It all depends on whether you think that art imitates life, or the other way round.
Or to put it another way: is an artist’s primary responsibility to reflect the reality they see around them? Or to try to shape it for the better?
Over the years, children’s literature, films and TV programming have tended towards the latter point of view. With a few notable exceptions, they have seen their role not only as entertaining, but as providing instruction, positive role models, and moral guidance – sometimes, it has to be said, to the detriment of the plot.
Why, then, are there so few positive representations of older people in children’s books and TV?
It’s not that older people are absent from children’s books (I shall use this phrase for brevity, since the media of books, films and TV are interconnected and use a lot of the same source material). Books for younger children often include grandparents as characters, and there is a small sub-genre of ‘grandparents who live a secret double life’ – think Ben 10, Gangster Granny and Grandpa In My Pocket. But these amusing examples of grandparents battling aliens or stealing the crown jewels are amusing by very virtue of their difference from the perceived ‘norm’ which we see elsewhere in children’s literature: of the bent-framed, white-haired, kindly granny.
This benign, tartan-slipper-clad old lady may once have been the blueprint for grandmothers in the UK; but if she ever were, those days are long gone. As we all know, older people are as diverse and varied as any other social grouping; but children’s illustrators and animators seem to be stuck in a time-warp. The white-haired octogenarian has become a lazy signifier for ‘grandparent’. I for one have had enough of her.
Now of course, some grandmothers do have white curly hair. Some walk with a stick. Some are in their eighties, nineties and beyond. I am not in any way saying that these people should be airbrushed out of children’s fiction, replaced with new, snazzier, baby-boomer models. But where are the working grandparents? Where are the grandparents of colour? Why are they all the same?
The problem, I think, is that children’s literature is in essence a simplification of life. The plot may be complex, the main characters may be conflicted or develop over time, but other elements need to be big and bold to keep the story landscape straightforward. We need some archetypes, some simple clichés to keep the story easy for young readers to digest – and the caricature of the ‘elderly’ person comes ready made, off the peg.
This is unacceptable. It is lazy writing. Imagine if a major TV show or children’s book series featured outdated stereotypes of, say, girls, or black people? There would be a huge backlash. I’m not saying things are perfect, but there’s already a large movement, ‘Let books be books’, which fights against the conventional assignation of books along gender lines: the ‘pinkification’ of novels with female lead characters, and the lack of female role models in graphic novels and comics. There are similar conversations about the depiction – and under-representation – of children of colour. (Children’s Laureate Malorie Blackman has done much to keep this topic on the agenda.) These advocates rightly argue that children’s books and TV need to present diverse, empowering role models which show children they can be whatever they want to be, that they are not defined by the characteristics that make up their identity.
But this is not the only way in which books shape children’s view and understanding of the world they live in. The people that populate the fictional landscape, as well as the language used by both characters and narrator, are vitally important in forming a view of that world.
I know it’s hard. As an author, I sometimes struggle with it myself. I want to make my 10-year old lead refer to another character as an “older person” – rather than an “old lady” – but it simply doesn’t sound real.
But where is this reality generated? As purveyors of culture we play a huge part in determining the language and attitudes of the future generation. If authors habitually write older people off as one-dimensional, uninteresting and worthy of only ancillary, passing interest, then so will the children who read them. It’s time we started having a conversation about ageism in children’s books.
There are some positive examples, which should be praised. Nan in Ian Whybrow’s Harry and the Dinosaurs takes on the role of the absent father in Harry’s single parent family. As such, she is a nuanced character with humour, sensitivity and a key part to play in the stories. Similarly, Rod Brychter’s Gran in the Biff and Chip books (standard school readers for 20 years or more) is a fun-loving, adventurous, but very believable character. The activities she partakes of with her grandkids span everything from making blackberry jam to travelling back in time and crashing a sports car. The grandma in Eileene Browne’s Handa’s Hen, by contrast, does little more than sit outside her adobe hut and watch the world go by – and yet she seems to exude an air of wisdom and approachability.
But for the most part, the depictions of older people in children’s fiction can be categorised thus:
– Boring grandparents (who may later turn out to be Gangsters, as in David Walliams’ Gangsta Granny; but the whole plot turns on the irony of her actually being interesting after all, in contrast to everything we think we know about grandmas).
– Old people saying old people things, such as “These new-fangled computers…” Postman Pat is a classic, but by no means the only, example of how something so harmless and innocent can be guilty of helping to form damaging stereotypes. Although Mrs Goggins in the post office is at least an example of an older employee.
– Wizards. At a first glance, Dumbledore, Gandalf et al seem like positive representations of older people. They are wise, respected and powerful. But the trope of the white-bearded, twinkly-eyed, pointy-hatted wizard is itself an archetype running through fantasy fiction from Arthurian legend onwards. They may have white beards but they are as ageless as God himself. They bear little relation to the public perception of older people and their role in society.
Now I don’t want to do down any of the books or TV shows mentioned above. I have chosen them as examples because they are things I love, things I’ve read or watched again and again with my own children. Each in isolation is perfectly fine. We shouldn’t expect a single book to address all the ills in society. We merely ask that it entertains. However, it is the accumulated effect which is pernicious. And that’s why it’s a conversation we need to have. Authors, readers, viewers, parents, publishers, commissioners – all of us.
There is one notable absence from my list of authors – perhaps you have guessed it? Roald Dahl. Dahl has a lot of older people in his books; but they cannot be grouped into a particular characterisation. In fact, I think he rather likes them because he realises the potential for the huge variety of characters that he can make them embody – from evil witches and mean great aunts, to loving and wise grandparents, to sociopaths like the Twits, and inspired ego-maniacs like Willy Wonka in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Not all his older people are nice, but they are all interesting, brilliantly colourful, and fundamental to the story. Dahl even has a love story, Esio Trot, written for children but whose two main protagonists are in their sixties. How very refreshing!
So this is a call for action: I am suggesting we all take a leaf out of Roald Dahl’s book, and start demanding older characters who are as diverse, atypical, and integral to the story as the older people we know and love in our own lives.