What are we going to do about women on television?

Only viewers can change the male face of TV, says Mary Beard

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What are we going to do about women on television?
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What are we going to do about women on television? I don’t mean whether they should be there at all. (Even grumpy old men don’t want to make TV a male-only zone.) I mean, how do we get beyond those niche roles for women in sitcoms – or sitting next to the main (male) presenter on the breakfast TV sofa?

I gave at least two hearty cheers to Danny Cohen, the director of BBC television, when he said a few weeks ago: “We’re not going to have panel shows on any more with no women on them. You can’t do that. It’s not acceptable.” The trouble is that it’s easy enough to agree with Cohen’s instincts, but it’s less easy to see what practical steps the BBC (or any media company) should take. And it’s not just about panel shows.

The underlying “maleness” of all these shows is more hard-wired in our culture than the presence of a few extra women is likely to solve. In my programme, Oh Do Shut Up Dear, which is due to air on Sunday 16 March on BBC4, I argue that the “silence” of women in public debate goes right back to the very origins of the Western tradition; and I mean the very origins – already in Homer’s Odyssey, almost 3,000 years ago, we find a wet-behind-the-ears teenager telling his savvy mother not to speak in public. Of course, the Greeks and the Romans didn’t have panel shows. But the kind of male banter and repartee that we still see in these programmes – its aggression, its “wit” – does go back thousands of years to ancient dialogue and debate (where no woman got much of a look-in, and where there was plenty of male “willy-waving”).

Of course, there are women who have already gone beyond that. Think of Stephanie Flanders being wonderfully persuasive on economics; or Emily Maitlis who can be as powerful as anyone on Newsnight. But there are still relatively few and they tend to be young and conventionally pretty (their looks, perhaps, sugaring the pill of hard-core political debate). And there can be an outcry when women move into what are perceived as traditional male areas. Remember the abuse directed at Jacqui Oatley when she dared to “leave the netball court” and become the first woman commentator on Match of the Day.

So what can we do? Quotas are obviously one answer. They can certainly help in the short term: people come to expect to see women right across the TV schedules and that in turn encourages women to see themselves there. But, to be honest, I dread any idea of a fixed quota of women per programme. It’s likely to leave desperate producers ringing round all the women they can possibly think of to fill “the woman’s slot”. I don’t think it would be much fun being the woman vilified in all the reviews as the one taking the quota place.

But quotas don’t really get to the root of the problem, which has more to do with images of authority that most of us share, than with choices made by producers. The fact is that even now authority still seems to reside with the men in suits, and their deep voices; and those are the types we still assume we’ll see when we’re looking for words of wisdom on TV (or, with a few notable exceptions, in Parliament). You need only think of how most viewers accept, without a blink, the craggy, wrinkled faces and bald patches of male documentary presenters, as if they were the signs of mature wisdom; yet in the case of women presenters, grey hair and wrinkles often signal “past-my-use-by-date” – or at least glaring eccentricity and deficient grooming. And it’s not a coincidence that even on radio, the successful women presenters tend to have unusually deep (ie male) voices.

If viewers want to change this, the power lies partly in their hands. We all need to think a bit harder about our assumptions about whose face fits the TV screen. Or, put another way, we’ll know that we have finally bridged the gender gap not when we can point to mixed line-ups on every panel show, but when almost every viewer in the land would simply think that it looked very weird (and unbelievably old-fashioned) to have a panel made up of four blokes – and would switch off.