It seems barely a day goes by without some new example of a professional woman in the public sphere being asked the sort of question that would never be asked of her male counterpart. Take for example Amal Alamuddin, human rights lawyer in her own right, but recently married to George Clooney. She reacted with mirth when asked ‘Who are you wearing today?’ when on her way into court, dressed in her judiciary robes.
This follows a recent backlash by some women in Hollywood against the sexism of questions they’re asked on the red carpet, the ‘slow sweep’ shots of women’s bodies and their dresses (but never men’s), and the so-ridiculous-it’s-hilarious ‘mani-cam’. If you’re fortunate enough to be unaware of this trollop, it’s a box with a camera that celebs use to “walk” their fingers down a tiny red carpet to show off their manicure. Read about it here.
Thankfully, many are refusing to under-go insult of the ‘mani-cam’, and many are speculating it will not make an appearance at the Oscars in a few weeks. RIP mani-cam.
And what of the insufferable ‘give us a twirl’ request made of Eugenie Bouchard, world number 7 tennis player in a post-match interview at this year’s Australian Open? Many commentators on social media decried the implicit sexism of this request. Can you imagine Rafael Nadal or Roger Federer being asked to comment on their outfit, let alone be asked to ‘twirl’?!
Surely the most invidious example of sexism in the media against prominent women though was The Australian’s gobsmacking obituary to best-selling author Colleen McCullough last week, which described her as ‘charming and warm’ despite being ‘plain’ and ‘overweight’.
The offensiveness of such remarks are only emphasised by their inappropriateness as an obituary to a leading literary figure. The example essentially spells out that no matter how remarkable, intelligent and successful you may be through your achievements and actions, if you are a woman, nothing matters so much as your appearance. The obit suggests that indeed, she was successful despite it! Whacky-doo! Read about it here.
The problem exemplified in these examples goes beyond the fact that men are not subject to such questions, treatment or critique. The #questionsformen hashtag has lit up on Twitter over the past 24 hours, highlighting the sorts of questions women but not men are regularly asked. Read about it here.
These issues would not be simply solved by subjecting men to the same humiliating questions, or asking them to ‘twirl’ in their outfits (satisfying as that mental image may be). A future obituary to a male author similarly describing him as ‘fat and pallid in feature, he was, nevertheless, a man of charm and character’ would do nothing to address the sexism underlying McCullough’s obituary. Unfortunately these examples point to much deeper problems than can be solved by merely flipping the script.
Pointing these examples out highlights that there are enduring inequalities in how men and women are permitted to occupy public space. Why, when women are occupying professional roles in greater numbers than ever, are they subjected to questions about their appearance, families and homes? Perhaps I’ve just answered my own question.
Perhaps Jennifer Garner says it best. Speaking recently at a Women in Hollywood event she discussed her frustration at being constantly asked about ‘juggling work and family’ while her partner, Ben Affleck, is not (he gets questions about his co-star’s boobs instead). She said, ‘We share the same family. Isn’t it time to kinda change that conversation?” Read about it here.
Dr Julia Coffey
School of Humanities and Social Science