By Emine Saner
February 5, 2010
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Miriam O’Reilly could be forgiven for having believed that her job was safe. A long-established broadcaster, she worked for the BBC for 25 years, most recently as a presenter of the Sunday-morning rural-affairs programme, Countryfile. Then, in 2008, it was announced that the programme would be moving to a peak-time slot. O’Reilly, 52, and her three female colleagues – all in their 40s and 50s – were told the show would be “revamped”. They were no longer needed.
“I felt sick to the pit of my stomach,” says O’Reilly. “One female producer told me she had never felt more ashamed of the BBC.” As a result of that decision, O’Reilly last week took the unprecedented step of suing the corporation for age and sex discrimination. She says ageism at the BBC is “endemic”. “We have almost come to accept it as the norm, that if you are a woman you have to be a size 8 and have unlined skin. I hoped to be judged on my work as a journalist and broadcaster, not on the way I look . . . [The BBC] should be a place for all age ranges, because we’re supposed to represent the licence payer.”
Of course, this isn’t the first time the BBC has been accused of ageism. In 2007, there was a row when the corporation dropped newsreader Moira Stuart, who was in her late 50s; that same year, the broadcaster Anna Ford asked, “How many presenters do you know on television who are over the age of 60? They’re catered for on Radio 4, but they are not catered for on screen.” Then, last year, controversy ensued when Strictly Come Dancing judge Arlene Phillips, who is in her mid-60s, was replaced by Alesha Dixon, who is in her early 30s.
Ageism isn’t only an issue on the BBC. In 2008, Selina Scott won a reported £250,000 and an apology from Five after apparently being replaced for an upcoming job by a younger presenter. And across the channels the formulaic older man-younger woman pairing persists: Bruce Forsyth (81) and Tess Daly (38) on Strictly Come Dancing; Adrian Chiles (42) and Christine Bleakley (31) on The One Show; Phillip Schofield (47) and Holly Willoughby (28) on This Morning and Dancing on Ice; Jeff Stelling (54) and Rachel Riley (24) on Countdown.
In fact, glancing at our visual culture – television, films, billboards – it can seem that, with a few notable exceptions such as Meryl Streep and Helen Mirren, older women have ceased to exist. In an Australian study, the psychologist Dr Lauren Rosewarne found that fewer than 4% of women on advertising billboards were portrayed as being over 30. “By rendering these women invisible,” she says, “the inference is not only are they not attractive enough for billboards, but that they are not attractive at all, which becomes synonymous with failing to contribute to society.” And while this ageism can be a personal disaster for individual women in the public eye, it is interesting to consider how it affects ordinary women too.
The feminist and psychologist Susie Orbach feels that the cultural invisibility of older women is “crazy”. “There is all this research which shows that women are more capable, more energetic and confident as they get older, and there is this contradiction between that and this culture we have now, [which assumes] we should be spared the sight of women over a certain age.”
What counts as a “certain age” isn’t fixed: the writer Suzanne Moore suggests that the age at which women are considered old – and therefore apparently redundant – seems to have fallen. “When we say ‘older’, what do we even mean any more?” she says. “It probably used to be anyone over 60, but now it seems to be applied to women over 40. I was reading something Fiona Bruce [the BBC newsreader, who is in her early 40s] was saying about her worries about getting older, and I was thinking, you’re not that old. It used to be that women were considered redundant after the menopause, but now the message seems to be that you’re redundant in your 40s. I think we need to get a distinction in our heads between those who are paid to look good – models or actors – and those who are paid for what they do.”
Suzanne Doyle-Morris, who runs a company coaching professional women, believes that the emphasis on youth and beauty affects women’s careers. “Women are taught from a young age that a huge amount of their worth is based on their looks,” she says. “And when you are constantly told that older women are not considered attractive, women lose their ‘value’ as they get older. When we are not used to seeing older women in roles of responsibility, it sends a message to younger women that you won’t succeed beyond a certain age.”
Moore agrees. “It comes down to that old thing about role models,” she says. “If you don’t have older women authority figures in view – whether they are reading the news or in politics or running companies – then what do young women aspire to?” She thinks a backlash is growing. “Audiences want to watch people with authority, and not just the pretty faces you see on every other channel. The BBC is supposed to have authority, and it is ridiculous to try to ape commercial channels. I don’t understand why these decisions are made. I don’t think it comes from the audience. Have you ever heard anyone say ‘I wish Moira Stuart wasn’t presenting the news because she looks too old’? I haven’t.”
One of the obvious consequences of our current culture, says Orbach, is the pressure on women to look younger, and the huge growth of the anti-ageing industry. “There is this major horror about ageing, as opposed to accepting it as a fact of life,” she says. “When 20-year-olds are used to advertise anti-ageing creams marketed at women in their 40s you get all these messages about how society thinks you are meant to look.”
The consultant psychologist Dr Eileen Bradbury specialises in body image. She says that almost all of the people who are referred to her when seeking cosmetic surgery cite ageing as their primary concern. “Thinness and youth are the twin gods, and the burden on women has greatly increased. There was a time when the way women who were powerful and successful looked was irrelevant. Now, they have to be considered attractive as well.” According to figures released by the British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons this week, cosmetic surgery continues to rise. Despite the recession, 5% more women had procedures last year compared to 2008, with eyelid surgery – a specific “anti-ageing” procedure – up 7%.
The broadcaster Joan Bakewell, the government’s Voice of Older People, says that, in years to come, society will increasingly be dominated by older people, and so “it is enormously important that older women become more visible . . . we are absolutely entitled to see our society reflected in popular culture.” She says she was cheered when she read about O’Reilly’s suit against the BBC. “I thought, good, this isn’t going to go away. The pressure is still on. I really feel there is a wind in our sails, and women are saying, ‘Here we are.'”