Keeping Up Appearances
For most women on camera, being young at heart is not enough. A look at the role that youth and beauty still play in TV news
In February, 1991, the CBC’s Toronto station, CBLT, aired a clever, facetious television commercial for its six o’clock newscast. In it, Barbie and Ken style dolls sat at an anchor desk, their plastic hair perfectly coiffed, grins stuck permanently in place. Staring vacantly into space, they engaged in some idle chatter:
HE: Over to you, Tammy
SHE: Thanks, Bob. Say, you’re looking especially fine tonight.
HE: Hey, that’s my job.
SHE: Well, good looks make for good news, I always say.
The message? That CBC’s agenda is one of serious news, and serious news only, that it shuns the preoccupation with physical appearance typically associated with television broadcasting. As Trina McQueen, CBC’s vice president of news and current affairs, says, appearance simply is not an important issue at the CBC. “If you lined up your average bunch of women who are walking down Yorkville Avenue-which is the street I happen to be looking at right now-and you lined up your average group of women who present the news, I don’t think you’d see a lot of difference, with one exception-and that is their age. You don’t see very many women over 50 or so on television.” McQueen says this is partly because “the largest group of women who trained a~ journalists are not of that age yet,” but she also blames society’s “natural prejudice’ against older women.
McQueen is perhaps being a bit disingenuous when she notes that the majority of female journalists are still under 50. As she well knows from her own experience she’s 48-the reason there are few women over 50 is that until the 1970s women were actively discouraged from aspiring to on air positions, at the CBC or anywhere else. Today, while a growing number of women anchor news shows or report a full range of events, not just soft items, they are likely to be conventionally attractive-and as McQueen herself suggests, “attractive” still means “young” for women in TV .
In recent years there have been some well-publicized examples of U.S. news executives succumbing to the younger woman syndrome. In 1989, for example, NBC made the ill-fated decision to replace 38-year-old Jane Pauley with 31-year-old Deborah Norville as cohost of the Today show, despite Pauley’s 13 years with the program. The underlying buzz was that Pauley was dropped for a younger woman who could attract a larger audience. Ironically, Norville failed to boost ratings, and when she went on pregnancy leave 13 months later, she simply never retumed.
However, the attention given to the Pauley/Norville brouhaha was minimal compared to the outrage that surrounded the 1981 Christine Craft case. Craft, then 36, was fired from her anchor job at KMBC, in Kansas City, because, her male superiors told her, she was “too old, too unattractive, and not sufficiently deferential to men.”
While there haven’t been any Canadian incidents as high-profile as the Pauley or Craft affairs, the CTV rumour mill had it that the decision in 1987 not to renew Helen Hutchinson’s contract as cohost of W5 was due to the network’s desire to replace her with Genevieve Westcott, some 20 years her junior. (Hutchinson, who was on the show for 10 years, reached an out-of-court settlement with her former employers and declines to discuss the incident.) Whether the whispers were true or not, it’s clear that many producers and news directors still put youth and beauty high on the list of requirements when they’re shopping for female news staff assuming they’re hiring women at all.
In 1990, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission released a study entitled “The Portrayal of Gender in Canadian Broadcasting 1984-1988.” The study showed that of 21 English-language TV stations monitored in 1988, men made up 61 percent of news announcers and 72 percent of reporters. But the figures for age groups were even more revealing. In the under -36 group, women made up 76 percent of news staff. In the 36 to 50 group, they dropped to 24 percent. And in the 51 to 65 group, they plummeted to eight percent. Clearly, as women grow older, they fade from view in TV newsrooms.
The CRTC study reinforced a more extensive 1984 survey conducted by Media Watch, the Vancouver-based feminist group that monitors the portrayal of women in the media. The survey, which examined sex-role stereotyping, involved a complicated methodology in which two groups of observers watched 75 and 85 TV news programs respectively. When the observers were asked to rate anchors and reporters according to appearance, the first group found 72 percent of the women to be “attractive or very attractive,” while just 25 percent of the men fell into those categories. Though, in the second group, the numbers dropped to 11′,.59 percent for women and rose to 32 percent for men, the difference was still substantial.
What these studies reflect is the bias against women in news that dates back to the beginning of television in Canada. While regular newscasts started in 1952 on CBC and 1961 on CTV, it wasn’t until 18 years later that J an Tennant became the first woman to anchor the evening news for CBC. Hazel Desbarats, who was a production coordinator for the CBC and Toronto’s CFTO throughout the sixties, says of her early days, “I don’t think there were any news programs with women anchors that I remember at all.”
In Desbarats’s experience, women didn’t aspire to on-air news positions “because they didn’t consider it an option that they could choose, in the same way that there were fewer female doctors, fewer women doing a lot of things.” She also recalls the prevailing attitude that women weren’t suited to the medium: “There was the belief that women on-air in the news business had less credibility. They didn’t have the stature or weight of the male voice or the male presence.”
Those few women who did manage to land on-air jobs were often relegated to weather girl roles, or, at best, limited to delivering social pieces or fluff stories. McQueen, who became the first female reporter for CBC national news in 1966, says, “Were women stereotyped in those days about the kinds of assignments they got? Yes. No question.” While covering the 1967 Progressive Conservative leadership convention, McQueen had to deliver a detailed description of Olive Diefenbaker’s outfit. She admits that her fashion commentary was “certainly an example of stereotyping,” but points out that at the time it was a “plum” assignment, one she was fortunate to get. “It didn’t matter whether you were good looking or not when I started,” she says. “You weren’t wanted, period.”
McQueen sums up the prevailing attitudes toward women in the following two decades: In the seventies, “we went through a thing where people wanted women, but they hired women who decorated the set. Every newscast had to have a guy and a girl-that was the Ken and Barbie period. By the eighties, a woman had almost become required as an anchor hosting a show, and more serious journalists were being hired.” But as McQueen herself admits, even today the majority of women in TV news are relatively young, even at the CBC.
However, the same is not true of their male colleagues. A convention that remains firmly entrenched is that of the young, heavily made-up female placed next to the older male authority figure. Barbara Frum, interviewed shortly before her sudden death on March 26, said there’s still “a kind of bow to the doctor/nurse, principal/teacher” relationship. CFTO’s World BeatNews is a prime example: Kate Wheeler, the 30-year-old female anchor, is paired with avuncular 55-year-old Tom Gibney. The long-held double standard about aging men and women is as applicable here as it is to other facets of society-men get more distinguished; women simply get old.
The result could be called the “Mike Duffy factor”-that is to say, what’s acceptable for men in terms of on-air looks isn’t okay for women. As many in the industry point out, Duffy, CTV’s roly-poly, balding political correspondent, would likely find himself in another profession if he were a woman. “Mike Duffy would never get a job in television as Michelle Duffy,” says Wendy Trueman, a producer for CBC’s business show, Venture. “I’m sorry, but no way. I mean, imagine Rita MacNeil reading the news. Never in a million years. As credible as she might be, it would never happen.” Peter Trueman (no relation), who was a highly respected anchor at Global from 1973 to 1988, says that in his experience women “had to be prettier than their male counterparts. I mean, I anchored for fifteen years and I’ve got a face that could stop a clock.”
If women newscasters have to be attractive to be hired, it may be partly because women are still largely excluded from the upper echelons in television management. In 1990, Toronto Women in Film and Television, a nonprofit organization that works to improve the status and portrayal of women in the visual media, revealed that women make up only 14 percent of upper management in public TV and a dismaying one percent in the private sector. McQueen herself is the first to admit that she is an exception. “I don’t think very many women have moved into news management. Name three,” she challenges.
To combat this problem, another nonprofit group, Canadian Women in Radio and Television, was founded late last year. Its goals include creating a job bank to offer broadcasters a pool of qualified women, including those suitable for management and boards of directors. As cochair Nancy Smith says, “The major thing we have to do is change attitudes so that when people are even thinking about filling a management position they consider women. A lot of those positions are filled through male networking and a lot of times men don’t think of women for those jobs.”
But is sexism alone the only issue? Not in the view of one former CTV executive. Discrimination based on appearance happens not because “there are a bunch of fat old men with cigars and pinkie rings sitting in the back room,” he says. “If it’s true, it’s because people in private television have to be more conscious and are more responsive to public taste. If you’re running a business, you have to make a profit.” Of course, the more viewers a news show attracts, the higher a station’s ad revenue. It is not difficult to see how hiring anchors and reporters with traditional market appeal becomes a priority, though many executives deny that appearance is a determining factor. Peter Trueman, however, doesn’t believe them. “I think when people say they don’t hire Barbie dolls anymore, that’s crap,” he says. “I mean, all you’ve got to do is look who’s on the air. I see them allover. I see Kens, too.”
According to the ex-CTV executive, the problem is more prevalent at the local level. “CTV, the network, simply couldn’t hire a bimbo or the male equivalent and put that person on the air to read the news in Lloyd Robertson’s chair. It just wouldn’t work. You have to distinguish between the network and its affiliates-CFTO is not CTV. It seems to me there are a lot of Kens and Barbies on CFTO.” And Jim McElgunn, who covers the broadcasting beat for Marketing, the weekly trade magazine that serves the ad industry, observes, “With the local stations, their supper-hour news shows are often one of the biggest sources of profit. It’s the number-one thing that gives the station an identity with viewers-they feel close to it, they recognize it. And the person on that newscast is very important. The choice of that anchor is really crucial.”
Marketplace forces aside, feminists have been telling us for years that women themselves help to perpetuate the tyranny of the physical ideal. Women, more so than men, are quite willing to conform to what others deem aesthetically desirable. “Women aim to please,” Wendy Trueman says. “We want to be liked, we want to be pleasant. And that’s why women, I think, put the little extra effort it takes into looking good, into the kind of presentation that works on air.” In Trueman’s experience at Venture, men who’ve worked on the show were much more resistant to “attempts to mold them physically, in appearance.” Or as Barbara Frum put it, “If this is a conspiracy by men to keep women in their place, then men have got an awful lot of willing collaborators in women.”
Viewers, both men and women, have also been guilty of fostering the North American beauty myth, When newswomen like McQueen, Tennant and Frum first appeared on TV, viewers were taken aback, and often complained. Frum, who started out on television coanchoring for CBL T in the late sixties, recalled that period: “The phone calls were so intrusive, so critical, that it was hard to believe that the audience was interested so little in content and so much in what you projected as a person.” Viewers would complain that skirt lengths were too short (what was the reporter trying to suggest, anyway?), and nitpick about everything from hairstyles to makeup in a manner Frum called “extremely vicious.”
Those complaints were still around and still vicious-when executive producer Mark Starowicz launched The Journal in 1982. He had made an unprecedented move by hiring Frum and Mary Lou Finlay to host the show. To his disappointment, he was suddenly faced with” a strange surge of mail about appearance” from viewers who wrote to say they hated Barbara’s hair I or thought Mary Lou’s dress was hideous.
But while the complainers seemed fixated on looks, it’s probable that undetlying I their remarks was a resentment that two women were fronting a news program.
But if what television marketers say is I true, viewers today are not nearly as concerned with appearance as they once were. I In 1988, for example, the CBC asked focus
groups about what they saw as important in I on-air news staff. Roy Thomas, communications manager for CBC Ontario, says,
“When we talked to people in the focus groups, it became apparent to us that the actual physical appearance of hosts or anchors was very lowly rated in terms of a reason to watch a particular news program. We gave them a whole list of things and said, ‘Rank these.’ Physical appearance of anchors was about number 14 out of about 20. People wanted quality, professional presentation. They looked for a sense of confidence and authority, but not tied to ..I age, not tied to beauty.”
The well-known Virginia television doctor Jacques DeSuze-“Dr. Seuss” in the industry-says that many producers stick to a conventional but outdated approach to faces on the news. According to DeSuze, who has 40 clients in the U.S. and more than half a dozen in Canada, including Citytv: “What some news directors and others have done is go with some sort of norm of acceptable appearance they have in their heads.”
This theory is borne out by Don Fitzpatrick, president of Don Fitzpatrick and Associates, of San Francisco. Fitzpatrick’s firm acts as a media matchmaker for television newscasts across North America, maintaining a video library of 12,000 newscasters and reporters. “There are still certain individuals who are firmly entrenched in 1955,”Fitzpatricksays, “and as long as you’ve got some of those people still making decisions, they’re going to take that cute, little perky person who was a cheerleader three or four years ago, who is now a ‘journalist,’ and try to make her a television star someplace.” These days Fitzpatrick is approached as often for female staff as for male, and in his view, the women are the superior choices: “They’re better journalists, they’re more telegenic, they’re better storytellers, they’re better reporters, they’re just better.”
Interestingly, DeSuze thinks that most viewers have never been preoccupied by appearance. “Age has never been, in the thirty years that we’ve been studying the question, an issue in and of itself in the way viewers judge the performance of an anchorperson or a reporter,” he says. “They never reject somebody, male or female, because their hairline recedes, or because their hair gets white, or because they get a little chunky.”
If DeSuze is right, many TV execs are sorely out of sync with their viewers, particularly as those viewers get older. The single biggest news-watching group is the aging baby boomers, many of whom are now reaching their late 40s. Clearly, something’s got to change. As Wendy Trueman puts it, “Older men have always been accepted, but I think there’s going to bean added acceptance of older female faces because there’s a lot of older audience out there.” Outside North America, older women are already widely accepted in on-air role Peter Trueman, recently returned from trip to Europe, found that in France, fc example, it is not unusual to see a woman reporter, without makeup, in her 50s c 60s, delivering the news. Could this ever happen here? Well, Helen Hutchinson still approached on the street or in the way by former viewers who tell her the miss her wisdom and experience an resent some “whippersnapper trying to tell me what’s what.” And Jane Pauley’s depature from the Today show caused considerable protest from people who were not a all interested in tuning in to a fresher face over morning toast and coffee.
So far, though, there are few female counterparts to men like the CBC’s Knowlton Nash, who at 64 shows no signs of let .ting up. But Adrienne Clarkson, who is 53 and a handful of other Canadian women are approaching that kind of longevity They can be seen as proof that sexism ageism and double standards aren’t as pervasive as they once were. Just the same Peter Trueman points out that both anchors of the major national newscasts are still men-Peter Mansbridge at CBC and Lloyd Robertson at CTV. “When one 0 those two is replaced by a woman, I’ll say OK, we’re getting there,” says Trueman “And until that happens, I don’t think Wt can talk about equality.”
No, we aren’t talking about equality yet but there is some hope. Seasoned journalist June Callwood, currently the host of Vision TV’s National Treasures, told Broadcast Week magazine last fall: “I’m 67 years old, I don’t wear makeup, and I’ve never had a face-lift, God knows. So here’s an old woman’s face and it’s getting accepted, which is good for all of us.” There’s also the case of Dodi Robb, who spent 40 years behind the cameras in the television industry. Two years ago, Robb, 72, was offered her first regular on-air job, fronting a program about film called Curious Eye, also at Vision TV. “I couldn’t believe it when they asked me to do it. Well, I just about fainted. I said, ‘C’mon, you can do better than that. I’m an old lady.'” Robb points out that she would never have been offered this opportunity when she started in television. “As they say, we’ve come a long way, baby.”
Who knows? Maybe one day we’ll even see Rita MacNeil doing the news. Stay tuned.
This is a joint byline for the Ryerson Review of Journalism. All content is produced by students in their final year of the graduate or undergraduate program at the Ryerson School of Journalism.