Earlier this month BBC Director General Mark Thompson responded to accusations that the British government owned broadcaster was treating older women unfairly. The accusations centered around issues such as representation of older women as presenters and program hosts and the nature in which older women were represented in general in the BBC programming.
There had been some incidents over the past few years where older woman were removed from their positions and replaced with younger women. One incident involving on air host, Miriam O’Reilly generated particular attention and in the end an employment tribunal judged against the BBC in the case of Ms O’Reilly’s dismissal.
Mr. Thompson wisely councils against knee jerk reactions which would remove competent younger BBC employees and replace them with politically correct appointees. Is that what we want? I think not. The BBC like any good government owned organization, commissioned a report on the issue. This quote from Mr. Thompson in reference to that report speaks to the meat of the whole issue, “But a significant minority of respondents — and not just older women themselves — did tell us that they felt that older women were ‘invisible’ on the airwaves. That perception, and the reality behind it, is what we have to change.”
What does being invisible on the airwaves really mean and what would it take for older women to feel visible in the media? Is it up to the media to make changes or is it up to the women themselves? I have heard this word used as women over fifty describe the way they feel in the world. In order to address this issue, which I do believe is real, we will need to dissect and understand the true nature of this invisibility.
Let me take a shot at defining invisibility for women over fifty: failure to be seen for all that a woman fifty plus is at this stage of her life.
It is not like “they” do not see us at all just “they” fail to see us as anything other than a homogeneous, monochromatic group known as the aged and thought of as less interesting.
This is a big mistake. Being female and fifty is a different ballgame than it was just one generation ago and for the most part the media has failed to acknowledge this at the most subtle level. The options available to women fifty plus are endless and impact our working, personal, spiritual and physical lives. We are no longer fitting onto the old track or into the old track suit for that matter…retire and give up the three P’s-Power, Prestige and Passion.
We are as multi dimensional as we were when we were thirty five, maybe even more so. Some of us work for income into our ninth decade, others establish charities in foreign countries, others go back to school and start again, some write books or make films, some become nanny grannies and revel in the years they did not have so simply with their own children. Many women just finally hit their stride as they enter their fifties, think Hilary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, Katie Couric, and Margaret Thatcher.
Women 50 + have embraced the stage of human development that begins at fifty and is characterized by expansion and freedom in our thinking and our actions. When we are small children we enjoyed an open space of exploration and limitless boundaries then as we matured we were shaped into the responsibilities and roles of adulthood. We willingly gave up many freedoms and dreams and pressed toward midlife, focusing tightly on the prizes of acquisition and the rewards of achievement. Post fifty we begin to enter a space again which moves towards freedom. As one of my mentors put it “life is a journey to and from freedom”.
We move ahead into this unfamiliar territory with the renewed confidence and the strength which comes from a life lived and explored. We hold dear a corresponding sense of self which makes many of us a far braver and far bolder version of our former selves.
The media for the most part just have not caught onto what is happening yet. They have failed to capture the zest and vitality and the sense of freedom that we are experiencing and they continue to see us, paint us up and write us in, as old which means bland, one dimensional and bereft of options. Decisions to replace older female personalities or executives with younger employees are driven by the mistaken belief that the younger audience requires this and that ratings will benefit from it. Someone is missing the point. A woman in her late thirties worried about her upcoming fortieth birthday can see her future open wide and rich before her when she realizes that at sixty she can still be a dynamic on screen presence.
In all fairness to the media I do think that we need to be comfortable with what we are at this age at the same time as we ask the media to represent us more accurately. I don’t need to see every face fifty plus botoxed and ironed smooth to see beauty fifty plus. I don’t need to see a perfect figure to see sexy and I do need to acknowledge that the seasoned years like all years are a mixed bag. Meryl Streep needs glasses now to read her acceptance speech. Does this detract from her outstanding theatrical performance? No, it is just one of the slightly more obvious issues of being an actress over fifty. Why was giggling nervousness on the podium at twenty five more acceptable than reading glasses at sixty four?
I don’t need my news anchor to be my age or my gender to value the news more but I do admit that it irritates me that the general public still accepts the credibility of the older male anchor more readily than the older female and is more willing to listen to the older male, apparently a father image issue.
But my guess is that this will slowly change as the next generations see strong successful female role models in their homes and come to expect them on the news too.
The bottom line is ladies; we still have some work to do. The boomer generation and the generations before us had some tough firsts to achieve. We had to carve out some new paths in which our daughters and granddaughters could follow. I was one of only two women in my 1971 university economics class, my professor did not want me there and he made it tough. I never worked so hard for any grade because I was determined to claim my right to that credit.
As the early feminists called us to stop the inequities, to stand bravely and to speak out for what we knew was right I call on us all to do the same thing now on the topic of aging. Make yourself visible through your actions.
• State your age proudly
• Act what you know today
• Show what you can do today
• Introduce those who have not seen 50 yet to the vibrant world of opportunity which awaits them on this side of the hill.
We must be the change we want to see happen…sound familiar sisters?
Link to the article on the BBC