When a TikTok influencer, Harrison Pawluk, posted a video of himself handing Maree* a bunch of flowers in a Melbourne shopping centre, he reduced her to a stereotype: the lonely old woman.
But he couldn’t have been more wrong. When the video went viral, Maree contacted the ABC, telling them the experience of being filmed left her feeling “dehumanised” and “like clickbait”.
The video has been viewed 65 million times but the so-called ‘random act of kindness’ is now being slammed as exploitative, ageist and sexist, leaving its 22-year-old maker apologising and offering to buy Maree a coffee to make up for it.
The video is an example of how older people are often depicted in the media or thought of more broadly as a group lacking individuality or their own identity.
These ageist attitudes can extend to ‘benevolent ageism’, where our everyday biases about older people reveal themselves in the belief that they need special help or support.
HelloCare set out to learn what older people themselves think of the video. We spoke to three mature women – one is retired, one is a doctoral student, and another a law professor.
Alexandra Heron, a Doctoral Student studying the elder care that employees provide informally to their parents, said that she could see annoyance written all over Maree’s face in the viral video.
“There’s no way of knowing for sure, but it appears he’s assumed that she might be lonely and need cheering up – and because she’s a woman no doubt she’d ‘love’ to receive flowers.”
She wondered aloud if the young man would ever do the same to a man. Ms Heron concluded that she found the video “quite unappealing”.
Roslyn Ridley, who is retired, echoed those sentiments.
“He obviously thinks he’s doing something kind but he isn’t really. Do something kind, but don’t take a photo of yourself doing it.”
Ms Ridley believes that the woman in the video didn’t look like she wanted the flowers and was rather upset about receiving them.
“It’s a dreadful video,” Ms Ridley concluded.
Maree, subject of the viral video, was surprised to learn that being filmed in a public place does not break any laws in Australia.
Professor Barbara McDonald of the University of Sydney Law School told HelloCare that Australia’s laws around invasion of privacy are less developed than they are overseas.
She said the video is “demeaning… ageist and sexist”.
“There is no law against taking a photograph of someone or filming someone if you’re in a public place,” Professor McDonald told HelloCare.
“We haven’t developed our protection of privacy as much as other countries in recent years, even though there are more and more invasions of privacy happening because of the digital revolution and the internet.”
If the filmer made the subject look ridiculous or made viewers think less of them, then there could be a case for defamation, Professor McDonald said. However, you would need to be able to show serious harm before you could sue for defamation.
The Government has also introduced new online safety laws, but they still require the offence to have caused “serious online harm”, again setting a high bar to take action, although it can lead to the offensive content being taken down from the internet.
“All they can really do, as the woman did, is answer back and put their view forward.”
Ageist beliefs are rife in our society. The World Health Organisation recently reported that half the population possesses moderate to high ageist attitudes.
The Human Rights Commission reports that nearly all Australians – 90% – agree that ageism exists in this country.
Ageism subtly contributes to unconscious or implicit biases about older people, who they are and what they are capable of.
Dr Natasha Ginnivan, Interdisciplinary Research Fellow at the University of New South Wales, told HelloCare, “Implicit bias and age-based assumptions about ‘lonely older women’ in need of something or someone to come along and ‘brighten their day’” was a factor in the viral video.
“Though there may have been an element of good intention in wanting to ‘spread love and compassion’, the actions were grounded in a sense of ‘pitying the poor lonely lady’,” said Dr Ginnivan.
Dr Ginnivan explained that ‘benevolent ageism’ – when older people are stereotyped as ‘warm but lacking competence’ and in need of pity or assistance – limits older people because they feel patronised and have been pigeon-holed because of their age.
Children as young as four have already formed age-based stereotypes, usually from seeing older people depicted on television as “old, decrepit, senile and useless”, Dr Ginnivan explained.
To address the issue, Dr Ginnivan recommends highlighting how implicit ageism appears in videos to make us more aware of how ageism might be informing how we interact with older people.
“In turn, we can start to change the way we treat older people. Becoming more aware of implicit biases will also impact how we feel about ourselves as we age,” Dr Ginnivan recommended.
Media also needs an “overhaul” in the way it depicts people in “midlife and beyond”, especially for women.
People can also call out ageism when they see it in institutions, workplaces and healthcare settings, and embrace opportunities for multigenerational interaction.
Dr Ginnivan said ‘intergenerational interactions’ can give us an opportunity to build up a “mental library of more realistic and positive age stereotypes informed by positive experiences with seniors”.
In speaking to the ABC, Maree regained some agency and ownership of her story, but she has a warning for older women.
“Other women, especially older women, should be aware that if it can happen to me it can happen to anyone,” she told the ABC.
The video reduced Maree to a stereotype along age and gender lines. The older viewers HelloCare spoke to saw straight through it.
Conversations about ageism need to continue to help society reflect on the ways that biases might be influencing our beliefs, actions and decisions. People need to do better at identifying ageism when it’s there in plain sight.
* Maree’s surname has been withheld to protect her privacy.
What do you think? Is showing older people special treatment ageist or just a ‘random act of kindness’?