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Why Debbie McGee’s Strictly success is so important for women everywhere

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Kayleigh Dray
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There’s no denying it: Debbie McGee is the name on every Strictly Come Dancing fan’s lips this year. Here, stylist.co.uk editor Kayleigh Dray examines why this is so important – and the incredibly positive change it represents for women everywhere.

You might think Strictly Come Dancing is nothing but sequins and fancy footwork, but this year’s series has prompted some important discussions – and none more so than Debbie McGee.

A former magician’s assistant, it’s fair to say that hardly anyone predicted that McGee would sashay her way into the final, let alone win the show altogether. That is, of course, until she pulled out that amazing Paso Doble in week one…

She was confident, she was determined, she was flexible, she was talented – and she was willing to throw caution to the wind with an improvised kiss, too.

“He wasn’t expecting it,” she said of her stunned dance partner Giovanni Pernice.

All in all, incredible stuff for a first-time spin around the Strictly ballroom, as I’m sure you’ll agree – but, considering McGee has made no secret of her past as a ballerina, why did nobody suspect that she has what it takes to be a brilliant dancer?

Well, because she’s 59 years old. And, for a woman, that basically means you’re done. Finished. Spent. Finito. Especially if you’re a woman in the spotlight.

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.”

While this is a hugely problematic issue in itself (just look at this damning list of news anchors who were replaced by younger women), it’s fair to say that it doesn’t just affect TV presenters: 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: remember when Angelina Jolie played Colin Farrell’s mother in Alexander, despite the fact she’s only one year older than him? Or when, just six years after playing Tom Hanks’ love interest in Punchline, Sally Fields became his “mom” in Forrest Gump?

A major part of the problem is that protagonist and “love interest” roles tend to be written for women in their twenties. Meanwhile, if women over 40 are cast at all, they’re more likely to land roles as “hags and witches,” as Meryl Streep recently put it.

“Once women passed childbearing age they could only be seen as grotesque on some level,” she said.

The same is absolutely not true for men over 40 (as this distressing Vulture analysis makes abundantly clear). And, of course, the small screen has plenty of examples of this sexist ageism, too – none more so than Strictly.

Back in 2009, there was public outcry when 66-year-old Arlene Phillips was axed from Strictly Come Dancing in favour of (then) 30-year-old Alesha Dixon. The BBC responded to complaints by stating that Phillips was replaced as a result of a review process, “with the balance and flavour of the [judges] panel in mind and nothing else”.

This being the very same show that saw the late Bruce Forsythe paired up with Tess Daly, a woman who was, quite literally, half his age.

And the average age of the show’s winners – a sprightly 29.7 years old – throws the odds entirely out of McGee’s favour. After all, Strictly’s current oldest female champion is Caroline Flack… and she was only 35 years old when she won in 2014.

It makes sense, then, that this negative portrayal of older women has seeped out of our screens and into our sub-consciouses: a 2011 study revealed that women feel they become invisible (and that, in turn, their views and opinions are no longer valid) when they hit 46.

Gareth Steer of Clarivu Total Vision Correction, which commissioned the poll of 2,000 women over 40, said: “Women are living longer and looking better than ever before, but it seems when they hit their late 40s and 50s, there is a definite period of adjustment. This research shows a lot of factors contributed towards making women feel invisible once they hit a certain age.

“This coupled with the steady increase of over-50s requiring glasses for reading, shopping and driving add to that feeling of being older and more invisible.”

The poll found women with children were hit the hardest by a loss of confidence as they grew older, as they were more likely to compare themselves to the younger women in the family.

However, things are slowly changing – and for the better, too.

People magazine recently named Julia Roberts, 49, as the World’s Most Beautiful Woman 2017, 26 years after she first made the list. Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman have made a point of producing brilliant female-led dramas for themselves and their peers to star in (think Big Little Lies, for one). Laura Dern and Carrier Fisher have taken on two of the most important roles in 2017’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi, while JK Rowling and Michelle Obama continue to remain influential and inspiring voices for change.

Similarly, streaming networks, such as Amazon, Netflix and Hulu, have broken with casting conventions and created shows for women of all ages: Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda star in the critically-acclaimed Grace and Frankie, while Amy Landecker and Judith Light have been making waves in Transparent.

And it is all having an incredible effect on womankind: SuperHuman’s 2017 survey found that 67% of women over 40 feel more confident than they did a decade ago, reports The Telegraph, and just as many are more ambitious too. ‘Doing things that challenge me’ was important to 60% of women in the survey; personal fulfillment was a priority for 61%, and 63% described themselves as ‘very optimistic’ about the future.

Perhaps most interestingly of all, though, is that almost 80% said they had a strong appetite to explore and experience new things… with or without their kids. 

Debbie McGee is the poster woman for all of this positivity: not only has she managed to make a name for herself at long last (for so many years, she has been referred to as “Paul Daniels’ wife”), but she’s shown the world that a woman can absolutely be a contender, no matter what the date on her birth certificate says.

And, best of all, it seems as if Strictly fans are finally ready to celebrate a woman over 40 for her talents alone, rather than the patronising “well, she’s good for her age” comments we usually see on social media.

McGee represents an incredible change in societal attitudes – and she has shown us that anyone who assumes that women over a certain age are… well, less than, then they do so at their own peril.

Because just think of all those amazing Strictly moments we would have missed out on if we had voted Debbie out without a second thought. And, more importantly, all those amazing moments she would have missed out on, too.

Strictly really has given me my confidence back,” she recently revealed to the Daily Star

“When I was with [my late husband] Paul he always gave me confidence, so when I lost him I felt a bit lost because you don’t have that person who is saying, ‘You can do this.’ Being on Strictly has given me confidence to be confident in myself.”

“If I was offered a dancing job in a show or a musical I would definitely consider it. In West End shows there are people who are much older than me who keep going forever. There’s no reason why I couldn’t do it. I’m loving every moment of my life.”

All hail McGee!

Images: Rex Features

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Kayleigh Dray

Kayleigh Dray is editor of Stylist.co.uk, where she chases after rogue apostrophes and specialises in films, comic books, feminism and television. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends. 

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