I am on holidays and allowing my addiction to Facebook click bate rein free. In the mornings I linger late in the new bed with its white sheets and pumped pillows, in the afternoons I slouch under trees on the old chequered rug Mum brought back from Peru in ‘56, and in the evenings, I loll on the plush couch listening to the neighbour’s poodles scream at possums while I plumb the depths of pet videos, TED talks and editorials with their attendant string of outraged comments.
I do hope all is well with you, that the snow, and spruce and red berries are working their magic. I know you wanted solitude, some reprieve from the politics of this place and forgive me, but I write because I can not contain myself. These first twelve days of twenty thousand and sixteen have been a national embarrassment I simply must share.
There have been three separate incidents, each a revelation of the misogyny that lies in the heart of the Australian soul. The three casts of characters echo of the one before. The first involves a junior minister, who I have named the Minister of the Intrusive Kiss, a diplomatic staffer located in Hong Kong, and a woman I’ve called the Journalist of the Shining Light for her ability to illuminate the darkness. The second involves a famous cricketer and a professional journalist, the third, a sports presenter and Miss Universe Australia.
There is a prelude. It is December 2015, a bar in Lan Kuai Fong, the Minister of the Intrusive Kiss, a junior minister, puts his arm around a woman staffer from the Australian Consulate-General in Hong Kong, comments on her piercing eyes and attempts to kiss her on the neck. The woman pulls away.
In January, the diplomatic staffer in Hong Kong makes a formal complaint about the junior minister’s inappropriate conduct, and the Prime Minister gathers together a group of senior colleagues to consider the situation. They find the Minister of the Intrusive Kiss in breach of ministerial standards. He resigns.
As these events unfolded there was one thing that disturbed me most. It was not the intrusive kiss on the neck of the Hong Kong staffer, nor was it the kisser’s comment about her piercing eyes—as if it were her eyes which invited the kiss. That was not the first intrusive kiss in the history of women’s necks, or the first mention of the seductive nature of a woman’s eyes. Nor did the Prime Minister’s call for his junior minister’s resignation disturb me anywhere near as much as it did those who suggested we in Australia are catapulting toward a politically correct nightmare where a bloke can’t speak like a bloke to a bloke. Such a world might be a nightmare for blokes, but it would be a utopia for all women and a silent majority of Australian men who don’t seek to be blokes. No, it was the membership of the Immigration Minister in the group of senior colleagues that triggered a disturbance in my waters.
As you know I am on holidays, I had moved from the old picnic rug beneath a tree to a seat in the window of my favourite cafe and was scrolling through images of my Facebook ‘friends’ enjoying the New Year with their cats when I stumbled across the pixelated image of the aforesaid Hong Kong staffer on the front page of the News Corporation publication, The Weekend Australian. I mention News Corporation because I want to underline the influences at play. I’m sure you agree that any newspaper editor would know that the identity, pixelated or not, of a woman who has made a complaint, especially one of sexual harassment, should remain confidential lest her career be ruined.
When it was reported by the Journalist of the Shining Light that the Minister of the Intrusive Kiss sent the un-pixelated version of this image to his influential media friends, I was agog with this junior minister’s capacity for revenge. Knowing that revenge accompanies envy, and envy always ends in annihilation, I did wonder who it was that the Minister of the Intrusive Kiss envied, since it couldn’t possibly be the Hong Kong staffer. And though I was agog, it was not this vengeance that disturbed me most, for the vengeance of men against women is common. I need not remind you of the envious alliances which brought down our first woman prime minister.
Next day came news of that text from the Immigration Minister to the Minister of the Intrusive Kiss. Vile notes of unqualified support for the junior minister claiming the Journalist of the Shining Light was a mad fucking witch. A mad fucking witch, Emerita! And our Immigration Minister, architect of the atrocities currently underway on the islands of Manus and Naru, went on to say the Journalist of the Shining Light went a bit hard on the Minister of the Intrusive Kiss.
I’d like to pause and translate the moment of that text to you, as you know I love to do, so you understand exactly why my waters began to swirl. Apart from the obvious and rather tired manner in which men have marginalised women since medieval times by casting them as female familiars of the devil, hence a threat to Christian values, adding the time honoured tradition of minimising women’s obvious capacity to function in the workplace by labelling them crazy, then finishing it off by sexualising her with the word ‘fucking’, may I remind you that the Immigration Minister was part of the group disciplining the Minister of the Intrusive Kiss. Yet, the Immigration Minister composed a message that defies the very standards for which the Minister of the Intrusive Kiss was disciplined.
The message reveals, to me at least, how the Immigration Minister confused his personal allegiance to the Minister of the Intrusive Kiss with his role in the disciplinary process and his consequent allegiance, or lack thereof, to the Prime Minister. But let us, just for a moment, consider the likelihood that the Immigration Minister might not have confused his relationships, and was confirming, through blatantly offensive language, his allegiance to the group within the government who would prefer a different Prime Minister. In this light, the subtext of the Immigration Minister’s message articulates a collaboration which is almost treasonous if you consider the political context in which the text was sent, for at this stage the Prime Minister had been in the position for mere months after a rather swift, albeit bloodless coup.
Thus, to my mind, the Immigration Minister’s subtext is: I know I’m part of the disciplinary action, mate, but I don’t really mean it. You and I are on the same team. The journalist shining the light on you is the problem, the Prime Minister pursuing this untenable standard is the problem. And, after all, a kiss on the neck is nothing compared to what we blokes can say about a woman behind her back.
I was on the plush couch when I read the news that the Immigration Minister inadvertently sent that text to the Journalist of the Shining Light instead of his blokey mate. Oh how I squealed. You know how much I love it when dishonourable behaviour is exposed. When the Journalist of the Shining Light texted back: This is the mad fucking witch, I squealed again, and so did the neighbour’s poodles thinking I was one of their kind.
I loved the journalist’s directness and believed her to be a woman of profound substance who would take this insulting minister to the proverbial cleaners. But, when I read further down in the article that the Immigration Minister immediately rang the journalist and apologised for sending the text to her, my delight darkened for I noted he did not apologise for the content of the text, only for sending it to the wrong person. And, when the Journalist of the Shining Light accepted this apology and when, later, she repeatedly said she didn’t want to make a big issue of it, and she hoped the Immigration Minister didn’t loose his job, adding that she and the minister often enjoy such robust conversations, and she didn’t want to take the focus off what the Minister of the Intrusive Kiss had done, right then, reading all that, my waters began to churn like the Corryvrecken.
Looking past the Immigration Minister’s treasonous allegiances, and his deep ongoing disrespect for women, I saw the inability of the Journalist of the Shining Light to discern between an abusive interaction and a robust conversation. And I saw her, perhaps unwitting, allegiance with a group intent on bringing the Prime Minister down. And this is what disturbed me most.
The Immigration Minister should have apologised for the content of the text, for the content of the text was not funny and should never have been sent to anyone. The joke was that the text was sent to the wrong person. That, we can laugh at, that, we can get over and move on. But this joke was no hollow joke, this was one of those jokes that point to something we must not laugh at. Along with a continuing threat to unseat the present Prime Minister, this joke exposed another minister who has violated ministerial standards and got off Scott free.
Emerita, I know I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know when I say this numbness of the Journalist of the Shining Light stretches through the political soul of our nation to render women lenient, silent, and unknowing collaborators in moments of political subterfuge. Throughout these twelve days the Minister for Women, a woman, said nothing; the Prime Minister, a man who openly promotes women, refused calls to investigate the leaked images of the Hong Kong staffer, and remained silent on widespread calls for the Immigration Minister’s resignation; and, late in the piece, the Foreign Minister, also a woman, said the Journalist of the Shining wasn’t offended so we should all get over it and move on—pretty much in those words.
As I watched the Foreign Minister’s curt delivery of her message I wondered what Shakespearean politic was at play behind this misogynistic curtain, and I wondered how many times she and our Minister for Women have been abused, and how often they re-name misogyny as a blokey joke so they can focus on issues they consider more important than respect for women. Emerita, I fear the permission to be misogynistic is so pressed into our unconscious we seldom notice how we perpetuate it, let alone how we use it to distract from the Machiavellian shadows of government.
I’m on the plush couch with a book on my lap, gazing at the silver birch in my neighbour’s yard, and dwelling on my churning waters. Emanating from the radio is the soft willow-wood knocks of cricket bats punctuated by elegant clapping and gentile commentary. I know, Emerita, I can hear your thoughts. You’re right, I never watch sport unless it’s summer and I am on holidays, and even then I only love it for the soporific sounds, the sense of home and comfort it offers. And you are away, and it is hot, too hot, hot enough for the accompaniment of cricket.
A professional female journalist is interviewing a famous cricketer who hails from the West Indies. I mention his origin since some will come to argue that this influenced how he acted next. Although she is clearly intelligent, Professional Journalist asks Famous Cricketer questions every sports person can answer, but he must find them difficult because he avoids them by complimenting her beautiful eyes (yes, the eyes again) and asks her out for drinks. Professional Journalist recoils. Famous Cricketer says: Don’t blush Babe. He assumes she’s shy and, forgetting he’s at work, he pats her on the back. Professional Journalist says: I’m not blushing.
I am though! Emerita, my jaw has dropped. Famous Cricketer has no regard for the woman standing before him who is paid to elicit information about his job, not his heart, or rather I should say, his dick.
Within seconds the episode is trending on social media, within minutes Famous Cricketer is sanctioned, fined $10,000 and restricted from playing in Australia for the foreseeable future, and within the hour, he reluctantly apologises for making Professional Journalist uncomfortable, adding he was just having a bit of fun. Professional Journalist says, in a manner which indicates she is not at all impressed with his apology, that she wants to move on. A fury of female journalists report that Famous Cricketer has form. One insightful journalist says this happens all the time and many don’t think it’s funny at all, she wishes people would stop laughing. A rather clever strategy, I think, for jokes that don’t get laughs soon stop being made.
Before you can say Immigration Minister there is #IstandwithFamousCricketer and a chorus shouting: Famous Cricketer didn’t mean offence, he apologised, Professional Journalist should get over it, can’t a bloke just be a bloke these days? And one of these cries comes from the Deputy Leader of the National Party, a man who would be leader of our country if life plays the cards the way he wants.
What startles me most in the social media debate, if you can call it a debate, is the lack of regard for the danger in which Famous Cricketer might have placed Professional Journalist. It did not occur to him, or to the thousands of commentators, that in a country where women are bludgeoned to death weekly by men who say they love them, a woman working in the media can be considered public property. Demeaning her before an enormous audience can cast her as ‘asking for it’ as she walks home of an evening.
As it happens, the actions of Famous Cricketer’s employer protects Professional Journalist’s dignity and her job, unlike the inaction of the Prime Minister who still offers no consequences for the Immigration Minister’s disrespect for the Journalist of the Shining Light, and unlike those who facilitated the revenge of the Minister of the Intrusive Kiss. The speed and extent of the disciplinary action of Famous Cricketer’s employer brutally upstages the Prime Minister’s desire to portray himself as a man for women, highlights the business sector’s commitment to engendering respect for women, and lays bare how anaesthetized some politicians are to the abuse of women.
It was after a breakfast befitting my holiday detox, which amounted to little more than lemon juice, mint tea and muesli mixed with psyllium and coconut oil, when I was again on the plush couch scrolling through Facebook. Outside, a blackbird was splashing in the birdbath while a local cat observed it then curled into the boston ivy. And there it was, on my iphone in the palm of my hand, another woman and another man in front of another camera—the next misogynistic moment in the opening days of Australia 2016.
Having thought I had finished this epistle to you, I sighed and wondered how many more episodes there might be to relate, after all, we could be in for another three, if not another six, since all things come in threes and this was, in fact, number three. And, as you know, I am of the persuasion that a rush of similar events is a sign of something bubbling to the surface for contemplation, so I wondered exactly what aspect of Australian misogyny was insisting itself upon our awareness. Here’s what happened.
Miss Universe Australia was covering the weather on a national morning show, for the first time in her life. The gendered layers rippling through the decision to cast a woman with a psychology degree from the University of Western Sydney as a weather girl are startling enough, but that was soon eclipsed. Sports Presenter, who introduced Miss Universe Australia lingered beside her as she spoke to the camera. It was as if he couldn’t completely give the limelight over. Perhaps he felt that by standing beside Miss Universe Australia some of glory would pass to him. Noting that Sports Presenter had not moved away, Miss Universe said: Sports Presenter here doesn’t want to leave my side. And, gazing at the camera like a mischievous teenager, Sports Presenter didn’t take the hint to leave, but interpreted her statement as an invitation to put his arms around Miss Universe Australia’s waist. She struggled a little to separate from him, and giggled in an attempt to save the situation, but Sports Presenter turned his gaze toward her face, and it looked for all the world like he was going to kiss her. Furiously, she brushed him aside then said, jokingly: Professional Please! My Goodness! Then she giggled some more, looked directly into the camera and got on with her job.
Sports Presenter, now aware of his national indiscretion, moved back like a child hiding behind his mother’s skirts and said: No! No! There’s been stuff about this all week. Then he jumped over a nearby fence and looked into the camera saying: I’ll go, I’ll go! I’m not Famous Cricketer. And then, pointing to Miss Universe, he continued: It’s her first day. She’s flying.
Did you get that, Emerita? He said: It’s her fist day. She’s flying. I don’t think many noticed what he said, so distracted was everyone by the hug and his effort to disassociate himself from Famous Cricketer. But Sports Presenter’s last words revealed, to me at least, his true intention. He wasn’t stealing her limelight, he was endowing her with his light, to coax her out of the nest, to let her fly. As if a beauty queen with a tertiary qualification would need the auspice of a minor sports presenter to do her job.
Instantly the tribes were lined up on either sides of the village square that is social media today. On one side the pointy hat tribe rattled broomsticks and shouted, Misogyny! Misogyny! On the other a tribe wrapped in Australian flags, Eureka tattoos, and waving tools that might draw blood as well as cook things on a bar-b-q, bayed at those reclaiming witch-hood to toughen up or we’ll loose our colourful culture. He was just being a bloke, and can’t a bloke be a bloke anymore, after all the Deputy Leader of the nation is one of our tribe.
The din forced the national morning show to bring Miss Universe Australia and Sports Presenter back to explain. Sports Presenter apologised to the millions he had offended, to the show’s anchor and, very poignantly, to Miss Universe for offending her. His explanation: he was trying to have fun.
I noted this time that no one was laughing at his idea of fun, and I also noted that he seemed unaware of his own intention to help his female colleague ‘fly’. Nevertheless, Sports Presenter was honourable, unlike some ministers we know, and Sports Presenter was sincere, unlike a certain cricketer from the West Indies. Miss Universe, apparently surprised by all the fuss and genuinely unoffended, accepted his apology and told everyone: Sports Presenter and I are colleagues and friends, and we were chatting just like we do normally off camera… I didn’t think anything of it.
Wait a minute! These two friends flirt and hug and giggle off camera as well as on? I don’t know about you, Emerita, but I certainly think something about that. I think that is romantic behaviour. Surely a woman with a degree in psychology can distinguish between the two. But then as you and I have frequently observed, romance is often invisible to those involved while obvious to all around.
How curious and blurred the territory between friend, colleague and romantic companions; the territory between men and women at work; how subtly this terrain numbs women to envy’s work, fosters the treacherous text, ignites fun at a woman’s expense, facilitates the theft of light. Emerita, could it be the events of these twelve days in Australia, the kisses and pixelated image, the insulting, perhaps treasonous text, the pat on the back, the arms around the waist, could it be they are all knotty intersections in the oppression of women? Surely, sending friends in the media the image of your victim, staining the quality of a woman’s work with the tar and feathers of a crazy, sexy witch, fear mongering about political correctness, remaining silent, or minimising abuse, surely all these are the actions of those perpetuating the misogyny they say they stand against.
Oh, Emerita, I look forward to your response, and hope the clear air of winter brings wisdom to this treacherous summer down under.
With love, as always,