Raging Grannies: The Action League. Directed by Pam Walton. New York: New Day films, 2010. 30 minutes.

In Bed with a Mosquito. Directed by Sarah Frank. New York: Third World Newsreel, 2008. 18 minutes.

Abuelas: Grandmothers on a Mission. Directed by Naomi Weis. New York: Women Make Movies, 2012. 28 minutes.

Reviewed by Miya Narushima

Despite their growing numbers and the various contributions they make to society, older women in North America are still likely to be either denigrated or invisible. Even feminist scholars have paid them minimal attention.1 The three filmed portraits of older female activists reviewed here can help rectify that omission, serving as useful pedagogical tools within a number of disciplines including women’s studies, social gerontology, sociology, developmental psychology, and cultural studies.

The first two films, Raging Grannies: The Action League and In Bed with a Mosquito, focus on the Raging Grannies, an activist movement that has spread to a number of North American cities. This movement started in 1987 in Victoria, British Columbia, when ten older women wearing flamboyant “granny” costumes and flowery hats paddled canoes into Victoria Harbour while chanting protest songs to confront a big US nuclear-powered warship. Since then, with this creative and eye-catching style as a trademark, local Grannies groups have been gaggling on the national stage and in local communities to raise public awareness on various issues including imperialism, environmental safety, civil rights, and social and economic injustice.2 Raging Grannies by Pam Walton accurately reflects these unique features of this older women’s movement, focusing on a vibrant and progressive Grannies group in that hotbed of social protest, the San Francisco Bay Area. The film includes scenes from their witty and noisy antiwar demonstrations, joint rallies for environmental safety with youth groups, protests for legalized gay marriage, popular education sessions, along with TV news clips, newspaper reports, and interviews with some of the Grannies about their strategies and motivations. As we watch, we gradually become convinced that, despite their apparent absurdity, the Grannies’ actions are carefully researched and planned with the media in mind to bring about positive changes in the public discourse. Moreover, the impact of their caring “grandmotherly” approach helps them gain empowerment and self-acceptance at the personal level. Beneath their colorful costumes and cheerful social personae, the Grannies are a diverse group: some are hardcore veterans of the struggle for racial integration and the second-wave of the feminist movement and some are relatively new. Although the fight against ageism and sexism and the search for meaning in later life are not explicit agendas in the Grannies’ activism, Raging Grannies captures the essence of their brave crusade not only for future generations, but also for their fellow older women.

Unlike Raging Grannies, which introduces the Grannies’ activism in collective terms, Sarah Frank’s In Bed with a Mosquito zooms in on a single Raging Granny, Betty Brassell, a 78-year-old retired telephone operator. Betty moved with her two children from Georgia to the Lower East Side of New York City( like San Francisco a politically progressive community) in her late 20s to escape an abusive marriage. Although Betty had never been an activist before, political activism became her second vocation once she retired. The film follows Betty from her apartment to the streets—we see her walker with its big “Arrest Cheney” sign, the pins on her clothes protesting the Iraq War, and the bright pink flowers in her gray hair. The strength of this film is that it looks beyond Betty’s activism to encompass her current life, living arrangements, health problems, and family relationships as well as a past life that she considers “the opposite of happy.” When an injury prevents her from leaving home, fellow Grannies visit her apartment to practice their songs for their upcoming gigs, enabling us to see how the group functions as an important source of support for its members. When she says through tears, “no one should ever control other people, because life is hard enough just getting through,” we feel the connection between Betty’s empathy for the solders sent to Iraq, her anger toward those in power, and her own personal hardships. By situating Betty’s activism in her life course, this film raises key questions about later life development. What does this tireless activism mean for her? What drives her to keep going despite her serious physical problems? We are left imagining that she has gained a sense of liberation, perhaps even a sense of belonging to a larger force beyond herself. As she says in the last scene, “If you think you are too small to be effective, then you’ve never spent a night in bed with a mosquito!”

The third film, Abuelas: Grandmothers on a Mission by Naomi Weis, presents a very different kind of group, the fighting abuelas (grandmothers) of Argentina. Weis’s film combines archival news footage and interviews with the abuelas to take us back to the dark period of Argentina’s “dirty war” (1976-1983), when approximately 30,000 young men and women were “disappeared.” Starting this long excruciating search in 1977, fourteen mothers wearing white scarves gathered and marched once a week to demand information and the return of their children and their grandchildren who were born in captivity. Over the years, their grassroots movement has grown to become an established human rights organization (Abuelas de la Plaza de Mayo), fighting for justice and to keep alive the memory of the horrors of that era.3 They also started using DNA in their search (through which they have successfully located a fifth of their missing grandchildren, adopted by other parents and never told of their origins), and established personal archives so that their grandchildren can learn more about their “true identities.” The film also includes accounts of found grandchildren who have joined the organization to continue the abuelas movement. Although dealing with a painful topic, Abuelas offers a ray of hope at the end, showing how sustained action driven by unflagging maternal love can “restore a sense of meaning and justice both to their own lives and to the larger society.”4 At the end of the film, one abuela says, “We are old ladies. I don’t think we have many more years left. But now we have family members who can continue. So we are not going to abandon this.” Perhaps it is no coincidence that we can find a sense of spiritual continuity, generativity, ego-integrity, and transcendence shared by the older female activists in all three films.5

1 Toni Calasanti, Kathleen F, Slevin, and Neal King, “Ageism and Feminism: From ‘Et Cetera’ to Center,” NWSA Journal 18, no.1 (2006): 13-30.

2 Miya Narushima, “A Gaggle of Raging Grannies: The Empowerment of Older Canadian Women through Social Activism,” International Journal of Lifelong Education 23, no.1 (2004): 23-42; Carole Roy, “When Wisdom Speaks Sparks Fly: Raging Grannies Perform Humor as Protest,” WSQ: Women’s Studies Quarterly 35, no. 3/4 (2007): 150-64; Dana Sawchuk, “The Raging Grannies: Defying Stereotypes and Embracing Aging through Activism,” Journal of Women & Aging 21, no. 3 (2009): 171-85.

3 Rita Arditti, “The Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo and the Struggle against Impunity in Argentina,” Meridians: Feminism, Race, Transnationalism 3, no.1 (2002): 19-41.

4 Arditti, “The Grandmothers,” 21.

5 Robert C. Atchley, “Spirituality, Meaning, and the Experience of Aging,” Generations 32, no.2 (2008): 12-16; Erik H. Erikson, Joan. M. Erikson, and Helen Q. Kivnick, Vital Involvement in Old Age (New York: Norton, 1986); Lars Tornstam, “Gerotranscendence: The Contemplative Dimension of Aging,” Journal of Aging Studies 11, no.2 (1997): 143-154.

Miya Narushima is an associate professor at the Department of Health Sciences, Brock University, St. Catharines, Canada. Her recent publications include “Motivations and Perceived Benefits of Older Learners in a Public Continuing Education Program: Influence of Gender, Income, and Health” in the journal Educational Gerontology (2013).