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Deals in Stereotypes

February 16, 2009 | 26 Comments

Dear Mr. Keillor,
There's something that disturbs me very much about your show. Seems like older women are portrayed as ugly and undesirable while it is always the younger women who are considered sexy. I just heard your Valentine's Day segment made me sad. I'm middle-aged and don't consider myself to be unattractive, but I still feel that men should really be aware of just how much this kind of negative
stereotyping hurts women. It's not just on your show, of course — it's everywhere. Seems like our society is set up for older men to be depicted as wise and knowing, whereas older women are trashed as value-less and ugly, always ditched for the younger, less experienced ones. This message pervades psyches everywhere...from the magazine racks to the dating games — and when you consider the damage it does, there's nothing funny about it. Have you ever stopped to think about how unfair that is — and what it does to a woman's sense of herself — especially as she grows older?

Promoting superficial values isn't helping anyone....including the men who miss out on having lifetime partners who grow wise and knowing along with them.

Please know that it hurts older women to be made the butt of 'ugly' and 'old' jokes, especially on Valentine's Day.

Heidi-Jane S.
San Francisco, CA


You may be right, Heidi-Jane, and if I think back on the Valentine's show, I suppose you may be referring to the lady who accosted Guy Noir in the bar and whom he rejected in favor of a young woman. But the young woman then rejected him. And I think that Guy is pretty consistently rejected by women, sometimes rather pointedly: it's the story of his life. Balanced against whatever slights you heard on the show, you must consider Heather Masse's rendition of a parody of John Lennon's "Imagine" — "Imagine you did housework/it's easy if you try/Imagine you cleaned bathrooms/and were that sort of guy" which got a big reaction from the theater audience, especially the women. The same guy wrote that as wrote Guy Noir — me —and as an older guy, I think I've been pretty hard on my own kind. But comedy does deal in stereotypes, no doubt about it, and the attractiveness of youth is a staple of comedy. Which suggests that it is an attitude buried deep in our culture and it's not going to go away. It's probably tied to our survival instincts — we prefer youth because therein lies the future of the species. It sure doesn't lie with guys my age.


Hmmmm. This is not necessarily for publication, but I don't mind if you publish it. I liked Heidi-Jane's letter. She hit on something true in a very respectful way which isn't always easy to pull off. Your response, not so much. In his pursuit of youthful women, Guy rejects older women fairly consistently. I always imagine your hag in these skits to be all of a washed up thirty. Comedy is done in stereotypes, yes, but it is always a cultural frontier. I think you would agree that certain stereotypes about black males, albeit buried deep in our culture, would not be appropriate material for your show or any decent show, especially if every single time a black male was to be portrayed, the same tired stereotype was re-tread. It's not guys your age you are ragging on. It's women my age and I'm not dead yet. ;-)

I believe Miss Jane, albeit sounding like a sweet, well seasoned Old Bird, may be a bit
hyper-sensiive vis a vie our Autumn years.
I wish people would learn to grow old
gracefully and stop complaining about having to eat cat food, or how Uncle Joe's check didn't arrive on time, whilst simoultaneously yanking a one armed bandit, or lining up for their daily lottery Pics!
While Miss Jane clearly is no spring chicken
she conversely gives no indication if she is an Old Stewing Hen either.
Further insight may prove illumanating.

My Compliments,

If it helps you form a better picture, I'm 42 and still getting hit on by men younger than I am. And you'll notice I mentioned neither catfood nor lottery tickets in my letter (nor would any of the elderly people I know, by the way!). I appreciated Mr. Keillor's response, but in my humble opinion, "Imagine you cleaned bathrooms" does little to settle the score; in fact, it only exacerbates the stereotyping by assuming that men don't do house chores. Enlightened men have just as much right to wince at that one. Juliastar's letter makes my point very well: Just because something exists widely in society doesn't make it justifiable - or funny. But thanks for your thoughtful response.

My mother is 61 and has a live-in boyfriend who is 11 years younger than she. I'm 34, and my husband is 38. I do most of the housework & kid-stuff, though I'm employed part-time to his full-time. My husband is still responsible for vacuuming, the cat's litter box, the dishwasher, and cleaning bathrooms (stuff that happens once a week or less frequently). My biggest household chore? Laundry - which believe me, is no small task. Oh, and don't forget the cooking & shopping!

Heidi-Jane's comments were completely valid, but will do nothing to change the way women over 40 are regarded in society or popular culture. I'm 49 and none of the men my age date women my age. Forty-nine is a young middle age in a man; it's at least 62 in girl years. That is the way it is. Harrison Ford, Sean Connery, and Garrison Keillor will remain sexy through their 60s and beyond, while women in their age range must be content with being interesting partners in conversation. You have to make peace with it Heidi-Jane. If you are a woman under 30 you can rule the world. A disheartening fact for those of us who age through adulthood loving men.

The tabloids are full aging hollywood starlets using their wealth and fame to replace the old meatloaf with some fresh beefcake. Given the opportunity I am sure chronically challenged women everywhere would do the same. When you finally give in to temptation and choose one of those "younger men" instead of the "good conversationalist" asking you to the bowling awards banquet, remember Guy.

I'm sorry to hear you've given up, Helen....My mom's husband of 25 years is 18 years younger than she is and they're still kissing in public. I continue to have faith that there are enlightened men in the world who value wisdom and character over superficial beauty, and what could be sexier than that? I'm just sorry Mr. Keillor doesn't appear to be one of them.


Well, "Good conversationalist" beats "Beefcake" any day in my book as far as seductive goes, Jim, but I have a feeling I may be alone in that thinking. But anyway, I appreciate everyone's comments (and Mr. Keillor, please know that I wasn't implying you're not sexy (!) - I was just trying to raise everyone's awareness of the issue a little is all). You're a talented man with a great voice who has brought joy to a lot of people. My parting comment: I'd love to hear an episode in which Guy falls for an older woman..THAT would be GREAT! Anyway, I'll sign off now - peace and joy to all.


I visualized the character simply as an alcoholic older woman, frequently in that bar, and did not draw any comparison between that character and the majority of older women.

Dear Garrison,
As an "older woman" I often tell younger
women I would never, never go back.
I'm more energetic, and in my eyes
more beautiful than when I was 25. It's
all in the perspective.
I'm close to obtaining my Bachelor's
Degree after waiting many years to
complete it -- I will be 60 years old!
My husband and I are planning that
adventure called "retirement," which
will mean we'll continue working
on meaningful activities. We're
not wealthy, but will have "enough."
It seems to me people will always,
always find something to complain
about -- something "they" said;
someone to blame for feeling badly
about themselves.
Please tell them they don't have to
feel badly -- they have the power
to be happy!!
San Clemente

Kids, please stop trying to mollify poor (don't sound like it), old (puh-leeze), sad (huh?) Heidi-Jane. She's got an opinion, entitled to it, and frankly I agree with her. It gets old hearing the same old, pathetic, chain-smoking, barfly hags that populate the places that Guy Noir goes. Sure, it's a given that he'll prefer the gorgeous young thing, but that doesn't mean that GK has to make all the other women old, pathetic, chain-smoking, barfly hags. It IS insulting. You don't have to make it into some real-world societal issue that Heidi-Jane should accept with a stiff upper lip. (Insert razzberry here.)

I am one of the few men who belive that women get more beautiful with age. Young woman are cute but they dont have the signs of life inprinted on them. A wrinkle here a mark there are all parts of the complete woman. My wife is 46 and has never been sexier.
The one thing I would like to say about this whole issue is simply this. No matter how old we get, we cannot lose our sense of humor and remember to take things like this for what they were really meant to be, entertainment.

I love ya, Bob. Smooches!

Well said, GK. Humor often bites, which is why I tend to get into trouble from time to time myself. Not that I'm funny, I just have a knack of offending people ;-) and I do appreciate older women--even the booze hounds.

Yeah, H-J is entitled to an opinion, and apparently a pretty high one of herself, being hit on and 42. Good for her!! Lord knows, it takes a LOT of work to look that good. Go buy yourself a new pair of shoes, that ought to satisfy yourself for a while. Heck, maybe the store clerk will offer to help you try them on! Stereotype that!

Agreeing with Heidi Jane myself. I listened to that broadcast and did find that one Guy Noir episode to be annoying. I do still laugh at the detective novel description of the 'babe', since its different every time.

Here's to exploring new frontiers in what is funny without including negative stereotypes! Juliastar's example of a number of racial stereotypes no longer being funny nor acceptable is exactly it - deep self-examination of why we hold on to these things is needed. Personally, I'm 47 & F and think I'm better in all ways than I was at 27, looks included. Anyone that doesn't agree, including younger men who probably pass me by every day, is not on my radar. That pretty much solves the problem! : )

Poor Guy....he can be hip and cool for about a minute, then the real Guy comes out. An example of most men who appear to have it all, but can be crushed under the heel of a woman of any age. Poor Guy represents all the fragile men who try to remain young, but fail. It never made me take offense at the stereo typing of women, but rather, made me laugh at a man who thinks he can have whatever woman he wants, but is rejected by his choice.

As for: "imagine you cleaned bathrooms..." it doesn't do much except make us laugh at the idea that men would actually do that. It takes much more than imagining to put the wand in the toilet and actually clean it. And since men are mostly responsible for the splatter in the first place, it is only reasonable that they clean it. I wouldn't even say "clean the bathroom" to a man, just "clean up after yourself." That would take care of ALL the cleaning at most homes!

Chin up, Guy...there might be hope for you, but in the meantime, keep being yourself, I can laugh at that every week!

Too bad HJ felt so sad after the remarks. To quote the Joker in the Dark Knight - "Why so serious?". Humor is frequently at its most humorous when it contains a grain of truth - the reason a court Jester was the ultimate pundit of his day. Stereotypical humor of many stripes is also funny because of that, even when it isn't "right". Humor works because it calls what we might think is true to account, and illustrates the gap between that "truth" and what is real. Humor doesn't work when it is individually degrading, cruel, or aimed more for attack than a laugh. Short of that, we should revel in each and every opportunity to laugh, because it builds cardio and mental health and makes what might be a difficult life easier to take. PHC works because it finds a dry blade of humor in almost every crevice of Midwestern life. For every possible offense there are more than ample opportunities to laugh.

The movie "Fargo" was eminently more funny to watch in Minneapolis because half the theater was doubled over while the other half sat, arms folded, and wondered what was so funny. Which was itself *hilarious*. Yes, an element of a PHC gag may ensnare any one of us at any time (well, at least in this part of the country...), but most of the rest of the time, we will find much to laugh at. My goal in life is *never* to be among the arms-folded set, but to laugh at everything. Life is a heck of a lot more fun that way. That means I have laughed at extraordinarily inappropriate places - including at church, funerals, hospitals, and bathrooms. It is on the edge of inappropriateness that some of the funniest things happen...

Wow. I thought Heidi's Post to GK was thought-provoking and well-said. Then I read his response and thought THAT was true also....and well-said. THEN I read all of the above posts, and there seems to be a little bit of truth in most of them, depending on your perspective, open-mind, and the phase of the moon.
Personally, I first realized in my early 50's that men weren't really looking at me anymore - it was more like they looked right through, or past, me, as if I weren't registering as I used to. It was a semi-crushing blow for awhile, as I'm was used to being a "babe", I guess. Now I'm 61, still 'attractive', in great physical shape, but find all the falderol more amusing than anything. That's life, folks. Mother Nature pretty much knows what she's doing :)

"It gets old hearing the same old, pathetic, chain-smoking, barfly hags that populate the places that Guy Noir goes. "
That's just it, people - Guy isn't exactly hanging out in some ritzy joint; his regular place is a dive. I will admit - I always see the place as a stereotypical bar, dark and smoky and with rings on the bar, and barstools with rips in their faux-leather covers. And I see Guy as the stereotypical low-rent PI, with a crumpled suit and a fedora. And I see the bar-fly as a stereotypical bar-fly, and it's all part of the fun. As I recall, Guy has had dealings with any number of wealthy, powerful, and over-21 women, some of whom he has been attracted to. And yes, he still always falls for the cut young thing, because that's the stereotype for seedy PIs. As an over-21 (much over!) female myself, I appreciate the concern - but let's not go overboard about one skit!

I am an old (exactly your age, Garrison) fan. I didn't hear this episode but, much of the time, I laugh until I cry. Mostly -- you come dangerously close to the truth and after a good laugh, the world is a more comfortable place.

But I grew up in South Dakota, and after a good laugh, the world is a more comfortable place.

GK, Now wait a minute - I think you absolutely 'nail' Ruth Harrison, your librarian. Having also known her and been impailed by her unflinching stare; not to be forgotten until death. I think of her as "Buddy Holly's mother" with Christie Brinkley's mole, her imposing perfect posture, dress, stance, and walk. And to have her imply to you, "what is it you want to read - you hopeless waif?" You might think a bit about the second librarian, PJ in the old Carnegie, spouse to him of the Evil Hour. H.

Thank you GK!

After I laugh myself silly, I think about what made me laugh, and I say "Yep, that is the way it is", and gauge where I am on the "Neanderthal / enlightened" scale, and vow to do better when I have more time.

Thanks for the laughs, I never know what corner of the psyche they will take me.

I tend to view Guy as a nice,intelligent human who never quite won as a kid and doesn't now in the prime of life.

He'll make a gradual descent into his golden years never quite grasping that the brass ring has remained out of reach yet having few delusions about his life or his virtues.

I expect the Guy and Gal Noirs of the world to take life one day at a time,season their nibbles of hubris with a grain of salt and retain the hope that if one explores the pile of steaming feces under the Christmas tree,a pony could be found and it's just as apt to be a gift for them as not.

He is a bit "forensically challenged" despite his occupation or the fact that he isn't really bad or stupid.

He does deserve about a third of what the harridans and alpha males dish out at him.

He doesn't quite have what they'd respect or what would hold the attention of the callow,shallow young things he hopes he can impress.

(As a youth,he may have pursued older women because they seemed deeper,kinder and,perhaps,more willing to admire a lad who could offer youth and devotion but little else.)

In either era,he might go for the lady he thinks he can get while being frightened and fascinated by the deadly,amoral creatures that are a detective's natural predator.

The "normal" grown-up woman doesn't NEED him or despise him.

She will neither fawn over him,betray him or become a burden.

Manipulation just doesn't enter into any relationship she has.

Even if the storylines allowed for such an individual in his life,Guy wouldn't know how to deal with a person who really did find him likeable and competent yet pitied him because he
wasn't fully convinced of that himself.

The folks like Guy,on some level,feel like imposters.

They pursue those they expect won't see past the facade and they hang around bullies who wouldn't like them anyway.

They suspect they may be worthwhile human beings but find it safer to avoid folks who are wise and genuine because it wouldn't do to discover that such people do exist but that one is not in their league.

Folks like Guy are more comfortable with the "good enough" even if they do toy with dreams of the grand and sordid.

If Mr. Noir (and his sisters) avoid the companionship of ordinary,decent,safe people,it's because they're grounded in the reality that he prefers to take in small doses.

He doesn't go in for much self-deception but he'd rather stumble upon a real-life version of his fantasies than trust his own ability to take on a 100% real situation and not have it (or himself) be found wanting.

No,a true-to-life older woman (or any other person) isn't absent from these stories because they are considered worthless.

To the contrary,they are kept out because the humor and sadness of these tales comes from the lack of the very contributions they make to their world and those fortunate enough to know them.

Thanks to all for this thoughtful, respectful discussion about a delicate topic. I don't expect GK to change his Guy Noir formula, though. The smart, sassy, and possibly middle-aged women characters he and/or his writing staff conjure(s) up each week seem to appear in the Dusty and Lefty skits instead.

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