Sexism, politics and irrelevance

If you’re into politics and unless you’ve been in a pretty deep state of hibernation, you probably heard about Grahame Morris calling 7.30 host Leigh Sales a cow on ABC Radio on Tuesday. And you probably also heard his disgraceful non-apology, which started out with a mocking jab at the “poor sensitive little souls” who had the temerity to be disgusted by what was actually a pretty unambiguously sexist comment.

If in fact you didn’t hear it, here’s a link to a recording that ABC Radio helpfully provided.  Do have a listen, bash your head against the wall, and then come back so we can talk it out.

Pretty horrible, yeah? Take a moment, take a few deep breaths, maybe a cleansing sip of bleach.

Now, I do think that most people who either work or maintain a wonkish interest in all things politics and media related are actually not unreconstructed sexists, at least in Australia. And it frustrates me a bit when some people seek to paint the entire right-of-centre as the last bastion of repression of women. The truth is there are bigots on either side, just like there are passionate, intelligent and respectful people on either side.

Sexism – and I stress, I am talking specifically about the Australian experience – isn’t about left or right. It’s about a set of cultural hangups from the 1950s that still seem relevant in the minds of a small group of formerly influential people. But unfortunately, we continue to assign these people greater relevance in the public sphere than they deserve.

I’m willing to bet Morris will largely get away with this incident. By next week most of the people who were outraged by his comments will have forgotten, and eventually he’ll show up on a Sky program or ABC Radio again, where he’ll no doubt continue to make inappropriate statements. Look at Bob Ellis for example: hardly a week went by when his Drum column, and later his blog, wasn’t wildly offensive, and yet last week there he was popping up again in the Daily Life (trigger warning: uncontrollable rage) telling us what he knew about women. (The answer is: even less than you could imagine.)

Or worse, Morris’s unique ability to say something “controversial” could become the very reason producers consider him a worthy commentator or panellist. Take Germaine Greer: if Q & A is anything to go by, she’s become both an expert on women’s suiting and a caricature of a formerly influential feminist. Her value as a commentator has been reduced to her ability to say something shocking.

We’re told that we should ignore sexist rubbish in the media-politics space in the hope that it will go away, but that never worked for school bullies and it doesn’t work for troglodyte commentators.

When we ignore destructive cultural views we also blind ourselves to the influence these backward positions still have, especially in the absence of any explanation as to why they’re inappropriate. And by continuing to seek comment from people who have long lost touch with their respective political movements, we risk delegitimising those movements – feminism has absolutely nothing to do with critiquing the prime minister’s clothing, and Morris is not necessarily representative of, nor does he speak for the parliamentary Liberal Party.

For this reason, we should maintain the rage against Morris (and Ellis, and Greer, as long as she insists on talking about  Gillard’s jackets). Stop asking these people to provide political commentary. Send a signal that actually, calling a female journalist a gender-specific insult and then insulting those who were offended is not ok, and not something to be laughed off or brushed over. We can’t de-normalise gendered assessments of women in politics and the media unless we’re actually willing to stay angry about it for longer than it takes to send a tweet.


Image by Tim Rogers via Creative Commons Licence

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