work. I remember the old fake driver’s license method many singers used (do people still do this?), and singers being terrified anyone would discover their real age because they were afraid it would be over for them professionally if they did. For a stereotype to fall, first we need to become aware of the possibility of its changing, then a few people have to make a stand, and then it is only a matter of time before things change. It can change. We just legalized gay marriage, for Pete’s sake!
The Reality of Aging
So I’ve described the negative view of aging that’s pervasive out there. But what is the reality of aging? Do we begin our decline at 30 and simply become less and less functional until we die?
As a result of new imaging technology, neuroscientists have learned a lot about the human brain in the last decade. One thing that is now clear is that, contrary to previous belief, the brain remains both neurogenerative and plastic into adulthood and even beyond age 60. That means that brain cells can and do regenerate, and that parts of our brain can learn to do new and more complex tasks at any age.
In addition, they have recently learned that a particular aspect of our brain actually improves and grows stronger in middle age. This involves the connections made possible through myelin sheaths which allow us to see relationships between pieces of information and draw conclusions. Another factor is an increase in bilateralization (communication between the two sides of the brain), as well as an increase in frontal cortex function. These things make it much easier to express new things in new ways: this is creativity! Yes, creativity increases as we get older. In addition, tests for cognitive skills have found that in almost every category, we do our best between ages 40 and 65 (Strauch 2010). All of these things combined lead to what one might call wisdom or maturity.
The neuroplasticity I mention above gives rise to some incredibly positive possibilities in aging. It means that our brains change according what we do in life. In experiments, animals kept in stimulating environments wind up with bigger brains, more connections, and higher mental functioning in every way than those who are kept in a boring environment that does not encourage them to use their brain (Strauch 2010).
Our brains also adapt to the way we use them. Studies have learned that regular use of a particular part of the brain causes it to grow larger, indicating that more brain cells are being produced in that area. For example, the area in violin players’ brains that is devoted to fingering strings is larger than the brains of those who do not play (Strauch 2010). This continues throughout our life. So our brains can continue to improve as we get older.
Science has proven recently that there are several things we can do to maintain our brain function and encourage new cells to continue to grow. One is to perform complex tasks that require focus, such as puzzle-solving. Another is to exercise (yes, this helps your brain!). Yet another is to consume high-ORAC (Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity) foods, such as blueberries (you can find a complete list on the internet if you search for “high ORAC foods”) (Strauch 2010).
Molecular chemist Bruce Lipton has produced scientific evidence that our beliefs and emotions affect our cells, and therefore our health, directly. So how we feel about our age translates into how our cells respond. Thinking young equals young cells! Not cells with no wrinkles, but cells with vitality, health and longevity.
In short, how we live our life and what we think determine how our brain develops. If we live a lifestyle that involves mental stimulation, creative problem solving, eating food rich in antioxidants and exercising regularly, our brain remains vital and adaptable. Getting older does not mean that our mental functioning deteriorates. It changes, but almost any negative changes can be counteracted to a large extent.
A New View of Aging
If you don’t believe that 50 is no longer old, or even middle age, take a look at this website about centenarians: http://www.adlercentenarians.org/exarchive.html. More and more people are living to be 100 or more, so clearly what we thought of as middle age a few decades ago is no longer that. If the expected lifespan has increased consistently throughout our lifetime, there’s no reason to believe that it will not continue to do so. I wouldn’t be surprised if living to 120 is not common within another 20 years, and living to 150 quite possible in another 50. So to resign yourself to being “middle aged” or “old” just because you’re a certain age today is not rooted in reality.
I believe it is time for a new context of aging, one in which aging is not viewed as an illness or something embarrassing and unfortunate to be avoided, but as maturity, an enrichment of life, something to achieve. Erik Erikson said, “Lacking a culturally viable idea of old age, our civilization does not really harbor a concept of the whole of life.” How can we start to develop the concept of maturity?
Opera companies and directors might have an ageist view, but we have it, too. We couldn’t do otherwise in this culture. We have to change our own views and beliefs about this subject, erase whatever small vestige of ageism we might harbor, if we hope to change the beliefs and practices of others in that regard.
One way we can begin to do that is to observe our language in speaking about aging. The way that we speak, to ourselves and to others, alters our unconscious and our beliefs. Every time we speak or think something negative about aging, we are reinforcing that belief – and changing our brains in the process! Speaking about aging in a positive way will help to change our beliefs about it, so until the word aging loses its negative connotation, I propose the word maturing as a more positive description of advancing years.
In searching for another way of looking at maturity, I asked Jungian clairvoyant, soul mentor and shoe designer Llorraine Neithardt (www.shoefineart.com) how she viewed aging:
Funny, I don’t really think about aging as most people do. Age is seen a danger that we are all headed for. But I anticipate the delight of having earned wisdom which seems to emanate luminosity from who have it. I rarely notice wrinkles or signs when someone glowing has a twinkle in their eyes and laughter in their heart.
I find a life lived more brilliant than hearsay or gossip, for the lived life is more gripping, rooted like an old tree whose roots are deep and live in mystery. Looking beautiful can be exhausting, but being beautiful results in a wild cultural revolution of creative freedom. Every stage of life has its power and beauty; I never favor one over the other. The power of the young is their beauty, but the power of maturity is the authenticity and wild heart of the Wise Woman who lives with abandon, as Venus Herself does.”
Carl Jung believed that the second half of life should be devoted to individuation, a self-determined journey to uncover and express the self that lies beneath and beyond the personal ego that has been formed through adaptation to our culture. It is the time of life when we become, or can become, who we really are so that we have the possibility of expressing our essence authentically, creatively and constructively, contributing to our culture and the world.
Examples of Musical Artists Over 50
Because of the emphasis on youth in the entertainment arts, we are too unaware of musicians, particularly singers, who are over the age of 50. They are out there performing and can easily be found on the internet and on television, but marketing focuses almost entirely on extremely young performers, giving us a skewed idea of the actual age of viable singers. I think it’s important for us to become aware that performing at a high level after 50 is the rule rather than the exception.
Below you will find a link to the page that contains the beginning of a list of people who have made great contributions to the arts after age 50. Please help me grow this list so that it reflects our art completely. I hope that seeing the reality of creative life in this way will begin to eat away at the ingrained belief that maturing (growing older) is negative, and instead allow us to see the possibilities that maturity offers. Please feel free to pass along this web link to opera companies, directors, coaches, teachers, performers, healers – everyone!
The list focuses on singers, but high achievement over age 50 can be found in almost every field. I’ve included some popular singers, in addition to classical. Because my time is limited, I’ve listed almost exclusively women, since those were the ones who readily came to my mind.
It would be terrific if the men out there (and the women!) would send me examples of male singers who are performing, or did perform, at a high level after the age of 50. I would so appreciate it if you would let us know of any other links to wonderful, high-level performances by professional singers over the age of 50 of any sex or musical genre who could be added to the list. If you will provide names and links (YouTube or otherwise), I’ll be happy to put them up. I’d love for the list to keep growing over time.
Eventually I’d like to add some instrumentalists and other creative artists. You’ll see that I’ve added those categories at the bottom with just a couple of examples to get them started, and if you’d like to contribute to one of them, that would be appreciated, as well.
I believe that those of us in the arts and in the healing professions have an added responsibility to offer our creativity to the world as we grow older, increasing in our ability to transmit vital knowledge and experience, to foster transformative experiences in others, and to inspire and encourage through our art.
MATURE ARTISTS: PROFESSIONAL PERFORMERS OVER THE AGE OF 50
Click above for a list of performances by performers over 50 (link is temporarily broken)
The woman in the photo is Daphne Selfe, an 82-year-old model who’s never had plastic surgery.
Mercedes, Karen. Vocal Competitions for “Elderly” Classical Singers from Artful Jesus: http://artfuljesus.0catch.com/artists/competitions.html, retrieved June 2011.
O’Brien, Sharon, (n.d.). Senior Living from About.com: http://seniorliving.about.com/od/lawpolitics/a/senior_pop_demo.htm, retrieved June 2011. Data re. aging population.
Strauch, Barbara (2010). THE SECRET LIFE OF THE GROWNUP BRAIN. New York: Viking (and http://www.faboverfifty.com/intheknow/ourhealth/5reasonsloveyourfofbrain).
Thomason, S. (2006). THE LIVING SPIRIT OF THE CRONE: TURNING AGING INSIDE OUT. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress.
Unknown, (n.d.). Ageism from Old Women’s Project: http://www.oldwomensproject.org/ageism.htm, retrieved June 2011.
Unknown, (n.d.). Old Women’s Project: http://www.oldwomensproject.org, retrieved June 2011.
Unknown, (n.d.). Secret Lives of Old Women from Old Women’s Project: http://www.oldwomensproject.org/secret_lives.htm, retrieved June 2011.
Wolfe, David B., (n.d.). Ageless Marketing, http://agelessmarketing.typepad.com/ageless_marketing, retrieved June 2011.
Yudron, Gaea, Sage’s Play: http://sagesplay.blogspot.com. Retrieved June 2011.
See Elena’s bios for more information about the author.