Skip to main content

Does Strictly have a problem with older women?

I’m a Strictly superfan but even I am starting to wonder what’s with the sexist/ageist bias

Kaye Adams and Kai Widdrington before becoming first to leave this year's contest

Once a month this newsletter is free. If you're already a paying member, thank you. If not, and you'd like to get this newsletter in your inbox every week, plus a weekly culture roundup, access to the archive, community and more, why not join and become a member?

A couple of years ago, a friend of mine who loves Strictly so much she could choose it as her specialist subject on Mastermind, was asked to go on the show. (Strictly, not Mastermind.) I was beside myself with excitement. I thought she’d be cavorting around like all her Christmases had come at once. 

To my surprise, she wasn’t. 'No way,' she said, 'No bloody way.' She loved Strictly, it was her happy place – and all that would be destroyed if she went on as a contestant. 'Anyway,' she added, 'they’ll put me with Anton (du Beke), dress me up to look like a right eejit and I’ll get voted out on week one. Then I’ll never be able to watch it with love again.'

I thought about that again last month when I interviewed Susannah Constantine, who clearly still bears the scars from her Strictly experience back in 2018, for this week's episode of the podcast (Opens in a new window). Susannah, who says she had never watched Strictly before agreeing to be a contestant, had no idea what to expect. (So presumably she didn’t hear the bells tolling when she was paired with Anton…) She’s quick to say how many enduring friends she made on the show, but glosses over the emotional impact of being pilloried on national TV and unceremoniously booted out on week one.

And pilloried is the word, because the way older women are often treated on Strictly is akin to putting them in the stocks.

Susannah and Anton in 2018

The following week, I tuned in from my sofa to watch this year’s first celebrity contestants compete in the dance-off* (*I'm assuming you all know what I'm on about, because if you didn't, I'm pretty sure you wouldn't have read this far...) I experienced zero shock when the judges chose to save Matt Goss, 54, and his partner Nadiya over Kaye Adams, 59, and her partner Kai – although to my amateur eye she was marginally better than the equally rhythm-free Matt. Because frankly we’d seen it all before. And then some.

And I wondered if there was a bit of a pattern here? So off I went down an internet rabbit hole to find out if the stats bore out my hunch.

Guess what?

For 13 seasons out of 20, women over 40 at the time of competing have come last or second to last, (and over 60% have come in the bottom five) but what really stands out is the way that’s changed, and not for the better, in the last five years.

Since 2017, the hashtag "slightly older woman who’s a bit of a joke", has become a bit of a Strictly trope, coming last every single year except one and that was 2019, when Anneka Rice clung on for a second week and went out second to last, hot on the heels of James Cracknell.

This is not just an age and gender thing. As ever, the situation is more pronounced for Black and Asian women. Of the 57 women over 40 who have appeared on Strictly, just nine were women of colour (five were Black, four Asian), and every single one of those women came in the bottom five, except Heather Small, Sunetra Sarker and Ranvir Singh.

Ranvir and Giovanni in 2020

And, you’d think, wouldn’t you, that as the number of annual contestants has increased from ten to fifteen, so too would the number of women over 40. Nope. Proportionately that number has actually gone down.

Now it could be that, like my friend, they simply don’t fancy being made the butt of the joke on live TV; or it could be that, not being considered attractive enough by celebrity bookers under 30 to get the votes out, they aren’t being invited…

Coincidentally it is five years since 62-year-old Shirley Ballas joined as head judge. Lots has been written about Shirley’s perceived bias against women, young women and young Black women in particular (Fleur East’s Disney dance-off with Richie Anderson, being a case in point). I certainly spent a lot of Saturday nights last year yelling at the TV every time Shirley and the audience showed inexplicable amounts of love for wooden breakfast TV presenter Dan Walker, exchanging angry red face emojis with my mum on WhatsApp.

BUT it would be a bit too easy to pin it all on Shirley, wouldn’t it? Let’s blame the older female judge, then, yippee, we can call it a cat fight. Or, in the case of younger women, envy that they’ve all still got it going on, like some kind of Blackpool-bound fairytale wicked stepmother. I’m no Shirley apologist, far from it, but IMHO, the internet has a problem with Shirley... and it’s her age. (Ten years younger than her predecessor Len Goodman who somehow didn’t seem to be on the receiving end of constant stick.)

Enjoying this? For the price of a large latte you could join The Shift and get this newsletter weekly.

There are two things going on here, of course. The first is the judges, who raise plenty of eyebrows with their marking, but don’t ultimately decide who ends up dancing off in the bottom two.

The second is the voting public and I suspect that this is where the ageism and the "I’m not racist but" tendencies really lie.

Because the reality is (much as I love Strictly and will be tuning in every Saturday night between now and Christmas because I’ve got no social life!) it’s a popularity contest of the worst kind. Strictly reminds me of the playground, of the thrice weekly nightmare of getting picked last for games. Take that trauma and imagine it live on TV every Sunday night for three months of the year, and you'd have to pay me a lot more than £25,000 to relive that nightmare. 

Just like the playground, there are the sought-after, the undeniably talented, those whose popularity doesn’t come into play until weeks nine or ten, so competent are they. For the rest it’s like the Hunger Games with glitter. Alternatively, be funny, “up for it”, prepared to make a fool of yourself on primetime TV and you might be allowed to hang around for your entertainment value. Be sexy, young and hot (and, more often than not, white) and they’ll want to look at you for another week, at least. Be humble and go on a 'journey' and you might just might be the wildcard that makes it.

But be a woman of 'a certain age' (god, how I hate that phrase) and dare to stake a claim to the spotlight, and 9 times out of 10, the audience will take one look at you and shove you swiftly back in your box. Like Kaye Adams, Susannah Constantine and Anneka Rice, Chizzy Akudola, Tameka Empson, Jacqui Smith, Naga Munchetty and Nina Wadia (the only one who has spoken openly about the humiliation, the sense of failure and the impact on her mental health of being brutally voted out on the first dance)… and that only takes us back to 2015.

There are exceptions, of course, there always are. Louise Redknapp and Susanna Reid both came second their respective years. As did Debbie McGee, at a frankly shocking 59. And fabulous non-dancer Ranvir Singh went from two left feet to fifth in the bubble year, 2020. So it's not all doom and gloom. And before you all shout at once; yes, I do know both the show's hosts are women over 50. Tess and Claudia are a helluva team and the best presenters the show’s ever had. So, let’s at least give Strictly a round of applause for that.

• What do you think? Does Strictly have a problem with middle-aged women?

Topic long reads