Good luck, Virginia

13:40:PM 17/10/2014
Virginia Trioli

Virginia Trioli.

Virginia Trioli.

It was such a lovely card – how thoughtful of a viewer to send me a note! Flowers and fruit adorned the front, and the cheeriest of greetings kicked off the epistle – “Hi Virginia!” Then it went on, travelling down a one way-road I’d been booked on many, many times before.

“I watch you every morning … and felt I had to write as I feel you are definately (sic) in need of a makeover.

“First, please get your hair cut short and get rid of those straggly bits around your neck, and maybe a few highlights!!!

“Next, the glasses – ugh! Go for LIGHT coloured frames as with your dark eyes black makes you look ‘owlish’. You will be very pleasantly surprised!

“Next, the clothes: get rid of blacks and browns, very ageing. Take notice of the other newsreaders (female) – light and bright is the go! Dare I say, did you obtain your clothes from charity shops?

“This letter is NOT meant to insult you but so that you look 40 not 60.

“Good luck, looking forward to seeing a NEW VIRGINIA.”

It says a great deal about the nature of my correspondence as a woman on television that this letter really was nothing out of the ordinary. I’ve received many such missives and these notes are read and discarded, along with the anti-Semitic rants written in block capitals and UNDERLINING, the long tracts alleging international banking conspiracies, and the regular Herald Sun frothings by Andrew Bolt.

As I have in the past, I shared it on Twitter and thought nothing more. When you’re half Italian, a Leo and raised by a strong mother, it takes a hell of a lot to shake your sense of self. I also happen to know exactly what’s in my wardrobe. And the shameful amount of money I’ve spent on it. Enough said.

But that wasn’t the end of the matter: it went, as they say, viral, and all day long the howls of outrage echoed across Twitter and the wider media. It was only after the matter started to be reported in the US that I realised what kind of nerve this had touched. Then The Atlanta Journal Constitution made this mild remark: “Working in the Australian media industry is particularly tough on women, who are more often judged on their fashion sense than their news reporting capabilities.”

That’s how they see us? A backward nation of boors intent on making women in television a bunch of dolly birds? It didn’t, and doesn’t, square with the substantial number of women I know and admire who work in TV. But the Journal had hit on a key difference between the nations, and my letter-writer had unwittingly done the same.

Because the point of this letter was not fashion, or style, or even attractiveness – it was the problem of age, and that is the greatest failing of all: my critic wrote so that I might “look 40 not 60”.

But one day, with luck, I will be 60, and if I don’t fall victim to vanity and cosmetic surgery, I might even look 60. I will be nowhere near retirement and nowhere near ready to give up work. Nonetheless I will still hope to have a meaningful career, perhaps still on TV.

Is that an impossible aspiration in Australia, when looking 60 is such an abhorrent thought?

The American experience cuts a great contrast to us, where women such as Barbara Walters and Diane Sawyer and Christiane Amanpour have enjoyed long and illustrious careers in the public eye even as they age. But the mere appearance of ageing in a woman on Australian TV is enough to have most executives yanking her off air and replacing her with someone younger.

This is going to be an interesting challenge. Will a craggy-faced women be as acceptable to you on the box as, say, a craggy-faced Barrie Cassidy is? (Said with love, Barrie.) I am lucky to be part of a formidable generation of women journalists, at the ABC and the commercial stations, who are all going to become wiser, better and older in front of your eyes: you OK with that?

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