If you’re looking for examples of banal sexism, Christmas TV ads are the gift that keeps on giving. At the beginning of this year’s Christmas ad season I was especially struck by Lidl’s evocation of Christmas Future (exactly like Christmas Past and Present except that Dad carves the turkey with a laser while Mum asks the visiting relatives how they’re finding life on the moon). Then I saw Majestic Wine Warehouse’s contribution to the genre, in which one of the staff members who’ve been helping families pick their festive drinks has a last-minute thought. ‘Sherry for Nana?’, he offers, thrusting a single bottle of the brown stuff into a grateful customer’s hands.
Now, I’ve got nothing against sherry: I learned to appreciate it by drinking it with friends in Spain, where it’s not reserved for old ladies (sorry, I probably sound as pretentious as the woman in the Waitrose Christmas ad banging on about how great sprouts are if they’re cooked with enough pancetta). Yet in Britain that perception is so strong, attempts to promote sherry to more discerning drinkers almost always begin with some variation on ‘it’s not just your granny’s Christmas tipple’. The use of the word ‘tipple’ appears to be compulsory in this context; you can even buy a personalised sherry glass inscribed with the words ‘Gran’s Little Tipple’.
On a website called ‘The Sommelier Chef’, a 2015 post entitled ‘Grannies’ tipple’ starts by acknowledging that ‘it has a stigma, Sherry: sweet, sticky, associated with grannies at Christmas’. The writer explains this unfortunate association with a bit of social history:
In granny’s earlier years it was thought unladylike for a female to drink hard liquor, and wine usually came in the form of claret that was drunk in very small amounts at dinner. Champagne was expensive and there was little alternative outside of port (thought a more manly choice) or sherry. So, it became acceptable for females to drink a small tipple of sherry for those special occasions.
But wait a minute, whose granny is she talking about? According to the Office for National Statistics, the average age for becoming a grandparent in the UK is currently 63. I’m also currently 63, and what is said here certainly doesn’t describe my ‘earlier years’. It’s more applicable to my own grandmother, who was born just after Queen Victoria died—if she were still alive she’d be almost 120—than to me, a baby-boomer who came of age in the late 1970s.
Grandma rarely drank alcohol (though some of her contemporaries clearly did: when I asked my partner if her grandmother drank sherry, she laughed and said ‘no, she drank sidecars’). But my generation of young women drank whatever we felt like drinking, including beer, wine, and many varieties of hard liquor. The only disapproval I remember this attracting was occasional comments from men in pubs who thought it was unladylike for women to order a pint of beer rather than a half. ‘Are you one of those women’s libbers’, they would ask—to which the answer was ‘yes, are you one of those male chauvinist pigs?’
The Sommelier Chef’s account of ‘granny’s earlier years’ is an example of something which, for want of a better label, I’ll call the concertina-ing of women’s history. A great deal of popular wisdom, and for that matter popular feminism, seems to operate on the tacit assumption that the current cohort of women under 50 are the first to have experienced certain problems or enjoyed certain freedoms. Any woman born before a certain cut-off point (one whose exact timing is vague and elastic) gets consigned to some generic pre-feminist Dark Age, in which today’s grandmothers—women who were young during the heyday of the second wave—become indistinguishable from their own grandmothers, born before women in most places had the right to vote. In that sense, feminism’s imaginary older woman is a bit like ‘Nana’ in the adverts, forever drinking her thimbleful of Christmas sherry while knitting up a packet of Shreddies: she’s not just a stereotype, she’s a stereotype that’s got stuck in a time-warp.
Though ageing remains an unavoidable fact of life, what it means to be old has changed over time. Women in their 60s and 70s today may or may not be handy with the needles (I’m not knocking knitting), but they no longer look or sound like the Nanas in the Shreddies ads, with their quavering old lady voices and their 1950s perms. Today many or most women in their 60s still have jobs (in Britain the female state pension age is now 66, and is set to rise further); if she makes it to 65 a woman in the UK can expect to live, on average, for another 21 years.
This woman may be a grandmother, but she’s a long way from the stereotype of Nana as a kind, innocent old lady, skilled in the traditional domestic arts but unfamiliar with such newfangled inventions as the internet and feminism. She could be your teacher, your boss, or even the leader of your government. Maybe that’s one reason why the outdated stereotype persists—it’s an expression of nostalgia for a simpler time when, supposedly, women didn’t have that kind of power.
The Nana stereotype is overtly positive rather than negative (that’s what makes subversions of it, like the foul-mouthed Nan character created by comedian Catherine Tate, funny), but it’s also an example of what’s sometimes called ‘benevolent sexism’, representing women in a way which is backward-looking, sentimental and deeply patronising. We love Nana, of course we do, but her ideas are old-fashioned, her tastes are a bit naff, and there’s a lot about modern life that she just doesn’t understand. We love her but we don’t see her as an equal–even if we’re the same age, we don’t recognise ourselves in her. That’s partly because, as I’ve already said, she’s a stereotype from a bygone age; but it’s also because of the stigma attached to ageing, which leads many older women, including even ardent feminists, to emphasise how unlike Nana they are.
In La Vieillesse (‘Old Age’), Simone de Beauvoir observed that in capitalist societies old people, like women, are treated as Other, different and inferior. This affects men as well as women, and for men Beauvoir suggests it may be even harder to deal with, because the loss of status takes them by surprise. I thought of this when I read about a Christmas ad that went viral in Germany this year:
The two-minute commercial follows a grandfather who, isolated by the coronavirus pandemic, starts his own solo fitness quest with nothing but a kettlebell. The elderly man struggles and groans but motivates himself with a photo in a frame of somebody the audience can’t see. It’s revealed in a moment that will melt even the iciest of hearts, just what the grandfather has been training for over his lonely year. As he finally meets with his family for Christmas, he picks up his granddaughter, and is strong enough to lift her up to put the star on top of the Christmas tree.
Could this ad have featured the little girl’s grandmother as its protagonist? In practical terms we might think the answer is yes: fitness regimes are not just for men. But symbolically it strikes me as very much a male narrative, about an old man’s resistance to the loss of status Beauvoir talks about. Rather than passively accepting his situation, he makes heroic efforts to overcome his physical frailty so he can play, when the time comes, an active and visible role in the family Christmas celebrations. The ad is undoubtedly sentimental throughout, but it does take the viewer on an emotional journey: while we may start out feeling pity for Grandpa, by the end we’re admiring his grit and determination. This is not a story I can imagine being told about Nana.
It’s true, of course, that advertisers don’t always portray older women as Nana: it depends what they’re selling and to whom. Nana works well in Christmas ads for food and drink, with their cosy ‘happy families’ vibe; but when it’s her money they’re after they’re more likely to go for a different stereotype, the ‘Glamorous Gran’. In ads for Voltarol or incontinence pants we see her lifting weights at the gym or getting dressed up to go dancing; in ads for anti-ageing products we see her ready for her close-up, perfectly groomed and still enviably attractive—even when, like Jane Fonda, she’s in her 80s.
Maybe this is the female version of refusing to capitulate to the indignities of old age: grandpa strengthens his muscles with a kettlebell, Gran battles her wrinkles with L’Oreal. But that comparison only underlines the point that ageism is inflected by sexism. Men are valued for what they do, whereas for women what matters most is how they look. The message of ads featuring the Glamorous Gran is that if we make enough effort and buy the right products, we too can remain acceptable to the male gaze. This is touted by the beauty industry as ‘empowering’ older women, but arguably it’s just another reminder that women’s power is dependent on their sexual allure.
For me, the choice between Glamorous Gran and Nana is like the choice between Babycham and Harvey’s Bristol Cream. I find both of them equally unpalatable, and equally remote from my actual life as a 60-something woman. You may feel similarly, or you may not: either way, I hope that all the glasses you raise this Christmas contain the drink of your preference, whatever that may be.