It's Murdah Being An Older Woman In UK Media

16/03/2017 17:46
Benoit Tessier / Reuters

all women everywhere

Helen Gurley Brown, the editor who transformed an ailing Hearst title into the international magazine franchise Cosmopolitan retired at age 75. Anna Wintour, 67, remains editor-in-chief at American Vogue, the most successful (judged on all criteria) of Conde Nast's print franchise.

Besides, obvs, from both being brilliant editors and able to predict and mine the zeitgeist, what do the late Gurley Brown (she died in 2012 aged 90) and Anna Wintour have in common? What the pair have in common is that they have (or in Gurley Brown's case, had) their career in the USA where age, i.e. being past 50, or even past 60, is no bar to editing a magazine, as it appears to be here in the UK.

Why do I make this assertion? Because if you look at a slew of UK magazine titles, you will see that for the most part, the women currently in charge are under 45. There is nothing wrong with being young and prodigiously talented (I was the youngest-ever Woman's Page Editor at the Jewish Chronicle when appointed to the role at age 32 in 1983) but when appointing a young editor involves discarding a highly competent and talented older editor not because she is failing, but just because she has a few more candles to blow out, seems mean, bad and commercially stupid.

And it's not just magazine editors; the culls extend to roles such as fashion editors and beauty editors who appear to need to be under 45 in order to pronounce on fashion collections and beauty products despite the fact that knowledge and experience should (and usually do) make you good at that type of thing.

But, no, everyone worships the smooth-faced 35-year-old whether or not she is capable of doing the job as well as the slightly wrinkled 55- or 60--year-old.

I have no idea why Alex Shulman, 59, has decided to quit her role as editor-in-chief of British Vogue. The reason could genuinely be the one stated in her departure announcement, that having edited British Vogue for 25 years and having "steered it during its spectacular centenary" she felt it was a good moment to go.

On the other hand, with her 60th birthday approaching, perhaps she thought she'd jump before she was pushed. My suspicion that there is another motivation for her departure, lies in the comment in her departure statement that "it has been very hard to find a rational reason to leave what is unquestionably a fascinating and rewarding role..."

It appears that unlike their counterparts in America, where legislation preventing employers from forcing employees to retire has been on the statute books for much longer perhaps leading to better attitudes towards age, British media bosses have form in replacing brilliant editors with unlined younger models.

Some of these older editors (we're talking 49 or 50, by the way, not 105) retired, some had retirement forced upon them, quite a few walked away before suffering the ignominy of being pushed.

It seems that however far we women have come in terms of equality, that doesn't extend to women aged over 50. And please don't point to Mary Berry. She is brilliant, but her casting in Bake Off was originally a happy accident or, less charitably, tokenism. But we Brits took her to our hearts (and to our tables) and she has a whole new career and fantastic ratings, proving conclusively that older women should not be consigned to the scrapheap on the basis of age alone.

But, it is women, and especially women in media who are consigned to the scrapheap on the basis of age alone. The chaps seem able to carry on editing and broadcasting well into old age. Brian Matthews was very angry to be put out of his job at age 88. He should consider himself lucky. If he was Bryony Matthews, he would have been out of a job 45 years ago!

As for Andrew Marr, as much as we (especially me, who has similar impairments following brain surgery) admire him, I would be willing to bet my house that if he was Andrea Marr with a walking stick and an unsteady gait he/she would have been off our screens faster than you can say 'Ageism in Media.'

Bloody ironic isn't it? British media that was at the forefront of the fight against sexism, is now demonstrating sexism and ageism as a toxic double-whammy. Be a woman over 45, be a woman with lines on her face and, even in print media where you would think it wouldn't matter, you are treated as if you have leprosy... that treatment has been meted out to an entire generation of women journalists and editors. I would name them, except the list is too long and it would sound like sucking up.

When did we stop respecting age and experience and start actively rejecting it?

No, wait. I know the answer. At some moment in the 1960s, we held up a mirror to our society and observed that young people had become the dominant demographic. That realisation resulted in a paradigm shift that led to the worship of youth and then to the point where we are now; with an unconditional reverence for youth and for the signifiers of youth, putting us on a path to a world requiring smooth faces, lunch-time Botox treatments and the culling of highly competent women.

I'm calling this issue of ageism-plus-sexism in media Murdah (a conflation of Purdah and Media and a handy homonym) since women in media - correction, women in UK media - have to go into Purdah when they get a wrinkle or a grey hair....

HuffPost UK is running a month-long project in March called All Women Everywhere, providing a platform to reflect the diverse mix of female experience and voices in Britain today

Through blogs, features and video, we'll be exploring the issues facing women specific to their age, ethnicity, social status, sexuality and gender identity. If you'd like to blog on our platform around these topics, email ukblogteam@huffingtonpost.com

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