Belfast Telegraph

Don’t skirt the issue of girl power and sex appeal

By Terence Blacker

There has almost certainly been an authoritative survey, conducted by some obscure, PR-minded university, proving beyond doubt that women's brains are better than men's at accommodating two apparently conflicting ideas and achieving a balance between the two.

Women, for example, will see no particular contradiction between the fact that one middle-aged female BBC presenter can have her bottom photographed, discussed and awarded a national prize while another is accusing the corporation of paying undue regard to the way she looks.

In their plodding, literal-minded way, men are likely to ask: does the way a woman looks on TV matter, or doesn't it? If appearance is important, then the newsreader Fiona Bruce is quite right to accept the 2010 Rear of the Year Award and to point her prize-winning asset at the camera, while Miriam O'Reilly, the former Countryfile presenter who was told by a producer it was “time for Botox” and then fired, should accept her fate with good grace.

Perhaps, though, the problem goes rather deeper than the way women are treated within the rather strange world of television.

In the real world, women tend to care more about the way they appear than men.

To enhance their figure with all the padding lifts and clever tailoring that fashion can offer is part of daily life.

It is self-deluding to deny that looks, whether it be general attractiveness or overt sexuality, tend to be an important part of a woman's self-image. In the past, such things might have been a response to a cruel male world, but that argument died some time ago.

Fiona Bruce is nobody's victim. What matters is whether the low-level sexual display that is a bottom contest will undermine the seriousness with which female professionals should be regarded.

In this case, it is difficult to see how it cannot. Imagine a male newsreader donning tight jeans and posing for his close-up.

If it has a lesser effect on the way that viewers respond to Fiona Bruce, that is because, regrettably, she was taken less seriously in the first place. She is a woman on TV; showing off goes with the territory. Decades ago, another newsreader, the thoroughly proper Angela Rippon, excited the nation by showing her thighs and doing high kicks on the Morecambe and Wise Show. The pay-off for these stunts is simple and brutal. The more that serious women, in an attempt to show that they are good sports, are prepared to show off their personal sexiness, the more ingrained the bias towards looks becomes.

In the past year, 12 cases of alleged sexual discrimination have been brought against the BBC, as against nine the previous year and three the year before that.

The press responds with excited disapproval when a female broadcaster of a certain age is fired, or ventures an opinion on the question of ageist sexism, but its position is profoundly hypocritical.

The very newspapers which lecture the BBC on its attitude to women will run eager, wet-lipped stories when Kirsty Wark or Emily Maitlis dares to show their knees or a bit of thigh on Newsnight.

Women who wish to be successful on TV often have a tricky balance to maintain. They are required to look attractive enough to their viewers without losing their professional gravitas.

The same, to a lesser extent, is true of women politicians.

The childish reaction within the media to former Home Secretary Jacqui Smith's cleavage or to the new incumbent Theresa May's wardrobe is a reminder that journalists and probably the public at a large, still look at powerful women with a sexual gaze.

It is simplistic to see the lack of advancement of women in public life as part of a male conspiracy which can be countered by positive discrimination, such as the requirement for the Cabinet to be 50% female, as some are now suggesting.

Westminster and the BBC may well need to be more adult in their attitudes — but so do the rest of us.

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