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DisGRAYceful (A hair-raising tale)

by Julia Sneden

The other night, while listening to the voice of yet another high-pitched, nasal, female newscaster, my husband suddenly snapped: "Pauline Frederick, where are you now that we need you?"

For those of you too young to remember her, Pauline Frederick was a pioneer in broadcast journalism, one of a very few female news commentators. Her extraordinary career stretched from 1939-1980. She did a stint as a UN reporter; she worked as an anchorwoman for ABC and for PBS. She was a woman of formidable intelligence, a reporter whose careful, calm delivery bespoke knowledge of her subjects, and integrity in reporting them. She had a beautifully modulated voice and her diction was precise without being fussy. The latter well-remembered attributes were what triggered my husband's snarl. Sometimes it seems as if the people who hire women for television news desks have tin ears. The least they could do is to send those young women out for voice lessons.

When I was about 12, I was made to take speech lessons because I spoke very rapidly and sloppily. I remember my teacher grabbing the sides of my rib cage and saying: "You must breathe to support the voice! Don't let your chest rise; feel your ribs expand out to the side!" She maintained stoutly that it's possible to lower the register of every voice, if only one learns to breathe right and "relax the instrument, child!" My diction improved as I discovered how to slow down, and I soon learned to escape my teacher's fury by carefully articulating things like the second "t" in "twenty" and by not gulping a quick 'n' at the end of words ending in "ing." As for nasality, she would croon: "Open the throat. Feel the vowel in your vocal chords, not in your nose." Of course my French teacher kept urging us to do the exact opposite, pinching the bridge of her nose and crying: "Feel the 'inh' vibrating up here, girls!" - but that's another story. In any event, I was lucky to learn early on how to control and project my voice.

There are probably plenty of reasons that TV newswomen tend to have shrill voices. Lack of experience plays a part. Excitement or stage fright can both translate as tension that sends voices even higher. After all, most of our newswomen are very young. The tendency to pair older, male anchormen with pretty young women is almost universal. I will concede that TV has done a good job of hiring women of color or of differing ethnicity. It's much easier to find racial diversity among women newscasters, I think, than among male newscasters.

It seems to me that what's really missing is female newscasters who are over 40. Once they hit that magic mark, they are relegated to interview shows, like Barbara Walters, or TV news magazines like "60 Minutes" or "Dateline NBC."

I mean no disrespect to those very accomplished women, but I can't help noting that not a one of them has let her hair go honestly gray.

The other day, I watched as Soledad O'Brien interviewed a newswoman who had delivered one newscast bald. She had been treated for cancer, and during her chemotherapy and radiation treatments had been wearing a wig to disguise the fact that her hair was falling out. When she finally finished the treatments, she shaved off what was left of her hair, and announced to her employers her intention to appear bald on screen. To their credit, they were supportive. To her credit, it was a one-time appearance because, she said: "If I continued to appear on screen bald, my baldness itself would become news, and detract from the news I was delivering." Her single appearance was, she said, so that her audience would know what she had been through and that she was now all right. For her interview and for all future newscasts, she wore her wig.

O'Brien's comment on all this was revealing. She remarked that she was surprised that the producers had allowed the episode, because in her experience they were always saying things like: "You know, you really need to wear your hair ______" (fill in the blank: longer, shorter, lighter, darker, curlier, pulled back, put up, etc).

I can't help believing that that is the reason we see people like Ms. Walters or Ms. Pauley going blonder and blonder as the years go by. Nothing points up ageing skin like a really dark hair dye, which some people (male as well as female) use to cover the gray. Beauticians tell us that as our skin tones fade with age, we need softer color in both makeup and hair. So the makeup people and the television producers decide that older women need paler hair, and indeed "faded blonde" fills that bill. It is hard for me to believe that the fake, all-blonde color is an improvement to a woman's looks, however, when Mother Nature provides in the natural graying process both texture and coloration that are far more interesting.

Of course you'll have noticed that Dan Rather and Tom Brokaw are allowed to go naturally gray without a squeak. In fact the gray is probably thought to enhance their punditry.

It's certainly every woman's right to wear her hair exactly as she wants, and there are a great many of us who prefer NOT to go gray. But somehow when you can watch the news almost anywhere in the country and never see gray haired woman, you've got to wonder that they have all chosen to color their hair. Have the producers caused these women to fear for their jobs if they go gray?

Is news that is delivered by good gray grandfather figures more reliable than news delivered by good gray grandmother figures? Do the psychologists tell us that we prefer listening to older men over listening to older women? Has anybody tested the theory? Has anybody ever stood up and told those producers that looking young isn't nearly as important as being able to deliver good reportage? A good voice, a good mind, and a certain photogenic quality would surely be sufficient to draw viewers. I know lots of older women who are every bit as photogenic now as when they were twenty.

My great grandmother was beautiful at 20. She was also beautiful at 92: different, but still beautiful, and the camera loved her. We have several photographic studies of her done by one of her daughter's neighbors, a professional photographer who found the old lady fascinating and lovely. Being photogenic, it seems to me, depends on several variables. Certainly beauty and good bones don't hurt. Neither does self-confidence. But often the truly photogenic seem to have a certain inner light: a look in the eyes, perhaps, or a great smile. In any event one needn't be young and firm and generating sexual heat to be considered beautiful, no matter what the powers in the TV world tell us. Their distaste for wrinkled skin and gray hair is a sad comment on their limited imaginations.

One producer to whom I spoke seemed to feel that an older woman could not possibly have the energy to keep up with younger reporters. I have to question this, since most of the older women I know run circles around their own children. Not only do they have energy; they have experience and focus, and are not as likely to waste energy haring off on a tangent. Neither are they as likely to be distracted from their professions as are younger women who are still dealing with learning how to run a household, have a career, and possibly manage small children as well.

From all I have seen and heard, younger reporters on television qualify more as "readers" of the news. Gathering news or chasing down a story seems less and less the function of a newscaster, these days. Reading the news on television must look like a glamorous job to all those young women who are majoring in broadcast journalism in our colleges. I hope that someone has told them that when they hit 40, they will be hanging on if not by their fingernails, by their plastic surgeons and Clairol bottles.

As for me, I would gladly forsake my usual nightly news program to tune in any station that dares to place an older, gray-haired woman in an anchorperson's seat. Until then, we'll hold dear the memory of Pauline Frederick (although she, too, did not go really gray), and hope that her accomplishments will one day inspire the powers that be to grow brave and hire an unimproved older woman.

 

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