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4 November 2013

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.

By Frances Ryan

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.

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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.

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