THE up-side and down-side of rancid sexism are hard to distinguish from each other, these days.
Tennis star Eugenie Bouchard, fresh from winning a match in Melbourne, was doing one of those TV interviews that happen on the sidelines, immediately post-match.
The guy holding the microphone eyed her bright pink dress and invited her to “do a little twirl” so that the cameras could get the full delight of the garment.
Sexist? Of course. Just as sexist as the comments on Stephanie Roche’s gorgeous dress and legs at the awards ceremony for Fifa’s Puskás Award for goal of the year. Not to mention the gaze pattern of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, caught on camera as she walked past them.
Just as sexist as the comments on how beautifully dressed is Christine Lagarde, alongside the photographs that run of her, starting at floor level with the black suede boots and topping off with the shining steel hair.
We should, of course, concentrate only on the genius of Lagarde and the fact that she has a brain the size of Asia, just as we should concentrate only on Roche’s’s goalscoring prowess and Bouchard’s back stroke.
Well, no. That would have been the feminist orthodoxy in the last century, and a lot of us bought into it. Then some of us realised that it’s a bit like charcoal drawing, where you create an unambiguous outline on the paper, then set down your stick of charcoal and rub the ball of your palm over it, so that the outline can still be seen, but is softened and the overall image made much more visually interesting.
A generation of passionately pro-women women copped on that feminism didn’t require all of us to have a thatch of mad, curly, untreated hair, no make-up, or to wear either a Mao jacket or a series of jumpers in varying intensities of black, topped by a dark grey infinity scarf.
They realised that enjoying your appearance wasn’t a sin against the sisterhood and that, whatever about changing laws to prevent active, life-limiting discrimination, it was going to take generations of evolution before men (and, let’s be honest, women too) stopped getting a dilation of the pupils of their eyes when they saw a gorgeous girl on the street.
The “take me as I am. I don’t have to dress up in order for you to take me seriously” stance can morph, too easily, into self-disqualification. This is particularly the case on television, where men have a safe uniform (suit, shirt, tie) and women do not.
The first judgments made by viewers about women tend to relate to appearance, rather than content.
It’s the nature of the medium and nobody has come up with a process to remove that irritating initial distraction factor. All women can do is dress for business, wear nothing that’s louder than they are, and concentrate on being so interesting that their appearance takes second place to what they want heard and remembered by viewers.
The “sod off and take me seriously” commitment to unflattering clothes is a worthy exercise in counter-productivity.
That said, there’s a hell of a gap between people watching a tennis match noting Bouchard’s looks and dress and a reporter inviting her to do a post-match parade. The latter is sexist, offensive, but has probably done no harm at all to the career of the previously minor sports reporter who did it.
Nor has it done any harm to Bouchard, who obediently did the twirl. That’s the point about the up-side and down-side of sexism being difficult to distinguish from each other, these days.
It was, and is, disgustingly sexist to drape a model across the bonnet of a new car in publicity pictures.
The model has damn all to do with the car and it is simply using a human body to hawk a mechanical device by inviting ogling. Up-side is there none, other than perhaps the fact that the girl involved may stay solvent for another week.
In Bouchard’s case, however, the reaction to the incident was so fierce that a) no other guy with a microphone is likely to think of it as a way of boosting his fame, and b) people who might otherwise not have thought of the ability-and-appearance continuum got to do a bit of thinking about it.
Above all, Bouchard’s post-twirl comment set it neatly in context: “It was very unexpected,” she said. “I don’t know... an old guy asking you to twirl? It was funny.”
Smack. Ooof. Demotion to “an old guy”.
What’s arguably more important than the sexism question in this particular incident is the question of what led Bouchard to go along with the request. It speaks to the implicit power of the person holding the microphone, and we see the same encounter in every area of media all the time.
The person with the microphone is assumed to represent the interests of the public and is therefore validated in whatever they do, even if, in any other context, what they do would count as bullying.
Genie Bouchard kicks butt at tennis and the media asks her to twirl around in her outfit in an interview? That's just stupid.— Karen Humphrey (@scatteredmom) January 21, 2015
In a job interview, if the recruiter asks a question unrelated to their finding out if a candidate is competent to do the job, the candidate can and should protest, at the time or later, and if necessary take legal action.
Every week, we read about employees or candidates who do precisely that and whose vindication is financially expressed.
In media terms, the most anybody ever gets is a judgment from the regulator saying the interviewer shouldn’t have asked a particular question in a particular way.
This emerges long after the bad impression of the interviewee has been imprinted forever on the public mind.
The person with the microphone has enormous power, and they don’t have to be in media to exercise it.
Some public speakers, for example, demand, in the first five minutes, that their audience stand up and high-five the people on either side of them, or shout a response to a question asked several times with increasing volume each time.
Not everybody in every audience wants to high-five the people on either side of them or bellow acceptance of some self-help principle at the top of their voices. But, in the heat of the collective moment, everybody does it.
Sometimes they do it because of the charm of the speaker.
Sometimes they do it because of peer pressure. Sometimes they do it because it genuinely seems like a fun idea. Sometimes they do it because they’re taken by surprise.
Often, many of them are delighted they did it.
The minority who are decidedly not glad they did it don’t just feel they were coerced. They feel ashamed that they didn’t have the courage to resist.
Which brings us back to feminism. Feminism is all about choice.
Instead of bitching about one Australian reporter for being sexist, maybe we should concentrate on equipping people — male and female — to say “No” with resolution and good humour when presented with a public demand to which they do not believe they should accede.
Maybe we should concentrate on equipping people to say ‘No’ with resolution.
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