Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

An equal balance

We must tackle female ageism in drama and the media

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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So how can this outdated image be justified in the 21st century?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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Jean Rogers

is vice president of Equity and member of the Federation of Actors’ steering group on Gender Equality

6 comments

  • The distortion of age and gender imbalance in our TV & Film drama has frightening implications. Now, at a time when ITV is seeking to claw back its £2.7bn losses, it clings to the historic view that highest ratings are achieved when programming is aimed at the 18-44 year old male who has long since migrated to the internet. They are not coming back. Meanwhile, the loyal, core audience is ignored. 51% of the UK population is female and 44% of them are over 45. This is a huge marketing opportunity. Programming must now reflect the demographic truth. If the tiny pot of work is not to shrink further as TV companies go to the wall then they must get the message that their business norms are outdated. Not only that, the Gender Equality Duty requires radical change – we can achieve this if both sides are aware of the commercial benefits of positive change. Please sign the Equity Viewers’ Petition and make your voice heard.

  • Jean Rogers asks: So how can this outdated image be justified in the 21st century?

    That is the core issue. It cannot simply be that people responsible for commissioning and casting are ageist/sexist. Some of the most powerful people in the industry are mature intelligent and progressive women: Jana Bennett, the 53 year old Director of Vision at the BBC for one.

    The fact is that the “outdated image” is not justified – it is ignored. At least part of the reason for this is that the media is currently in turmoil and concerned with its own survival not social reform.

    A strong case can be made that survival and social reform are the same issue. Technology, society and audiences have changed rapidly and radically – meanwhile the popular media is threatened by its own monolithic nature. Their product is consumed now – their production criteria were created for another era.

    The heuristic approach that has lead to the spectacular success of 21st century companies, Google, Facebook etc. must now be examined by the media in general.

  • I am fortunate enough in this current economic climate to be working full-time although I do not work in the media or entertainment industry.
    In my spare time I write stage plays for the older actress (40s/50s). As I am in my 40s, I write about the issues that affect myself and my friends/family etc. Without a steady stream of playwrights being developed and produced, there will not be the writers out there to provide the quality roles desperately needed for the older actress (and actor). Discrimination must be stopped at the development level. At some point in time the key theatres (London) i.e. The National, The Royal Court, may have to wake up to the fact that their theatre audience is made up of an ageing population and they rely on these more mature individuals to fill their theatres. I would love to write for TV and film at some point in time, but my concern is that due to the ageism within theatre and their obsession with youth culture (perdominantly young male writers), I will not receive the support and assistance that the older playwright needs just as much the younger ones.

  • I think women have themselves to blame for their whole life ethos. That sounds harsh, but the reality is that women themselves want to be treated as the fairer sex, and want to hang-on to their sexual advantage when it comes to using their looks to get their way, or have people treat them with greater courtesy, simply because of their gender.

    Ask a women if she wants to be treated like a guy, or like a princess, and it’s obvious what the reply will be. This innate desire to be treated BETTER actually sets the precedent for unequal treatment, in my view.

    Also, the majority of guys aren’t as bothered by make-up, beauty products and the like; it’s women who compete with each other to look as best they can.

  • Re Danny’s comment – Of course there are many women who appropriate status for nebulous or dishonest reasons, and at huge expense – just as there are, of course many men who have done and continue to do so. But, thank heavens, there are many of us of both sexes who see the pitfalls and the potential, were this to stop. This is easier said that done. It is often difficult to challenge injustice not only because it is frequently hidden, but even where the sources are apparent they eminate from a position of relatvie power. Its easier therefore simply to adopt a different form of unfair play to self protect – regardless of the fact it is self-destructive in the long term. But in TV drama for instance we have the evidence of unfairness before our eyes in the imbalanced portrayal of women – perhaps if you saw more examples of women who have not taken the ‘easier’ course, and our problems and achievements, your own opinions, for example, would differ. But we need both male and female producers to take real responsibility in this area. The BBC producers who talk endlessly about being ‘cheerful’ about the status quo, or of the problems of ‘lack of female archetypes’ have a duty as public broadcast employees, to stop looking for excuses and represent both the realities and the possibilities of the lives of both men and women.

  • Jean Rogers and others in Equity are doing brilliant and important work in trying to rectify the imbalances of casting and portryal of women in the media. Jean has been especially dedicated to this urgent task and deserves all the support we can offer her. As a male feminist myself (a concept not often understood in today’s culture) I deplore the way women are too often depicted in the media and have even gone to the lengths of writing and directing my own play on the subject recently. What we must always and all remember is that the media, entertainment and in other words the CULTURE decides how people are perceived by the upcoming members of society (ie the young.) If we do not get this right, the deep injustices that women suffer – inexcusable in this twenty-first century – will go on brainwashing the impressionable minds (of men especially) for the rest of the century. Jean Rogers, and her colleaues, deserve massive support. Opprtunities and prejudices in the media dictate the prejudices of tomorrow. Well done, Jean! Ian Flintoff, Oxford.

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