The agency of grannies

Well, one good thing about Boris Johnson’s botched unlock announcement is that he’s brought granddad back into the conversation.

Government instructions that folk can only meet one-on-one have brought forth a slew of questions about meeting your folks.

Surprisingly, Philip Schofield, pitching for a new role as a pound shop Piers Morgan, summed it all up when he quizzed Matt Hancock on his mid-morning matters show. “That’s utterly bonkers!” he squeaked as the health secretary explained that it was OK to meet his mum in the park, walk round the block, and then meet his dad in the same spot a few minutes later.

The advice is undoubtedly a bit odd.

But it’s brought dad and grandad back into the equation where previously grannies ruled.

Since lockdown began there’s been far too much media coverage focused on lonely grannies and children that want to see their nan. Wither grandad?

Of course demographics show that there is more single grandmas left as their husbands are killed off by stupid male behaviours like smoking and stoicism. 

But commentary that talks exclusively of grannies and nans as a shorthand for old people denies men feelings. Grandads miss their children and grandchildren too. Old men get lonely. To deny these things is to peddle the sort of toxic masculinity that excludes men from family life and feeds poor male mental health.

Only one grandad has cut through – Colonel Tom the old boy who raised millions for the NHS by walking round and round his garden. Coverage of his impressive feat has focussed on his bravery and heroism. But his act was driven by charity and care. He has family who were rightly proud of him, I don’t recall talk of his love for them. 

It should come as no surprise that coronavirus coverage is once again relying on and repeating tired tropes around men and women.

Women are passive, victims of circumstance, driven by emotion, responsible for caring and fairly pathetic lonely creatures.

Men must be active. Should age and frailty rob them of that characteristic they are invisible. They can’t cross the stream and be caring or lonely. Except of course plenty are, and feeling that somehow they are betraying their masculinity by admitting it is what keeps many from seeking solutions. (See the Jo Cox Foundation’s Loneliness commission for more on this. I wrote about visiting a male loneliness project here.)

You can see this most clearly in coverage of our most recent Prime Ministers. The Sunday Times in particular seemed to have an obsession with whether and when Theresa May cried – when she lost the election perhaps, as she left Downing Street, upon hearing a sad story about puppy? Has anyone asked if Boris Johnson cried as he apparently faced death at the hands of coronavirus last month? Or at the birth of his latest offspring?

The reason much of the media trades in these tropes is because the people writing the stories and the headlines are too often men. 

Again Covid-19 has exposed this fact. Tally up how many of the reporters asking questions at the daily Downing Street press conference are male and how many female. There’s a clear bias which is probably only surpassed by the imbalance among those taking the podium. Science, politics, journalism. These are all jobs overwhelmingly for men apparently even in the 21st century. It’s certainly not the case that men have some innate talent for asking questions. When the PM faced the public it was Pooja from Solihull who skewered him most effectively. His response – effectively telling the pharmacist that everyone else understands the new lockdown rules and implying that if she doesn’t she must be a bit thick – is one all too familiar to women who speak up from the dinner table to board room.

One solution would be to get more older women into our newsrooms, bringing their perspective and experience. 

Diverse workplaces are successful workplaces. Diverse voices have a wider reach.

Far too many ageing male commentators are given space to spout no matter how daft their views become. Older women are represented by Yasmin Alibhai-brown. OK.

So media and policy treatment of older people, male and female, matters because it perpetuates stereotypes denying women agency and denying men emotions. That harms us all. 

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