How hot are you? The harsh truth about gendered ageism in academia

barbie face

No one knows what you look like on radio. You can be fat, beyond middle aged, balding, but as long as your voice resonates on the airwaves and your mind and tongue are sharp, you are up for the job – especially if you are a man. Not so for those who flaunt their wares on the screen, however. In a visual medium, ageism will out.

It is a harsh truth of double standards in Hollywood that those in power – men – get to determine who will stay the distance, and who will fade out when they become unf-able – as hilariously revealed in a biting sketch by comedian Amy Schumer and starring Tina Fey, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Patricia Arquette.

In ‘Last F-kable Day’ that aired in the season premiere of Inside Amy Schumer last week in the United States – and quickly went viral with more than one million views on YouTube – the ageism and sexism in Hollywood was exposed, revealing how women like Fey, Dreyfus and Arquette can look forward to being cast as elderly character actresses while their geriatric male cohorts are pared romantically on screen with women 30 years younger or more.

Women in the entertainment industry rely on their looks just as athletes and dancers rely on their bodies. However, their use by date is about their ‘f-ability’ not ‘ability’ and that, according to the men in power, goes off faster than yoghurt left on a sunny shelf.

But does this also apply to the hallowed halls of academia? In an environment increasingly trading on visual and brand appeal and – of course – pitching as it does to a young (undergraduate) audience, even an industry that supposedly trades on the cerebral isn’t immune to gendered ageism and ‘lookism’.

In fact, be warned – you are on show, not just your glorious brain. In the hotly competitive world of the emerging academic – to get anywhere, you have to be hot – oozing with looks, confidence, and ready for your close up as you are interviewed on your field of expertise.

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As Daisy Dunn writes in her piece for The Telegraph: “To get anywhere, gender regardless, the academic has to think about how others will perceive him. The focus is on communicating academic ideas through a range of media, academic papers, books, conferences and public appearances. If you can’t speak it, you ain’t got it.”

In the age of MOOCS, when a virtual presence and amount of twitter followers counts as ‘media savvy’ and a cue therefore for ‘young’ and ‘modern’, does the Hollywood double standard of ageism and sexism come with the turf?

I have lost count of how many women over 60 who have told me that rising young (male) stars in the university system are ‘uncomfortable around mature women’. And that while older men can sink into the ‘gravitas’ of greying hair, paunch, and ill advised wardrobes, women have a harder and more demanding aesthetic to work.

The minute you start calling out ‘brand identity’ rather than ‘academic references’ you are entering the murky turf of the visual. In fact, there is indeed much academic research that supports the theory that women in academia are also hit by ageism and ‘lookism’.

A 2006 study that set out to explore employees’ experience and understandings of gender and age in higher education to identify if women in higher education experienced the double jeopardy of gendered ageism revealed that physical attractiveness and appearance are seen as relevant to the workplace in higher education.

In the first study to show female academics experience the triple jeopardy of gendered ageism and how they look i.e.“lookism”, authors Jacqueline Granleese (Norwich Business School, University of East Anglia, Norwich, UK) and Gemma Sayer (Norwich Business School, University of East Anglia, Norwich, UK) found that women, both academics and non‐academics, experience the double jeopardy of being discriminated against on the grounds of their age and gender in a way that men do not experience.

man statue

It is a sad truth that women are judged by their appearance and while men can be as lined, bald, and geriatric and grey as they like in academia without anyone complaining, women must rage against the dying of the light. By – first of all – dyeing their grey hair.

For women in academia as in Hollywood, appearances count, and do not be fooled into thinking you can get away with wearing outdated clothes, short no fuss ‘wash and wear’ hair, and using your money to jaunt about on overseas holidays (or research trips) when you should be injecting your face with botox and filling the lines of time with derma filler. Teeth whitening, radical weight loss, Spanx, a new wardrobe are mandatory – but hey, you are now TED Talk ready!

sculpture face

According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, research shows that students give better teaching evaluations to professors they think are attractive. “Sites like RateMyProfessors allow undergraduates to broadcast their feelings, sometimes in the crassest terms,” writes Robin Wilson.

So – if women are to be judged, what must they do? Play the game, rather than buck the system? That’s what the late, great Nora Ephron suggested, “There’s a reason why 40, 50, and 60 don’t look the way they used to, and it’s not because of feminism or better living through exercise. It’s because of hair dye.”

Probably all that anyone needs to know about looking fabulous and stylish over a certain age on campus can be found in Alyson Walsh’s blog That’s Not My Age. In her book ‘Style Forever’ Walsh writes that “I strongly believe you don’t have to have youth to have style”. And optimistically writes that “old is the new young”. Well, maybe not if you are hustling it in Hollywood.

Alas, it appears that under the Rules of Men, women are basically a time bomb waiting to go off – first with their biological clock and then with their ‘f-ability time code’ clicking for every day past the end of their biological clock (presumably both clocks don’t go off at once, or that could get messier than a terrorist attack).

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