Stripping off in the fight against discrimination

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

If a group of women pose naked to "fight" ageism and sexism, how much does it achieve?

The problem with ageism on television is that it's also one of those issues that disproportionately affects women. Women who find themselves sidelined and taken off camera once they're a little more "mature". Women who are told they might want to try wearing more makeup to minimize their wrinkles, lose a few pounds and get a more "youthful" haircut.

At the same time, male presenters of advanced years continue to grace our screens, often accompanied by a much younger female presenter (see the pairing of Bruce Forsyth and Tess Daly on the BBC's Strictly Come Dancing for a start). Older men on television are "distinguished". Older women are "past it" and caricatured as hags.

The problem of women being sidelined as they reach middle age has, in the past few years, reached the stage where one television presenter, Miriam O'Reilly, has won an employment tribunal against the BBC on the grounds of ageism, and it has been reported that the BBC has settled out of court with 12 other women presenters.

In 2010 former newsreader Selina Scott spoke out in the press about the problem of sexism and ageism on television. This year, a group of presenters and actors are going one better in their quest to prove that middle-aged women have a place on screen.

In a magazine interview and photoshoot this week, Loose Women presenters Sherrie Hewson and Andrea McLean, along with actors Beverley Callard and Gillian Taylforth - who range in age from 41 to 61 - discuss ageism on television. In the feature for Best magazine's "body image issue", they talk about feeling passed over for roles because producers think they're too old and because few storylines are written about women their age.

"In TV, it's OK for men to be 50 or 60, but for women it's very difficult. Older actresses can feel put by the wayside," says Taylforth.

The best, however, is yet to come. In the photos accompanying the story, the four women are seen posing naked. Tastefully naked, I might add, covering up breasts and with strategically placed legs. The point, of course, is to show that while they may be middle-aged, they've still "got it". That producers may sneer at their wrinkles, but they're embracing the way they look because it's a natural part of getting older.

There's just one thing. Isn't it telling that you'd never expect to see a group of male actors and presenters "stripping off" in a bid to prove they're still worthy of airtime? Can you imagine George Alagiah or Terry Wogan getting naked, revealing what clothes size they take and the secrets of their exercise regimes (as the four women do) while discussing ageism on television? You can't, because it would be ridiculous.

It's only ever women who end up having to do the whole "Look! I've still got it!" routine for the media. Men never have to go through the whole charade - why would they? Women having to prove themselves shouldn't be our reaction to the problem of discrimination. It should be seen as part of the problem.

It's pretty sad, to be honest, that the first thing that comes to find when the media wants to focus on a major issue of sexism and ageism involves targets of said sexism and ageism stripping off to "prove" themselves worthy contenders in the "fight" against such discrimination. It's similar to when the newspapers profile groups of businesswomen and insist on "sexy" photoshoots, or when they run features on sportswomen and show them in lad's mag-inspired poses, talking about their love lives (of course!).

On one hand they're trailblazers and role models, on the other it's still part of their job to be hot when required, lest they run the risk of becoming one of those women in the public eye who's derided for having a "mannish" haircut or wearing unflattering jackets.

I do think there's a lot to be said for attempting to promote satisfaction and body confidence among women of all ages and so I can see why Best chose to run the feature. It's good that it's getting more coverage outside the usual news stories of women in television suing their employers. Plenty of people are probably going to see it as a light-hearted bit of fun - so Calendar Girls!

But what I'd really like to see is the problem tackled in a more imaginative and truly positive way. There's so much work to be done and I wonder how much of an impact women "stripping off" can have outside of providing tabloid fodder and further ingraining the difference between the way men and women in television are expected to look and act.

Let's not fight ageism and sexism with more sexism, albeit sexism that's wrapped up in a chummy, encouraging, Gok Wan-esque package.

 This post originally appeared on BitchBuzz. "Home made Botox" photo via Emanuela Franchini's Flickr.

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