There are many reasons I love Coronation Street. The sheer quality of the writing (never will I forget Norris describing Rita “fanning herself with the People’s Friend like something out of Les Liasons Dangereuses“). The funniness. The wonderful characters (Becky! Blanche! Eileen! Any one of that trio alone would make a programme worth watching). The way that characters who would be the butt of jokes in lesser programmes (like the wonderful Roy and Hayley) are treated with respect and affection.But one other great thing about it is the fact that it’s one of the few high-profile television programmes where you see older women who actually look like, well, older women – and who get proper characters and storylines instead of just being doddery old grans.
The older Corrie ladies, Rita, Blanche, Emily, Betty, Audrey – hell, even Deirdre and Liz (not that she’d like to be included in this group), are opinionated and funny. They’re not just sitting around waiting to die. Some are sexually active. Some are happily single. But all are complex, interesting people – albeit complex, interesting people who happen to live in the heightened reality of Wetherfield.
But while game old birds might be thriving in soapland, they’re not doing so well in the more serious media. In yesterday’s Guardian, the legendary Joan Bakewell writes about the lack of women over 50 in our news programmes – and how they’re starting to fight back; 57-year-old Selina Scott is taking Channel 5 to court for age descrimination, claiming they went back on an offer to cover another (younger) female newsreader’s maternity leave. Bakewell remembers the optimism of the early ’80s, when she and her peers “joked about how the tough older male would always be lead presenter, while a woman was given the secondary role – softer stories and knowing her place. We joked, too, about the obvious stereotypes: the craggy world-weary buccaneer male reporters – Sandy Gall, the late Charles Wheeler, and Newsnight’s younger trim female presenters whom we dubbed the “programme wives”. I was one such. So was Jenni Murray until she went off to enliven the more feminist corridors of Woman’s Hour.”
Bakewell and her female colleagues assumed this would all change. But nearly 30 years later, it hasn’t.
But where today are the wrinkly female equivalents of Trevor McDonald and Peter Sissons, Nick Owen and Jon Snow? Kirsty Wark stands alone, and she, after all, is merely middle aged. Older women are missing from news and current affairs.
Bakewell suggests, and I think she’s right, that this is because TV is not only obsessed with youth but increasingly run by younger people (“The only people of 60 they know are their mothers”). And she points out that their reluctance to show older people, especially women, on screen, makes bad business sense – why ignore a potentially huge audience?
But in her final paragraph, she reminds us why it’s important to show women of all ages on screen.
One entire segment of the public – women over 55 – never see their like on serious programming. They may be part of the content – victims of crime, sufferers from disease or lottery winners, but they are never there as the professional equivalent of older men. I rejoice that there are older people on the screen: David Attenborough and Bruce Forsyth are wonderful. But I rejoice too that Selina Scott might force the industry to take charges of ageism seriously.
The fewer ladies of a certain age we see on the screen, the more the idea that men somehow age “gracefully” while women become pathetic and hideous once they hit the menopause is perpetuated. So let’s hear it for the older ladies. After all, if we’re very lucky, we’re going to be them some day.