During the last 12 months the subject of female ageism in the arts and entertainment has hardly been out of the newspapers. Selina Scott, Moira Stuart and Arlene Phillips follow a long line of prominent women who have been sent packing in favour of ‘younger models’.
Well known, mature actresses such as Harriett Walker, Penelope Wilton, Meryl Streep, Juliet Stevenson and Margaret Tyzack have bemoaned the lack of strong heroic roles and the inequality in salaries between actors and actresses At the same time we have seen the failure of ITV to woo enough audience to attract the advertising that is their life-blood. The future of commercial television is in question. Could there be a link between this rampant sexism and viewers’ dissatisfaction?
So what is going on? My union Equity believes it has one of the answers. The media is obsessed with the male image, the male story, the male perspective and sees the female as a disposable adornment, an adornment with a shelf life.
This is borne out by a recent report financed by European money which shows female performers as they reach 40, however successful in their early years, face careers which peter out as job opportunities dwindle. Equity differs from many unions in that its ratio of male to female members is more or less equal, yet the prospects for the two genders are far from equal, a fact our younger actresses are only just starting to wake up to.
So how can this outdated image be justified in the 21st century? Drama is supposed to reflect life, and after all, over half the viewing public is female. Yet in TV drama for every female character, there are two male characters – (35.3% female roles to 63.5% male roles). Whilst leading parts are frequently played by male actors over 45, women in this age group start to disappear from our screens, even though half the female population is over 40! The message this sends to viewers is distorted and judging from many of the views posted on a viewers’ petition Equity is supporting to challenge and change this situation, many of them are fed up to the back teeth with the gender inequality they are subjected to daily.
There are many benefits a healthy gender and age balance in film, television and theatre can engender, not to mention magazines and bill boards. One is to reverse the feelings of inadequacy and invisibility many of the older workforce feel these days, which I believe can be linked to the negative or infrequent images of themselves they see portrayed. Rising mental health problems in this sector are a subject for concern.
Then there is the growing use of botox and surgery to turn back time and the pressures on young girls to be thin and dress like tarts, all to conform to stereotyped images constantly repeated in the media. All this could be halted with a healthier representation of what women are really like in all their diversity. A huge market is being ignored and offended. Changing the old decision-making would not only be culturally rewarding, it would be commercially rewarding too.
If you are concerned and want to support the call on all the major UK television channels to take action to correct this imbalance go to www.equity.org.uk to find the link and add your signature or log onto http://www.gopetition.com/online/24658.html
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