In "The Tribal Rite of the Strombergs," Jeremy has to kill his father because for the first time ever his father has lost at Scrabble. He himself will club his father to death. Several of the elders ask to be offed. "Eat my weakened body," his father says. "For I have become too old to live." He undresses and prostrates himself before his son, his "naked, flabby arms stretched out in supplication." The entire arc of the father consists of humiliations, gleefully rendered.
This is written by a young man, so maybe it is some Oedipal twitch. But since killing all the failing older people one after another is the joke, the victims here are women as well as men. They fed his aunt to a horse. His mother shoved his grandmother onto an ice floe when she forgot the name of a TV actor. "Bathe me in sacred oils," she commanded. "And cast me out to burden you no more." Equal-opportunity ageism.
The reluctance of the younger adult children -- "glossy" eyes, scanty protests, seems (ahem) insincere. Lewis Carroll nailed this, in the tears of the Walrus as he was eating the little trusting plump oysters in Alice in Wonderland.
"I weep for you," the Walrus said:
"I deeply sympathize."
With sobs and tears he sorted out
Those of the largest size,
Holding his pocket-handkerchief
Before his streaming eyes.
Satire is a difficult genre, as Swift and Orwell knew. "It would have been more satirical if the son insisted his father give up his life after losing at Scrabble. This is closer to what happens every day," Dorothy Miller, a writer and independent scholar wrote to me. "An 'older' person forgets her glasses, a name, etc. and several people view this lapse as a symptom of aging, which can lead to mistrust or disregard for the person since she/he is 'losing it.'" In the academy as elsewhere, younger people are told that they can get jobs only if midlife people leave them. But that's okay because the midlife scholars are deadwood. (Jeremy's father's latest book "wasn't his most original." It was a "retread.") Perhaps Jeremy should have surreptitiously checked his father's will before he pointed out that Dad could have used his "Z" to win the game. Who are the author's satirical targets except the histrionic elders who are willing to die prematurely? In fact, no study shows that the long-lived wish to have died younger.
"The Tribal Rite of the Strombergs" also fails as satire because it is displays only one family's cruelty, when anthropology demonstrates that it is entire cultural systems that generate bias. Anthony Trollope set his dystopian novel, The Fixed Period, where everyone will have to die by the age of 68, in a new country called Brittanula. More grimly up to date, the justifications the New Yorker piece gives for suicide or "euthanasia" are all versions of real charges made now, repeatedly, against midlife and older people. If you don't know all these petty, erroneous, or mean-spirited charges, this piece will teach them to you, one after another. Aunt Susan (fed to horse) fails a young person's request for help because she has lost all contacts at Bravo: She's too old to date anyone there anymore. Jeremy's uncle is shamed and dies because he uses an unfashionable server (AOL). ("Mort's wrinkled face flushed with shame.") There's a lot to cringe at here.
I winced often while reading the New Yorker piece, not because I identify with these caricatural parents, but because I know that ageist stereotypes do a lot of harm to younger people too. The humor lets the guilt pass for reading about besting and killing elders and laughing, or thinking with pleasure about your future inheritance, or feeling disgust when you see a bald head or condescend to a 50-year-old woman who can't wield any kind of workplace power. People are shamed for being slow adopters only if they are old. If they are young Luddites, they are treated as skeptical show-me types. Older people -- especially women -- can be ashamed for having wrinkles or not dating. This social pressure has been a theme of feminism for decades.
Our current age culture indeed deserves scorn. "The Tribal Rite of the Strombergs" appears in 2013 against an American backdrop of offensiveness, ignorance, and careless disregard. The right wing claims that older people are a "burden" through the deficit, Social Security, and their pensions. Women live longer than men; we are poorer and get even poorer the longer we live, so we need more assistance and are thus likely to be used as butts. Some with cognitive impairment and a chronic condition are permitted to die. Older people are being invited to refuse medical treatment so as not to "burden" Medicare. Shame may cause people to refuse medical care they might otherwise want. (The author may have believed his allusion to the Eskimo on the ice floe was a satire on the "duty-to-die" crowd. That was one of the few times I could see our culture through the joke and felt he could name the values he intended to satirize.)
The New Yorker likes to shock, but usually in a PC way -- (on the cover, Michelle and Barack do a fist bump, a rabbi and a black woman kiss). So why does a piece like this get accepted? "Shouts and Murmurs" makes some space for the Saturday Night Live vibe, often egregiously incorrect. "Cougar" jokes are the sexist-ageist equivalent of "little moron" or "Polish" jokes, updated to the tastes of men fantasizing they may stay young forever. The author of "The Tribal Rite of the Strombergs," Simon Rich, writes for SNL. For many people, ageism (a term invented in 1969 by Dr. Robert Butler) still does not exist in conscience in clearly focused ways. Stephen Katz, a historian of gerontology and a professor at Trent University, suggests that the larger problem of unconsciousness may be generational. Rich, "considered to be one of America's best but youngest comic writers, represents a generation so distanced from aging and old age, that the old are sources of 'material' to lampoon." Yet simultaneously, undergraduates, male and female, are now studying ageism along with other intersectional prejudices, and graduate students and junior faculty are writing the next books that will challenge the Otherness of old people.
Some Humor Gets Lame
The first people to attack racist, homophobic, sexist "humor" etc., were time and again seen as missing the point. Even 50 years on, it is necessary to explain what's not funny. Ellen Goodman -- still distributing her clever and well-researched "Equal Rites Awards" -- singled out ad humor for sexism. Her "Mad Men Award" went to two senior execs "for their ad bragging about Figo's trunk space. They showed women bound and gagged and stuffed into it. Ho. Ho. Ho. We send them a pickup truck full of renovated funny bones."
A feminist gerontologist, Kate de Medeiros, comments, "If he were killing his father for any other reason than being old -- political beliefs, sexual identity, disability that is not related to older age -- there would be disgust and an outcry. I can't image having a humor section based on a woman being stoned because she didn't cover her face properly. The fact that this topic falls under the purview of a joke is really appalling."
Humor can sometimes help us to change, but it often reinforces cruel ideology. Sometimes the ideology is dying or contested, like racism. So an author can assert he is kicking it as it dies. But ageism is worsening, not dying; and there is scarcely anyone contesting "funny" hate speech. We need an expanded civil-rights movement with an anti-ageist edge, to combat all the exhibitions of alienation and disgust and to entirely renovate our culture's funny bones.
Margaret Morganroth Gullette is the author of prize-winning books, including Agewise: Fighting the New Ageism in America (Eric Hoffer Book Award) and Declining to Decline ("best feminist book on American popular culture"). She is a Resident Scholar at the Women's Studies Research Center, Brandeis and writes frequently for national and international audiences .