By Virginia Haussegger
This column was first published in The Age
An ex-hack’s fascination with ”pert” breasts and ”post-pubescent babes” would be funny if it wasn’t so pathetic. But Geoffrey Barker’s now infamous tirade against young women television journalists is also a little creepy. Most importantly – it’s a stinging example of an increasing backlash against women.
Interestingly, Barker’s rant wouldn’t have made it into print when I first landed a job as a television journalist in the late ’80s, back when we wore matt lipstick and serious shoulder pads. While the sexist wail would have been heard in the pub, I doubt any serious editors would have published it.
Bob Hawke had broken new ground with a Sex Discrimination Act in ’84, and Australia had ratified CEDAW, the UN’s Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. With feminism on the front foot and strenuous efforts being made to ”out” entrenched sexism, including in the media, my old male colleagues were mindful of unleashing a feminist tirade.
But things are different now.
Certain cohorts of men have grown tired of feeling threatened by women who work hard, outsmart them, and can possibly even replace them. No wonder they screech on radio about women destroying the joint.
In its most reductive, Barker’s argument goes like this – pretty young woman equals body equals breasts equals bad. Breasts are bad for the serious business of news. But good for ”eye candy”.
Barker’s central concern is that eye candy – in the form of ”pert” breasts – has taken over television news. He laments a lack of seriousness in news reporting, and a demise in the integrity and credibility of news broadcasters. And on that he is not alone. As the hundreds of comments that have followed the publication of Barker’s column demonstrate, many people are worried about a perceived dumbing down of news. And that is a legitimate concern we need to discuss. But the problem with Barker’s attempt to tackle it is the alarming and unapologetic sexism in his argument. On face value his approach is misogyny writ large.
Barker’s fear and apparent loathing of the youthful women journalists, who have outgunned him, obviously keeps the curmudgeon gripped to the telly, as he seems to know an awful lot about these reporters whom he can’t stomach to watch. They are ”usually blond” with hair that ”artfully tumbles onto the shoulders”. They have blue eyes that ”sparkle brightly” and teeth that are ”arctic white”. And their breasts are not just ”pert” but ”perky” too. What’s more, it seems he can’t rip his eyes from them. ”It doesn’t matter much what the babes have to say,” says Barker, because ”What matters is how they look.”
Yes, Barker’s rant is creepy and wild in its antagonism. But it’s also a furious slap down to women. All women. And it took a gutsy female editor to publish it. I’m grateful she did, as we need to see this – in order to tackle it.
The fact that Barker feels the need to publicly rail against women in this way – venting his frustration that young, attractive women journalists are cutting it in an industry in which he once starred – is symptomatic of a deeper social fear that women are gaining too much traction.
In Barker’s view of the world it is simply not possible that these university-educated, good-looking, well-groomed and highly polished young women can be anything but imposters. They must be vapid fakes and fatuous. Why? Because that is the true order of things.
Central to any patriarchal culture powered by misogyny is the notion that women are subordinate to men; they are the recipients of men’s wisdom and direction. Not the other way around. And good-looking ones even more so. They have no agency of their own and no right to pretend they do. After all, what’s the point of all that beauty, other than to tantalise and taunt men?
For women to possess both beauty and brains is anathema, and it would seem in Barker’s world – an impossibility.
In his muddled argument Barker tries to parade as fair-minded, and anything but a misogynist, by naming a number of ”respected and admired” women journalists on the ABC and SBS. He cites them as deserving praise for their work, but it’s unclear if he’s also suggesting they are outstanding women journalists because they are not pretty or ”pert”.
The point is, if Barker has a problem with commercial news programs why has he not directed his fury at the source? Why not discuss the state of the media; the problems that arise when all commercial media are owned and controlled by men. Why not discuss the masculinity that informs and shapes the way we do news in Australia, and the implications that has for the audience?
Instead of interrogating any of those issues, Barker has simply let rip on young women journalists and female appearance.
Perhaps the pressing question for all of us is – why? Why is blatant sexism rearing its head so overtly, and why is such sexism considered reasonable grounds for an argument by a senior, respected journalist? And most importantly – why now?
I guess that’s the thing about the backlash against women. It bowls you over before you even see it coming.
Virginia Haussegger is a Canberra-based ABC TV news presenter.