Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

Opinion | Insulting the ‘cute’ old through admiration

The reactions to old-people-doing-cute-stuff videos are on a par with other subtle acts of patronising, like the overblown reaction to sari-clad scientists of the Indian space programme

Last week, the video clip of an old sardar’s salsa with a sari-draped woman reached hundreds of thousands of people. Everyone presumed the twirling woman was his wife because the moment was adorable only then. Also, everyone wanted to frame the dance as a “sweet" evidence of love and the persistence of happiness. People also imagined the couple had been married for decades. Maybe they also thought he smears toothpaste on her brush every morning before she rises. A common reaction among viewers was that the couple was, by the act of salsa, “keeping their love alive". When people talk in public about love, you will think they have never been in a relationship.

The public reaction to the video was actually not a collective appreciation of enduring love. Something else was going on. It was condescension for the old, and it was condescension masquerading as admiration. In using words like “sweet" and “cute" for the old man and his partner of ambiguous (hence probably advanced) age, people were inadvertently exposing their opinion that they consider the old to be inferior humans who are normally incapable of elementary dancing. In presuming that they were married, people inadvertently revealed their opinion that love is an equal handicap—the old must not aspire beyond the old.

What if the same old man was in fact a sugar-daddy billionaire and his partner was a 20-year-old model? What if he were an old man who wished to be “in the game"? Suddenly the same dance would make him despicable because he would now be a potent male, not a “cute" old man who restricts himself to be in the company of an old woman.

You may say there was a bit of compassion in the people who rejoiced the salsa. Of course, there was. In fact, condescension usually masquerades as compassion. In The Unbearable Lightness Of Being, Milan Kundera pauses the narration of the story to explain that the word “compassion" ought to read that it “generally inspires suspicion" because, even though compassion can be a glorious human emotion in some people, it so often is merely covert condescension—“it designates what is considered an inferior, second-rate sentiment that has little to do with love".

Admiration is worse because it hides disdain much more efficiently than compassion. Being old is a caste and most of us are racists. And a mark of our times is that the most vicious racists don’t insult—they appreciate, they patronise. There is a bit of this even in the effusive compliments of the young for the middle-aged. “I have a crush" and “you are so hot" when directed by the young towards the old are so often, if not always, feudal moments of patronage.

The salsa video is among the occasional “old-persons" video that goes viral every now and then. An old woman does cartwheels, and the world, which is filled with the unfit lazy young, patronises her. An old man describes his late wife as “angelic" and people advertise they want to cry.

The most atrocious clip was recorded by a gang of young girls outside an airport. In the film, a very old man waits outside the arrival gate holding a bouquet. He is unaware, of course, that he is being recorded from a good distance. An old woman arrives and he gives her the flowers. The world swooned over the apparent beauty of the moment.

What if the old man was, in fact, having a secret affair? Maybe he was tired of his bickering 75-year-old wife and wished to feel the smooth skin and firmer breasts of a 65-year-old woman.

You may argue, because you don’t want me to ruin beauty, that when we admire the joy of the old, we are seeing ourselves in the future, and the hope that we, too, will give and receive bouquets (from and to a respectably old person). But if you observe the language of our admiration, inside our heads and outside, we will see that this is not how we speak to ourselves. We never talk down to future selves, but we do so to the old.

Even the great Roger Federer has to face the absurdity of the ordinary young patronising him. Every time he wins, it is seen in the context of his age. The reason why journalists consider 40-year-old athletes as handicaps is that most journalists are unfit. Every now and then, I tweet a plea to editors, “Only journalists who can run 100m in under 15 seconds should be allowed to comment on Federer’s fitness" (I suggest 15 seconds because that is the time I am assured to run 100m if challenged at any given time of the day).

The unfit young usually overreact to the fitness of the older. In this way and other ways, the world, which has a low bar for itself, has created a very low bar for the old, too, while in actuality a regular 60-year-old who is fit can have the physique and innards of a 30-year-old. Instead, the old are nudged everyday to think of themselves as handicaps. When they are tired or weak, they don’t realise even the young feel tired; they are certain, it is an inevitability of age. They also grow to ignore physical vanity, whose contribution to the very meaning of life is underrated.

The reactions to old-people-doing-cute-stuff videos are on a par with other subtle acts of patronising, like the overblown reaction to sari-clad scientists of the Indian space programme.

The cuteness of “jugaad", too, and the glorification of Rajinikanth’s comical gentrification. And “the dignity" of impoverished farmers on protests in Delhi and Mumbai who are complimented for not creating traffic jams or disrupting middle-class lives.

Manu Joseph, a journalist and a novelist, most recent of Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous, was a Mint Lounge columnist.

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