‘You got hit on? Big deal bitch!!! STFU you over sensitive cow and be great full someone thinks you are beautiful instead of whining about it’ (January 5, 2016).
This was directed to Mel McLaughlin after cricketer Chris Gayle propositioned her on national television last Monday night.
Calling flirting ‘sexist’ confuses us. This Facebook commenter (and the many others like him) might actually believe that Gayle was bestowing his public approval on McLaughlin. Why shouldn’t she feel flattered by that? And why should flirting attract a $10,000 fine? Gayle was merely being generous and appreciative, and it was thrown back in his face, right?
To some extent I understand why people might feel this way. But there is a distinction that must be noted. Follow me and I’ll explain the problem.
In my younger years a friend once marvelled over how helpful men were to me. I would consistently get help for fairly menial things even if I didn't need it. All I did was smile and they’d be there. I didn’t mean to be manipulative. It was just my lived experience that men were mostly nice, friendly people who helped other nice, friendly people. The key? Be nice and friendly. I knew that there was some harmless flirting involved, but that was just friendliness.
For the most part it was all fun and games. But I also remember a darker side. Generosity sometimes took a turn towards transactionalism: ‘I do this for you, you must do that for me’.
This is when a male expects payment for his generosity, which might include unwanted touches, suggestive comments and even more if the time and circumstances are right. A woman can pay more than she bargains for in this unspoken transaction.
As a school leaver, I remember landing a great job in a small health food shop and cafe in George Street, in the centre of Sydney's CBD. Most employees worked in the cafe section, making healthy lunches and smoothies for city workers in an era before smoothies were even hip. I bypassed the cafe and moved straight to the plum job selling health products and vitamins in the cute little shop on the back of the cafe and counting the money at the end of the day.
At about 5:30 pm that first day, I was accompanied by the middle aged manager down a long flight of steps to a small subterranean room to tally up the totals. I understand that he probably needed to make sure I had enough maths skill to add up the day’s takings, but I can still remember his heavy breathing on my neck as I tried to concentrate in that cramped room so far from any help. It was hot and stuffy and my defences were on full alert. All of my instincts were focused on what he was doing behind me and I had trouble even counting properly. I moved as far away from him as I could get and opened the door 'for some fresh air'. Fortunately, he got the message and I got away with not much more than a serious fright, but I also lost work hours and didn’t get to keep that part of the job. That was by no means the first or last time that I was considered more of a sex object than someone who was there to do a job.
Sometimes women don’t even realise that they are entering into a transaction until it becomes clear that payment has not been delivered. This is what McLaughlin is now experiencing. Members of the public are turning on her for not holding up her end of the bargain. You got the job because you are beautiful, now put up with us treating you as a sex object rather than a credible reporter.
“I don’t really want to be the subject of such conversations…. I just like going about my business and doing my job but [it’s] definitely a good thing that people are talking,” she told Channel Ten's The Project team.
She wants the debate to be had, but would prefer that her own name was not associated with it. This is because she knows what is expected of her by the mostly-male interviewees and a high proportion of the television viewing audience. She knows that the flirting, the comments and the treatment of herself as a sex object over and above her treatment as a professional is a large part of the world she works in, and is considered by many to be an acceptable payment for the privilege of her role. However, it’s ‘definitely a good thing that people are talking’.
Sexism has long been a part of the sports world, with media, fans, players and investors complicit in it. You only have to look at the numbers of women’s games that are broadcast on national media, the money earned by women in comparison to men, and the types of clothing worn by women athletes who are trying to attract a higher dollar (think beach volleyball, basketball, lingerie football). If women’s games are not as exciting because they can’t run/lift/tackle as well as men, why are they suddenly more interesting when they dress in skimpy clothing? Transactional sexism is why. The only way that we are interested in you is if we can treat you as a sex object.
It’s arguable to say that McLaughlin's job hinges on her beauty, although no doubt she is also a credible reporter. Erin Molan, fellow female sports reporter (who is also a stunning beauty), implies that their beauty is an asset when she says ‘It’s a great field and to be honest sometimes it can be an advantage to be a female, sometimes I can get stories that my male colleagues don’t’ (UK Daily Mail, January 6, 2016).
So yes, women are complicit in this transactional sexism. To get the job, to earn the right to work in a field that has been traditionally male orientated, they trade on their beauty, just as many female sports stars have done. But they also come from a position of lower power and they can easily lose their advantage if they do not play the game right.
Holding up their end of the bargain means that these beautiful young women must smile and laugh when treated as conquests instead of real reporters, real sports stars. By playing ‘nice’, everything will work out okay. By not playing along, they could lose their career.
The message is loud and clear: keep smiling, don't complain and be grateful princess!
Sexism exists when someone cannot do their job, their study, or go about their daily lives without being treated as a sex object — first and foremost. I hope that sums it up for those who are tempted to think that Gayle’s ‘flirting’ is really only harmless.