Putting herstory on the Beeb

It can’t have failed anyone’s notice that this year there are suddenly lots of eloquent female presenters fronting lots of factual TV shows (especially on my channel of choice, BBC4).

I have been watching TV for over 30 years now, so I consider myself as a bit of an informed amateur. Thinking about the kinds of women I saw on TV as I was growing up (excluding drama, as that should be another post entirely,) and they seem to fall into several distinct categories; stiff-upper lip newsreaders, sometimes surprisingly leggy newsreaders; enthusiastic gymkhana girls on kids TV; ‘domestic goddesses’; ‘weather girls’ and a few high profile arts presenters.

Of course, on factual ‘infotainment’ programmes, there has always been the second or third presenter role for the attractive female presenter, (and in later years, expert,) but not very often did she ever get to host the show herself. This role continues today – though the female academic might have credentials as impressive as her male colleagues, she has rarely been given her own show, normally part of a dream-team line-up of three presenters, two guys and one girl (with a bromance between the guys, and a little bit of unresolved sexual tension between her and one of her fellows).

But the role of the female expert appears to have been slowly changing the past few years and all of a sudden… Look at all the women fronting their own shows on the Beeb! I think the fact that it’s so noticeable gives testament to how unusual it is to see women in the lead expert role. Women academics are getting their own shows and quite often in the case of history, telling us the formerly untold woman’s story – reclaiming history from years of patriarchal discourse.

These women are experts, at the top of their game. Their programmes are often fascinating and (whether this may be a conscious decision by the production teams,) they often feature other women, at the top of their game, in similar expert roles. Perhaps we are witnessing the birth of the Old Girls’ Network. (Or maybe it’s a natural trickle through effect of the huge expansion of access to university in the 1980s – which leaves me wondering what impact fees will have on a future cohort of female experts and PhDs.)

Success however, sometimes breeds contempt, and maybe even jealousy. There’s a nastier side creeping into some commentary about these women and their TV shows, Mary Beard was ridiculously dismissed as being ‘too ugly for TV’; and Lucy Worsley has raised eyebrows for her penchant for trying out (and trying on) things from the period she’s examining.  I wonder did people say that about the ultra-enthusiastic Magnus Pike, or Neil Oliver, never one to shirk a period costume? No-one blinks an eye if a man looks a bit eccentric, or partakes in a bit of dress-up.

Undeniably, TV is a world where appearance counts, and this pressure is on both female AND male presenters; but if it’s a world where we can only ever see one version of attractiveness; only the pretty vacant people in ‘structured reality’ TV or life through a soap bubble, what does it say about woman and men and their roles in life?

The fact that somewhere, some TV execs are starting to understand that not everyone wants to see the one same vision of attractiveness on their TV screens; that of the botoxed and spray-tanned inhabitants of SW10, is quite frankly, pukka.  The TV times they are a-changin’.

My top five women on BBC this year (so far).

Dr Helen Castor: In She Wolves, where she explored the lives of seven English queens.
Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock: In her fascinating programme about what the moon does for us – Do we really need the moon?.
Professor Mary Beard: Brought ancient Rome to life in Meet the Romans.
Bettany Hughes: In Divine Women, revealed the hidden history of women in religion.
Dr Lucy Worsley: Immersing herself in the world of Restoration England, and exploring the lives of the women of the period in Harlots, housewives and heroines.

About 17Percent

A campaign to get more plays by women playwrights onto UK stages.
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