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The Grievability of Lives and Why it Matters

Updated: Feb 1, 2023

In a recent Instagram post for International Women’s day, I cited the prominent feminist theorist Judith Butler as a woman who inspires me. I heard a lecture by her at Glasgow University in 2018 where she discussed her idea of ‘radical equality of grievability’ which argues that all lives should be equally grieved (in life, not just in death). As with much of Butler’s theories I had to decipher it!

Judith Butler, image courtesy of Verso

She claims a grievable life is one that would be mourned if it was lost and should be safeguarded because of its value. She argues there is a hierarchy of grievable lives and the further the grievable life is from you, the more impersonal that life becomes. You are more likely to care about or be empathetic to someone closer to you ( either geographically or figuratively).

For example, you are more likely to care about your parents, siblings, best friend than a great aunt twice removed or a friend of a friend of a friend. Geographically people care more about people closest to them eg in their town, city, country than those that live further afield on the other side of the world.

This can also be considered in terms of age. Older lives are usually not equally grieved and are often relegated to a lower status where their lives and needs do not matter as much.

This is hardly surprising when younger people often feel disconnected with older people . When imagining themselves 30 or 40 years in the future, they are impacted by the negative connotations associated with ageing. This disproportionately affects women more than men. There are a number of stereotypes typically present in the depiction of older adults, but men are more likely to be depicted positively in older age and as demonstrating positive actions. Women are more frequently portrayed as emotional, weak, and reliant.

In a 2009 leaflet by Age Concern for depression, which depicts an older woman ( I would argue not necessarily old) looking gloomily out of a rain spattered window (see image left). This contrasts with another image for treating depression that shows an older man wearing swimming goggles and smiling ( see image right)

In a study into ageism by the Royal Society for Public Health in 2018, two thirds of people had no friends with an age gap of 30 years or more. It follows that if we have no engagement with adults a good deal older than ourselves, then they will become less grievable to us.

A few years ago, before my time at Glasgow School of Art, I was feeling overwhelmed juggling work and deadlines and family responsibilities. I decided to do a local art class and it was amazing, a few hours each week where I could immerse myself in making art and forget about the phone and computer for a while. Even though I brought the average age down by about thirty years , it didn’t even register with me, they were a group of incredible artists and I had some amazing conversations. They were the ones who inspired me to go to Art School!

Tutor Douglas Matthew with a group of artists at one of his classes. Ayton Hall, Auchterarder 2015

I touch on these themes in my own work. I like to portray older women in a positive light. Positive, strong, colourful, bold and full of life! In the painting below, part of my Judgment of Paris series, the women are seen to have energy. Their expressions are strong , and determined. They are barefoot and carefree. The plant signifies life. I was delighted to received an AON Community Art Award for this painting as part of my degree show which is currently exhibited at the Leadenhall Building in London.

sTop! 2 Mixed media on canvas. 161 cm x 111 cm

You can see more of my work that features strong women here

I would encourage everyone, if you don’t do so already, to actively engage with people who are older than you. And indeed younger than you! And also those with a different gender, race , sexuality , religion, and nationality to you. Seek them out, and perhaps in some way we can smash the hierarchy of grievable lives!

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