What’s so funny about old women?
To go by the makers of humorous greetings cards, old women are ugly, forgetful, smelly, incontinent, repeat themselves, boring, hairy, unsexy, falling to pieces, repeat themselves … What’s not to laugh at?
I’ve been thinking about when and why we laugh at old people because street performers GrannyTurismo were in Oxford at the weekend. The act features old ladies on motorised shopping trolleys, and as I didn’t see the live performance, I’ve been catching up on YouTube.
Is it funny? It’s certainly clever and popular; I also found it faintly disturbing. How is it still a thing for men to get laughs for dressing up as ugly old women*? I muttered something to the cat about dated, ageist, misogynist stereotypes. (Not that I’m some weird cat lady.)
What was my problem? There’s a long tradition of men cross-dressing for comic effect, including some of my favourite comedies. I love the way Jack Lemmon’s Jerry gets taken over by the persona of Daphne in Some Like it Hot and Barry Humphries fabulous creation Dame Edna Everage. Monty Python’s classic Hell’s Grannies sketch is still funny, and even more pointed at a time when some younger people really do feel the old are taking over.
So it isn’t the cross-dressing which bothers me. Nor is it the ugliness. Father Ted’s housekeeper Mrs Doyle is an unattractive, difficult woman of indeterminate middle-age with a passion for tea. Yet she’s not merely a caricature. She’s a character who rings true. We might not fight so hard as Mrs Doyle and her friend over who pays for tea in this cafe scene, but some of us have come close!
And I have to include Victoria Wood’s brilliant Ballad of Barry and Freda, which is a fresh, sympathetic take on the theme of sex-starved, usually ugly, old woman pestering an uninterested husband for sex.
Humour is very personal. You may be left cold by all these comedies, and enjoy Mrs Brown’s Boys. Each to her own. But I think it’s right to be disturbed when the humour invites us to laugh AT old women (or men) for being old, ugly, confused etc, rather than at a comic situation, foible or pretension.
Yes, humour can make us uncomfortable. It’s a vital way to skewer and diminish those who abuse power or have an inflated sense of their importance. It’s not good when it diminishes people who have little power anyway. Mocking old women for what they ARE rather than what they DO, reinforces ageism and sexism.
Watching Hell’s Grannies before I walk to the shops empowers me. I’m never tempted to shove younger people off the pavement – barring a twinge if they’re illegally cycling towards me on it – but the sketch allows older women out into the public space. Whereas Granny Turismo’s unattractive old women on shopping trollies make me feel I should stay home.
And that’s the nub of it. Granny Turismo’s act shows me what I am afraid of being: an ugly, unsexy old crone in a hat and sensible shoes, pushing a shopping trolley. If I was ten years older and had mobility problems, I think I’d enjoy the idea of dancing on motorised trollies. If I was ten years younger, I might well find it amusing. Nearing sixty, it’s too near the knuckle.
So yes, there is a serious topic here about when and why we laugh at old people. But it’s not fair to lay that on Granny Turismo. After all, as the mother of a performer, I’m all for street entertainers. Maybe next time they’re in Oxford, I’ll go and see them. I wouldn’t mind asking them where I can get one of their shopping trolleys.
*Their website profiles them as old ladies, though a little research suggests they are not all they seem. Also, they might point out that “ugly” is in the eye of the beholder.