By BEN POBJIE
Feminism, right? Sometimes, I think, we can get sick of talking about feminism, and hearing about feminism. Sometimes it’s just exhausting, isn’t it? Boring. We wish sexism and misogyny and patriarchy didn’t keep getting raised. We’d like a break.
I feel this, I really do. I bet a lot of the people who spend a lot of time talking about feminism get sick of it sometimes too. Unfortunately, as much as we’d all like a break, it is difficult for feminists to take a break when every day some idiot goes and illustrates perfectly why they have to keep hammering away, because there is just so many more concrete-thick skulls to penetrate.
I was watching Q&A last night, and this really hit me with monstrous force, as I watched Kate Ellis MP attempt to answer questions and address issues in the face of some truly mind-boggling rudeness and disrespect from a sniggering bipartisan triumvirate of Lindsay Tanner, Christopher Pyne and Piers Akerman.
Here’s an example:
Now, in my opinion, in the area of feminism and gender relations, there are very many areas on which room for disagreement exists. I think reasonable people can differ on many issues without anyone being assumed to be stupid or bigoted. And you can disagree on all sorts of things. You can disagree with me, or anyone else, on women’s portrayal in the media, or on women’s dress, on affirmative action, on pornography or sexual freedom or sexism in the workplace. I would not necessarily think you a fool for taking a different position to mine on any of these issues.
But if you try to tell me that feminism’s job is done here, that we are not still living in a society that is positively drenched in sexism, then I will laugh you right out of that cosy little cocoon you’re snuggling up inside. Because if you’re living in this world, and you think everything is cool, men-and-women-wise, you’re pushing a line so obviously and directly at odds with the evidence in front of your face that you might as well be telling me that you just rode into town on a flying sheep.
Q&A seems such a minor, petty thing to focus on – and it is. It’s a tiny drop in the sexism ocean, and there are sure bigger problems out there. But last night’s episode crystallised so exquisitely for anyone watching the heart of the matter – the disrespect, the sneering condescension, and the hostility towards women from which so much inequality and injustice springs.
This wasn’t a rowdy debate where everyone was talking over one another. This wasn’t someone feeling so passionately about a subject he just had to break in to be heard. And this was not a case of one or two interruptions.
This was interrupting, cutting off, and shouting down Kate Ellis pretty much every time she dared open her mouth, in a manner that couldn’t have been more efficient and systematic if Tanner, Pyne and Akerman had got together beforehand and plotted the course of the evening out on a spreadsheet. This was Akerman preventing Ellis getting her point out simply by repeating the word “shadecloths” four or five times, as if that was a counter-argument that would shoot her down; or later on, breaking in to an answer she was giving on education in order to kindly tell her to go and talk to Margie Abbott. This was Ellis attempting to answer an audience member’s question but being drowned out by Pyne and Tanner starting up a conversation about Downton Abbey as if she wasn’t even there. And this was Pyne in particular (and this is pretty much his lifelong form line) talking over the top of the minister every single time she looked like getting near speaking her piece.
It was a horrible display by three men who, according to all reports, claim to be grown adults of fully-functioning intellectual faculties. But in the presence of a federal minister whose views on a range of issues are actually quite important to the country, but who happened to be a woman, they could not find it within themselves to grow the hell up and act like decent human beings. And, what’s more, host Tony Jones seemed quite happy to let them stomp all over the discussion like a pack of St Bernards tracking mud over a carpet.
Of course the other guest, US playwright Nilaja Sun, barely got to talk at all, although some of that could be put down to most of the discussion being very Aus-centric: but when you have five guests, two of whom are women, of which one is barely allowed to talk, and the other has every statement swamped by the bellows of the swaggering Ox Chorus surrounding her, it paints a stark picture of how women are treated ’round these parts.
Bear in mind, again, this is a minister. Not just a woman who wandered in off the streets, but an accomplished, elected representative, in a position of considerable responsibility with significant influence on our government. Patronised and shut down like a schoolgirl answering back to the principal. It was, to put quite mildly, revolting.
And why did they do this? Because they knew they could. They knew that if you shout down a woman, you get away with it. Let’s not pretend they would have acted that way if Bill Shorten had been in that seat – nobody’s default setting is “disrupt” when a man is talking. What’s more, they knew that Shorten would have fired back, and they knew that Kate Ellis couldn’t without being painted as shrill and hysterical. Ellis knew that too – she knew the minute she rose to the bait, told someone to shut up, demanded to be given due respect, she’d be tagged a harridan, which is why she put in a performance of superhuman restraint and class, and emerged looking a more worthy person than those three men put together.
And this is not a Labor vs Liberal thing – Akerman and Pyne were repellent, but Tanner joined in the shut-up-girlie game with gusto. The Liberal Party seems to be captive at the moment to a particularly nauseating cabal of misogynists, but this cuts across the left-right divide. It’s not even man vs woman – rest assured there are women who would have watched that show urging the men on to shut the mouthy bitch up.
I’ve said it before: the battle is between pricks and non-pricks. You’re sick of hearing about feminism? Fine: let’s not mention feminism. Let’s drop the battle of the sexes schtick. How about we just talk about human decency? How about we talk about the ability to treat another person like a person, that ability that is sorely lacking in men like Akerman, Tanner, Pyne, Alan Jones, Tony Abbott…and on, and on, and on. How about we talk about looking at someone and not deciding, based on what they’ve got in their pants, that you’re perfectly justified in treating them like a cross between an irritating insect and a disobedient toddler? How about we talk about, if this isn’t too much of a stretch, a public discussion where how seriously you get taken doesn’t depend on whether you’re packing a penis?
Last night, we saw that the men who believe they have a right to power over all of us have zero tolerance for any woman trying to muscle in on their turf. We saw the clear, shining face of sexism. And those of us with a scrap of decency should be under no illusions: we’re in a war here.
You can watch the full Q&A episode here.