When pictures of the female players with full-forward breasts were splashed everywhere following Legends (aka Lingerie) Football League games in Sydney and Melbourne this month, it underscored what has been a losing year for women.
Little publicity is given to women’s sport in general. Did you even know there are female gridiron teams, where players wear full protective clothing like men? But attention wasn’t a problem in this case. ”It’s far better than watching netball,” wrote Aaron Langmaid in Melbourne’s Herald Sun.
The high ratio of photos to text online was significant. Camera angles captured bikini-topped flesh and skimpy undies in reports that failed to even mention the score. Women’s bodies were on display, treated as a spectacle.
There were few advances for women in other public areas either. Australia now has fewer women in cabinet than the government of Afghanistan.
The Human Rights Commission has shown that sexual harassment remains widespread in Australian workplaces and that attempts to address it have stalled. The Bureau of Statistics presents similar disturbing figures on the harassment and stalking of women.
Victims of sexual harassment and assault continue to be blamed for what is done to them. The Victorian parole board review found that deadly mistakes had been made in the release of women’s assailants, leaving them free to strike again with ferocity. Read more here.
‘Roxy and the “sex sells” agenda of surf corporations a la Big Surfing are completely disconnected from what we know surfing to be about: freedom. We don’t want what you are selling’
When writing my column on the objectification of women in sport, I came across the writings of American surfer and Women’s World Longboard champion Cori Schumacher. I was impressed. Cori can both surf and write. I can only write. But she makes me want to surf! You’ll see why in this piece which she has given me permission to reprint in full.
Crossing the threshold from land to sea, the weights of gender and sexuality attached to the wings of my soul fall away. It is as if the ocean itself has the power to remove the stench of centuries from this form; a body I was born with, did not ask for but have found a way to cherish despite all the messages received from a world that would label me as second-class, nearly worthless, save for a tiny window in time if I were but to follow the intense pressures to submit to an ogling gaze that deems me worthy if I relentlessly give away my true power to embrace an ephemeral faux-power wrapped up in beauty and youth.
Let us be clear as to what this ephemeral faux-power of sexualized beauty entails:
“The answer to who has the power in these videos is blatantly clear.
We are the ones constantly depicted naked or semi-naked, in hyper-sexualized ‘biting-our-lips, batting-our-eyelashes’ demure, weak and submissive poses. It’s a position that signals vulnerability. You can’t be naked, while everyone else is clothed, and be in power. You can’t be naked and be the one in control. You can’t be naked and be the one choosing. To be naked is to be exposed; to be weak. Ultimately, it’s to be powerless.
Even when women are sold the story that their beauty is power over men, it is a deceptive and temporary truth. It’s baseless power. It is the kind of power that only exists in relation to a man’s desire. In this equation, women are defined only in relation to the men in their lives; only to the hard-ons they can incite. In these videos they’re always the cheerleaders to the male ego, standing on the sidelines, prancing around in panties, smiling with a come-hither, non-threatening look…” -Toula Foscolos
When conversations around women’s sexualization rise, the most eclipsing and ignorant of responses seeks to polarize our conversations between those who are prudishly opposed to a woman embracing her sexuality and those who are in-touch and empowered through their sexualized nakedness. Please. Women and men, our sexualities, our genders, our desires, how they are exploited and maintained, expressed and repressed, are far more complex than this simple polarization, both in the good ol’ USofA and abroad (yes, that’s right, even the French are engaged in this conversation). The conversation as it stands is due for expansion.
That is, an expansion in the conversation around the difference between the commodification of sexuality for the gain of profits and exposure for a few elite vs. the truly empowering freedom found in working to release both men and women from this circular conversation of a relentlessly disempowered binary that does nothing to celebrate our complexity as human beings.
Sex Sells (seriously, again?)
When I hear the hauntingly redundant “sex sells, so who is losing here” argument I wonder at the absolute lack of imagination and empathy this entails. Rather than argue abstracts, however, I find that it is much better to use specific examples to illustrate who loses when image and sex become the ideas sold rather than the promotion of agency, efficacy and non-image oriented achievement.
Anna Kournikova became the poster-child for sexualized female tennis beginning in the late 1990s. She inspired quite a bit of debate around image and achievement similar to the conversation surrounding Steph Gilmore’s recent trailer for the Roxy Pro. Though what was said regarding Kournikova cannot be said of Gilmore (exemplified by the use of the “Anna Kournikova” in the lingo of some poker card playing variations meaning a hand that “looks great but never wins”), we can look at the impact of Kournikova and the likes of Maria Sharapova in women’s tennis easily enough now that time has passed and draw parallels to who will lose when we allow this unimaginative and lazy rhetoric of “sex sells” to infiltrate surfing or other women’s sports, for that matter.
Marion Bartoli, who recently won the prestigious Wimbledon championship, has had to deal with the most disgusting and pathetic of the dark side of the sexualization of tennis. After winning her first grand slam trophy, BBC TV and radio sportscaster John Inverdale felt the need to comment that she was “never going to be a looker” to which Bartoli responded with the courageous comment featured in the above image. This however was light commentary compared to the “fans of tennis” who decided to let loose a tirade fit to inspire projectile vomiting. Even in the midst of accomplishing one of her greatest dreams, Bartoli has to deal with the sexism that persists for women in sport. This is a loss, not only for tennis, but for female athletes in the future who are no doubt reading all about this. Sexism persists.
“Sex sells” is regurgitated tripe that should be divested of its cowls. Sex sold product when sex in our culture wasn’t visible. Now that sex is everywhere, it is easy to gaze at it as an artifact of creativity and innovation, and indeed, gazing is all sex-used-to-sell is good for these days. A new generation of consumers (whose views translate to purchasing, which is ostensibly what companies like Roxy want) is more attracted to values-driven companies than lifestyle-fetish fodder (as exemplified by the fact that Patagonia saw growth over the last recession by 25%-30% annually while companies like Quiksilver and Billabong continue to lose millions). Sexy marketing once was an innovative way to fill a vacuum only to be found in magazines tucked under the beds of adolescent males, but with this vacuum filled to overflow in the culture-at-large, it has become as redundant and banal as commercials for pharmaceuticals on television.
“There was this one time that I saw an ad that objectified men and it didn’t offend me…”
I suppose it would be just as impossible to explain what it feels like to be a woman in the world and how surfing can be a moment of respite amidst the sexist noise to some as it would be to explain to these victims of sex-trafficking how Steph Gilmore’s trailer for the Roxy Pro 2013 might exemplify Steph embracing her “power” as a woman.
Although some, like Dustin Hoffman, have honestly delved into this question with moving and resonant results.
Why do women run to the sea? Ask yourselves this. What does it mean to cross-over from a culture-land of trauma into a sea of freedom and how impossible will it be to get others to understand how hard some will fight to retain this space where we can release the weight of gender and sexuality imposed on us by our culture-at-large?
If you want to embrace the ephemeral, it’s your life. No one should tell you what or how to use your body. But don’t pretend we are empowering the future here or that it is good for anyone else. This trend shows a complete lack of regard for the health of future generations of female surfers and does not bode well for the future of men’s surfing either. Do you see it yet? The first rumblings of it in the bare-chested way the top 34 male professional surfers are being presented to fans during 2013′s ASP contests?
Cori has a petition against Roxy at Change.org Sign here
As a teenage girl growing up in country Victoria, I was an avid reader of The Age. It inspired in me a passion for journalism. I did work experience on the local paper and went on to study journalism at RMIT. I scored a cadetship and began my life as a working journalist. A few years later I was awarded a scholarship to study journalism in the U.S. While in the States I submitted my first feature piece to Rosemary West then editor of the Age ‘Accent’ section. She ran it. I returned and began writing freelance. Now I’ve been given a gig as a columnist with Fairfax including The Age. My columns will appear every fortnight. Here’s the first, which appeared on Sunday.
Women judged to not possess hot bodies, or who fail to exude sex appeal to the ogling masses, are unworthy of sporting pursuits.This is the verdict of many voyeuristic spectators who saw French player Marion Bartoli win the Wimbledon women’s singles trophy last weekend. Her skill on the court was irrelevant. Bartoli didn’t conform to the sexy sporting babe norm. How dare she even show up with a racquet?
Worse still, this ”oily-faced bitch”, without the requisite sexy body, defeated a tall ”good-looking” blonde, Germany’s Sabine Lisicki. This was treated as a crime against humanity. Bartoli was subjected to a public shaming – a stream of eviscerating cyber disparagement for her appearance. Comments included Ellis Keddie’s: ”How is bartoli a professional athlete and fat as f—?” and London’s Stifler: ”Bartoli you fat shit. I don’t want an ugly bitch to win.”
Yet another described Bartoli as ”too ugly to be raped”. She was ridiculed as a lesbian and told to have her penis removed – ”see if she’d win then”.
In the global eroticisation of women in sport, what’s the point of a woman competing if she can’t provide eye candy to the men?
Has a male tennis player ever been subjected to such mob vilification for not conforming to a sexualised beauty? Do men endure such excessive focus on their bodies?
Shortly after Bartoli won, BBC Radio 5 commentator John Inverdale said: ”I just wonder if her dad … did say to her when she was 12, 13, 14 maybe, ‘Listen, you are never going to be, you know, a looker. You are never going to be somebody like a [Maria] Sharapova, you’re never going to be five feet 11, you’re never going to be somebody with long legs, so you have to compensate for that.
”’You are going to have to be the most dogged, determined fighter that anyone has ever seen on the tennis court if you are going to make it,’ and she kind of is.”
Bartoli bravely dismissed the comments: ”It doesn’t matter, honestly. I am not blonde, yes. That is a fact. Have I dreamt about having a model contract? No. I’m sorry,” she said. ”But have I dreamt about winning Wimbledon? Absolutely, yes … and I am so proud of it.”
The hypersexualisation of female athletes means a woman’s strengths are ignored. Reinforcing appearance over talent means sportswomen are openly abused in the public space.
Remember when swimmer Leisel Jones’ body shape was pilloried during the 2012 Olympics? Jones, the first Australian swimmer to compete at four Olympics, was judged out of shape (read ”fat”). English weightlifter Zoe Smith was labelled a ”bloke” and a ”lesbian” on Twitter. She went on to break the British record for the clean and jerk. American gymnast Gabby Douglas was criticised for her hairstyle. She won two gold medals.
In this appearance-based culture, girls get the message that to play sport, especially at high level, is to be subjected to judgment. Only certain body types need apply. This is reinforced by the Roxy Pro surfing promotion featuring a slim blonde in something akin to a lingerie shoot.
Hawaiian surfer Keala Kennelly wrote on Facebook that she thought the promo looked like an ad for a gentleman’s club or escort service. ”It says to me, ‘Who you are as an athlete is not important, what is important is that you have a hot little rig guys can perv on. As somebody that has fought so hard all my life to be respected in the surfing industry for talent not tits, its [sic] just really frustrating to see Women’s Surfing going in this direction.”
In Huck magazine, surfer Cori Schumacher wrote: ”I hoped that they would be able to focus more on their surfing ability rather than being burdened by a sexually available, blonde, fit image that took much time and money to maintain. But … the trend of focusing on the bodies and sexuality of female surfers seems to have grown worse.”
Girls need to be inspired by representations of women mobilising their gifts and abilities to reach their goals in sport and life. But, by age 14, girls are dropping out of sports at twice the rate of boys, according to the US Women’s Sports Foundation.
The Roxy and Wimbledon examples won’t inspire girls to take up sport. If you don’t look ”hot”, you may as well sit on the sidelines. And that’s the last place we need our girls to be.
Your taxes at work: harassment and intimidation treated with indifference – why I went public
There’s a feature piece in The Australian today by Chris Kenny. ‘The Unkindness of Strangers’, subtitled: ‘When an ugly post goes viral via social media, victims find there is very little they can do about it.’
Sexism, pornography, social media, bureaucratic accountability and the contest of ideas; this story touches on these volatile topics and reveals the challenges of the digital age, and its propensity for hypocrisy and injustice. The way women are treated in public debate has become hotly contested ground in recent years …
It took me awhile to summon the strength to agree to go public on this story. Months of unrelenting abuse last year caused me to go under the radar for a while. Now, getting it (well, one aspect of it) out there, brings feelings of exposure and vulnerability. But I felt that what happened had to be brought to light. For eight months I was shunted, fobbed off, given the flick and ignored by the Australian Public Service Commission and Australian Tax Office regarding a complaint about a public servant who tweeted requesting naked images of me. It had started to feel like they were running some kind of protection racket.
It was over dinner with public servant friends that I learned about APS codes of conduct. It seemed tax department officer Darryl Adams had pretty much breached them all. My friends encouraged me to make a formal complaint (reprinted below) and told me how to go about it.
As I told Kenny: “It takes a lot of time and energy, especially emotional energy. There was a principle I thought was important: that people shouldn’t be harassed and be intimidated by officers of the crown who we pay to do their job. He is a servant of the people and was publicly requesting lewd material of one of those people.” (Actually I used the words ‘masturbatory material’ not ‘lewd’ but the Oz lawyers didn’t love that so much so it got changed).
It was this mind numbing, soul deadening, reply that sealed it for me. I knew then I had to take it higher if I was going to have any chance of a meaningful response.
From: Lowe, Anne Sent: Friday, 15 February 2013 4:37 PM To: Melinda Tankard Reist Cc: Lowe, Anne Subject: RE: ATO response to my complaint [SEC=UNOFFICIAL]
Thank you for your email of 2 February 2013 in relation to your complaint made to the Australian Public Service Commission (APSC) regarding the conduct of an ATO employee.
I advise that the APSC was advised of the outcome of our investigation of your complaint in September 2012. As the recipient of the original complaint the ATO understood that the APSC would, in accordance with usual procedure, advise you of the outcome of your complaint. I regret that this has obviously not occurred.
I advise that the ATO dealt with your complaint in accordance with ATO policy and procedure and the matter has now been finalised. Due to constraints imposed by the Privacy Act 1999 I am unable to provide you with any further information regarding the outcome.
Thank you for bringing this matter to our attention.
Director People Team | Health & People Management | ATO People ATO| Working for all Australians
It wasn’t until the intervention of the Assistant Treasurer David Bradbury (whose portfolio includes the ATO) that there was any real interest in my case. I was lucky – unlike most women in this situation, I had a senior contact in Government. He helped put me in touch with a senior staffer in Bradbury’s office.
After briefing the Minister, the staffer wrote a strongly worded email to the Taxation Commissioner on the Minister’s behalf, copied in to the Special Minister of State, requesting he look into the case. The email was sent at 3.20pm. At precisely 3.48pm I received a voice message from the ‘Head of People Management’ of the Australian Tax Officer, citing ‘urgent investigation’, ‘receiving full briefing’, ‘will call you again this afternoon’. He was helpful, acknowledging my complaint had been badly handled, and later wrote advising it had been upheld (though I couldn’t be told what disciplinary action had been taken). This was a year after the tweet I had complained about.
I got more action from Bradbury’s office in an hour than I got from the APS and ATO since last June and am very grateful for the Minister’s involvement. I felt like it was the first time my harassment was taken seriously. I feel sorry for those without contacts though. Do they just disappear and say nothing – like those departments seemed to expect me to do? This was the main reason I decided to talk to Kenny.
Here’s my letter of complaint to Mr Stephen Sedgwick, the Australian Public Service Commissioner.
Sexual harassment is sexual harassment regardless of who it happens to
It appeared on Huffington Post last month but I’ve only just read it. It is the kind of piece which needs to be read slowly, and a few times, it contains so much to absorb. Here’s an extract:
The problem is determining at what stage she started to cede her self and becomes, in her own eyes, mainly some (bright, young) thing other people see and use. This process begins much earlier than when a girl is 15 and maybe buying thongs.
In general, parents, schools, counselors, “concerned” adults aren’t openly confronting the unrelenting pressure girls feel to base their self worth on being beautiful, perfect creatures idealized for the sexual and breeding purposes of others. For many people, girls and women are biologically meant to be available to boys and men in these ways. Our default is “Yes!” and “Of course!” You know the kind of being I’m talking about — females whose purpose, abstracted, divine or biological, is to look out for boys and men and guide them to ultimate pleasure and eternal happiness. Hey, aren’t Victoria’s Secret’s models called ANGELS? What a visually pleasing, totally random and meaningless coincidence.
Once a self is ceded it’s hard to get back. Regardless of a girl’s or woman’s age, this kind of objectification and “sexualization” results in a performance. It’s not about being a sexual person, it’s about acting out someone else’s idea of a sex object. And… what girls and women want, feel, need and experience are irrelevant unless they help fulfill the dreams of boys and men. The impact is real, meaningful and measurable. It’s also serious and not at all entertaining.
Girls who conform well and internalize their “thing-ness” don’t miraculously stop doing it when get their driver’s licenses. It NEVER ends. Read the full article here.
Canberra has ‘mum and bub’ movie session times, women-only ‘Chicks at the flicks’ sessions, single-sex schools, women’s magazines, targeted programs and services for women, award-winning women-only gyms. Yet we are faced with barriers when it comes to accessing women-only swimming sessions at our local pools.
We all understand and value the wider benefits of pool access for our children and adult swim squads, water polo and swimming lessons. So why should a few sessions a week for Canberra women to swim be a problem?
Melbourne and Sydney have successful women-only swimming pool sessions. NSW. McIvers Baths between Coogee beach and Wiley’s Baths have ocean views and remain a popular spot for women since before 1876. Despite a court challenge in 1995, the area was granted an exception under the Anti-Discrimination Act to continue operating as a women-only venue.
Support for this initiative in Canberra is widespread and includes, Life Saving Australia’s Sean Hodges, Labor’s John Hargreaves, ACT Greens Meredith Hunter, Gungahlin advocates Alan Kerlin and Bill Reid, executive director of Canberra YWCA, Rebecca Vassarotti, ACT Multicultural Ambassador, Sam Wong, Canberra Rape Crisis Centre’s Tanya Wiseman and writer and women’s advocate Melinda Tankard Reist. We also have support from some of our women- only gyms in the ACT.
With International Women’s Day celebrated recently, it is a reminder that while we honour the advances that our women have made throughout time, we still face struggles. Our request to Canberra pool owners for women only swimming sessions is about upholding women’s choices.
Women of all ages have reported various reasons why they prefer to exercise and swim in a women-only setting. Some of the reasons include modesty, feeling more confident trying new things in a women-only space, wearing what they feel comfortable swimming in and not feel that men are watching them, enjoying the social aspects of exercise and the support network provided in a women-only space. Others have stated their discomfort is due to body image concerns, some older women feel more comfortable in a women-only setting, others recovering from surgery, women who want to breastfeed openly but are conscious of male gazes, cultural or religious reasons, and many based on personal preference and choice.
As a clinical psychologist I see women who have experienced sexual, physical or emotional abuse. Some of these women prefer to be supported by females, needing a women-only space at times to feel safe and until they feel more confident. Tanya Wiseman from the Canberra Rape Crisis Centre reported that they have had requests for women-only programs such as self-defence classes etc. for similar reasons.
Really, what are we asking for? We are asking for space for women to have fun swimming with other women, is that unreasonable? I don’t believe so, and many would agree with me. If Sydney and Melbourne can have long running successful women-only swimming programs, why can’t we?
I live with, work with, and know the most wonderful men, but I choose to exercise and swim with the sisterhood of women.
Sally Kalek is a clinical psychologist in Canberra. She has had worked in both the private and public sectors. Sally has a long history of community activity, including board membership of the Migrant and Refugee Settlement Services ACT, various school P&C’s, fund raising and community events. Sally has an intimate understanding of the mental health issues impacting on people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds. Her particular interests are with women, children and family issues and fostering better support services for these groups.
Huzzah! More sexualised images of women served up by the fashion and beauty industry
Here’s some photos from the latest issue of Vogue Italia featuring Australian model Robyn Lawley, with two other plus-sized models, Tara Lynn and Candice Huffine.
The colloqial expression “Huzzah” was deployed recently to describe the inclusion of the size 14 Lawley on the cover and inside, as though this is some world-shaking victory.
The ‘plus size beauties’ lean over plates of spaghetti in their lingerie. Lawley sits with legs spread. In other images two models loll around topless on a chair in a boudoir-like setting. Another lays back over a couch in corsetry. The expressions are of high-class glamourous seduction.
I am not contesting that they are beautiful women, and the images are visually rich. The question I ask is, why is stripping off and sexualising larger-sized women a great victory? How is depicting them as semi-naked sexual adornments like their skinnier sisters, a reason to celebrate?
And given that size 14 is an average size why is it being called a ‘plus size’ anyway?
I also wonder if these models didn’t have classic model facial features and large breasts, whether their ‘larger’ bodies would ever have made it on any magazine.
Simply using curvier bodies doesn’t change the primary aim of presenting women in magazines like Vogue, as sexually alluring. The baring of female flesh – even when the flesh comes packaged as something other than an eight or ten – is still what counts. But the flesh has to be of an ‘acceptable’ kind in the first place. Size 14 isn’t that radical.
Regarding Lawley’s positioning on the Vogue cover, according to her mother (as reported by Frockwriter) the photographer asked Lawley to sit how she would sit if she were a really powerful person.
I’m not sure it’s power that comes across in the image. Sure, if she were a man in a pinstriped suit perhaps. I just don’t see that many men sitting that way in corsets and suspenders. Or perhaps I don’t get invited to meetings of business men sitting around in their jocks with their legs apart.
Sitting spread legged in sexy lingerie directs our gaze and suggests sexual availability not ‘I’m planning a company takeover’.
Vogue Italia’s editor-in-chief Franca Sozzani recently told Women’s Wear Daily, “We help [plus-size women] dress fashionably.
Which is kind of funny given the three curvy models aren’t wearing all that much in some of the shots. Perhaps she should have said, “we tell ‘plus-size women how to take their clothes off to make them more acceptable”.
And while I appreciate that Sozzani has launched a petition against pro-anorexia websites, I share Patti Huntington’s view that this is also somewhat ironic.
Last year I ran a thoughtful guest post by Ethel Tungohan titled ‘Plus size models a tokenistic attempt at inclusion’. Ethel wrote:
A quick look at plus-size fashion shoots show that plus-size models are usually shown as naked. Though fashion editors can easily justify the nudity of plus-size models by asserting that women’s bodies should be shown in all their glory, it is bizarre that a large number of plus-size fashion spreads hardly seem to have any fashion content, preferring instead to depict plus-size models in one of two ways: either they are overly sexualized or they are revered for being ‘real’….
THIS much Nina Funnell knows about the man who held a box-cutter blade to her throat on an autumn’s evening in May 2007.
She knows he had an olive complexion. She knows he had bushy eyebrows and a five o’clock shadow. She knows – although she cringes at the stereotype it encourages – that he spoke with a thick, Middle Eastern accent. He attacked from behind, she remembers that, and dragged her into a park opposite a girls’ high school in an affluent Sydney suburb. She knows there was not just the threat of violence; this man was quite prepared to deliver it. He threw her to the ground, straddled her and punched her repeatedly in the face as he indecently assaulted her.
She knows the police have his DNA, captured in the shreds of skin she clawed from him as she fought him off in what she describes as “an adrenalin-fuelled fit”. And she knows they have not caught him yet. Maybe they never will. This frustrates and saddens her, but she holds on to those tiny nuggets of certainty about that otherwise nightmare-ish blur of events.
As for what has happened since, this much Nina Funnell doesn’t know. Why, after she wrote about the assault, would anonymous contributors to different websites attack her and threaten her? And why would that story, first told in a Sydney newspaper, prompt one website to run a public discussion, inviting guests to assess how “rape-able” she is? And why did one man read of her trauma and feel compelled to announce to the world: “what a conceited bitch for thinking she is even worthy of being raped. The guy just probably wanted to give her a good bashing in which case job well done.”
She does not know why there are some who, years later, still monitor her words and turn up in online forums to spread rumours that she lied about her experience, and to demand she provide intimate details or release police photos of the injuries she suffered.
She does not know when they might strike again, for they seem to work around the clock, and she cannot know whether they target her – “She’s so fugly, I wouldn’t even bother raping her from behind with a box cutter” – from the next continent or the next cubicle. She does not know what they look like and she does not know why they do it, whether it is for fun or boredom, or to humiliate her and encourage others to do the same – or worse. She doesn’t know how many people are doing this to her; trawling the web, looking for opportunities to strike. And she does not know when they will stop.
Which is precisely why Nina Funnell, who now works as an anti-violence campaigner and writes regularly about social issues and the media, believes passionately that there are some things we all need to know about communication in the modern age.
“The internet has absolutely changed the nature of public debate,” Funnell, 27, says. “The anonymity and the immediacy it gives people who want to indulge in abuse and hate… I don’t know if it actually makes it more or less dangerous [to have a public profile] but when you’re seeing a whole heap of hate speech written about you in separate forums, targeting you via email or in comments, I do know that it has a profound impact on your sense of safety…
“I had tried to come to terms with the fact that there was a psycho out there who had tried to rape and kill me. But then I realised that it wasn’t just one individual, that there was a whole subculture that found this amusing. It was sport for them.”
Snail-mail to cyber-bile
Nutters and obsessives; lonely hearts and angry pensioners. For as long as there have been commentators in public forums, there have been belligerent hecklers and aggrieved critics shouting from the fringes. Back when the mail would be distributed twice a day around our newsroom by a junior pushing a creaking trolley, the opinion writers of our newspaper ran a weekly competition to determine who had received the craziest correspondence.
Envelopes flecked with grease spots or some other unidentifiable liquid – could it be spittle? – often disgorged one’s own article, indignantly clipped with ragged scissors or torn wholesale in one enraged swipe, bearing contemptuous comments scrawled in capitals.
Of course, there were more sinister threats, particularly during the fevered days of gun control and Hansonism. The police were called when I received a particularly nasty letter detailing very specific plans for harm and some knowledge of where my family lived. Security guards were assigned to accompany me to my car each night for a few weeks, and I was told to take care when I arrived home. “Still, we have evidence,” a young constable said as he tweezered the letter into a ziplock bag, “and in the majority of cases once they’ve sent a letter that’s the last they ever think about it.”
It was precious little comfort at the time. But after studying some of the cyber-bile sent to Nina Funnell, and after spending hours tracking the crazed logic and outright intimidation of her opponents down the shadowy rabbit holes of various internet forums, abuse that takes a day or two arrive, and then with a postcode neatly stamped upon it, seems almost quaint. Strange days, these, when it can appear almost polite to limit your slander to an audience of one – unless it is taken to the boss or the police – and your death threats to a flimsy page that can be sealed away in a plastic bag.
Cyber-bile takes many forms: from people posting pornography or sexually explicit comments on Facebook memorials to murdered children, to the person who set up a Facebook site which promised the return of abducted Queensland schoolboy Daniel Morcombe if the page attracted one million members. To most right-thinking people this sort of stuff is unbelievably cruel, surely the outpourings of a small number of sick minds. Hoaxers regularly hack into Facebook pages, defacing pictures or spreading rumours that can cause untold pain, panic and embarrassment. And then there’s the constant background chatter that eats away at people – mostly women – in the public domain. It seems everyone has an opinion now, and they want to be heard. But when did they become so mean and, in some cases, downright terrifying?
Sydney newsreader Jacinta Tynan calls them the faceless brave. “When people want to give me a compliment, they tend to email me directly,” says the journalist and author. “Those who want to say really horrible things will go online and do it anonymously. They’re suddenly very brave when they don’t have to attach their names or their faces to their comments.”
“Brave” is a generous description of some of those who regularly post vitriolic opinions on the Sky News website, assessing Tynan’s appearance and performance as a presenter:
News reader Jacinta tynon’s [sic] latest botox shots have reduced her face to a skull and make here [sic] sound like daffy duck lmao how stupid is the woman to think botox makes her look professional. Anything but sweetie, you look and sound terrible.
What on earth has Jacinta Tynan done to her lips? She looks like she’s been bitten by a swarm of wasps. The botox job is ok, but those lips!!!
“Public figures are easy targets,” Tynan says, adding she has never had Botox or collagen injections, but suffered a surge in abuse from viewers as her body changed with her pregnancies. “I think they forget you’re human… I do try to respond to all of them, and when I was pregnant I felt particularly protective, like I needed to point out that hey, there’s a baby in here! But most of the time my efforts are wasted because they’ve used a fake email address…
“What you have to keep remembering, as my mother always says, is ‘what they say says more about them than you’. If someone wants to take the time to get on a website and bitch about how you look, that’s their problem.”
All television presenters have to learn to live with brutal feedback about their looks, Tynan, 41, says. But the internet has made it much ¬easier for critics – and, occasionally, unhinged admirers – to torment celebrities and other public figures who catch their attention. In Tynan’s case, this includes a woman who assumed her Facebook identity, creating a page in her name complete with an array of work and family “snapshots” copied from existing publicity pictures already posted on the Web. Fake Jacinta managed to “friend” many of Tynan’s real friends, who were unaware of the ruse, and apparently even began a relationship online, before dying suddenly. The “tragedy” was announced on Facebook by her “sister”, who thoughtfully posted a picture of her coffin. As unnerving as it sounds, Tynan says she was unruffled by the incident, “although it does show just how easy it is to create a false identity on Facebook.”
Much closer to home – and therefore much more personally devastating – was the avalanche of hostility unleashed after she wrote a newspaper column revelling in the joys of caring for her first son, Jasper, in the months after he was born. “I honestly thought I was writing a positive story about motherhood that would uplift people on a Sunday,” she says of the column, which attracted a record amount of feedback when blogger Mia Freedman reposted it on her popular website Mamamia and prompted vehement talkback sessions on radio around the country. “It was the first time I had been exposed to the level of anger and vitriol that is allowed to breed online through blogs and websites. All the really nasty stuff was personal and so vitriolic. There were people wishing illness on my child and infertility on me.”
The internet’s ability to amplify rumours and thus cement them into facts is what most shocked and, for a while, threatened to overwhelm Tynan. “I tried to keep my head above it, but when it was still going after a few months, it got a bit tough,” she recalls. “It became a bit like a witch hunt. There were people getting whipped up into a frenzy and I realise many of them hadn’t even read what I’d written. But they’d dedicate their own blog to [discussing] it and then people would read that…”
What continues to disturb her is how those malicious “facts” linger long after the debate has died. Google “Jacinta Tynan” and “nanny”, for example, and the search engine takes 0.20 seconds to deliver links to several sites where readers are informed authoritatively that Tynan is unqualified to talk about motherhood because she has a full-time nanny. Tynan, now the mother of two, has never employed a nanny, but that may not be enough to sate anonymous critics.
The question remains: what drives this level of anger? Dr Stephen Harrington, who lectures in media and communication at QUT’s Creative Industries Faculty, says much of the aggression comes from people’s disappointment that the online world still appears to favour professionals and experts, rather than levelling the playing field of public opinion as anticipated.
“That gap between the promise [of the internet] and the reality has generated anger and resentment among some people, and they really let that anger fly when they are given even the most tiny chance to have their voice heard,” Harrington says. “The comments section of a news article is a good example. I think some people use those forums to attack everyone who disagrees with them because they have been told that their opinion is equally valid to everyone else’s, and they feel they have the right to say whatever they want to, no matter how tangential it is to the actual item under discussion.”
But if the internet has been likened to the Wild West, a new frontier where law and order is regularly tested in the rush to stake a claim in the new world, then Harrington urges users to embrace the opportunities rather than freeze for fear of outlaws. “Whenever there is a debate about new communication technology, we tend to blame any downsides or negative uses on the technology itself, rather than the people using it,” he observes. “When someone dies in a car accident, we generally don’t blame the vehicle itself, or car companies. Fatal accidents only serve as a reminder that people should be careful on the roads. I think we should approach new media technologies in the same rational way.”
Driven to despair
But what if a responsible commuter on the information superhighway is forced off the road by other reckless or aggressive drivers whose licence plates are obscured? Paul Tilley, 40, may have been one such fatality. On a bitterly cold night in February 2008, the father-of-two stepped out onto the roof of a swank hotel in downtown Chicago and jumped to his death. That a successful advertising executive for DDB Chicago would take his own life at the apparent peak of his career might pass as strange to industry outsiders. But within days of the news breaking – even before Chicago police had ruled the death a suicide – an online flame war had erupted about whether vicious industry gossip spread by anonymous bloggers had driven Tilley to this final act of despair. Regardless of the reasons it is testament to the power of the internet that much of the mud-slinging can still be tracked online by a stranger in Australia, three years later.
“Anyone who thinks this sort of stuff doesn’t need to be taken seriously, that it doesn’t have a serious impact, doesn’t understand the nature of depression,” says Sean Cummins, 49, a successful Australian ad exec, whose experiences at the hands of vindictive industry bloggers mirror Tilley’s in chilling ways.
Now the head of Cummins Ross in Melbourne, his former agency Cummins Nitro was responsible for the internationally recognised “Best Job In The World” campaign for Tourism Queensland. “That was when the vitriol started pouring in, all anonymous, on industry blogs,” Cummins says. “Everything from ‘he’s a bastard to work for’ to suggestions that I hadn’t done the work I’d claimed credit for, to jibes about my personal life and even my profile photo…
“It’s a form of social terrorism. My kids were being taught at school not to cyber-bully and yet here were these professionals out trying to really hurt people by doing exactly that.
“It was such a personal and outrageous character assassination and the collateral damage was enormous. There was a knock-on effect: when you’re not confident, your creative work suffers because you second-guess yourself. Then I dulled the pain by drinking. I was erratic and my mood swings were inexplicable to my wife and family. Then my wife went on the website and she was shattered.
“Unfortunately, I got to the point where I contemplated topping myself and the ways I might do it. What stopped me was knowing I would leave a lot of people I loved very lost.”
Instead, Cummins has decided to fight back. This week, he will take aim at the “cowards” in his industry – many of whom he claims work for major agencies – in a presentation titled Cummins vs. Anonymous at the Mumbrella360 marketing and media conference in Sydney.
“There is this civil libertarians’ view of the internet that says it promotes a wonderful, open exchange of ideas,” he says. “But it’s not open and it’s not an exchange when someone is deriding someone else’s work or reputation and you can’t respond because you don’t know where it’s come from or who you’re responding to.”
Cummins will argue that all comments on industry blogs should be attributed by name – and that websites should be held accountable if they allow anonymous posters to defame or attack other people. He says ultimately, he is prepared to sue if he has to – and, given he reckons he could mount a case for lost business, when prospective clients are scared off by what they read on the internet, the damages could be enormous. “This is about shutting people down and I’m not going to be shut down,” he declares. “And if I have to stand up before my peers and become the poster boy for good manners, then so be it.”
Ping! One morning, as I am researching this story, an email lobs into my inbox shortly after I’ve logged on to my work computer. I open it to read: Shut the f*ck up you f*cking ugly OLD wowser c*nt. You need a good stiff c*ck shoved down your throat if you ask me. What’s the matter? Were you the ugly fat flat chested girl at school? Why don’t you shut you f*cking c*nt mouth? Live your own f*cking life, raise your own f*cking kids, nobody elected you the arbiter of morality… you’re a do-gooder, a meddling c*nt, who needs to shut the f*ck up. I’m going to a brothel tonight, and I’ll be selecting the whore who most looks your age. Remember c*nt, you’re a wowser c*nt, who needs to shut the f*ck up.
The email has been forwarded to me from Julie Gale, founder of children’s advocacy group Kids Free 2B Kids, who received it after she appeared on The 7pm Project to speak about the sexualisation of children, and particularly reports that increasing numbers of young teenagers were seeking Brazilian waxes.
Ping! Another email arrives. This one is from Melinda Tankard Reist, a Canberra-based author who campaigns on social issues and policy affecting women, most recently the expanding porn industry and “pornification” of pop culture. Bolz says: Melinda quite clearly doesn’t have hot bangable ass…, like Pippa. Jealous much?
Tankard Reist, 48, recently wrote an article, posted on the News Limited website The Punch, decrying the appearance of the Pippa Middleton Arse Appreciation Society page on Facebook as little more than online sexual harassment of the sister of Prince William’s bride, Catherine Middleton. In her article, she quoted comments from the freely accessible Facebook page – “She would need a wheel chair and straw when I’d be finished with it xxbig Matty chambers xxx” – as evidence of the sort of violent and misogynist commentary that flourishes as “fun” on the internet, only to attract the same sort of abuse herself.
Ping! Another one from Tankard Reist, this time a tweet she copied in March targeting News Limited columnist Miranda Devine. @Mighty-Chewbacca: Today screwed Miranda Devine, then penned blog on her soiled panties on bus home.
Ping! And then one from Nina Funnell, recalling the time she wrote about cervical cancer vaccine Gardasil, only to have the online discussion quickly devolve into a slanging match in which she was told she was probably “riddled with STDs” and “just needed a good d*ck up you”.
Ping! Ping! Ping! The messages arrive by email, by text message and via Facebook, after hours and at home, a veritable 24/7 outpouring of sub-intellectual sludge that begins to feel overwhelming in its toxicity, even though I have specifically asked for it. How must it feel when you can’t turn off the tap?
“As a comedy writer and performer, my default mechanism is to see the humour,” says Gale, 48, who somehow juggles a career as a Melbourne-based comedian with her deadly serious Kids Free 2B Kids campaigns to tighten advertising codes for children and restrict their exposure to pornography. “The vitriol is always unexpected, and for a few beats I do have to process the information. But then I take a deep breath and send it straight to my “comedy” file. I know there’s some fabulous material sitting there, and trust me, I intend to use it!”
But she also concedes: “Every now and then, I wonder whether I should be watching my back, but I just shake those thoughts off and get on with it. I’ve never discussed this issue publicly before, because I’m out there encouraging people to speak out – which is paramount to creating change. So I don’t want to put anyone off.”
And therein lies the Catch-22 for women in the cyber-firing line. On the one hand, they believe it is essential to expose the level of abuse and misogyny that has flourished on the largely unregulated new media. On the other, they fear the only effect that would have is to discourage women from participating in public debates.
Says Tankard Reist, who occasionally re-Tweets or posts particularly vile comments: “I want to expose these people so my followers [on Twitter or her website] can see the battle we have, the ingrained hatred and contempt these people have for women… But I already know of young women who say they won’t write their own pieces or contribute to comments pages anymore because of the feedback they get.”
Although she condemns the sort of abuse thrown at men like Cummins and controversial male commentators like News Limited journalist Andrew Bolt, Tankard Reist says it is hard to imagine any man being subjected to the levels of personal intimidation – particularly, threats of sexual violence – that are part of life in the new media age for outspoken women.
Of course, there are still a few things the old and new media have in common, including the truisms that sex sells and so does controversy. So if you build a site where there is heated, colourful debate, the hits will come. And in an era where the media and newsmakers are still grappling with how to build stable, profitable audiences online, few moderators or hosts are willing to shut that down.
“Sure, it drives more traffic to a site,” Tankard Reist says of the sort of no-holds-barred slanging matches that often replace serious debate online. “But editors and moderators need to be more vigilant about not allowing their forums to become platforms for haters and trolls.”
Funnell agrees: “There’s a ‘lighten up squad’ out there where everyone says ‘if it’s too hot, get out of the kitchen’. But perhaps the kitchen shouldn’t be so hot in the first place. This is not just about women. It’s about any sort of hate speech that is systematically directed against any particular group, designed to intimidate them or shut them down. It’s about freedom of speech versus speech that defames, threatens or intimidates.”
Tankard Reist, who has an ear for popular culture, chimes in: “When you ask for moderation or regulation, the people who oppose it claim it’s because they believe in free speech. But they want to shut my speech down. It reminds me of the chorus of that song Ode to Women [by Your Best Friend’s Ex]. They all demand their right to freedom of speech, and yet guys like that are using it to sing: ‘Bitch, shut your mouth’.”
As if there’s not already enough girls whose lives are being destroyed through eating disorders, the on-line UK seller Zazzle.co is doing its bit to make even more girls sicker and to spread further suffering.
This t.shirt (left) is inspired by a motto uttered by model Kate Moss “Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels”. It is marketed to children through a line of “size-zero slogan” products created by US based label Teen Modelling. Even babies are expected to promote the food-is-bad ideology.
‘Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels’ is used as ‘thinspiration’ for girls through pro-anorexia websites. It is employed to strengthen the resolve of a sufferer, to help them exercise willpower and self-control in their quest for ultra-thinness.
Zazzle refuses to take any responsibility, stating: “Zazzle is a custom products platform, it enables all users to create their own products that feature their own content. In this way, Zazzle is an outlet for users to express their personal opinions and viewpoints.”
As long as Zazzle makes money hosting these tees with their killer slogans, that’s the main thing. Profits over the wellbeing and health of girls.
One in 100 girls in Australia suffers anorexia. Anorexia Nervosa is the third most common chronic illness for adolescent girls in this country.
Yet too many companies seem to want to hasten them to an early grave.
Antoinette Jones – Principal – Mitcham Girls High School
“Intelligent, passionate, brilliant, fearless… I could not recommend her more highly”
Dr Michael Carr-Gregg
“You continue to reset my shock meter…”
“As a teacher and parent I recommend all parents, in fact all people, to attend a talk by Melinda- it will open your eyes and awaken your subconscious.”
Heather Douglas – Parent – Pembroke School
“Melinda’s presentations to our parents, staff and full day workshops to students was inspirational, transforming the attitudes and thinking of all involved”
Paul Teys – Principal – Hunter Valley Grammar
“Melinda Tankard Reist’s presentation to Middle and Upper School students at Pymble Ladies’ College was absolutely brilliant!”
Justine Hodgson – English Faculty, Pymble Ladies’ College
“Melinda Tankard Reist has had a transformational affect on our school.”
Ms Stephanie McConnell, Principal – Turramurra High School
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In this DVD, Melinda takes us on a visual tour of popular culture. “Melinda’s presentation leaves audiences reeling. She delivers her message with a clarity and commonsense without peer.” – Steve Biddulph, author, Raising Boys, Raising Girls
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“This powerful and humane book is a breakthrough…Big Porn Inc shows us we are poisoning our own spirits.” – Steve Biddulph
“A landmark publication” – Clive Hamilton
“Getting Real contains a treasure trove of information and should be mandatory reading for all workers with young people in health, education and welfare” – Dr Michael Carr-Gregg, Adolescent Psychologist
Do you read women’s lifestyle magazines? Have you thought about how magazines might affect you when you read them? Faking It reflects the body of academic research on magazines, mass media, and the sexual objectification of women.
Ruby Who? is the sweet and innocent story of a little girl’s adventure in re-discovering her identity. Ruby wishes for so many things and dreams of being like others. Will she end up forgetting how to just be herself?
Ruby Who? is the sweet and innocent story of a little girl’s adventure in re-discovering her identity. Ruby wishes for so many things and dreams of being like others. Will she end up forgetting how to just be herself?
Defiant Birth challenges widespread medical, and often social aversion to less than perfect pregnancies or genetically different babies. It also features women with disabilities who were discouraged from becoming pregnant at all.