Wednesday, August 31, 2022

A Touch of Grey: Some Thoughts on Aging (and Ageism)

There's a commercial for a nutritional drink called Boost in which a woman says, "Age is just a number. And mine's unlisted." Every time I see that commercial, it reminds me how even in 2022, women are taught that they shouldn't discuss their age. In past generations, women were even told to lie about it-- to say they were younger than they actually were. Actresses always did this: evidently, studio moguls didn't want to hire a woman who was "too old."

It was a factor on TV as well-- older men were distinguished. Older women were... invisible. And if you think I'm exaggerating, look at your local or national news: chances are if the person doing the weather is a guy, he's conservatively dressed in a suit and tie; but if it's a woman, she's wearing a sleeveless dress (even if it's winter), and more often than not, the dress is tight enough to show that she has sex appeal (even if she also has a degree in meteorology). Agreed, things have improved a little from a generation ago when guys could be balding and paunchy and still be on TV, while women had to look eternally young and cute if they wanted to get hired. Today, there are a few veteran female reporters and anchors who are older, but very few of them look their chronological age. Nor are they supposed to.

What brought all this to mind was a recent story from Canada, where a widely-respected and very popular CTV news anchor named Lisa LaFlamme was fired. All across Canada, people wondered if her age (she's 58) was one reason. And then, there was her hair. During the pandemic, like many of us, she wasn't able to get to a salon for a good haircut, nor was she able to color her hair. So, she began anchoring the news with grey hair. Somehow, the republic didn't fall. Viewers who liked her before liked her with her natural hair color. But evidently, this was upsetting to some folks in management. Also upsetting: when everyone came back to the office again, she decided to continue wearing her natural grey hair, rather than getting it colored. 

This shouldn't have been controversial, but for some folks, it was. Of course, her managers insisted that wasn't why she was being fired-- it was a business decision, they were taking the newscast in a new direction, etc. etc. But her fans put two and two together and came to the conclusion that she must have violated the unwritten taboo about women on TV not being allowed to look "too old." There's a segment of the viewership (and perhaps even the ownership) that still expect us to be "eye candy," it seems.

In Boston, in the 1980s, veteran news anchor Shelby Scott had something similar happen to her. I was quoted in an article about it in the Boston Globe recently, after she died: folks who remembered her called her an outstanding newswoman, a respected voice in Boston news... but back in the 1980s, when she reached her mid-40s, she was suddenly removed from anchoring in favor of someone much younger. And her male bosses defended the decision, saying it was time for a new direction (which is code for "it's time to hire a younger female"). Interestingly, the only people who defended her were other women who had encountered the same attitudes.

I understand that TV and movies are visual, and whether you're male or female, looking good on camera matters. But who gets to define "looking good"? I have watched lots of guys who are not exactly movie-star handsome, but they are informative and interesting. The same standard should apply to women. Having watched Lisa LaFlamme, and veteran reporters like Judy Woodruff and Christiane Amanpour, I find them personable, and they're comfortable on camera; but more importantly, they write well and they know their stuff. So, they have a few wrinkles. So, Lisa's hair is grey now-- why does any of this matter? Are we still stuck in the belief that women in media are not allowed to age? And if that's where we are, could someone please tell me why?

1 comment:

  1. Thank you, Donna, for steering me towards your enlightening articles.