If you flick through all of your television channels, you’ll no doubt notice that most TV daytime news programmes are presented by two people – and that they seem to have been selected via a very strict template.
As Ben Elton points out in his book, Popcorn, there is always a male and a female behind the news desk. The former is “silver and dignified in his late fifties”, while the latter is “cute and feisty in her mid-thirties”.
Together, they are the epitome of the “American dream behind a desk”, like some “splendid ambassador and his gorgeous second wife”.
But, while it may seem like just another harmless aspect of our TV schedules, a recent episode of Channel 4’s Gogglesprogs has confirmed what many people have long suspected: these TV pairings are enforcing tired gender stereotypes – and instilling toxic ageist beliefs in the younger generation.
Much like the original show, Gogglebox, this TV series features a number of brilliantly insightful viewers from around England and Wales, who react to British television shows from their own homes. In the spin-off, they’re all children.
These kids are never tongue-tied, and, while they may not always know the right word for something, they always have something to say. And, as a result, they often leave adult audiences in stitches.
However, during a recent episode of the show, the children were shown an episode of Schofield’s South African Adventure – and their innocent comments quickly exposed a big problem.
Reacting to a clip in which Phillip Schofield and his wife, Stephanie, head out on a South African safari together, the children were immediately confused: after all, they already knew Schofield’s ‘wife’ from watching ITV’s This Morning.
“That lady is Holly Willoughby?” asked one little lad, confused.
“No,” replied his sister, with a roll of her eyes. “This is Phillip’s mother,”
“Yes, it’s Phillip’s mother,” echoed their cousin, also perched on the sofa alongside them.
A post shared by Phillip Schofield (@schofe) on
It’s worth pointing out that Schofield is 55 – and that many children believe it’s more plausible for him to be married to 36-year-old Willoughby rather than, y’know, a woman closer to his own age.
More worrying, though, is the fact that they assumed Schofield’s wife – whom he has been married to for over two decades, now – was his mother. But it's absolutely not their fault: this confusion stems from the fact that so few women over the age of 50 are offered prominent television presenting roles.
A few years ago, research compiled from figures taken from the main UK broadcasters found that just 18% of presenters over 50 are women.
The Guardian explained at the time: “BBC television and radio, Sky, ITN and Channel 5 combined have just 26 women over 50 working as regular on-air presenters out of a total of 481 presenters.
“Overall, women over 50 make up just 5% of on-screen presenters of all ages and both sexes and 7% of the workforce, both on and off screen.”
Upon learning of the figures, Labour’s Harriet Harman accused the TV industry of ageism and sexism.
“It really is a black hole […] Broadcasters behave as though the viewing public have to be protected from the sight of an older woman and that's just rude. There is nothing wrong with being an older woman.
“We've got to fight back against this sense that older women are less valuable, whereas men accumulate wisdom, authority and experience as they age.”
One female TV news presenter, who chose to remain anonymous, revealed earlier this year that she had been replaced by a younger woman.
“They would not consider having a woman over 50 on camera,” she wrote. “I still have knowledge, looks and talent but I do not fit the media stereotype.”
She added: “What’s even more frustrating is that at the same time older, male journalists are being left to carry on reporting on screen.”
It’s a huge issue (just look at this damning list of news anchors who were replaced by younger women) and it’s one which doesn’t just affect TV presenting duos: a US study released in 2015 analysed the age difference between on-screen couples in movies from the past 30 years, highlighting that some leading men are up to 15 years older than their female love interests or co-stars. The most depressing part of this statistic being that so little has changed in three decades.
We see it time and time again on the big screen: in film Alexander, we saw Angelina Jolie play Colin Farrell’s mother, despite the fact she’s only one year older than him. Winona Ryder played a mother to Zachary Quinto, an actor just under six years her junior, in Star Trek, and in Riding In Cars With Boys, Adam Garcia played Drew Barrymore’s on-screen son – yet is actually two years older than her.
The list goes on and on: Rachel Griffith, a whole five years younger than Johnny Depp, was cast as his mother in 2001’s Blow; Rebecca Toolan played Fox Mulder’s mum in The X Files – she's one year older than David Duchovny; Sally Field played Tom Hanks’ love interest in Punchline and just six years later, was his “mom” in Forrest Gump. In Oblivion, Tom Cruise is a full 17 years older than his female lead, Olga Kurylenko – and, throughout his career, Depp has only had two notable love interests in their mid-30s (the rest were all 25 and under).
The small screen has plenty of examples too. Back in 2009, there was a public outcry when 66-year-old Arlene Phillips was axed from Strictly Come Dancing in favour of (then) 30-year-old Alesha Dixon – the very same show that saw octogenarian Bruce Forsythe paired up with Tess Daly, a woman who is, quite literally, half his age.
And, from Live! With Regis and Kelly to Good Morning Britain (yes, Piers Morgan again – sorry), we continuously see older men being paired up with younger women.
The longer this discrepancy goes on, the more it will begin to be seen as the norm: children will continue to assume that women over the age of 50 are mothers and grandmothers, and that men deserve to be paired up with a far younger model. That Willoughby is better suited to ITV’s This Morning than her predecessor Fern Britton (who, at 59, is just four years older than her former co-host, Schofield). That Olivia Wilde is too old to play Leonardo DiCaprio’s wife – a man who is nine years her senior.
It’s infuriating, it’s demeaning, and it’s outrageously, outrageously sexist. And, the longer we allow it to go on, the more it will be considered the norm: we’ll be living in The Handmaid’s Tale’s Gilead, where older women have mysteriously and ominously disappeared (or are only seen in terrifying Aunt roles)– and nobody says a single word about it.
So what do we do?
Well, for starters, we need to stop airbrushing women over the age of 50 off of our screens – and they most definitely should not be pushed out of the door when they are no longer in their reproductive years.
So what if they’re older? Older means that they’re experienced, and that they have taken their work seriously for years. We have to start applauding the worth of these women, align ourselves with them, learn from them, be inspired by them, and support them.
Until we, the adults of the world, make this step, then children and young people will continue to follow our lead and be dismissive of older women everywhere. And nobody wants to be dubbed “Phillip Schofield’s mother” other than, y’know, his actual bloody mother.
Images: Channel 4 / ITV / Rex Features