Sometimes I think that the day a major women’s sporting event passes without some commentator spouting sexist “humour” will likely also be the day I ride my flying pig to the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow in Atlantis.
This weekend just past, Frenchwoman Marion Bartoli took out the Wimbledon women’s title in straight sets, beating Germany’s Sabine Lisicki with a determined performance that marked her as one of tennis’ new stars.
Any one of those aspects of her win would have provided reams of commentary material, but BBC Radio 5’s John Inverdale had other concerns on his mind, asking his fellow commentators “Do you think Bartoli’s dad told her when she was little 'You’re never going to be a looker. You’ll never be a Sharapova, so you have to be scrappy and fight’?”
The response was swift and outraged, and soon enough the Beeb had released a statement apologising for Inverdale’s comments. He had himself attempted to undo his gaffe while still on-air, waffling, “We poked fun, in a nice way, about how she looks ... but Marion Bartoli is an incredible role model”.
At a press briefing, Bartoli told the assembled media, on the topic of Inverdale’s remarks, “I am not blonde, yes. That is a fact. Have I dreamt about having a model contract? No. I'm sorry. But have I dreamed about winning Wimbledon? Absolutely, yes. And to share this moment with my dad was absolutely amazing and I am so proud of it.”
(Bartoli’s dad, bless, him, reacted with nothing but love for his champion daughter: “The relationship between Marion and me has always been unbelievable so I don’t know what this reporter is talking about. When she was five years old she was playing like every kid and having fun on the tennis court. She’s my beautiful daughter.”)
That a UK sports commentator in the twilight of his fifth decade has the sexual politics of an issue of Viz should no longer be much of a surprise. However, there was a far more concerning deluge of sexism directed at Bartoli, and one that is likely seen as far less “newsworthy” than a BBC commentator’s sounding off.
Over on Twitter, scores of men - many of them in their 20s or younger - unleashed a tirade of abuse at Bartoli.
If you’re looking for true misogyny in action, these tweets are it; pure and simple.
Inverdale’s comments were less misogynistic than they were daft, old-fashioned sexism (and there is a difference, despite what the Macquarie Dictionary would have you believe), but I see little more in the response of the young men of social media than hatred of women (particularly successful ones).
This, to me, is the real news story here: what has happened to make a large portion of this generation of young men so virulently contemptuous of women?
In the case of someone like Inverdale - or Alan Jones, or Rex Reed, or any other old troglodyte with their own microphone or column space - the you can only assume that old habits die hard: they were raised in an era of questionable gender politics, came to the fore in a media model that deified men, had no female role models, and so on. Their comments are the death rattle of a generation grasping desperately at relevance in an age that no longer needs them; offensive, yes, but also arguably worth ignoring.
But what of these young guys, young men who’ve been raised in an era where more women are visible in positions of power - in politics, the arts, academia, sport - than ever before? Young men whose women and sisters have likely enjoyed the hard-won (if often small) victories of the women’s liberation movement that came before them?
These are young men who spend their time sounding off on Twitter, leaving abusive comments on YouTube, browsing “creepshots” on Reddit or, in the case of a drunk young man I sat next to on a plane last week, abusing a woman (i.e. me) who is more interested in reading her book than enduring his booze-stinking conversation and taking an upskirt photo of her.
While I’m willing to accept the fact that the echo-chamber of social media has encouraged a certain amount of consequence-free “commentary” online, Twitter’s position as the toilet wall of our time can’t be the sole reason a young man thinks it’s okay to directly abuse (via Twitter’s @-reply function) a woman who has just won a major sporting title.
I wish I had an answer, but I am inclined to think that John Inverdale’s comment, however dunderheaded and sexist it was, is the news story that will be wrapping tomorrow’s fish and chips. It’s the Twitter comments - and everything they stand for - that are the ones we should be really concerned about.
- Sydney Morning Herald
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