December 2, 2006
The Canberra Times

Chick flick: TV’s misuse of women goes beyond a blonde joke

Breasts, beauty and babies are a poisonous mix for commercial television presenters. The first two are perhaps mandatory for prime time success. But throw in the third, and you’ve got a ticking time bomb.

Motherhood is a well-known career killer in most Australian workplaces, but in the commercial television industry it has a particularly nasty stench. Oddly enough, it’s only male executives that seem to pick up on the scent, detecting the whiff of a women’s use-by-date.

In some cases, maternity provides a neat and dignified departure: think Jessica Rowe. Rowe’s much longed-for pregnancy has given her boss, the Nine network’s Eddie McGuire, a very easy out. Since mid year McGuire has wanted to “bone” Jessica – an inelegant phrase for the axe.

It could have all happened in private, had a former Nine employee not made Eddie’s intention public. Since the embarrassing revelation, a strained truce has kept Jessica on-air hosting The Today Show. But her recent maternity miracle produced a gift for her, and an even bigger gift for Eddie. The conniving boss can now happily wave goodbye at Christmas. No doubt, once her baby is born early next year, we won’t hear of Jessica Rowe again. Which is a great shame, as she has both talent and class.

But one “boned” television presenter who refuses to go quietly is newsreader Tracey Spicer. After fourteen years with the Ten Network, Spicer has just been given her marching orders – via email. This week the unceremonious axing grabbed numerous headlines. And if letter to the newspapers and on web blogs are anything to go by, Spicer has a growing swell of public support.

Plucky and courageous, Spicer is taking Ten to task on what her lawyer describes as “serious allegations of discriminatory behaviour”. The details are guarded, but already the network has strenuously denied claims that Spicer has been dumped because she is getting too old, too ugly or too motherly. Of course Spicer is none of those things, but she’s probably feeling all of them right now, thanks to the very public humiliation of her sacking.

Her lawyer insists Spicer is “a real trooper”. Frankly, few women would have hung on to a job as long as she has, given the impossibly difficult rostering demands she’s endured since having children. On the brink of turning 40, Spicer battled to retain her full-time position after returning to work from her first maternity leave. So tight was her new shift that she couldn’t get home to sleep or feed her child on Sundays. Instead she bunkered down with friends who lived close to the station, for a short kip, before rolling back to work at 7:30am on a Monday. Most women wouldn’t put up with those kinds of conditions. But then, TV news presenting jobs are coveted roles in the commercial world. Once there, clearly Spicer wasn’t going to be easily sidelined, or phased out.

Perhaps the network thought she’d drop out after having her second child. But again, no such luck for Channel Ten. Again Spicer fronted up, willing, able and smiling. But such eagerness and professional readiness counts for nothing if you’re on the nose. She’s lasted just two months back, before they brought down the axe.

This week a Channel Ten source reportedly said Spicer was sacked because they wanted to “freshen” up the networks look. Well that’s fine. So are the network’s aging male presenters on the chopping block too? Is Ron Wilson, who looks old enough to be Spicer’s father, also about to get dumped? And what about the graying and ever more wrinkled Tim Webster? Is he too about to be sacrificed to the demands of youth and a fresher look? I doubt it.

Why is it men on TV not only age with dignity, but seem to acquire credibility and integrity along the way, yet women age with disgrace and disgust?

As I have previously noted, recent years have seen a bulging number of women flood into news reporting roles. While that’s cause to celebrate, in reality, those roles are proving to be very short lived. Hauled into the studio at a young age because they look great, a passing parade of females are gracing out screen well before they’ve had the years to notch up any significant runs on the board, or hang any journalistic scalps on their belts. With little more than great skin and good bones to commend them, once those attributes get a little old and weary, the pretty faces are easily replaced.

In reality, the on-air careers of Australian women almost always end prematurely. There are less than a handful of women over the age of 50 on commercial television in prime positions of news reporting or presenting. Of the few who are there, most are childless.

None of which would matter, if television wasn’t such a powerful medium. Its pervasive role in shaping what we know, what we think and how we see ourselves can not be overstated.

And the sheer weight of viewer numbers places that power much more in the hands of commercial television networks than the publicly owned ABC and SBS.

For reason it is vitally important that the women we see delivering, reporting and presenting commercial TV news are real women.

We need to see women who are young, middle aged and old; women who are mothers, non-mothers, and even grandmothers. If merit be the judge, we should see the full range of womanhood reflected on television. And we need to see those women afforded the same kind of seriousness, seniority, and respect granted to men.

Sure, men on television occasionally get “boned” too.

One of my commercial colleagues was axed because his nose was “too pert”, and another because he was too blonde. But never does a male get presenter get dumped because he hits 40 years old, or because he’s become a father. For men, such milestones are a badge of honour. For women, they are worn like a yoke.

Virginia Haussegger is a Canberra journalist and director of the 50/50 by 2030 Foundation at the University of Canberra.

Related Media

May 1, 2024
Future Woman podcast
Hear Virginia on Future Woman with Helen McCabe
March 31, 2024
Our Radicals and Revolutionaries: Women’s Liberation
The chaps from ASIO were hiding across the road from the Canning Street house in Ainslie. None of the eight...
March 9, 2024
Meta may not care about Australian news but it’s the soul of our communities
I once rang a convent of catholic nuns in Melbourne, to ask if the Sister in charge might have a...
February 17, 2024
Joining the ‘first lady’ club: oh Jodie, what have you done?
So Jodie Haydon said ‘yes’, right at a time when women around the globe are increasingly saying ‘no’ to marriage....
August 14, 2023
Radicals, Rebels and Reformers: a clarion call from the Sisterhood
Oh, they were mad! Furious. Those wild ‘women’s libbers’. Noisy as hell and heading for the Canberra Times, driven by...
July 24, 2023
Barbie lands an unresolved feminist rant, but the joke is on us!
There is a fabulous moment in the history of the Canberra Women’s Movement when over a hundred furious feminists barged...