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Ma’am: Polite or Putdown?

What is gendered ageism?

Imagine you are addressing someone as “Miss.” About how old is the person? How old is the person you are addressing as “Mister?" “Ma’am?" “Sir?"

Did you imagine a young woman for “Miss?" Older woman for “Ma’am?" Not necessarily a young or older man for “Sir” or “Mister?" If so, you are correct for 3 of the 4… that is, according to Merriam-

Mister and Sir are age-neutral. Ma’am is short for Madam and, by definition, is age-neutral. Miss refers to a “young lady” or “a young unmarried woman or girl."

Something is amiss (sorry for the pun!). Why does Miss refer to a young woman, and Mister not refer to a young man? Also, Madam and Sir are supposedly counterparts, each for addressing someone in a polite and respectful manner.

Woman and dog.
Source: Cocoparisienne/Pixabay

But is Ma’am actually an age-neutral and polite way to address someone in our current society? In my experience, it is not.

Ma’am, not Madam, is ironically used as a put-down. Ma'am suggests older (when it is actually not about age by definition). In our current youth-centered society, "older" is not the polite and respectful reference it once was. Historically, aging was associated with being “wise” and “valued.” Sadly, older adults are facing ageism (negative stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination) such as being seen as burdensome, cranky, depressed, frail, incompetent, lonely, senile, and weak and are treated in patronizing and abusive ways.

Yet, women face ageism at an earlier age than men do. When men’s hair starts to gray, they are often described as “distinguished” and “wise” while society generally encourages women to cover their grays and fight the signs of aging. Moreover, poking fun at women’s bodies is socially condoned. Women are heavily criticized for wrinkles and sagging. Take a look at the “over the hill” birthday card section at any chain store as well as the “over the hill” gag gift section at a chain party store for not-funny gifts such as “Over the hill breast suspenders” labeled “STOP THE SAG!” and “A Girl’s Best Friend!” In movies and books, women have long been depicted as “demented old hags” and “wicked old witches.”

Society also patronizes older adults with ageist language and attributions of childlike qualities such as needing help, requiring slow and simple speech, and general incompetence. Women bear the brunt of infantilization with labels such as “cute," “adorable," “sweetie," “dearie," and “honey."

Depiction of Old Witch
Source: Clker-Free-Vector-Images/Pixabay

Why do women tend to be either cutie pies or old hags?

Maybe you are thinking of some salient counterexamples in the media: women who are not referred to as “adorable” or “old hag.” Chances are, those women are praised for looking youthful. Why not praise women for being super talented, successful, athletic, and so on… and do away with the emphasis and praise on women looking younger than their actual age.

This breaks down to gendered ageism. It is the very unfortunate intersection between sexism and ageism.

How women are referred to and addressed matters for a bunch of reasons beyond the unfair double standard they face. As an example, gendered ageism creates obstacles for qualified women to be hired and obtain positions of power and leadership as women are judged as subjectively less qualified even when they are objectively equally qualified to their male counterparts. Another example: Gendered ageism contributes to women not getting proper health care treatment including sufficient preventive care and aggressive treatment such as when they are assumed to be too frail. Heart disease is stereotyped as a man’s disease, despite the fact that it is a common cause of death for women as well, and women end up not getting the same kind of quality care as men do.

Dmitry Abramov/Pixabay
Ageist Depiction of Older Woman
Source: Dmitry Abramov/Pixabay

Men do face ageism as well. Men, like women, do not receive sufficient healthcare treatment when their symptoms are brushed aside as part of the “normal” aging process or as simply "complaining." Men face unique stereotypes such as “grumpy old man” and “dirty old man.”

To fight ageism directed toward all groups, we need to stop condoning ageism. We need accurate information about aging. Fostering positive intergenerational contact experiences would also go a long way.

Our research team would like to hear about and learn from your experiences and viewpoints. To learn more and participate, click here.


Levy, S.R. (2016). Toward reducing ageism: PEACE (Positive Education about Aging and Contact Experiences) Model. The Gerontologist. 10 AUG 2016, doi: 10.1093/geront/gnw116

Levy, S.R., & Macdonald, J.L. (2016). Progress on Understanding Ageism. Journal of Social Issues, 72(1), 5-25. doi: 10.1111/josi.12153

Lytle, A., Macdonald, J., Dyar, C., & Levy, S.R. (2018). Ageism and Sexism in the 2016 United States Presidential Election. Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy. doi: 10.1111/asap.12147

Chrisler, J., Barney, A., & Palatino, B. (2016). Ageism can be hazardous to women’s health: Ageism, sexism, and stereotypes of older women in the health care system. Journal of Social Issues, 72(1), 86-104. doi: 10.1111/josi.12157

Gendron, T. L., Welleford, E. A., Inker, J., & White, J. T. (2016). The language of ageism: Why we need to use words carefully. The Gerontologist, 56(6), 997–1006. doi: 10.1093/geront/gnv066

Hollis-Sawyer, L. & Cuevas, L. (2013). Mirror, mirror on the wall: Ageist and sexist double jeopardy portrayals in children’s picture books. Educational Gerontology, 39(12), 902-914. doi: 10.1080/03601277.2013.767650

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