“What is particularly noticeable when looking into representation of older women in public life is their invisibility.” This was the main finding of an interim report by the British government’s Commission on Older Women, published in September 2013. According to the commission, unequal representation of gender on TV sends the wrong message to society. For women in TV, the physical signs of aging are frequently negatively represented and often become the target of beauty advice and humor.
Shows such as “How Not to Get Old,” a consumer guide on how to stay younger for longer, and “10 Years Younger,” where women use noninvasive techniques and surgery to see which produces the best results, are just a few examples of what can be found on Channel 4, the British public service broadcaster.
The demand to look young applies much more to women, said professor Mary Beard of Cambridge University in a short film, made for a conference, titled “Too Old and Ugly to Be Useful? Challenging Negative Representations of Older People.”
On TV there is a role for the wrinkled, balding, slightly overweight bloke because “those characteristics can factor out profundity in a way it doesn’t for women,” Beard said. Women with wrinkles and gray hair are instead written off as simply past their expiration date.
TV journalism follows this trend too. According to figures from the major U.K. broadcasters (BBC, ITN, ITV, Channel 5 and Sky News), in 2013 only 18 percent of TV presenters over 50 were women, compared with 82 percent for men.
Women are wanted on-screen
Yet there is a demand and a public need for older women on TV. According to a 2012 BBC report titled “Serving All Ages: Views of the Audience and Experts,” the limited representation of middle- and older-aged women on television was a key concern across all age groups.
Networks are aware of this public demand. “I can’t remember a time that we didn’t want” older women on screen, said Gitte Rabøl, media director for DR (Danish Broadcasting Corp.). She adds that it is important for public service broadcasters to have people with expertise, someone that people can trust, and that comes with age too. “You have to have been around the block,” she said.
More diversity actually benefits society at large. In the BBC report, media experts highlighted a dual role for the media: mirroring society and challenging attitudes and stereotypes. The report showed that the audience generally agreed that one of the media’s responsibilities is to try to accurately reflect society in all its diversity, and age is one aspect of that.
Rabøl shares this view too, saying, “As a public broadcaster, we should be a role model and show greater diversity.”
Looks are important, but work-life balance is too
But, as Hjaltadóttirnoted, youth obsession is not a problem relating only to journalism. In many fields, as more demands are put on women, compared with men of the same age, “it is a challenge for women to age in TV like in any other job,” she said. She pointed to aspects of the job that took a toll on her colleagues who eventually changed careers, like the long workdays and constantly working under the pressure of a deadline. “It takes good energy to stand long shifts day after day,” she said.
Rabøl agreed with Hjaltadóttir, saying, “It is very hard to get older women on-screen. They simply turn to other professions at that age.” Many women take editing and directing positions, become private media consultants, or do media training or write books, she said. “They do things that are more fulfilling for themselves.”
According to Beard, the older women who manage to retain a public presence in their later years have to develop a certain character. “It comes as a cost for them. You have to trade on a slight eccentricity … a slight academic frumpiness…. I don’t think it is a price that men pay anything like to the same extent,” she said. It is perhaps a price that not all women want to pay.