Tuesday, July 21, 2009

You Are Old, Father William

That's from a nonsense poem by Lewis Carroll. The rest of the first verse goes like this:

'You are old, Father William', the young man said,
'And your hair has become very white;
And yet you incessantly stand on your head --
Do you think, at your age, it is right?'

I like it, because it's an excellent definition of ageism. Note the young man's assumption that someone with white hair shouldn't stand on his head any longer. Just because.

Ageism is different for men and women, on average. For instance, women are affected at younger ages than men. The U.K. Mirror has done some counting of the ages of various television presenters there, and came up with these findings:

We analysed a week's worth of programmes on the main five terrestrial channels and found the average age gap between male and female presenters is six years.

But on Channel 4 the average female presenter is 10 years younger than the average male.

The biggest gap on a single day is tonight on ITV1, where male presenters have an average age of 60, compared to 27 for the women.

AOn BBC2 on Monday, the gap was 18 years. And there is no day this week when the average age of female presenters is higher than their male colleagues.

Our findings come after Strictly Come Dancing was plunged into an ageism storm when judge Arlene Phillips, 66, was replaced with 30-year-old Alesha Dixon, while colleague Len Goodman, 65, survived.

Equality minister Harriet Harman hit out at Arlene's axing this week, saying: "I am suspicious there is age discrimination there."

Selina Scott, 57, won a landmark £250,000 out-of-court settlement and an apology in an age-discrimination suit against Five last December when they went back on a deal for her to cover Natasha Kaplinsky during maternity leave.

They opted for Isla Traquair, 28, and Matt Barbet, then 32, instead.

She said: "Companies want to employ only young people, so ageism has gone underground. It has become institutionalised and it is pervasive.

The Mirror investigation is not a proper study of ageist sexism or sexist ageism in the British television industry. (Such a study would look at a much wider group of occupations, including those behind the cameras, and it would control for all sorts of theoretically valid reasons why women might be younger in that industry.) But it's suggestive, and also suggests that we might want to inquire why all the women pundits on Fox News look to be in their twenties and in the Barbie mold, whereas the male pundits range from moderately good-looking to pretty ghastly.

OK. I put on the eyeglasses of someone who cares about the physical appeal of pundits there for a moment, to point out that we heterosexual women never get much eye-candy and are not expected to want it, either, and now I take them off, to speak about why this really matters:

It's because women in that industry will never reach the lifetime earnings of men in the same industry if they are forced out at much younger ages, and it's because the only reason for that might very well be looks-based ageism which affects women much earlier. What also matters is the fact that this kind of sexist ageism is semi-condoned and even expected by the watching public.

It also matters because the real world and the television world don't look at all the same in terms of age distributions. We all know many people over fifty in the real world. They are quite rare in the television world, and older women, in particular, seem to have died off due to some odd plague. Ultimately the television world might start affecting our views of how the world really looks, you know, and then older people walking down the street will come across as either invisible or somehow totally wrong.
For an American example having to do with a Fox affiliate, read this.