Amy Jenkins: Why must a woman's sexual capital be the key to her worth?

Related Topics

When it comes to older women in the public eye, it seems only two types are successful: those who do a passable imitation of youth and therefore don't count as old, like Madonna, and those who are honourable exceptions to the rule, like Maggie Smith; the rule being No Wrinkly Ladies on Screen, Please and the exceptions being very rare.

If you've made it to being an exception, you've probably also made it to being a dame.

However, if you're the 53-year-old presenter of a BBC show called Countryfile, you haven't got a hope in hell. Miriam O'Reilly was just that – and despite being exceedingly presentable and good-looking, despite having won awards, having built a following, and having an impressive body of journalistic experience, she was dumped unceremoniously when the show was "refreshed" (how Orwellian) in 2008 and replaced by a 38-year-old. Her fellow presenter, John Craven, who is 68, was not replaced. Presumably because he is exceedingly presentable, has won awards, has built a following, etc, etc.

O'Reilly is now suing the BBC for sex and age discrimination and told the court this week that she was told by her director that she would have to "be careful about those wrinkles" when high definition TV came in. She also claimed that it was recommended to her that she use Botox and hair dye. A cameraman on the show called her a "rare species" in the world of television. Sadly, as Arlene Phillips, 66, was dropped from Strictly Come Dancing a few months later, I'd say that the word extinct was probably a better description. Meanwhile, Bruce Forsyth goes on and on, as do David Dimbleby, David Attenborough, Jeremy Paxman, Jon Snow, Noel Edmonds – the list is endless.

It is no coincidence that just as the menopause strikes, women are deemed to go past their on-screen sell-by date – "sell" being the operative word here. A woman's worth in our patriarchal consumer economy is dependent on her sexual capital, her ability to seduce and reproduce. The sexist system both makes her redundant (in the broad sense) – and then can't bear to contemplate her because of that very redundancy. If those are your fiduciary terms, an ageing woman can only remind you of death – and worse, the pointlessness of the entire enterprise. It is the bane of a good capitalist's life – the fact that you can't take it with you.

Fitting, then, that it's probably the marketplace that will save the middle-aged TV presenter and bring her back to our screens. Because the truth is that times are changing and the BBC has been getting it wrong. There was a genuine and heartfelt outcry when Phillips left Strictly and I'd bet good money the BBC regrets the decision. Now there are rumours that she will return. This doesn't surprise me when the past few years has seen the movie Mamma Mia!, which starred Meryl Streep at 60, become a worldwide box-office smash, to say nothing of the unlikely Susan Boyle – paean to dumpy middle age – taking the music business by storm.

Until this small revolution it was thought that even middle-aged women didn't want to look at middle-aged women, but this has turned out to be completely untrue. This year, we love Ann Widdecombe on Strictly and Mary Byrne on The X Factor. What's more, with our ageing demographic, following the money is going to mean catering to the tastes of a larger and larger elderly population. And guess what? Like everyone else, they want to see themselves on telly.

What you realise, as you get older, is that most young people are really quite boring. Like wine, TV personalities tend to get better with age. Wouldn't everyone far rather listen to a slightly weatherbeaten, richly experienced woman who's seen a bit of life, than a fresh-faced young beauty who doesn't know she's born?

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Liz Kendall  

Labour leadership contest: 'Moderniser' is just a vague and overused label

Steve Richards
Terry Sue-Patt as Benny in the BBC children’s soap ‘Grange Hill’  

Children's TV shows like Grange Hill used to connect us to the real world

Grace Dent
Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine