Belfast Telegraph

When it comes to growing old, it seems sexism is alive and well

By Jane Graham

Let us mark this week, in which science gave us a ground-breaking epiphany. Not the missing link or a cure for cancer but, judging by the media response, just as exciting. One day everyone will look 25 for ever, exclaimed one BBC broadcaster, because of IRF4. Otherwise known as the newly discovered 'grey gene'.

On Wednesday the BBC had a phone-in during which lots of men said they couldn’t understand the fuss. This, I felt, was missing the point. The story’s significance might have been over-heated, but if IRF4 is a game changer, it’s women whose game will be changed.

What do men have to fear from grey hair? No one derides a greying man. It was salt and pepper which made George Clooney a global phenomenon.

As a twentysomething brunette, he was pretty, but so are lots of Hollywood actors. It was only when he greyed that his appearance acquired a veneer of intelligence and know-how which matched his authoritative charisma. He became a stand-out, an alluring anchor in a sea of bobbing bambinos.

I met 66-year-old Richard Gere this week, star of Pretty Woman and An Officer and a Gentleman, and number one heartthrob of his day. His hair is now shock-white. He was doing a Q&A at the UK premiere of his new film, in an atmosphere best described as oestrogen-charged.

One trembling woman told him he was the “hottest man on the planet”. Another stormed the stage to hug him. He was clearly used to such a reception and didn’t find it entirely unpleasant.

I tried to think of a greying female celebrity of pensionable age who could expect to meet with a similar response. I came up with... nada.

Where greyness is read as denoting knowledge and experience in men, it usually means simply elderly (thus a social write-off) for women. “Wise men and old women” as American professor Ellen Fitzpatrick neatly put it this week, comparing Press treatment of 68-year-old Hillary Clinton and 74-year-old Bernie Sanders (guess which one’s age is deemed a problem?). OAP sex symbols like Gere, Tom Jones and Terence Stamp have no problem airing their greys, while Madonna, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Julia Roberts, Liz Hurley etc etc will probably be blondes and brunettes until they’re put into the ground.

Radio 4 documentary ‘Glad to be Grey’ spoke to Mary Beard about the subject this week. Beard is a brilliant historian best known for being deemed a ‘witch’ for eschewing make-up and having grey hair; TV critic AA Gill once advised TV commissioners to “keep her away from the cameras”. Beard seemed unperturbed by the fuss, but one wonders if there will be a follow-up on fellow historian David Starkey; ‘Happy to Have the Face of a Lemon-sucking Weasel’.

Feminism can claim many victories, but equality in this field remains as much of a fantasy as ever.

After decades of battling to change perceptions, it is almost impossible — unless they’re blessed with supernatural genes, or can afford the best surgeons in the world — for female celebrities to maintain their ‘value’ into their fifties.

Those who surrender to turkey necks and grey locks are pilloried for hurting our eyes. Those who battle on via botox, fillers or surgery are ‘exposed’ by a gleeful media which mocks them for their shallow vanity.

How women’s mags and newspapers’ ‘sidebars of shame’ love to poke sticks at the likes of Melanie Griffith and Meg Ryan, whose desperate attempts to cheat the ageing process have resulted in freaky fright-masks which will blight their lives for ever. Such fun, laughing at the losers who lost the game before the game changed.

Time small screen let rookies in on the act

It’s always been tough, the lot of a struggling young actor. But was there ever a time when so few big names scooped up so many high profile roles?

I’m a fan, but after a dose of James Norton in War and Peace, even I could have survived a month before seeing him star in Happy Valley and Granchester every Tuesday and Wednesday.

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve watched Rebecca Front in 12 months, and Neil Morrissey is now in everything, even Bear Grylls: Mission Survive.

And the BBC’s Tom Hollander is now up against ITV’s Tom Hollander in the hallowed Sunday 9pm slot.

Good luck Tom!

Is the glass half-full or half-empty, PM?

Prime Minister’s Questions is always a preposterous parade of Chuckle Brother-style to-ing and fro-ing. But it can be kind of fun, tracking the minute by minute changes in the UK economy.

Giving guarantees about generous new childcare provisions this week, Cameron cited our strong economy, just days after the Chancellor blamed slow growth for his upcoming savage public service cuts.

We mustn’t risk the prosperity EU membership currently gifts us, says Cameron’s mouth, but it’s a shame our precarious economy stops us letting in more asylum seekers. Our crazy economy goes up and down more often than Jimmy Nesbitt’s pint glass at a Carl Frampton fight.

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