When are you too old?

What happens when I am too old to do this, asks a Sanlam advertisement on personal financial planning.

The image is of a young woman belly dancer. The implication: older women can’t belly dance and they certainly can’t adorn advertisements.

Study after study shows that although women are scarce in the media, older women are virtually non-existent.

The Gender and Media Baseline Study (GMBS) conducted by ­Gender Links and the Media Institute of Southern Africa (Misa) in 2003 showed that women constitute a mere 19% of news sources in South Africa. Black women, who ­constitute 42% of the population, account for just 7% of news sources.

Although men still constitute a ­significant proportion of news sources in the 50- to 64-year-old category (more than 20% in both print and electronic media) women sources declined substantially in this age category to less than 5% in both the print and ­electronic media.

The study also found that the only area of media practice in which women are in the majority in South Africa (56%) is as TV presenters. They are least well represented in print media (29%) — a clear message that the media industry values women more for their looks than for their intellect.

Even then it is only young women who make the mark. When the figures for TV presenters were disaggregated by age, the GMBS found that almost all the women TV presenters fell in the 20- to 34-year-old category.

Similar patterns are reflected in advertising. Last year Gender Links and partner organisations monitored tabloids as part of the periodic Mirror on the Media series. We found that in South Africa — as elsewhere in the region — women are more likely to be seen than heard (a Victorian saying associated with children and a sad reflection of women’s lack of agency even in the 21st century).

The study found that in South Africa women constitute 61% of the images on billboards and 52% of those in print. Women are less represented in television adverts (37%) and least well represented in radio voice-overs (21%).

These patterns ­reinforce the notion that women are objects for men’s pleasure rather than thinking beings to be heard and engaged with. An example is a women’s underwear advertisement with the caption, “Ready to bare”. The implication: women buy underwear to perform a service, not for their own enjoyment.

Another series of adverts that adorned billboards along the thoroughfares of Sandton for several months carried worrying messages in a country with high rates of gender violence. One advert showed a sexy young woman in lingerie with the caption “Undress for success” — a rather blatant invitation to sexual harassment. Another message in the underwear advert series read “Manage your assets”.

The overall message: for women in our society physical assets are still far more valued than intellectual assets. And the unfortunate ­message for older women: ­physical assets are valuable only if you are young!
When women subjects found in advertising were disaggregated by age, Mirror on the Media: Gender and Advertising found that women and men are almost evenly balanced in the 13 to 35 age brackets. But from age 36 onwards, women in adverts ­basically disappear.

In the content studies the only areas in which older women feature is in vox pops, obituaries, as witches (especially in tabloids) or as crowds at rallies or other “numbers” events where they are like wallpaper with no voices. In advertising the few instances in which older women feature are as nagging, jealous wives or as young women worrying about what will happen when they get old.

Contrary to the belief in African culture that with age comes wisdom and respect — giving older women a slightly more elevated status in society — in the media older women are condemned to oblivion.

How exactly does that square with the rainbow nation that 90-year-old Nelson Mandela bequeathed us with the unambiguous order to value all: white and black, young and old, rich and poor?

Does media have more to answer for in society than just the ­commercial success that sees this male-dominated institution pandering to the conventional wisdom that only sexy, young women add “value” to its pages and programmes? What, in any case, is beauty and who defines it? Do women who are not young, blonde, blue-eyed or slim have any say in that definition?

These are some of the critical questions we should be asking as we celebrate the progressive provisions of our Constitution during this year’s Women’s Month if we are to see some closing of the gap between the promise and the practice for the vast majority of South Africa’s women.

Colleen Lowe Morna is executive director and Sikhonzile Ndlovu media literacy coordinator at Gender Links. This article is part of the GL Opinion and Commentary Service that offers fresh views on every day news

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