Why are men still dominating our TV screens?

Why are men still dominating our TV screens?

By Rachel Cooke,
Friday, 11th March 2016
RTS award winner Sarah Lancashire stars as Catherine Cawood
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Men still dominate our TV screens. Rachel Cooke is angry that little has changed since the 1970s

I wanted to be a journalist from the age of eight, a burning ambition that was clear for all to see. Not only did I own a John Bull printing set, I also “published” two journals, a newspaper called The Interest and a magazine whose title was (some prescience, here) Hello.

People sometimes ask where this urge came from. When they do, I always give the same answer: Doctor Who.

In those days, my number one heroine was Doctor Who’s assistant, Sarah Jane Smith (the late Elisabeth Sladen), a plucky, determined young woman. I adored her clothes, haircut and quivering lower lip.

But these things, lovely as they were, paled into insignificance beside what really mattered to me. She was an investigative journalist.

Apparently, this was work so exciting, not even the Doctor (then played by Tom Baker) could induce her to give it up. Travelling through time and space was thrilling, but as she sometimes made clear, it was as nothing to the rush of breaking a story.

It was of Sarah Jane Smith that I thought as I read the latest research into gender and television carried out by the Communication Research Group and commissioned by Channel 4.

Forty years on, we might have expected the Sarah Janes on TV, whether real or fictional, to have grown more autonomous (I didn’t notice it at the time, but poor Miss Smith was, in the end, a creature of the 1970s, there mostly to do a man’s bidding). More importantly, they should have multiplied to the point where they’re hardly worth our notice. But, no.

"Do these figures make me angry? Of course they do – though I’m slightly amazed to discover just how angry"

This study looked at prime-time programmes aired on BBC One, BBC Two, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5, and Sky 1 over three months in 2015. It concluded that, overall, men are still twice as likely to appear on television as women.

When women do appear, moreover, they are five times more likely than men to suffer what the report’s authors call “low level sexism” (that is, to find themselves patronised, or the butt of feeble jokes).

Does it go without saying that, when we talk about women on TV, we are referring, in the main, to younger women? For the avoidance of doubt, yes, we are.

Between 40% and 45% of all the people under 40 who appear on TV are women. The proportion drops to 30% for people aged 40 to 49; and just a quarter of TV appearances by those aged 50-69 are by women.

Do these figures make me angry? Of course they do – though I’m slightly amazed to discover just how angry. I’ve been writing about television on a weekly basis since 2007 – so I should be used to this stuff by now.

It occurs to me, heart sinking, that my fondness for such series as, say, Silk, in which Maxine Peake played a brilliant, workaholic barrister, and Happy Valley, in which Sarah Lancashire stars as a copper who truly cares about her job, have worked as a kind of opiate, temporarily blinding me to the massed ranks of men elsewhere.

In the moment when a Sally Wainwright (Happy Valley, Scott & Bailey) character is in the middle of a blazing row with her (male) boss, or Phoebe Waller-Bridge (the writer and star of the Channel 4 comedy Crashing) has induced me to hoot with laughter, it is perhaps too easy to forget the many casual (and not-so-casual) slights to one’s sex elsewhere.

Do the producers of The Night Manager think that, by casting Olivia Colman as the tale’s spymaster (in the Le Carré novel from which the series is adapted, this character is a man), we won’t notice that all the other women are little more than very shag-able cardboard cut outs?

This realisation is all the more disappointing given that I was one of the very few critics to dare to point out that Allan Cubitt’s much-lauded serial-killer series, The Fall, hides its essential misogyny behind a ton of good acting and the occasional pseudo-feminist nod to DSI Stella Gibson’s position as a lone woman in authority.

Open Radio Times at random and really study the listings, and you can get a more vivid sense of the scale of this than statistics afford.

So many male writers, directors and producers; so many male stars; so many male quiz show panellists (in spite of the best efforts of the likes of Danny Cohen). Our major news bulletins – the BBC Ten O’Clock News, ITV’s News at Ten and Channel 4 News – are all anchored by men. Newsnight’s main presenter is a man.

Think about it for a more than a minute, and it is simply bizarre that every night, a reporter reads out the sports results as they pertain, almost exclusively, to games played by men; the fact that it is now, sometimes, a woman reporter to whom this job falls only makes it, to me, all the stranger.

And woe betide that this woman should do anything other than offer the facts. When Lynsey Hipgrave, a BT Sports presenter, had the temerity to comment on the taking of a penalty by Lionel Messi during a La Liga match in February, she was trolled online.

“We need sandwiches, not opinions,” is one of the more printable messages she received. Hipgrave herself quietly pointed out what had happened on Twitter, and then retreated, not wanting, it would seem, to make a fuss.

The study carried out by the Communication Research Group, incidentally, found that only 2% of sports presenters, pundits and studio guests are women.

I could go on and on like this. But I won’t. What’s important is why this imbalance – this, for women, invisibility – is something we should care about.

On one level, of course, it’s a matter of simple fairness. The world of television should, by now, be wide open to women. How much talent are controllers and commissioners willing to squander in their failure to make the playing field more level?

The broadcasters’ ratings might even improve, were they to widen their vision a little. Too many women viewers feel shut out of television; some are disgusted by it. Here comes another mutilated female body, we think, as the latest police procedural kicks off – at which point, we switch off and do something else instead.

Above all, we need to think about the images we’re offering to young women. I know the power of a good female role model; such a creature, believe me, can do more for a girl’s ambition than any careers advisor.

When Sarah Jane was retired, I transferred my adoration to Inspector Jean Darblay, the character at the heart of the BBC’s Juliet Bravo, which ran between 1980 and 1985. I didn’t want to be a policewoman half so much as I wanted to be a journalist, but I loved the fact that all the men had to call her “Ma’am”.

And then, of course, just as I disappeared to university, there was Press Gang, Steven Moffat’s ITV series about a school newspaper, whose editor, played by a young Julia Sawalha, was called Lynda.

I owe my working life, which has given me so much, to lots of different people and opportunities. But its seeds were sown in a Sheffield living room, where I saw her on the small screen: the future me.

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