If a woman plays the looks game to get the job, who is surprised when it all ends?

Arlene Phillips, and others sidelined at her age, would win more sympathy had they not spent years playing the youth card, says Carol Sarler

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It's been the easiest high dudgeon of the season so far. Arlene Phillips gets her marching orders from Strictly Come Dancing. She is 66 years old. Thus she joins the lengthening list of ladies of a certain age – among them newsreaders Anna Ford, Moira Stuart and Selina Scott, presenters Dame Joan Bakewell and Esther Rantzen, along with actresses many and various – of whom it was said, by themselves or on their behalf by others such as Harriet Harman, that they are victims of a screen "cull" propelled by a heady cocktail of ageism and sexism. Obvious, innit?

The baying for the blood of screen executives – especially that of Jay Hunt, the 42-year-old controller of BBC1 who, as a woman, is apparently supposed to know better – is an echo of a similarly noisy outrage expressed around the larger screens of Hollywood. Meg Ryan, Sharon Stone, Faye Dunaway, Demi Moore, Andie MacDowell and (this is really sweet, given that she is just 24) Scarlett Johansson are among many who have complained about older women being put out to grass. They are not getting the jobs they used to get, therefore it is down to blatant, hostile discrimination based on age. Again: obvious.

Their analysis, that age is the issue, is undoubtedly correct – regardless of Jay Hunt's denial that it plays any part. However, the leap to the higher moral ground, as currently being leapt by a great many women newspaper columnists who tend, funnily enough, to be much of an age with the "victims", is more questionable. As is, indeed, the self-righteous tone of the complaints themselves.

Surely: if your past success in your career and its earnings owed anything at all to your having used your appearance, or invoking a sexual vigour that is synonymous with youth, can you really be so terribly surprised to discover that, as your appearance changes and the youth recedes, so does the commercial value that depended on it? If you consciously and deliberately dealt in the currency – and profitably, too – is it not reasonable that you are also supposed to be able to deal with its devaluation?

Arlene Phillips's dismissal is a case in point. She is unquestionably a knowledgeable choreographer and was a more than able turn on Strictly Come Dancing; nevertheless, it is wholly probable that she would not have had a recognisable face – let alone a career in television – had she not kicked it off as the woman behind Hot Gossip, a ghastly Seventies dance troupe memorable only for its overtly sexual costumes and lascivious routines.

Joan Bakewell is a clever and inspiring woman – and to be fair to her, she did not coin her own soubriquet, "the thinking man's crumpet". But, golly, time was when she played up to it: those teeny little skirts, that glossy hair, the pertest of smiles. And she did choose to spice her autobiography with promiscuous tell-tale, thereby insistently inviting readers to think of her as a sexual being. By the same token, Anna Ford and Selina Scott (below, left) had and have ample professional ability. But if they didn't know that they were originally hired as totty, over plainer sisters – the cutest li'l gals ever to read an autocue – then they were alone in their ignorance. Not that you heard them complaining much. Not then.

In Hollywood, the panicking "serious actresses" might also care to reflect upon what bought them the bank accounts that now risk depletion. Whatever else they have done, including stints of greater thespian merit, it remains the case that Meg Ryan will always be best remembered for faking an orgasm in a café, Sharon Stone for showing her fluffy bits in a knickerless crossing of legs and Andie MacDowell for pouting, glowering sexual come-ons in advertisements for hair commercials, because she was "worth it"... a starring role, incidentally, eagerly inherited by the voluble Miss Scarlett Johansson.

They might also care to reflect that women who achieved screen prominence without first wading through raunchy waters seem, now, not to be anything like as strongly suffering from a sell-by date. Julie Walters, 59, is filming pretty much back-to-back; her one-time cohort, Victoria Wood, 56, is also up to her ears. Dame Judi Dench, at 74, still works and is still a fixture on red carpets – as is, in the US, Susan Sarandon, 62, who has always preferred political activism to the worship of a bosom.

It is the same story in what we might call the non-fiction elements of the schedules, too. Baroness Helena Kennedy, 59, was never invited on to television for other than her mental agility, and the invitations appear, if anything, to be on the increase. In much the same way, Germaine Greer, now 70, first became a screen fixture for almost everything other than her appearance – perfectly nice though it is – and is to be expected to be cheerfully cussing on panel shows for another decade or more.

In short, the women who so relentlessly cite grizzled old men reading the news or grilling politicians and lament that no woman with a grey hair or a wrinkle is given similar work are rather missing the point. The women whose careers were built on the same attrib- utes as those of, say, Jeremy Paxman – wit, intelligence and ferocity, and quite irrespective of symmetry of teeth or features – are as immune to being pensioned off as he is. The trouble is, most women weren't employed in the first place for the same reasons that he was. And therein lies the real heart of the matter: the sexism, if we must use the word, lies not in the firing but in the hiring.

Further, if we really think we might improve matters by beating up the screen executives, let us at least beat them up for the right reason: not for getting rid of ageing stars who weren't there courtesy of the finest credentials in the first place – but for continuing to operate on exactly the same basis, even today, when it comes to taking on new women.

Older screen woman, now facing enforced retirement, knew when she started that no matter how brainy or competent she was, her initial acceptance depended more than anything else on parading herself as, frankly, fertile. To which end, up jumped whatever it took: the provocative dance routines, nude scenes by the bucketload or a total inability to ask a straight question of a politician without first licking lips to a shimmer.

No, I don't know why the perception of fertility was such a lure, though an anthropologist might have a stab at it: because priapic men choose the movie? Because they hold the remote control? Still, presumably with an educated eye to viewing figures, casting directors decreed that the rule of nubile aesthetic prevailed.

But make no mistake, the women colluded in the arrangement, simpering along as demanded with no thought for their future – not then – or for the inescapable truth that fertility can, does and must come to an end. For women, anyway.

What is really sad, however, is that younger screen woman, at the behest of the executives, is facing the exact same set of requirements and appears to be just as complicit in meeting them. ITN newsreader Katie Derham (left) might – indeed, does – like to mention her Cambridge degree; none the less, brainpower notwithstanding, she and her many competitors all know why they are there. On the successful BBC One Show, the tremendously engaging Christine Bleakley does a sterling job – but had she the female equivalent of the homely face of her co-host Adrian Chiles, there is not a chance she would be on that sofa and scarcely a chance she does not know that.

And so they primp and preen and pout and flirt and groom and scrub and diet and dye, in return for which they make lots of money. ("If only I had £6,000," said Miss Bleakley, winsomely, unbelievably, last Thursday.) So be it. Nothing has changed; the job is as the job was and nobody can blame pretty young women for cashing in while the going is good.

You can blame them, however, if they respond to their inevitable, unwanted early push off the cliff with indignant reproach and complaints of unfairness. They know the game; they choose to play. They won't be the first to discover that if you make a pact with the devil, it is a waste of breath to squeal come payback day.

Have your say: www.independent.co.uk/dayinapage/2009/July/26

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