Elevate Difference

Raging Grannies: The Action League

If you’ve been to a demonstration during the last two decades you’ve likely seen them: Bold, sassy, elders calling themselves The Raging Grannies. Mixing street theatre with costuming, their zany hats, political buttons, and boisterous, if often off-key, singing sets them apart from other protesters. They’re fun—and they defy stereotypes about what old women can and should be doing.

Whether the grannies are reliant on motorized wheelchairs or are healthy enough to dance in the streets, these feisty dames have not only captured media attention, but have become an irrepressible presence at rallies and political events throughout the U.S. and Canada. Since the founding of the first Raging Granny group in 1987, they’ve opposed war and challenged the isms that stymie human progress. Sometimes, this involves writing new words to such familiar songs as "When The Saints Go Marching In." At other times it involves militant resistance and many of the grannies have risked arrest to assert their will.

They’re a great subject for a documentary.

Pam Walton’s thirty-minute film starts off well, zooming in on an all-Caucasian band of rebels from California’s Bay area. In fact, the film opens with a shocking revelation: The National Guard Surveillance Unit spied on the Grannies during a Mother’s Day protest at the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC. Although we’re not told the year of this monitoring—or if the group sued the government to stop it—the Unit’s 2005 dismantling is championed. As viewers take in this information, however, it quickly becomes clear that the film is flawed, giving us a glimmer into something that transpired while, at the same time, not providing enough information to fully explain what took place and why.

This happens repeatedly and makes Raging Grannies less inspiring than it should be. While the film introduces numerous intrepid women—some of them activists for fifty-plus years and others who are new to political organizing—the interviews are rushed and we get little sense of the participants and what motivates them. It’s a question of scope. The film simply tries to cram too much into too short a time frame. We see the Grannies marching in DC, sitting-in at the local office of Congressman Mike Honda, being interviewed by FOX Television’s Bill O’Reilly, picketing at the Romic Waste Disposal Plant in East Palo Alto, and demonstrating at the California offices of the Occupational Health and Safety Administration. Rather than an in-depth analysis of strategies and tactics—or a look at the ageism and sexism endemic to all-too-many social change efforts—the camera sprints from subject to subject.

This limits the film’s usefulness, especially if it is shown to people who have never been to a demo or seen the Grannies strut their stuff. Indeed, viewers unschooled in the day-to-day machinations of community resistance will need an expository supplement to Raging Grannies—perhaps a speaker or book list—so that they will be able to make sense of the women’s activities. That may be okay, but had the film said more about less, a wider audience would have been able to benefit from seeing the Grannies in action.

That said, by turning the spotlight on elderly women who refuse to be quiet and docile, Raging Grannies reminds us that Margaret Mead was right: Sometimes small groups of people acting together can make a real difference. As Granny Ruth says, “We take a licking but still keep ticking.” And they do—ticking off the powerful and having lots of fun as they challenge authority and shake-up the status quo.

Written by: Eleanor J. Bader, December 8th 2010

Of course, I must defend my film! The Grannies don’t spend a lot of their time strategizing and planning. They do, in fact, move from “gig” to “gig” in a whirl of activity. It’s often hard to keep up with them. In the film one of the Grannies explains to students at Stanford that the Grannies have no officers or dues. She says, "We are completely disorganized." This is part of their energy and appeal. But the documentary does show the Grannies at one of their planning meetings preparing for an anti-surge demonstration, and the extras on the DVD show how Grannies Ruth and Gail organize and prepare for the events and songs. And, contrary to this reviewer’s opinion, we’ve had lots of compliments about the interviews with individual Grannies, who describe in moving detail how and why they became activists. One woman witnessed the first atomic bomb test in the New Mexico desert; another experienced racial discrimination first-hand during the 1950's. The film shows that these women have experienced social injustice that dates back to WWII -- quite a motivator. We're also happy to report that the film is doing its work in Women's Studies courses all over the country. As the Grannies work to change the world, they are simultaneously changing what it means to be an older woman.

My mom is an active member of the Raging Grannies in Albuquerque, NM. I'd like to get her a copy of the movie we just watched on Free Speech tv about the Grannies from, Palo Alto,CA. Is it available and from whom? Thanks, Kathy