“What’s Susan Sarandon doing playing a grandmother?” my friend asked, alarmed at the trailer for The Lovely Bones, in which Sarandon does indeed play a grandmother. “She’s still really sexy.” (And, of course, she’s also our contemporary.)
Grandmother—what a loaded word! To say nothing of Grandma or (shudder) Granny.
“We’re not going to kill Granny,” President Obama assured us in defense of his health care plan, catching me up short, because rather than making the idea of the rumored “death panels” sound ridiculous, he somehow made the idea of an older woman sound ridiculous.
Think how much more somber his denial would have been if he had phrased it: “We’re not going to kill your parents.” But “kill Granny”? That’s right up there with Throw Mama From the Train and “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” in terms of aging female stereotypes. Think “grandmother” and you’re also thinking: old, feeble, frail, doddering, frumpy …The Andy Griffith Show’s apron-clad Aunt Bee, or my own beloved grandmother, in shapeless “housedress” and laced-up, sensible black heels.
Of course, all “grandmother” really means is: You have a grandchild. And you don’t even have to be old to be a grandmother—if you have your children young, and they have their kids young, you could still be in your 30s. How often have I been conned by a tabloid headline—“Grandma Beats Off Burglar!” –only to turn to the story and find a very fit, attractive woman of, say, 45, who just happens to be a grandmother. But tabloids know the power of words: “Grandma” hooks us, immediately evoking images of Granny Clampett in a flannel nightgown, wielding the nearest umbrella above her head as weapon.
Which leading actresses play grandmothers today? Shirley MacLaine (In Her Shoes), Jane Fonda (Georgia Rules), Julie Andrews (The Princess Diaries)—all comfortably in their 70s. Sarandon and Sally Field (Brothers and Sisters), both 62, seem bold for taking on the role so young. Meryl Streep has not yet tackled Granny (though she has played a nun, which is almost as good) and when Diane Keaton learned her daughter was pregnant in Father of the Bride II, she was pregnant at the same time! In a similar vein, Dianne Wiest discovered she would be a grandmother when out on a date in Parenthood. Fertile Granny—how about that??
I can’t help but think of Elise, the vain, collagen-plumped actress portrayed by Goldie Hawn in The First Wives Club: Talking to a director about playing the ingénue in his next flick, she suddenly realizes he has her in mind for the mother. “I’m not Monique’s Mother!” she screams, hysterical. “Angela Lansbury is Monique’s Mother! Shelley Winters is Monique’s Mother!” Just imagine how traumatized she would be by the notion of playing a grandmother .
I am not a grandmother, though I hope I someday will be, and I can’t imagine being offended by the label. I do remember, though, the day my daughter dropped off her dog at our building and a doorman, petting the pup, said, “Oh—coming to visit Grandma?” I was puzzled, looked around, then realized: Good Lord, he means me.
How about you? What does the word “grandmother” mean to you—and how does it make you feel?