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Reviewed by:
  • Aged by Culture
  • M. Charlene Ball (bio)
Aged by Culture by Margaret Morganroth Gullette. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004, 267 pp., $46.00 hardcover, $18.50 paper.

Margaret Morganroth Gullette's Aged by Culture is an important and engaging contribution to the new field of age studies, which questions age ideologies and deconstructs dominant narratives about the cultural meanings of aging. Age studies sees "age" and "aging" in culture as resulting as much from ideologies as from biology. Dominant narratives paint aging as ahistorical, acultural, and universal, conspiring with ablebodiedness, class, gender, race, and other mechanisms of marginalization that impact everyone, whether in youth, midlife, or old age.

But surely even the most crazed social constructionist has to admit that aging is biological. Back problems and failing memory don't come from patriarchy or capitalism, do they? Aren't age critics like Margaret Morganroth Gullette merely absurd liberal academic ideologues, deserving all the scorn heaped upon us extremist women's studies types who perversely deny the facts of biology? Should not the president of Harvard sneer?

Not so. Age studies proposes that the decline and disability associated with aging in our society results as much or more from class, race, gender, and access to resources as to biology. An upper-middle-class, urban, college-educated, professional 60-year-old experiences aging very differently than a rural or working-class person the same age. A friend of mine argued that we cannot deny that the old are closer to death. Yet, Gullette points out that in the nineteenth century, infants and children were seen as closest to death. So were women, who frequently died in childbirth. When death comes so often to the young, aged people appear as tough survivors.

In the United States, the two dominant narratives of aging are the progress narrative and the decline narrative. Growing up follows the progress narrative; in fiction, it is the coming-of-age novel—how our hero or heroine rises in the world, becomes more healthy, wealthy, and wise, and achieves the plateau of midlife. The decline narrative is how we currently experience growing older. The defensive stance that shrills, "I'm not getting older, I'm getting better!" represents a progress narrative desperately struggling to resist a decline narrative.

Gullette begins Aged by Culture with an account of an exhibit at the Boston Museum of Science called "Face Aging!" that invited children to look into a mirror and see themselves digitally "aged." Most kids found the experience unsettling. Gullette noted that the changes [End Page 214] (created by digital technology) emphasized sagging jaw lines, wrinkles, graying hair, and facial blotches rather than facial expressions. Why, she asks, did the exhibit show decline and decay rather than a more complete picture that might have included positive as well as negative changes that can accompany aging—for example, "drama, humor, intelligence, character" (5)?

Gullette deconstructs power relations and hidden messages related to age in culture using approaches similar to those of Women's Studies, gender studies, and cultural studies. She points out that neither the narrative of progress nor the narrative of decline are inevitable or "natural" but that both often mask the actual causes of decline.

The essays in the book approach the topic of age from several angles. Chapter Two, "True Secrets of Being Aged by Culture," shows how the decline narrative is getting applied earlier to younger people. Chapter Three, "'The Xers' versus 'the Boomers': A Contrived War," describes the media-constructed conflict between greedy "Boomers" and struggling "Xers." Chapter Four, "Perilous Parenting," sees age-related anxieties in works of contemporary fiction. Chapter 9, "Acting Age Onstage," discusses how stage stereotypes conform to and inform age performance in life. Chapter 10, "Age Studies as Cultural Studies," suggests ways of moving beyond age ideology to create an "antidecline" movement that would fight disempowerment across categories of class, gender, race, and ablebodiedness. "Age is a cause," Gullette says, "like race and gender—that rightfully allies itself with principles of narrative freedom, economic justice, and human rights" (196).

These essays first saw publication separately, as shown by their occasional repetition and restatement. Chapter endings often flow into rhetorical perorations more...


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pp. 214-215
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