I’m not especially surprised by the report that only 18% of UK television presenters over the age of 50 are women. Like most people, I occasionally watch TV and see a world in which craggy, authoritative men lead conversations on serious matters, ably assisted in this by smoother-skinned, brightly dressed women who “add a bit of colour”. Of course, such women are capable of doing far more; even so, the discrepancy between them and their male counterparts is distracting. You know at first glance where the priorities lie. Pretty woman may be just as eloquent as craggy man, but how can you believe her, knowing that in five years’ time she’ll be on the scrapheap, replaced by a younger model? The face you can trust can’t be a female one; she won’t be around long enough. Women curdle when they’re placed in the spotlight for too long.
In recent years the advertising campaign that has bothered me the most – even more than Special K and Boots’ “Ta-dah!” bollocks – has been for Tampax Pearl. You know, the one in which Mother Nature – old, wrinkly, clearly post-menopausal – is out to spoil the fun of all young, menstruating women. Because that’s what post-menopausal women are like: bitter, jealous, arrogantly believing they still have some role and relevance despite the fact that they have “lost” their value. It’s a message that’s reinforced through films such as Snow White and The Huntsman, in which Charlize Theron (pushing forty!) plays the evil hag who can’t bear losing out to the lovely Kristen Stewart. Clearly this is based on traditional fairy tale misogyny but the parallels with real-life Hollywood are disturbing. Indeed, if there is one thing I’ve noticed lately, it’s that male leads in Hollywood films seem to be getting older and pudgier, as if to reinforce a power imbalance.
In The Descent Of Woman, Elaine Morgan makes the point that unlike men, women live way beyond their reproductive years, which ought to suggest they’re pretty useful even when they’re not reaching for the Tampax. And yet this is precisely the time at which they fade from view. To a certain extent, I struggle to have sympathy with those who complain. It strikes me that sexist ageism is tied very closely to sexist discrimination on the basis of appearance, both of them linked to the prevailing sexual exchange rate. TV presenters such as Selina Scott and Anna Ford had a power most of us never have. Most of us don’t have faces that the camera loves. Most of us aren’t pretty and when those who were “lose” their value, it’s easy to think “ha! now you’re just like me”. Thin, conventionally attractive TV presenters rarely make a stand on behalf of their less “acceptable” sisters. It’s only when age pushes them back into the crowds of “low value” women that they notice the injustice and sexism of a value system that once privileged them.
Yet I still think it really matters. I wonder what message my sons get when they switch on the TV. To be fair, all they watch at the moment is CBeebies (and like many slightly desperate mums of small children, I consider that channel to have quite a lot of acceptable male eye candy – *cough* Lord Tumble *cough*). But when we get on to “normal” TV, what rules will they learn about how people are valued, which people we listen to and how we’re meant to interact? Will it change how they see their grandparents (wise man vs old biddy)? Will it change how they see my partner and me? Will it make them less respectful of older women – those who aren’t even trusted to tell them what’s happening in the wider world? I hope not – but surely unless change is forced upon those who make these broadcasting decisions, the imbalance will continue. After all, childhood fantasies are powerful – and who wants embittered old Mother Nature in charge?