No, Terry Wogan, women don't "use their good looks" to get jobs in television

There seems to be an epidemic in television of middle-aged to elderly men thinking that they have important thoughts on women on television and that those thoughts aren’t the rantings of a sexist berk.

It’s okay, ladies! In case you were still wondering what on earth to do about the emphasis placed on a woman’s appearance in pretty much any role where she can be seen, another elderly man off the television has given us his thoughts.

Veteran broadcaster Terry Wogan has come out criticising female presenters who “complain” that they lose out on roles in their later years – because they “used their good looks” to get the best jobs when they were young. “Presenters like Tess Daly and Holly Willoughby are having their time now but they will go on to be replaced,” he told The Sunday Mirror. “Female presenters shouldn’t complain about not getting work later in their careers because they used their good looks when they were young to land roles.”

He went on to draw attention to a number of older female presenters whom he admired. “I saw Sue Lawley the other day and she is still as attractive and as bright as ever,” he said, in more comments that absolutely didn’t confirm that he thinks professional women’s value should be evaluated by their appearance. “Selina Scott is a stunning beauty and Anna Ford is beautiful.”

There seems to be an epidemic in television of middle-aged to elderly men thinking that they have important thoughts on women on television and that those thoughts aren’t the rantings of a sexist berk. If it isn’t John Inverdale, it’s Alan Titchmarsh talking about women “whingeing” when their careers get cut short once they hit 40. Women, such moaners! They really should take being dumped because their skin isn’t tight as it used to be with more decorum. Anyway, as Wogan helpfully reminded us, they’re happy enough to use their looks to their advantage when they still have them.

I wonder though, according to men like Wogan, what exactly are women in television meant to do? If they stick their head in a paper bag during their twenties or make sure they look like they’ve been eating some pies, are they allowed to complain when they get pushed out at forty? It’s just the ones that looked attractive at the start of their career that can’t complain when they’re later dumped for no longer being attractive, right? Because they’ve “used” their looks to get them where they wanted to be.

Except it confuses the order of things to suggest a woman “uses her good looks” to get a job in television. She turns up, presumably with her own face, and she’s either hired or not. That female TV presenters have to tick the boxes of ‘pretty’ and ‘slim’ (and usually white and non-disabled too) to get work isn’t the fault of female TV presenters. It’s the fault of the sexist culture that, like most aspects of society, seeps through the media. Holly Willoughby didn’t walk into ITV one day and tempt the execs with her ample breasts. As far as I’m aware, up until Holly dazzled them with her cleavage, ITV were not planning on teaming up Philip Schofield with Mary Beard. Holly fitted a mold that already existed and is getting a very nice living out of it.

Should we be vilifying women like her for it? Should we agree with Wogan that, if they enjoy the perks of their looks when young, they shouldn’t complain when they’re dumped when they hit middle-age? That depends on whether you think the best response to sexism is punishing women within it rather than addressing the causes that got us there, I suppose.

It’s a bit like sneering at women (some of them actually TV presenters) who have a boob job or crash between the latest sadistic diets. “My God woman, you’re obsessed with how you look!” As if they were born with a desire to starve themselves or pay a doctor to hack at their flesh.

Women in television, much like those out it, are in a no win situation. They have to be slim and glossy to get and stay in work. If they’re slim and glossy they’re accused of only getting work because of their looks – and find themselves signing up to and perpetuating the culture that’ll throw them out the door when it all starts to sag.

Wogan unwittingly says it all when he speaks of presenting Children in Need with his “lovelies” (a.k.a grown women Tess Daly and Fearn Cotton). TV is still content with a particular set-up: the aged man (generally over 70) and the pretty young co-presenter (half his age and painted into a distracting dress). As long as that culture exists, women who want to work will have to go along with it. And wait for elderly, still-successful men to tell them they brought their short careers on themselves.

Terry Wogan has something to say about women on TV. Do we care? Image: Getty

Frances Ryan is a journalist and political researcher. She writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman, and others on disability, feminism, and most areas of equality you throw at her. She has a doctorate in inequality in education. Her website is here.

Screenshot of Black Mirror's Fifteen Million Merits.
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How likely are the plots of each Black Mirror episode to happen?

As the third series is on its way, how realistic is each instalment so far of the techno-dystopian drama? We rate the plausibility of every episode.

What if horses could vote? What if wars were fought using Snapchat? What if eggs were cyber?

Just some of the questions that presumably won’t be answered in the new series of Charlie Brooker’s dystopian anthology series Black Mirror, somewhere between The Twilight Zone with an app and The Thick Of It on acid.

A typical instalment takes an aspect of modern technology, politics, or life in general and pushes it a few steps into the future – but just how plausible has each episode been so far?

Series 1 (2011)

Episode 1: The National Anthem

Premise: A member of the Royal Family is kidnapped and will only be released unharmed if the Prime Minister agrees to have sexual intercourse with a pig on live television.

Instead of predicting the future, Black Mirror’s first episode unwittingly managed to foreshadow an allegation about the past: Charlie Brooker says at the time he was unaware of the story surrounding David Cameron and a pig-based activity that occurred at Oxford university. But there’s absolutely no evidence that the Cameron story is true, and real political kidnappings tend to have rather more prosaic goals. On the other hand, it’s hard to say that something akin to the events portrayed could NEVER happen.

Plausibility rating: 2 out of 5

Episode 2: Fifteen Million Merits

Premise: Sometime in the future, most of the population is forced to earn money by pedalling bikes to generate electricity, while constantly surrounded by unskippable adverts. The only hope of escape is winning an X-Factor-style game show.

In 2012, a Brazilian prison announced an innovative method of combating overcrowding. Prisoners were given the option to spend some of their time on electricity-producing bikes; for every 16 hours they spent on the bike, a day would be knocked off their sentence.

The first step to bicycle-dystopia? Probably not. The amount of electricity a human body can produce through pedalling (or any other way, for that matter) is pretty negligible, especially when you take account of the cost of the food you’d have to eat to have enough energy to pedal all day. Maybe the bike thing is a sort of metaphor. Who can say?

Plausibility rating: 0 out of 5

Episode 3: The Entire History of You

Premise: Everyone has a device implanted in their heads that records everything that happens to them and allows them to replay those recordings at will.

Google Glasses with a built-in camera didn’t work out, because no one wanted to walk around looking like a creepy berk. But the less visibly creepy version is coming; Samsung patented “smart” contact lenses with a built-in camera earlier this year.

And there are already social networks and even specialised apps that are packaging up slices of our online past and yelling them at us regardless of whether we even want them: Four years ago you took this video of a duck! Remember when you became Facebook friends with that guy from your old work who got fired for stealing paper? Look at this photo of the very last time you experienced true happiness!

Plausibility rating: 5 out of 5

Series 2 (2013)

Episode 1: Be Right Back

Premise: A new service is created that enables an artificial “resurrection” of the dead via their social media posts and email. You can even connect it to a robot, which you can then kiss.

Last year, Eugenia Kuyda, an AI entrepreneur, was grieving for her best friend and hit upon the idea of feeding his old text messages into one of her company’s neural network-based chat bots, so that she and others could, in a way, continue to talk to him. Reaction to this was, unsurprisingly, mixed – this very episode was cited by those who were disturbed by the tribute. Even the robot bit might not be that far off, if that bloke who made the creepy Scarlett Johansson android has anything to say about it.

Plausibility rating: 4 out of 5

Episode 2: White Bear

Premise: A combination of mind-wiping technology and an elaborately staged series of fake events are used to punish criminals by repeatedly giving them an experience that will make them feel like their own victims did.

There is some evidence that it could be possible to selectively erase memories using a combination of drugs and other therapies, but would this ever be used as part of a bizarre criminal punishment? Well, this kind of “fit the crime” penalty is not totally unheard of – judges in America have been to known to force slum landlords to live in their own rental properties, for example. But, as presented here, it seems a bit elaborate and expensive to work at any kind of scale.

Plausibility rating: 1 out of 5

Episode 3: The Waldo Moment

Premise: A cartoon bear stands as an MP.

This just couldn’t happen, without major and deeply unlikely changes to UK election law. Possibly the closest literal parallel in the UK was when Hartlepool FC’s mascot H'Angus the Monkey stood for, and was elected, mayor – although the bloke inside, Stuart Drummond, ran under his own name and immediately disassociated himself from the H’Angus brand to become a serious and fairly popular mayor.

There are no other parallels with grotesque politicians who may as well be cartoon characters getting close to high political office. None.

Plausibility rating: 0 out of 5

Christmas special (2015)

Episode: White Christmas

Premise 1: Everyone has a device implanted in their eyes that gives them constant internet access. One application of this is to secretly get live dating/pick-up artistry advice.

As with “The Entire History of You”, there’s nothing particularly unfeasible about the underlying technology here. There’s already an app called Relationup that offers live chat with “relationship advisers” who can help you get through a date; another called Jyst claims to have solved the problem by allowing users to get romantic advice from a community of anonymous users. Or you could, you know, just smile and ask them about themselves.

Plausibility rating: 4 out of 5

Premise 2: Human personalities can be copied into electronic devices. These copies then have their spirits crushed and are forced to become the ultimate personalised version of Siri, running your life to your exact tastes.

The Blue Brain Project research group last year announced they’d modelled a small bit of rat brain as a stepping stone to a full simulation of the human brain, so, we’re getting there.

But even if it is theoretically possible, using an entire human personality to make sure your toast is always the right shade of brown seems like overkill. What about the risk of leaving your life in the hands of a severely traumatised version of yourself? What if that bathwater at “just the right” temperature turns out to be scalding hot because the digital you didn’t crack in quite the right way?

Plausibility rating: 1 out of 5

Premise 3: There’s a real-life equivalent of a social media block: once blocked, you can’t see or hear the person who has blocked you. This can also be used as a criminal punishment and people classed as sex offenders are automatically blocked by everyone.

Again, the technology involved is not outrageous. But even if you have not worried about the direct effect of such a powerful form of social isolation on the mental health of criminals, letting them wander around freely in this state is likely to have fairly unfortunate consequences, sooner or later. It’s almost as if it’s just a powerful image to end a TV drama on, rather than a feasible policy suggestion.

Plausibility rating: 2 out of 5

Series 3 of Black Mirror is out on Friday 21 October on Netflix.