Some of you probably saw Adam van Koeverden’s post earlier this week on his blog, as many people shared it across Facebook (http://www.vankayak.com/blog/2016/8/12/feminism-in-sport.html). It even got picked up by the Huffington Post, which guaranteed a lot more clicks and sharings.
And when I saw the theme, I really wanted to like it. The basic premise is he had seen an interview between Ron McLean and Adam Kleek on CBC, and in the interview, Kleek had criticized Eugenie Bouchard’s focus at the Olympics. So van Koeverden was writing to take Kleek to task for what he perceived to be sexist commentary, with the backing principle that men should call out men when they do this. It shouldn’t just be women saying, “Hey…..”.
I love the premise. I do. And so I saw the headlines, jumped on the click, started reading, and then faltered. Because as so often is the case with these things, the blog entry makes a few claims that seem to me to be sweeping generalizations that weaken the call-out. You can read the original post linked above, so I don’t have to repeat it here. Let me instead summarize the argument into a few key points so you’ll see where my hesitancy lies.
- Kleek shouldn’t comment on tennis as he isn’t an expert.
- Kleek shouldn’t judge “focus” or “commitment” by a person’s social media presence, etc.
- Kleek suggested she may have a stronger desire to be a media darling.
- Kleek did a “girlish impression”
- Three Olympian women objected to the commentary.
- Symbolic of other sexist behaviour, such as asking her to “twirl” (Australian reporter faux pas) or the Sun calling Penny Oleksiak “Pretty Penny”.
- Men should call out men, not just leave it to women to object
- Men don’t get asked these terrible questions.
- Men don’t get asked about performance vs. social media distraction
- It’s generational, perhaps….digital millennialism.
- Eugenie is doing amazing so no basis for criticism.
- If three women object, accept their view and apologize. If they’re offended, an apology is required.
Okay, so I summarized a little too much, too many sub-points, but you get a pretty good overview of his argument. But I’m going to deal with them in groups, and somewhat out of order. If you have read my posts before, you know I’m long-winded, so there is a nice little recap/summary at the bottom before I get to the part that actually matters.
It doesn’t happen to men (6, 8, 9) — This is the most popular line out there, since if it only happens to women, it must be sexist. Except it does happen to men. Regularly. For example, at this Olympics, what was one of the most shared images? A photo of Michael Phelps supposedly glaring at his opponent, along with EXTENSIVE commentary about the apparent social media war between them … and guess what sort of questions came with it? Oh yeah, that it might be a DISTRACTION from focusing on the races.
The number one male swimmer in the history of the Olympics, his medal count outweighs numerous country totals, and yes, they’re asking if social media distracts him from his focus. I guess too that Adam missed the comments on the CBC during London and Vancouver and Sochi about the “hotness” of some of the guys, including Canadian female Olympic athletes joking about the guys on the air. And I’m certain no female commentator anywhere would have dared comment on the oiled-up Tongalese flag bearer. And certainly not on CBC. Oh, wait.
I don’t want to be too harsh though, as most people perpetuate this “myth” that it is exclusively only happening to women. It shows up in politics — Hillary questioned about her wardrobe but never Trump. Why? Because the media spent two months discussing his hair and the size of his penis.
It shows up in Hollywood, with red carpet divas objecting to fashion questions when they are wearing tens of thousands of dollars worth of accessories, greater than many viewers’ annual income, for one night of the year where they go for high glamour and glitz and sparkle. But that should be off-limits because no one (except the 1000s who buy fashion mags and tabloid coverage of the events) could ever care about such silly topics on such an important day as Hollywood paying expensive tribute to itself. Of course, if you followed that line of logic, you should also probably never comment on a bride’s dress on her wedding day because that’s incidental to the importance of her making a gigantic personal commitment to someone.
People might argue though that these are isolated incidents, I need more evidence. Okay, let’s take women out of the equation for the moment. Even the Olympics. Let’s look at a widely covered sport like football in the NFL. If “focus” and “outside distractions” commentary only happen to women, there would be no mention anywhere in NFL coverage. Right? That’s the logic. Except every year there are multiple stories about this running back or that wide receiver, often rookies with money in their pockets for the first time, often with the bright lights of the big show in their eyes, not being able to focus on the game. That their off-field behaviour is a “distraction” from their “job” of competing at the highest level. Every single year. And yes, lots of references to social media as part of the “problem”.
If the blog said that we do it MORE to women, I would be happy to agree. I think we still have a sexist society, and I think it is reflected in journalism and particularly sports journalism. Saying it is “only” women is pretty selective interpretation.
If it was “sexist” to question Eugenie about social media because Kleek was male, should Andi Petrillo apologize to Phelps for any on-air discussion of the social media stuff he was involved in? Does the CBC owe an apology to Tonga?
I’ll come back to the “twirl” issue later.
Don’t comment on tennis / Eugenie is doing great (1,11) — This one is hard to get behind on any level. There’s this little thing called freedom of speech and it lets you comment on any topic you want. Usually, if you do, and you sound like an idiot, it’s pretty obvious. And people cough, turn away, and ignore the idiot. I find it hard to think it benefits anyone to “call anyone out” because they don’t know something. Particularly when you start by saying “Hey, I don’t know anything about the topic either.” Okay then, if so, maybe you should shut yourself too, if you’re calling someone else out about it.
And if we want our talking heads of any form to always know what they’re talking about, there are going to be a lot fewer employed talking heads and a lot of dead air coverage of some sports. Not necessarily a bad thing, just that I have some sympathy for those paid to be on air for a lot of hours with a microphone and no script. And Kleek may not know anything about tennis, but he does know what it is like to be a professional athlete, to get ready for big events, to try and focus on a competition while the world swirls around you asking you to do silly things like 30-second interviews to tell people “what it’s like to win/lose/compete”.
Digitalism/Social media presence is poor evidence (2, 3, 10) — On this point, I agree wholeheartedly with van Koeverden. Generations view it differently, just as younger people travelling often want to check in on FB while older people often are like “relax, unplug!”. It’s part of their digital life. And if van Koeverden wants to say Kleek is out of touch with modern life, sure go ahead. I won’t join in the piling on, for a simple reason. If I have to respect a younger generation for valuing social media, I have to respect the older person for not doing so. Doesn’t strike me as a reason to “call someone out”, nor in such an aggressive fashion. Not to mention there are already 1000s of articles out there about generation gaps and how the older generation doesn’t understand horseless carriages / rock ‘n ‘roll / drugs / sex / digital worlds.
Three women objected so he should apologize (5, 12) — If his mom taught him that, he should go back and have a chat about how people end up being doormats. Cuz that is the same attitude that forces many women to stay with abusive husbands. It’s their duty to apologize because, well, the other person says so. No, that’s not how life works, except in the world of “we have to be politically correct all the time”.
Sure, we have a stereotype out there that if someone bumps into a Canadian, the Canadian will apologize. And I don’t disagree that it would be a “good” thing for him to do. Nice. Canadian even. But that’s not what the blog says. It says he SHOULD do it, i.e. there’s a right from women to an apology and whether he was right/wrong or entitled to express an opinion, he has a duty to render the apology.
So I’m offended by the post implying that men do this to women all the time. And by the assertion that if I don’t agree, I’m part of the problem. Well, I don’t agree to his lines of argument, does that mean he owes me an apology? No. It means we disagree.
The test isn’t simply whether one feels offended, that’s one’s subjective bias. If that was the test, everyone everywhere would have to apologize for everything ever said on TV as there is someone somewhere who will take offence. It happens. And lots of times we shake our heads at them and think, “What a whackjob, that isn’t what that means”.
The test isn’t who objects, it is what was said and to whom. Kleek didn’t comment on the three women who objected. He commented on Bouchard. So, the question is does he owe an apology to HER and HER ALONE, not all women everywhere who might be offended on her behalf.
I said I would come back to the “twirl” example, and this is where it comes in. Just as van Koeverden says he doesn’t need to defend all women, they can do so themselves, so can Bouchard. When the Australian reporter, for whatever stupid reason, asked her do a little twirl to show off how cute she was, Bouchard had a choice to make. She could object and say no. She could object and explain why. She could walk away. She’s a big girl, more than capable of taking care of herself. And what did she do? She laughed it off, did the twirl in a cheeky little fashion (which to my mind was done as much to mock the reporter, not satisfy him), and went on with her life. Was it the most “feminist” response? Was it the best response? Not me to judge. Her life, her choice.
Was she offended? I have no idea. Just as with this one. While it is fine for van Koeverden, or any of the three Olympian women, to take issue with the statement and suggest it was inappropriate, the only person who can truly say if it was offending is Bouchard. And if so, then we move to analysis, somewhat more objective than the rhetoric of van Koeverden’s blog, to say, “Does the evidence (like in the blog) suggest there is something there?”
Quick recap — criticizing focus or digitalism happens to men and women, it is not inherently sexist. The fact Kleek was a man and Bouchard a woman didn’t make it so either. Sexism requires it to be BECAUSE Bouchard is a woman, not just of the opposite sex. It’s a symptom, perhaps, but not the basis. Equally, commenting without expert knowledge of social media or tennis isn’t inherently sexist either.
So, if all that is true in my mind, why would I want to support the blog?
Because Kleek didn’t just question her focus or media or commitment.
He did a “girlish impression” that was meant to be demeaning and belittling. Because “girlish” was bad. That only “girls” worried about hairstyles and fashion. Because it meant she wasn’t a real athlete. And that it was a way to mock her, that her sex made her less.
THAT is sexism pure and simple.
And if van Koeverden wants to call out anyone for doing THAT, without the other misplaced rhetoric, more power to him. Or anyone. Male or female. Because that kind of behaviour is unacceptable.
And it deserves not only an apology from Kleek, but it also deserves an apology from CBC for allowing it to air and once aired, not immediately denouncing it and banning Kleek from all future broadcasts.
You shouldn’t get a second chance to make a lasting sexist impression on the millions of Canadians tuned to watch the best the world has to offer, not the worst.