A few months ago, through my new colleague Steve Threadgold, I had an opportunity to chat with Paul Bevan on ABC Newcastle radio. We talked about the fallout stemming from a highly awkward appearance by newly appointed UNHCR ambassador, actress Kristin Davis, on the breakfast show Sunrise. You can listen to the radio spot here.
As background, Kristin Davis, or ‘Charlotte’ of Sex and the City fame, purportedly believed she was going on this breakfast television show to talk about her involvement with the issues facing women and children refugees such as sexual violence, vulnerability and other horrors to do with being forcibly displaced. Indeed, this would have been a welcome topic given the climate of the Australian political landscape for relation to asylum seekers.
Of course, this is Sunrise. What devolved was, indeed, painful to watch, but not due to the recounting of the plight of refugees. Though Davis was interviewed in relation to this for about, say, a minute, she was then substantially quizzed on a number of SATC facts. Unsurprisingly, it fell to Samantha Armytage, more than her co-host David ‘Kochie’ Koch, to play the role of the enthused fan. If this weren’t enough, Armytage then had to wrangle Davis into a skit where they re-enacted a scene from SATC with two other female Sunrise hosts. This skit was deliberately role-played amateurishly, and Davis, though poised, looked clearly and unambiguously mortified.
Armytage’s invitation to a UNHCR lunch was subsequently (rapidly) withdrawn, and Sunrise issued an apology. But it got worse for Armytage; she then became the subject of ABC newsreader and journalist Virginia Haussegger’s untrammelled fury for ‘letting down feminism’ due to being a ‘bimbo’. Honestly, I felt bad for Armytage.
I found a few things about the above scenario really interesting.
First, that Kristin Davis’ embarrassment at the Sunrise antics was highlighted as the key source for rebuke. What was salient for me however, was the yawning silence relating to refugee women; their voices and perspectives were barely raised; they were hardly even allowed the space to be spoken for by Davis.
Second, Haussegger’s rage. In making her opinions public, the anguish felt by women in battling for respect in the media industry was converted into what was portrayed as a media ‘catfight’. Respect and the status of women in media is a longstanding issue; research indicates that it is still a highly male dominated field (Gill 2007). Yet, when Armytage took part in the humiliating SATC-themed pantomime, the unavoidably silly tenor of what she did was pinned solely on her shoulders, not on Sunrise, its producers, or the genre of breakfast television more generally. Haussegger’s allegation was that by being a stupid woman, Armytage let down women. It indicated a curious inversion of second-wave feminist principles and perhaps is telling of the extreme pressures of competing for visibility in this industry. Where second wave feminism emphasised the ‘personal as political’ as a consciousness raising exercise in solidarity, so women understood their personal struggles as part of a mass, gendered struggle, here, Armytage’s individual conduct as a woman is singled out and taken to punish women as a group. Surely this is too high a burden for any single woman to bear.
Perhaps Haussegger was railing against the unfairness of the system. Because women already struggle with obtaining equality in the field of media even when they are as qualified or more qualified than men, any sign of being imperfect, or worse, ‘a bimbo’, may be felt to be a betrayal. But blaming individual women rather than sexist standards, to me, seems counterproductive.
Third, and related to this, I am interested in the rapidity with which feminism has become a personal yardstick by which to evaluate and judge a woman’s behaviour. I have noticed the rise of the understanding of feminism as a means by which to police one’s own tastes and consumption. Feminism becomes a self-perfectionism. Women feel compelled to become consistent, feminist consumers, for example, in needing to justify watching shows like The Bachelor in feminist terms.
I argue that it is important to have debates about the boundaries of feminism because, as Budgeon (2015) argues, if every consumer item is able to be rationalised post hoc as feminist, what does this mean for feminism as a viable, powerful social movement for enacting dramatic change? But here, the need to police behaviour on such a personal level suggests to me that feminism is being translated into a personal etiquette with which to judge and evaluate the self and others as good and bad. The problem I see with this is that feminism becomes a means of shutting down rather than debating its underlying ideas and theories and its future. If one is called a ‘bad feminist’ i.e. bad woman, where can the discussion go? Can it really progress in a useful way?
Your thoughts? I’m outlining some of my thoughts here as I’m potentially interested in exploring some of these threads in future research on feminism, identity and media culture, so your ideas are welcome!
Gill R. (2007) Gender and the media, Cambridge: Polity Press.
Budgeon S. (2015) Individualized femininity and feminist politics of choice. European Journal of Women’s Studies 22: 303-318.