Lifestyle

Wednesday 20 August 2014

Rachel Wyse: How dare you call me an auto-cutie!

Geraldine Lynagh has had to get used to the tweets. They comment about her clothes, her hairstyle and her make-up.

The TV3 journalist – whose work involves both on-the-job reporting and studio anchoring – tends to shake off the comments, but occasionally some stick.

"I'd be getting ready in the morning," she says, "and I'd go to choose a particular top or jacket and I'd remember that someone had said they didn't like it and I'd begin to wonder if they were right."

It's not, she adds, something her male colleagues in the newsroom have to contend with.

"But you get used to it," she says. "It goes with the territory."

Earlier this week, Miriam O'Callaghan said women on television tend to be judged differently to men. It can deter them from going on air.

"Sometimes women feel they are not as competent as men," she told the Irish Independent. "For instance, if you ring them at 7pm and ask them to come on that evening and discuss the Budget, a woman would sometimes doubt she knew enough about it, whereas a man would just say 'sure'.

"Also, as a woman, you're more conscious about coming in, about getting ready and washing your hair."

Her words come just weeks after RTÉ's Head of Television, Steve Carson – who also happens to be O'Callaghan's husband – acknowledged that there weren't enough women on television.

He has subsequently said that the station is working to include more women on the panels of popular television shows like Prime Time and The Frontline.

The words of O'Callaghan and Carson ring true for this newspaper's legal editor, Dearbhail McDonald. As a regular guest on TV3's Tonight with Vincent Browne, she too has had to get used to being judged on her looks.

"Women are subjected to levels of scrutiny about their appearance that would make even the most confident woman think twice about appearing on TV," she says.

"Your weight, your nails, your hair; everything about your appearance is parsed and pulled apart."

In September, shortly after standing in as presenter while Browne was on leave, McDonald laid bare some of the scabrous comments that were directed at her.

"The abuse, from internet trolls who I imagine wouldn't have the balls to speak into a hairbrush let alone a studio mic, invariably relates to back-of-the-toilet door commentary about my appearance," she wrote in this newspaper.

"I've been castigated as a 'token chick', berated for doubling in size and/or reducing my body weight by half, often on the same thread. Ditto on the hair colour with 'before' and 'after' shots pulled from the net as evidence of my apparent crimes."

And yet, McDonald believes other women who appear on such shows have been subjected to even worse abuse.

Lisa-Marie Berry, who produces Browne's show, says: "As programme makers we have a responsibility to have gender balance across programmes. We have to actively encourage women to participate.

"Twitter can be very critical of both women and men but I notice when women are on air there is more of an emphasis on how they look rather than the importance of what they are saying. I don't think criticism is necessarily a bad thing but sometimes the criticism is unfair and can discourage women from going on air."

"The only way to deal with it," McDonald says, "is to ignore it. It's a privilege to be able to contribute to the national debate and the fear of trolls is not an excuse to not get involved."

It's advice that Geraldine Lynagh has long ago adapted. "There's no point in responding to strangers on Twitter about it," she says. "Don't get me wrong – there are nice comments, too.

"But, at the end of the day, you want to be judged on your ability as a journalist and not on how you look."

Being judged on her appearance is something Sky Sports News presenter Rachel Wyse has had to take on board in the two years she has worked with the British broadcaster.

"It's just one of those things that comes with the job and you just have to get on with it," the Dubliner says.

"Women are just as critical of other girls' looks as men are – often more so. And you're aware of what people are saying because of social media – whether it's a comment on what I'm wearing or about my Irish accent.

"You might get 20 lovely comments, but it's the one negative one that you remember. I mean, only five weeks ago an Irish journalist referred to me as 'a blonde presenter'. What does the colour of my hair have to do with anything?"

She bristles at a pejorative word that a Dublin-based critic recently used to describe young, pretty female presenters: Auto-cuties. "Yes, we read autocues. But there's so much more to presenting live television than that. When breaking stories happen, there's no autocue to help you. It's a patronising, sexist word – no doubt about it."

The advent of high definition television means presenters are under greater scrutiny than ever. "HD shows up absolutely everything," she says.

"And it's not just female presenters who are aware of it; the men have become far more conscious of their looks too.

"I'd be lying if I said presenters didn't want to look their best. But that goes for both men and women."

Another young Dublin presenter who is making inroads on television abroad is Ruth O'Neill. She recently joined the staff of ABC News in Los Angeles and also presents red-carpet segments for a US-based entertainment news website, Reelkandi.tv.

"I read Miriam's comments and what she said doesn't echo with people of my generation," the 24-year-old says.

"I can only assume she's talking about older women because the 20-somethings I know would jump at the chance of being on TV. They're very confident and opinionated and not afraid of the spotlight."

O'Neill believes there is pressure on both genders to look good on television but reckons that women continue to attract most scrutiny.

"The savviest women on TV tend to be the ones who aren't just in front of the cameras, but are working on the production side of things as well," she says.

"They're looking at the long-term picture, and that's a wise thing to do because television and the entertainment industry out here can feel like it's the survival of the fittest."

O'Neill, a former model with the Dublin agency Assets, acknowledges that looks can play their part when getting television jobs but insists she doesn't feel at an advantage on the US west coast.

"There are way more attractive women here," she says.

Attractiveness or otherwise is not something that concerns journalist Margaret E Ward. She is keen to address the gender imbalance on Irish airwaves and the organisation she founded, Women on Air – a 1,000-strong network of female academics, lawyers, scientists and doctors among others – aims to change the fact that fewer than one in four "on air" voices are women.

Ward suggests that they have been culturally conditioned to "keep the head down" and to take a back-seat to men: "The real reason that there are not enough women on air and elsewhere is because the priority is to maintain the status quo, which is male-dominated.

"A woman with an opinion is viewed as a dangerous thing."

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