Misogyny, Power and the Media
Clementine Ford will examine the various ways women are exercising power in the face of a world that has tried to control them socially, culturally and politically. While the old media have often gagged feminist voices Clementine will focus on the presence of women in the media and in popular culture. She will explore factors that have contributed to an invisibility of issues relevant to women in public life and in the public consciousness while highlighting avenues for change.
Listen to the lecture ABC Big Ideas
One of the very, very few benefits that comes from living in a society in which sexism courses so insidiously through it is how frequently feminists are provided with evidence to support their arguments of ongoing sexism in today’s supposedly Brave New World of post-feminist equality. Daily – hourly even! – the bog monster of misogyny that stalks feminism like a corpulent cyst will give an almighty shudder as out explodes yet another bacterial spray of muck all over your clean carpets. This year alone has included a wealth of examples, not limited to:
* A Gold Coast based journalist instructing professional female surfers to wear g-strings in order to attract attention to their sport because ‘us blokes can get by on talent alone’;
* T-shirts sold on Amazon UK calling for their wearers to ‘Keep Calm and Rape On’;
* Kayser Lingerie publishing a tweet from the #KayserMaleInsider instructing women “If a guy invites you over to watch a movie, you should know what they’re expecting.”
Unfortunately, the problem with the idea of equality is how difficult it is to measure. A key tactic of the neverending backlash against feminism has been to argue that equality has been reached and we can all quit our whining and go home. Millenia of oppression, overturned in a blink of an eye! Who knew it was so easy? That’s the problem with putting women in charge of the important stuff – we’re just not very good at upper management.
No, instead when people say, ‘equality has been reached’, what they really mean is that it is now illegal to directly legislate in a way that disadvantages women over men, and this is occasionally enforced. What there’s little discussion of is social legislation. It was thought that legal gains made by the women’s movement would naturally lead to liberation, but clearly this hasn’t happened. Left to our own devices, we’ve allowed the practice of sexism to move insidiously underground. On the whole, people are willing to ignore facts in favour of how something feels to them. But as my therapist helpfully reminded me yesterday, thoughts and feelings are not facts. And the facts say that society and culture remains decidedly unequal in terms of female representation, and respect for women’s contribution and equality. We have admirable numbers of women working at key levels to change policy – but the average person on the street neither sees nor cares about this. What they do see is how society is reflected back upon itself through the media – and when that reflection is biased towards one group in society, society begins to feel like that’s all there is that exists.
So tonight I’d like to explore two key areas: firstly, the experiences of women working within media and the limitations they face; and secondly, how these practices inform culture and affect the way women in wider society are treated.
When we discuss the discrimination against women working in media, I think it’s important to acknowledge from the outset that such women are largely privileged, almost always white and usually tertiary educated. It’s important to point this out because it demonstrates how entrenched sexism experienced by women at even the highest levels of society filters down through the cracks to the point where it becomes even easier to marginalise and oppress the really invisible women – the uneducated, the poor, the abused. I believe it’s vital to discuss how women fit in the mirror our media holds up to society, but I want to acknowledge straight up that the experiences of the women I’m about to discuss don’t represent the whole story. If women are largely muted in the media, then women who lack power at all in society are altogether invisible.
If, as veteran journalist Tracey Spicer said to me in the course of researching this speech, ‘the media is a portal through which we see the world’, how does the conspicuous absence of women and their voices therein skew how people construct their world around them? When you are shown repeatedly that you are only worth taking up a certain amount of space in the cultural dialogue, you start to believe that this is all you are entitled to. That in fact, when you AGITATE for more or simply take it, you are being greedy, forceful, rude, unfeminine, childish and unprofessional. And in turn, your behaviour is viewed by others as being those things. Instead of interjecting, you become ‘an interrupter’. Your disagreement is repackaged as arrogance, or disrespect. Women accused of this are punished severely, while men seem to garner the opposite. For women, particularly in Australia, laddish jocularity isn’t celebrated as part of our mythology. Women are not, by and large, assigned with shortened nicknames to indicate their approachability and everyman-ness. Our TV and radio panels are not populated by women called Sando, Spiceo, Swanny, Byrney, Doylie or, god forbid, Fatty. Instead, they are expected to look pretty, be unthreatening, read the lines as they are written and giggle when their male colleagues say something outlandish. Women in the media are constantly reminded that their presence is a privilege, not a right, and that privilege can be taken away any time they break the rules.
To illustrate this, I want to remind everyone of two tweets Catherine Deveny sent out at the 2010 Logies. They referred respectively to Bindi Irwin getting ‘laid’ and Rove McManus’ new partner not dying. Leave aside for a moment how distasteful you might them and remember this – while men have retained jobs for far greater offences, with management moving to defend them and diffuse attention, Deveny swiftly lost her job as a weekly columnist for The Age, a column she’d been writing for years (and which she reportedly had been trying to negotiate a pay rise for). New editor Paul Ramadge announced in a statement that Deveny ‘did not reflect the values of The Age’. Deveny, who frequently rated as one of Fairfax’s top ten read columnists and received unprecedented numbers of letters from readers, has always maintained that the Age had been looking for a way to get rid of her and this was their chance.
Consider now how differently misbehaving men are treated in the media. Despite numerous occasions in which he’s caused offence or directly insulted women, the most famous incident being wheeling a mannequin on stage, dressing it in lingerie and pretending it was his colleague Caroline Wilson, Sam Newman remains part of the furniture at the Footy Show.
Perennial female favourite Alan Jones has used his radio show to call for the Prime Minister to be ‘put in a chaff bag and dumped at sea’, to declare that ‘women are destroying the joint’, to lead a rally against the carbon tax where he not only abused journalist Jaqueline Maley but falsely declared that Police were preventing trucks from assembling at the meeting spot, and to claim credit for inciting the Cronulla Riots. Despite a campaign run by newly minted activist group Destroy The Joint last year – a campaign which resulted in advertisers withdrawing their business to the point where Macquarie Broadcasting was eventually losing $400,000 a week, Jones remains firmly entrenched at 2GB.
Bob Francis, a talkback shock jock from Adelaide who’s worked at 5AA since 1985 and will surely only leave when he’s carried out in a box has cost the station thousands of dollars in court costs over the years. He was featured on Media Watch in 2005 for abusing an elderly woman on his show, repeatedly calling her his favourite insult – dickbrain. 5AA accepted blame on his show’s behalf for putting to air comments that could be found to racially vilify indigenous people. Also on his behalf, in 2007 5AA paid around $60,000 to a magistrate he was found to have defamed on air. As a result of this, he was finallybanned from drinking alcohol during his shift. He was most recently suspended for a month after using his microphone privileges to declare that he hoped asylum seekers would ‘bloody drown’ on their way here. When a female journalist reported the incident, Francis responded by spraying, “ Can you believe that bloody bitch in The Australian… Some smart-arse dickhead woman… wrote me up in the paper this morning”. As my friend Steven says, when you’re attacking even The Australian for political correctness, there’s something wrong.
Which leads me to Kyle Sandilands, whose glass jaw led him to launch a tirade against another female journalist who reported a negative audience response to his TV show with co-host Jackie O. Sandilands called her a ‘fat slag’ who needed ‘more titty’ to fill the clothes she was wearing. He has also participated in stunts involving the interrogation of a 14 year old rape victim, responding to her disclosure of rape with the line, ‘And is that the only experience you’ve ever had’. He is currently still employed by the Austereo network.
Dermott Brereton was caught out sexually taunting a female journalist on Facebook last year. His mate Ricky Nixon took issue with some real facts Suzanne Carbone reported about him. Referring to her as ‘Cardog’, he encouraged Brereton to give Carbone the ‘good shag’ she needed. Brereton responded with, ‘Nah mate…I don’t do charity!’ Brereton is now part of the new lineup for Channel Nine’s Celebrity Apprentice.
Speaking of former footballers, Brendan Fevola took a photograph of a naked Lara Bingle against her wishes and then circulated amongst his friends and teammates until it finally went public. Bingle was painted as ‘deserving it’ because the then 19 year old had been having an affair with the married Fevola. Fevola and his wife later secured a no doubt highly paid story and photo shoot for New Idea to discuss their reconciliation, conveniently around the same time Fevola was contracted to participate in Channel Seven’s Dancing With The Stars. (It’s true that Bingle has also parlayed her notoriety into a TV career, but not a particularly well respected one. It’s true also that when Kim Duthie, dubbed the ‘St Kilda Schoolgirl’, published naked photographs of Nick Riewoldt and Nick Del Santo, she was slayed in the press. The Herald Sun later described it as ‘scaling all heights of personal privacy for an AFL footballer’. Riewoldt describes Duthie now as ‘irrelevant’ but is friends again with the bloke who took the photograph and allowed her to take it.)
Former Cronulla Sharks player Matty Johns wasn’t too harmed by revelations of his role in a 2002 pack sex incident involving a 19 year old New Zealand woman. The woman consented to entering a hotel room with two players including Johns, and then endured the indignity of having 12 further players and staff enter the room without her consent. Six of them proceeded to sexually use her while laughing amongst each other, while the others watched and masturbated. The woman later suffered years of PTSD and depression, and when 4 Corners broke the story in 2009, Johns expressed concern over the ‘anguish and embarrassment he’d caused his family’. It’s important to note that 4 Corners released a statement following the broadcast of Code of Silence confirming that almost none of the story was disputed by people present at the time – yet the public were quick to call the girl a liar, and to rush to exonerate Johns who they didn’t feel deserved to lose his job over something that had happened 7 years earlier. Johns did lose his job on The Footy Show at the time but quickly secured another contract with Channel Seven working on The Matty Johns Show. Last year, presumably after a suitable amount of time had passed, he was offered a lucrative offer with Channel Nine to return to the revamped NRL Footy Show. He turned it down, and is now a member of Triple M’s The Grill team.
These are just some of the examples of men – and not even necessarily talented men, smart men or men trained as media practitioners! – being given a nominal punishment in the time out corner before having their transgressions swept under the carpet to be forgotten. Boys will be boys! They were just mucking about. It was a joke, and you took it out of context.
But despite the more than 600 columns Deveny had filed to The Age, when she sent those two tweets on Logies night in 2010, it took all of two days for then-editor Paul Ramadge to announce that Fairfax had sacked her. Not all of these incidents are quite like the other. Some are more mild and some are worse, and none of them other than Deveny’s involve the Age. But they all speak to a culture which doesn’t just excuse bad behaviour in men (particularly lowest common denominator blokey ones) but actively rewards them. It’s a culture in which the rules of engagement for each gender are systemically different. Yet because this is never acknowledged, the on flow effect for many bystanders is to assume they treat each gender equally when in fact they’re responding to rigid social codes about the kinds of behaviour we tolerate in women who dare to have a public voice.
But….thoughts and feelings are not facts. Let’s look first at commercial talkback networks, filled not only with highly paid announcers, but people in a unique position to inform thought and social views. Until recently, there was only one woman in the whole of the country hosting a weekday solo commercial talkback show. Now there are two – Belinda Heggen in Adelaide, who replaced Amanda Blair, and 6PR’s Jane Marwick in Perth. Both women host shows in the afternoon (1 – 4 for Heggen and 12 – 3 for Marwick), otherwise known as the ‘women’s timeslots’ – that precious time in between the important news and politics of the morning, and the news and politics and downtime of the Drive shift. And in the virtual cock forest that is Australia’s talkback radio sector, the addition of Marwick is seen as a win. So you know, they can rest on that for 15 more years until adding another one. I looked at 8 of the largest commercial talkback stations around Australia, including 2GB, 3AW and Canberra’s own 2CC and found that of 140 presenters with promoted photographs on the station’s website, only 17 were women. 17 women versus 123 men, on the nation’s airwaves week after week.
And it should also be noted that the majority of women ‘allowed’ to host talkback radio do so for weekend shows about gardening or entertainment or, bizarrely, as psychics. Many of them have male co-hosts. When I pointed out this discrepancy on Twitter, more than one person responded by saying, “But what about Lindy Burns on the ABC?” I hadn’t even BEGUN to tackle the disparate representations of women at the ABC – but being able to point to the one woman famous enough for having her own show isn’t evidence that women have ‘made it’, even though it is frequently used as a counterpoint. Women are expected to be satisfied with just having ANY slice of the pie – the subtext there being that if the system were REALLY sexist, women wouldn’t be allowed in at all. So because we are, our unequal representation must just be down to the fact that we’re not trying hard enough or, as I have also heard too many times to count, because people just don’t like listening to women’s voices or anything they have to say. I spoke with Ben Fordham on his 2GB Drive show a few weeks ago about this very thing and received an email afterwards – from a woman – telling me that people didn’t want to listen to women on radio because they were either boring or know-it-all, and their voices were monotonous. She pointed to me as an example, and emphasised that I’d been especially up myself.
These are the excuses frequently offered by commercial station management (also sausage fests) for not promoting women to ‘serious’ on air roles.
And how does print media fare? Melbourne based independent newspaper The King’s Tribune conducted a study last year of the gender disparity there. Author Chrys Stevenson drew her data from weekday editions over the fortnight of Thursday, 25 October to Wednesday, 7 November, and looked solely at front pages as a ‘window’ into the papers’ preoccupations and concerns. Eight of the nation’s leading newspapers were considered: The Australian, The Age, the Sydney Morning Herald, the Canberra Times, the Australian Financial Review, the Courier-Mail, the Daily Telegraph and the Herald Sun. The results confirmed figures found in similar studies in Britain and the US. That of 287 bylines across 80 front pages, 70% belonged to men and only 30% to women. These results also support a 2007 Strong and Hannis study of more than 15,000 bylines in Australasian newspapers, which showed that only 34% belonged to women.
Stevenson also quotes a 2009 study by Dr Angela Romano, which shows only 32% of 374 broadcast and print news stories were either written or presented by women. Supporting the results of a 2005 study by the Global Media Monitoring Project called ‘Who Makes The News’, Stevenson also found that of the 287 stories she read, only 22% of quotes sought came from women, meaning 78% of those people presented to the public as experts in their fields were men. ‘Who Makes The News’ had found similarly that 80% of expert commentary sought was from men.
All of these results – and Stevenson’s commentary was extensive – support the general findings that women participate in public life at levels of 20 – 30%. And despite this minimal representation, they’re expected to work harder and conform more in order to keep their positions. To not make waves. To not talk back. A woman I spoke to who co-hosts a commercial FM breakfast show in a major capital city was asked THIS YEAR by management not to mention her age on air because ‘they don’t like acknowledging women over the age of 30’. Her co-hosts were also asked not to mention it. Her co-host has also been electronic gear like a laptop to ‘help’ with his job, while her requests for similar were denied. And she told me this under the provision of anonymity, pointing out that even though she’d love to lift the lid on it all, she can’t afford to lose her job. Another woman, working for a public TV broadcaster with progressive policies, has heard management reinforce the desired TV anchor formula – older man, young woman.
Tracey Spicer wrote a wonderful piece last year called Dear Mr Sexist, an open letter to the years of sexist management she’d had to put up with as an anchorwoman. She told me recently that ‘the sexism was explicit. I was called the chubby girl from Queensland and given a gym membership.’ She believes the industry has changed, but not dramatically. Yes, women are no longer only assigned the ‘soft’ stories and can be war correspondents and hard hitting opinion writers (when they get those precious bylines). But disparate representation continues in management. In Sydney, there are no female news directors in commercial TV. And here in 2013, there are still no female editors of a major metropolitan daily newspaper. And this means there’s no equality in the advancement of women in the media – not their voices, not their value and certainly not their visibility. She has this pertinent reminder: “When I finished my Communications degree in 1987, 95% of the journalism graduates were women. If it was a meritocracy, many of these women would have risen to management positions by now. They have not.” She points out that a still shot of an editorial meeting at Fairfax to accompany changes to the paper’s format was recently broadcast on TV news. Out of about a dozen people, there was only one woman. One woman in the entire organisation who merits being involved in a major editorial meeting – or at least, in the promotion of it.
Advertising executive and writer Jane Caro has to date been the only female Chair of Judges for the Australasian Writers and Art Directors Awards. As opposed to the previous years, when Caro chaired she tried to get as many female judges as she could but could only secure 4 out of 10. She says she was attacked furiously for her efforts, with some male colleagues even ringing her at home to tell her what she had done wrong. The next year, she handed her role over to a male chair and assisted as co-chair as protocol dictated. When she offered her help, he turned to her with horror and told her he’d totally disagreed with ‘what she’d done’. To this day, they’ve never had another female Chair of Judges and if there ARE women on the panel of judges, there are usually only 1 or 2.
I want to use this opportunity to make a crucial point – if Caro had managed to fill that judging panel with 8 women to 2 men, as seems the standard reversed ratio, those awards would have been deemed a niche event. The rule of pangender representation dictates that penises must account for more than 50% of the bits present in order to make the experience universally applicable to everyone – so a greater than average per cent of women in attendance on a panel is usually seen as a ‘special event’. An experiment, or a moment in which the girls are allowed some time to shine. If women suddenly began outnumbering men consistently in newspapers, panels, boards, editorial meetings, commercial talkback stations, expert opinion, senior management and simply in the sheer numbers of people given space and room to speak – in short, if the accepted gender ratio were reversed – there would be a public meltdown. Unfair! would be the catchcry, while people railed against quotas, political correctness and being ‘forced’ to listen to issues that don’t affect everyone (for of course, men’s interests and preoccupations affect the world while the concerns of women are minority topics, and never the twain shall meet). If Q and A, a show on our national broadcaster whose charter dictates that they express equal and fair policies when it comes to gender, suddenly had week after week of three female guests with a female host and only two males – as the opposite routinely occurs – people would tune out in droves and accuse the ABC of pandering to political correctness, and would moan about Q and A suddenly being filled with shrill, aggressive, squawking voices with nothing of value to say.
When society internalises the message that there is something so incomplete and foreign about the female gender that it only deserves to contribute to 20-30% of public life – indeed, that the views and contributions of women are only of universal interest 20-30% of the time (and probably even less than that, given the proportion of these numbers would account for ‘women’s topics’) – then you create a society in which women are taught to shrink in upon themselves rather than expand. Where they apologise for taking up too much room. Where they are so grateful for the scraps of attention they are *allowed* to claim that they won’t push for more, in case their provisional trial period of being allowed to speak is snatched away and given to a woman who can better hold her tongue. And where because of the competition they’ve been thrust into, they judge other women for being too greedy, too loud, too shrill and too aggressive – for giving women a bad name. This is a society in which it’s accepted that men set the public agenda and drive it, that they have more things of value to contribute, that their voices are more important and therefore deserve more space and more respect. By giving women less as a rule and teaching them this is all they can expect, we create a society in which women battle ONLY for their spot in the 30%. Not the 50% – the 30%. Some people complain about the idea of instituting quotas, saying it’s unfair to set aside jobs for women just because they’re women and not because they’ve earned them. But we already have a system of quotas in media, and the figures across the board roundly support it. 20-30% of jobs are allocated to women – and as long as the 70-80% left over is filled by men, we can all breathe a sigh of relief that the status quo hasn’t been threatened.
These are significant figures that, while presenting a hugely detrimental view of women’s value, are not likely to be critiqued or questioned by the majority of society. Who counts how many women are quoted in a news article? Who pays attention to those things when they don’t have to? Who hears the deafening silence of women’s voices when you’ve been taught to ignore it?
What happens is that a system in which women don’t take up that extra space is normalised for the majority – so much so that any attempts made to take more of this even if it still ends up being less than 50% is criticised as women being domineering or aggressive, refusing to let anyone else speak. And it’s not just being too aggressively unfeminine – it’s stealing from the men.
With the advent of online media, the response to this has been both positive and troubling. On the one hand, women have found a way to use the internet to magnify their voices and therefore their contribution. Feminism, long cast out into the wilderness, has been reinvigorated online with young women using Tumblr to share and reblog ideas all around the world. Slut-shaming, a favourite topic of the old media, has been dissected and countered by online feminist communities. It was online media that drove much of the activism around the very first Slutwalk in Toronto.
The voices of minority women have also found stadiums rather than homes online. Sites like Shakesville and Racialicious have been responsible for giving African American women a voice in a way that we’ve not yet seen happen for minority women in Australia yet. Mothers are irking the guards of old media by monetising their sites, even though they aren’t considered ‘real’ journalists! Just last year, the Prime Minister invited a group of online female writers to take tea with her at Kirrabili. Her guests were mostly authors of parenting blogs. Hashtags like #Everydaysexism collate stories of sexism experienced by women around the world, and are shared and reshared to spread the message that yes, this stuff still exists. When Pussy Riot were arrested for performing their anarchist punk prayer in Russia, social media went into overdrive calling for their freedom. ‘Awareness’ is constantly being raised online. And surrounded by like minds, it can often feel like you’re making a difference.
But here’s where the cynic in me comes out, and I feel desperately defeated saying it. What does all this really achieve? Yes, women have a loud voice on the internet. But the internet is also home to some of the most violent misogyny I’ve ever encountered. Facebook will suspend women’s accounts for posting photos of themselves breastfeeding, but do nothing about groups claiming to be ‘humour’ sites propagating jokes about raping women and children. Trolls on twitter harass women, calling them bitches and whores and threatening them with violent sexual assault for saying things they don’t like. Gamers create games where players can virtually beat up feminist activists like Anita Sarkeesian because she wants to create a series of videos looking at how women are treated in online gaming communities. The internet is a horrible, nasty wasteland where it often seems like nothing good exists and where all the nastiest language reserved for keeping women in their place is wielded like a machine gun. Remember this, too – the supposed freedom and accessibility of the internet may have resulted in women finding their voice online – but significant numbers of them have been driven back into hiding again after enduring what it is they found there.
Yes, in our own blessed spaces online, we can grow and learn and find some kind of like minded sympatico away from the exhaustion of having to fight to be heard. But in the larger scheme of things, where it really counts, it doesn’t change anything. That 20-30% quota still exists. Women in broadcast media are still expected to hide their age, to be the thin, attractive, docile sidekick to their agenda setting male co-hosts, who are undoubtedly paid more money and almost certainly given more respect. They’re still claiming less by-lines, writing less opinion pieces, and being forced to wallow in middle management. They have virtually no presence in talkback radio, partly because the old men who have those jobs refuse to leave and/or die, and partly because management feels entitled to casually shrug their shoulders and talk about how ‘the woman experiment’ just doesn’t work because people don’t want to listen to women talking about whatever it is women talk about.
For these people, the online world and women’s presence embrace of it is actually very convenient because it allows things to occur just as they always have been while giving the illusion of a much more diverse culture of media.
If this seems like old news, it because it is. And yet we keep saying it and saying it and saying it, and nothing changes. The same old numbers keep popping up, the same dismissal of women’s ability to contribute to and shape the media keeps occurring, with the same excuses. Women should try harder. There’s no inequality. Quotas are unfair. No one wants to listen to women, and that’s just a fact. So we need to keep talking about it and using our annoying, shrill, aggressive voices to demand our 50% – because here in 2013, years after equality was supposedly achieved, the silence has become deafening.
Clementine Ford is a Melbourne based writer and social commentator. Her work has appeared in a wide range of publications, including the Age, the Canberra Times, the Big Issue, New Matilda, the ABC and Sunday Life. She also writes a weekly column for Fairfax Digital’s Daily Life, where she was voted one of 2012’s Most Influential Female Voices. Clementine has appeared on ABC’s Q & A, Channel Ten’s The Circle, Mornings on Channel 9 and ABC 24’s The Drum. She is a regular guest on ABC 774 and ABC 891, and has hosted shows on Adelaide’s 5AA and Melbourne’s 3RRR. As a public speaker, Clementine has addressed audiences at the Wheeler Centre, ACMI, Adelaide Writer’s Week and Melbourne Fringe. She doesn’t own nearly enough socks, but makes up for it with an abundance of laddered blue stockings.
This lecture was supported by University House, ANU