What a glorious couple of days it has been for women in Australia. It’s as if just before the stroke of midnight on the last day of 2015, the entire country held its breath and made a New Years resolution for 2016 to somehow become more sexist. The first few days of the year were taken by Jamie Briggs and Peter Dutton, both doing their best to ensure the year was kicked off in sexist style. Last night in in a very public way, cricketer Chris Gayle took the torch from them and ran with it. After a post-dismissal interview, meant to be about the game he was playing in, the Melbourne Renegades cricket player made inappropriate comments to Channel 10 sports journalist Mel McLaughlin, telling her that her eyes were beautiful, asking her out for a drink, and telling her “don’t blush baby”. Welcome to the New Year, ladies.
This exchange set of a storm of discussion on social media. There were those of us who found the exchange unacceptable and maddening, and there were those who were there to tell us why we were wrong. There was explanations like ‘He’s a big personality’, ‘wouldn’t you have a crack if you met Mel?’ ‘Gosh, can’t men hit on women anymore?’ and ‘She just needs to loosen up’. But most of the reasons revolved around the idea that it was ‘just a joke’ or ‘friendly banter’. There are a couple of things to note when watching that video. The first is the laughter coming from the male commentary team during the exchange.
The second is Mel McLaughlin’s face and body language throughout. It is hard for me to see how you can watch that incident and see it as anything but a woman being put into a very awkward and uncomfortable position by a man. It wasn’t workplace flirting, or friendly banter between two people. If you think ‘banter’ is a woman being made uncomfortable by a man’s advances at an inappropriate time, then I am sorry for any woman you come into contact with. It was not banter, it was not funny, and it was not a compliment. It was inappropriate and demeaning comments made to a woman simply trying to do her job.
Many people commented on how well and professionally McLaughlin handled the situation, as if that makes it okay in some way. It doesn’t. All that does is speak to how unfair it is that someone so professional and good at their job is put into that position, and it also speaks to how women who have jobs in male-dominated fields have to become experts in dealing with men acting inappropriately toward them. Additionally, this is saying that ‘acting professionally’ is to just accept what is happening and ignore it and move on. Women in this situation have the option to ‘act professionally’ whereby people will then claim that it’s not a big deal because they didn’t get upset; or they have to ‘act unprofessionally’ which is to call it out or make a scene – a reaction that would get them labeled a troublemaker, or an uptight bitch who can’t take a joke.
Women working in sports already have to work twice as hard as men to be taken seriously, they already have to deal with sports fans who hate that a woman dare be involved in their sport, and they have to prove themselves over and over again to many people who will never accept them. On top of this, their looks and attractiveness are a constant source of discussion. It is a way for men to take away their power, to belittle them, to ignore their professionalism, and to make sure they know that no matter how hard they work or how knowledgeable they are, they will never be fully accepted because they aren’t a man.
What Gayle did last night was to multiply that by a million. He is a professional cricketer who made it clear he did not respect a female sports journalist, on live television. He made it clear that the only important thing about her was that she was attractive. He ignored her questions about the game, he ignored the fact she was doing her job, and he lit a match under the many cricket fans watching that already have a problem respecting women.
Women in any industry should be able to go to work without having to wonder if they will be made to feel uncomfortable by a man that day. If you are someone who will never have this kind of thing happen to you, if you are a man who cannot possibly understand what those moments are like, if you someone who is not treated differently because of your gender, if you do not hear sexist comments every day of your working life: you do not get to tell Mel McLaughlin how she should react. You do not get to say that she shouldn’t be angry and upset, as she reportedly was. You do not get to decide it’s a joke; you do not get to decide that this kind of insidious and prevalent sexism that happens to women constantly has done no harm.
And you certainly do not get to tell the rest of us how we should feel about it.