Send in the clowns (older women on reality TV)

Posted February 03, 2012

Send in the clowns (older women on reality TV)

Why do older women sign up for reality TV shows?

I can see why the television executives would want them there: they serve as comic fodder. But what do the women hope to get out of it (apart from a rebrand, a relaunch of their career and a big fat cheque?).

Most will say that they are motivated by the idea of taking on a challenge, experiencing something different and learning a new skill. I do understand their desire for personal growth. I don’t understand why they are prepared to look so foolish.

I’m not alone in this. A recent report commissioned by the BBC, Serving All Ages, revealed viewers’ concerns about older women on television being depicted as “figures of fun”. Ann Widdecombe’s over the top performance on Strictly Come Dancing was one example cited.
When Widdy agreed to appear on Strictly Come Dancing she knew what she was letting herself in for. She was fully prepared to send herself up. I have no problem with that; nobody should take themselves too seriously. However, there’s a big difference between entering into the spirit of things and becoming a caricature of yourself. Unfortunately that is exactly what happens to older women on reality TV shows.

We only have to look at the most recent series of Strictly Come Dancing for proof. The rule of thumb is that the older you are, the more outlandish the costumes must become. Anita Dobson is an elegant, self-deprecating older woman. Yet poor Anita agreed to appear in one kitsch outfit after another. As the series progressed she started to look creepier than Betty Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane. Quite a feat!

Lulu discovered, much to her own surprise, that she couldn’t actually dance.  But at least she had the nouse to move straight to damage limitation. She insisted on having a say about her costumes (no Baby Jane outfits for her then!). Up until her involvement with Strictly Come Dancing, she was a revered 60s pop icon. But the show stripped away some of her mystique and overnight she became uncool. No matter how much she says she’s glad she entered the show, you know that in her heart of hearts she regrets it.

Now we have Dancing on Ice 2012. Already the comments have been flying around about who looks the best for their age. Rosemary Conley, 65, scores points for her small waist and perfect figure and loses points for admitting to Botox.

Charlene Tilton (Lucy Ewing from the 80s American series, Dallas) has apologised profusely for being “the most out of shape” amongst the female contestants. She says it’s because she turned to drink following the death of her partner. Oh please Charlene! You’re making it difficult for us to take the piss … but you know we will.

Charlene looks upon the show as part of her recovery process and believes it will be a "life changing" experience. Let’s hope it all goes according to plan and she doesn’t hit the bottle again.

The most recent Celebrity Big Brother brought Denise ‘flasher’ Welch to our screens. Along with her housemates, we witnessed her attention seeking ego and obsessive need to prove she can get down with the kids. Take a reality check, Denise - you’re not young and pert, so please put your tits away. The youngsters may have egged you on at the time but that doesn’t mean they want you to be one of the gang; you remind them of their mum, albeit a topless version.

We all love our mums; they are the rock in our lives. They are not clowns. So why would we want them to sacrifice their dignity in order to bring us cheap laughs?
But it turns out that it’s not just the portrayal of older women on television that bothers the viewing public. The same BBC report found that more than 40 per cent of young people feel they are depicted as being disrespectful and living wasteful lives.

So where do we go from here? For starters, let’s introduce a new type of reality show, one that actually teaches us something. Older women could mentor younger women and vice versa. They could learn from each other, not try to outdo each other in some youth obsessed competition.

What about a mother and daughter road trip, sharing valuable life lessons along the way? I’d watch that. I hope you would too.

Image: Helena W, Flickr

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