“Dolly-birding” the satellite media in the Arab world

By Marwan Asmar

First, a trip down memory lane. In the Britain of the 1970s and 1980s women television announcers were hired not because of their beauty but on their presentability, news delivery and character. Beauty and looks didn’t necessarily come into it, with the idea being these female announcers were supposed to reflect the social fabric of society. It was a melting pot approach.

Although to the general viewer this was not made clear it was the jest of the proliferating television spread experienced in that country. It was the era of what is becoming politically correct in the world. Presenters, although not many, from different minorities like West Indies and Indians, were hired to reflect Britain’s multi-ethnic population.

Fast forward the mid-1990s and into the new millennium—the age of satellite television enters the Arab world throwing wide open territorial borders asunder. Suddenly the world became beautiful again despite the political doom and gloom in the region. And as satellite television stations were literally mushrooming across the Arab world, producers were busy picking very special news readers with all the baggage of good looks to hoist a new visual stage of communications.

Men and women were being sought after and interviewed from across the Arab region, Morocco to the Gulf, with Lebanon and Egypt included to become the new stars of the satellite television world. Today their stature has risen so much among Arab audiences that they are being compared to television and film stars and even with pop idols as it is probably the case with those in western countries.

Satellite news television became about faces and beautiful faces to reflect a new more hip modern Arab world. Arab audiences were being forced—and willingly so—into a different visual framework, one previously dictated by terrestrial television but no longer, being far-flung by space with the reliance on barefaced images, color, action, and fast, slick journalese, which for a while, had to be learned.

With that of course, came beautiful women announcers and anchors. As more satellite stations came on the scene, more female announcers were called for. To attract more readers to news channels, as if the Arab man in the street is not a news-junky by instinct, more beautiful women, were hired to get the masses hooked!

Pretty, prettier, prettiest, lovely, lovelier and loveliest—these became the media catchwords.  And with that came the sophisticated, beautiful look, the bold and the beautiful. Beautiful announcers became the cliché, the stock-in-trade, the one you never tire of looking at, examining, cajoling, trying to almost-grab what is behind the television screen.

Indeed, a foreign viewer, merrily flicking through the Arab satellites, could be forgiven by suggesting Arab women are the most beautiful in the world: “You can see it through their news anchors”, and they are; some look gorgeous or have gorgeous faces; women that simply sparkle on the television set.

Although it has never been said or suggested, except in private, there is a subliminal feeling in the process of news-watching with the viewer mentally “tuning out” what is being said and starts weighing up the female anchor, looking at the contours, facial expression, lighting on the skin, right down to the delivery, how the mouth and lips move when the news is being read out or commentary made, hearing the right voices and echoes.

The long term effect of this can be very serious because audiences can end up trivializing what is being said by news readers. They, the audience become non-the-wiser in terms of the value they receive.

It might be too cynical to say, as it has never been admitted, there is an obvious targeting of choice on the part of Arab television managers and producers who are looking for a paradigm of features that go to the heart of beauty, good looks, sensuality and so on. It is to do with being photogenic, beautiful, attractive, whilst having the knack for delivery and intellect, although the last one, possibly two choices, go down the hiring scale considerably.

Of course there might be an ulterior motive in that which is to attract wider viewers and audiences and glue their eyes to that particular channel. Apart from the fact political correctness has not really penetrated the Arab world, “plain” or “comely” looking young women are seldom hired to read the news, and are mostly left as background staff.

Of course this might be a wrong assumption because of the “technicalities” of becoming an anchor when you are taught how to deliver news, voice and intonations, how to stress certain things, and lighten up different words.

Added to that is the dress-wear, hairstyle, make-up, powdered nose, the flushed cheeks and forehead.  There is a very definite style to make you look good on television for both women and men which sparks constant accusations in the West that even men anchors are made to look “effeminate” for the spotlight necessary to give one the celebrity status needed for the visual media.

Because of cultural reasons, men don’t go through the make-up routine, or not to the same extent in our part of the world, but this is certainly not the case with Arab women news-readers.

Leaving the make-up factor, aside however, Arab female announcers seem to be exceedingly beautiful, ones to feast your eyes on, but is this really beauty or a camouflage, and isn’t it the case even beautiful women have to sit under the brush of the make-up artist?

And further still, there might be the prejudicial social side to consider, making us feel guilty of seeing these women as mere dolly birds, a slang British-English expression regarded today as plain sexist? Are our Arab television managers and producers perpetuating that theme by not tipping the balance and hiring more Arab female newscasters from across the broad spectrum of society rather than narrowing it to the body beautiful?

Whilst this may seem too harsh a judgment to make because many of these “beautiful” female news announcers are competent as they look good and “speak” the news well, and if they make an occasional “error” then well it could be because of the producer with the earpiece.

All of the above can be attributed to the prevailing political culture in the Arab world and the “messaging” it is trying to convey. In a political culture where many things are frowned upon including the very notion of democracy and political practice, putting so-called “dolly birds” on the screen can be seen as an appropriate flushing safety-valve to issues and problems that are being swept away under the carpet.

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