opinion

'Two years ago, I laughed at Robbie Williams kissing Carrie Bickmore. Now, I feel sick about it.'

It’s hard not to like Robbie Williams.

With his British charm, sharp wit and infectious charisma, this man is a born entertainer.

Last night, 42-year-old Williams appeared on The Project. It was all very lovely and cheerful. So lovely and cheerful, in fact, that many of you watching the show might have brushed aside or even missed the flashback to the uncomfortable moments surrounding Williams’ kiss with Carrie Bickmore, 35, a couple of years ago.

Partly, perhaps, because of Williams’ charms. And partly, perhaps, because Bickmore was lightning fast to steer the conversation well away.

The program cut to the famous interview from 2014, when Bickmore questioned Williams about kissing a number of male presenters during his press tour.

In the clip, before she finished her sentence, the singer leaned in, held a reluctant Bickmore’s head in place and planted a kiss right on her lips.

Williams quipped at the time, “She pulled away. It was nearly a sexual assault.”

Source: Channel 10

After the replay of the footage ended, Williams made a joke that drew gasps from the audience.

"It's the Donald Trump school of entertainment, that is," he said.

After a little more banter, during which Williams said he heard she was "a goer" and that he later learned she was married (she isn't), Bickmore quickly deflected the attention away from the kiss.

And the discomfort almost went unnoticed. The second that moment ended, I messaged a colleague.

"Is it just me or did that get awkward..? That kiss made me so uncomfortable," I wrote.

"Oh it did. I was just chatting about it," she replied.

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Source: Channel 10

And then something strange struck me.

In 2014, I watched that kiss and laughed, unfazed, before probably reaching for another square of chocolate.

Fast forward two years, I watched it and winced. More than winced.

There has been a major change -- not just in me, but in Australia's current mood -- to have sparked two wildly different responses to the same piece of footage.

In the last two years, we have seen countless incidences of inappropriate sexual behaviour, suggestions of violence and sexism being called out in a very public way, splashed across front pages and dominating news bulletins.

A quick list of examples:

  • Cricketer Chris Gayle telling sports reporter Mel McLaughlin, "Don't blush, baby", after asking her out on TV.
  • Eddie Maguire's remarks about drowning sports journalist Caroline Wilson.
  • The Footy Show's Sam Newman making sexist jibes toward his co-host Rebecca Maddern.
  • Karl Stefanovic's 'Same Suit For A Year' sexism experiment.
  • Olivia Melville, aka 'That Tinder Girl', fighting against online sexual threats and harassment in court.
  • The Brock Turner Stanford rape case and the spotlight it put on victim-blaming.
  • Taylor Swift filing a sexual assault lawsuit against a DJ she alleges groped her in a photograph.

And those are just to name a few of the high-profile examples, on local and international soil.

These didn't just command the public discourse for one day. The conversations lasted days, some even several weeks.

And of course, along came president-elect Donald Trump. Ever since the US presidential primaries kicked off last year, allegations of sexual assault and evidence of blatant disrespect for women have been reported widely.

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Footage emerged of Donald Trump humiliating and forcibly kissing Jennifer Hawkins. Source: Getty Images

Hordes of us have pushed back on outdated views that it's 'all just a joke', that ingrained misogyny 'isn't a big deal'. Hard. Female celebrities have spoken of their own experience of rape culture. Everyday women have tweeted with hashtags such as #NotOkay to share their harrowing stories.

Conversations that were previously had secretly, behind closed doors, were suddenly being laid out in open arenas.

We have seen an extraordinary shift in the language we use and the gravity we place when discussing sexist behaviour and violence against women. And it's happened in a very short time.

That's why last night's 2014 footage of Robbie Williams and Carrie Bickmore punched me in the guts.

Because looking back at the clip now, it's plain as day. Bickmore did not consent to being kissed. Her body language, recoiling as Williams approached her, said it all.

He knew it. She knew it. We all knew it. And then we laughed at his joke about it being almost sexual assault.

Chris Gayle made inappropriate remarks to Mel McLaughlin on TV. Source: Channel 10

That may have been okay (I say that very loosely, because when is it ever 'okay'?) two years ago. But if Williams - who I acknowledge did not act with malicious intent - had forcibly kissed Bickmore now, in 2016, our instinct would have been staggeringly different.

The public and the media would not have let it fly.

Williams would have been rebuked for many days and, no matter his intentions, a public apology would have been demanded.

But I believe there is a grain of positivity here.

Because, while it's easy to feel emotionally crushed by just how far attitudes toward women have to improve in society,  last night's events taught us we have grown. It can, surely, only go up from here.

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