Monday, 31 January 2011

Sky Sports, Loose Women, sexism and silencing

This article was amended to fix some typos.

Meant to blog about this last week but with one thing and another (mainly full time job and BFN) I didn’t get round to it.

I did however go on BBC Bristol to talk about the Sky sexism row with Graham Torrington – a conversation that pretty much summed up the whole situation, the two sides of the ‘debate’ and the misconceptions that seemed to abound last week about this story.

Unless you were living on Mars last week you will already know what happened so I am just going to ‘dive’ in with my list of reasons why this story has been misinterpreted by various commentators or radio presenters since Grey and Keys declared that possession of a vagina means women are incapable of understanding the offside rule.

NB – I am going to do the media lazy crime of referring to ‘feminists’ and ‘we’ but I appreciate that I do not speak for all feminists, all women and am expressing the opinions I have formed from speaking to and working with feminists and thinking these issues through myself.

Misconception one – it was just banter

Unless the new OED definition of banter is ‘talking seriously and angrily about how “the game has gone mad” because a woman is doing a job with the word “man” in the job title’ I think we can safely say it was NOT just banter. These two men weren’t cracking jokes at Sian Massey’s expense. Even if they were joking, it would have still been offensive. But as it was, they were talking in a deadly serious tone about how the quality of the match was at risk precisely and only because the person watching the line was a woman. They weren’t making a joke about or discussing a bad call. They weren’t having a laugh with a colleague who they respected. They were very deliberately and very angrily expressing the sexist belief that a woman cannot do a job because she is a woman. To move from this to bitterly telling Karren Brady off for daring to address sexism in sport, to calling her ‘love’, was not banter. It was the ugly face of sexist attitudes in a world dominated by privileged men.

Grey’s request for a woman to tuck his mic into his trousers for him was again not banter, even if this time he was laughing. I didn’t see a flicker of a smile on her face. Does this mean, as some have accused us women of being last week, she is humourless, that she can’t take a joke? Or does it in fact mean that he was guilty of sexual harassment in the workplace, using his status within the organisation to intimidate staff members with an impressive display of dick swinging. His actions were sexual harassment by any standards, and deserving of a sacking.

Banter again was the language used to describe Keys’ charming description of Jamie Redknapp ‘smashing it’ – language that if nothing else is incredibly violent and left Redknapp looking distinctly uncomfortable. He laughed nervously whilst Keys repeated his vile statements louder and louder to assert his position in the group as alpha-male. It was ugly, it was crude and it used violent language to assert a position of power, suggesting that sex is men ‘smashing’ women, rather than something mutual and consensual. He was right to resign.

Before I spoke on BBC Bristol on Thursday, the Sports presenter expressed concern that we don’t want to see the banter and humour to be lost from punditry and sports presenting. I imagine most of us would agree with him. But I think we would be comfortable with an end to blatant sexism, excused sexual harassment and ‘jokes’ that seem to centre on committing violent sexual acts against women. That isn’t banter. That is sexism pure and simple.

And, of course, Grey and Keys aren’t really going to suffer are they? They’ll be snapped up by another channel with a pretty deal, whilst women continue to be invisible and mocked in a world that chooses to ignore their sporting success.

Misconception 2 – it was off the record so it was ok

This comment seems to have become very popular with certain strains of the right wing press. I ask you then, readers of the right wing press and watchers of all TV news to cast your mind back to one cloudy April day in Rochdale. As Gordon Brown stepped in to his car, he muttered that a certain woman with rather horrible views on immigration was ‘a bigot’. Sky News chased the woman down the street to inform her of his gaffe, made off the record. The TV and radio news repeated his off the record gaffe ad nauseum whilst he held his head in his hands. Newspapers re-quoted his off the record statement until we all knew about it and were all talking about it.
We either ignore what people say off the record, or we report it. We don’t have one rule for one and not for the other. If nothing else, at least Gordon Brown’s statement was true, which is more than can be said for Grey and Keys’ nonsensical splutterings.

Misconception 3 – what about the men, what about Loose Women, women are sexist too.

No shit Sherlock. And yet, curiously, most feminists I know don’t sit there watching Loose Women, cheering them on and going ‘hell yeah! This is my liberation! This must mean we have equality!’
In fact, most feminists believe that patriarchy hurts men too and that just as harmful stereotypes cause sexism against women, they also cause sexism against men. Take the issue of childcare, as brought up by a certain Tory MP last week. He accused ‘bigoted feminists’ of causing sexist laws that worked against men when it came to looking after children. And yet, and yet. The stereotype that informs the bias towards mothers caring for children are borne from the idea that women are carers and nurturers and men are tough breadwinners. These sexist stereotypes were not invented by feminists and it is feminists who have been fighting for better equality and sharing of childcare for a hell of a long time. Another stereotype brought up last week was that men, as portrayed on Loose Women, are stupid silly children incapable of cleaning the house. This stereotype is also harmful for women, suggesting as it does that cleaning a house has to therefore be the woman’s responsibility, because we are the only ones capable of wielding a mop. Perhaps this is why it was a feminist who coined the idea of the ‘stupidity myth’ in advertising. This is the idea that if women are stereotyped and silenced by the beauty myth, men are trapped by an unrealistic and unflattering portrayal of them as oafs who can’t clean an oven. Feminists are fighting negative stereotypes of all genders, because we recognise that sexism harms all of us and maintains gender norms that push equality backwards.

There isn’t a certain balance of sexism in the world. If a man is sexist against a woman, it isn’t cancelled out by a woman then being sexist against a man. They are both wrong. They don’t excuse the other. So, Grey asking a woman colleague to stick her hand down his pants doesn’t mean that Loose Women is ok, and vice versa.

However there is an interesting point to be made about Loose Women. As much as I find the programme dull, and disagree with the sexist-against-men remarks, it is one of the only times on TV when you will see middle-aged women, talking frankly about their bodies, their sexuality and their families. Talking about the things that matter to a lot of women. Giving women a voice and a face on a TV that so often waves goodbye to women when a wrinkle appears. Obviously it doesn’t excuse the sexist comments that stereotype men and women. But it’s just an observation a friend of mine made.

Misconception 4 – men aren’t sexist towards women any more

Or, another way to term it, the Giles Coren angle. Of course, if Grey’s and Keys’ comments didn’t disprove that straight away, Coren’s own comments about women being ‘harridans’ who would start a war over a pair of shoes certainly showed that it is an absolute truism that sexism against women is still mainstream, normalised and rarely condemned. In fact the ONE surprising thing about the Sky Sports row was that the behaviour was condemned, even if there has been this mini backlash.

Coren cites a Jo Brand joke about the best kind of man being a dead man. It’s a pretty tasteless joke. However Coren’s assertion that a man would not be able to make a similar joke about a woman is utter, utter bullshit. Rape jokes now abound in comedy. They are so common, so utterly normalised, that feminists who say they are uncomfortable with rape jokes are accused of being humourless. I’ve sat through TV panel shows where Frankie Boyle has happily made ‘jokes’ about murdering women who work in the sex industry. I’ve listened to Gervais make his famous ‘joke’ about raping an old woman. I’ve been to live comedy and listened to ‘jokes’ about how disgusting vaginas are. I’ve watched all male line ups again and again and again and again, and then listened to complaints when women comedians ‘take-over’ the conversation. Sexism isn’t just alive and well, it is now considered funny.

And even if this wasn’t the case, lets just take a look at the institutional sexism that makes Coren’s comments about how men ‘have to apologise all the time’ even though they are the real victims now (erm Giles? You know if you’re not sexist, you don’t have to apologise!) look a bit foolish. Like the pay gap. Like 4 women in the cabinet. Like the decision the government made when they ignored the gender equality duty. Like 1.5 women a week murdered. The 100,000 women who will be raped this year, whilst the conviction rate stays around the 6% mark. Last year we saw a man get 18 months for murdering his wife because he was ‘respectable most the time’ and saw a woman get sent to jail for being pressured by her abusive husband to retract her (true) accusation of rape. According to Forward, 6500 girls are at risk of FGM in the UK. Across the world, 100 million women are ‘missing’. Sexism is alive and kicking and it is causing ‘a genocide against my people’.

Misconception 5 – if you care about sexism, you don’t care about anything else

This is the last remnant of the whataboutthemen-nery debate – that by focusing on sexism against women, it is because you don’t care about anyone or anything else. It is the argument that says if you care about Grey and Keys, you don’t care about the Oven Pride ad. If you care about domestic violence or rape committed against women, you don’t care if it is committed against men. If you are concerned that 9 out of 10 sufferers of an eating disorder are women, you aren’t bothered that 1 in 10 are men. Or if you complain against DV and rape between a man and a woman, you don’t care if it happens between people of the same sex.

This is nonsense. Amazingly, a lot of people are able to care about more than one thing at once. (cue sexist chortling about women and multi-tasking ;-) ) Considering sexism, homophobia, transphobia and racism are all too often interlinked, to not care about all of them would be stupid, if not plain offensive. Violence against women is linked to violence against men. Offensive sexist stereotypes cross over with offensive homophobic, transphobic and racist stereotypes. Poverty is a feminist issue. The increase of the male beauty myth is linked to women’s beauty myth. We need to fight oppression and patriarchy wherever we find it. Privilege and layers of privilege are complex. 

The final accusation really upsets me, on a personal note. The assertion that I don’t care about homophobia given my upbringing, or that I don’t care about same sex violence, something a friend of mine experienced, because I don’t caveat every sentence about violence with the statement, is silencing and annoying. To tell someone that they don’t care about something because they fail to mention it every time they write is silencing and derailing. Simple as.

So. To conclude.
Banter and sexist comments, rape jokes and sexual harassment are not the same thing.

Sexism is bad whoever it is directed against.

To say that sexism against women doesn’t exist anymore is bullshit.

Because I care about sexism doesn’t mean I don’t care about racism, homophobia, hetero-sexism or transphobia.

La fin.

No comments: