Writer’s blog: Friday Pt 1

Day five Pt 1

I am mentally exhausted after last night, and need to get this out of my system. I did watch the famous runner Usain Bolt easily win the 200m, and I loved the fact that Jamaica won silver and bronze, too. Nice grouping. I was, however, part-impressed, part-horrified that the BBC made a short film about the burning issue of whether the dominance of black athletes in running is about genetics or eugenics. This film took in slavery, Hitler and Darwin, and was intended as a talking point. However, I think John Inverdale handled the ensuing studio discussion – with grumpy Michael Johnson (who made a doc for C4 on the same subject), noncommital Colin Jackson and diplomatic Denise Lewis – really badly, almost as if it was his mission to get a black person to say, “Yes, all black people are alike.”

Was this really the time to have this thorny discussion, BBC? In the build-up to the much-hyped 200m final? It would be churlish to ignore the visibility of black athletes in these events (only one white finalist, a Frenchman), but the debate about genetics versus environment, nature versus nurture, is way too complex to bat around in a studio in a couple of minutes. Johnson seemed to become more and more entrenched behind “nurture” in the face of Inverdale’s evangelism for “nature”, and I must admit I came down on Johnson’s side, for all his over-seriousness. Meanwhile, Lewis wisely threw in climate as a factor. Africa, the West Indies, these are hot countries, and warmth has an effect on muscle; also, it’s self-pollinating – when a country becomes known for certain sports, there is a culture in that country for that sport to be taken up.

As I say, not a quickie for filling time in the studio. Never mind the science; it’s always a potentially reductive argument to say that certain traits are specific to black people, or white people, or indeed to men or women. Black people had to play the minstrel or the butler for decades before civil rights evened up the playing field. If most of the best soul singers are black it’s not necessarily because of genetics, but it could be argued that it’s deeply rooted in the blues and the experiences of slavery. From that starting point, it’s surely the culture of soulful expression that breeds further soulful expression. (How many great soul singers learned to sing in church? That’s not genetic. That’s environmental and social.)

Let’s move on to sexism. This is much easier to treat as a black and white subject than black and white, as the genders are much more clearly defined. At the end of his interview with Olympic gold medal-winning boxer Nicola Adams – women’s boxing’s first ever – Gary Lineker complimented her on her “beautiful smile.” It was his sign-off to the interview, and I’m sure, in the split-second heat of the moment, his brain told him it was a perfectly legitimate thing to say. He lightheartedly congratulated her for not crying like so many other medal winners, male and female, and applauded her for smiling – that’s the context. “You’ve got a beautiful smile,” he said, as a compliment, perhaps unaware that he was not judging a beauty contest. Hey, she has got a nice smile. But she was not being interviewed about her smile, rather, about her amazing prowess in a sport this is only now finally achieving parity within a traditionally male-dominated sport. As such, at such a sensitive moment in the history of women’s liberation, “You’ve got a beautiful smile” made me squirm in my sofa.

Would he have said this to a male athlete? I think not. Would Gaby Logan have said it to a male athlete? Or a female athlete? I think not. It came across as patronising, passive-aggressive and … to use an old-fashioned term … sexist.

Even by writing the word “sexist” down, I realise I sound like a fossil from another century. But casual sexism – the sharp end of which is the abuse and oppression of women, domestic, religious and institutional – has not been eradicated, any more than racism has, or homophobia, or xenophobia, despite great strides in the West and elsewhere.

These were the issues we worried a lot about in the 80s, although by the 90s it had become fashionable to be sexist again. I never bought it. The values I built up over the course of the 1980s have stayed with me. I do not apologise for that.

I Tweeted about Lineker’s sexist remark, and found myself having to debate the matter with people coming at me from all directions. I did my best to reply to the replies that merited a reply, and in many cases found myself in parallel dialogues with all sorts of people I have never met. Many simply concurred. That gave me strength that the fight against sexism is not totally forgotten. The majority of challenges came from men, unsurprisingly. This, in precis, is how the counter-argument ran:

Nicola Adams has got a beautiful smile.

I never said she hadn’t. If I sat at home and commented, “She’s got a beautiful smile,” that would be a perfectly valid observation to make; a subjective one, but valid. I wouldn’t say it to her, necessarily, unless its intention was absolutely understood and we knew each other well. Meanwhile, if I was a powerful, well-paid, well-known male BBC anchorman interviewing Nicola Adam for an important post-win live broadcast on a sports programme about her sporting achievement, I would never comment upon a physical attribute that had nothing to do with that achievement. She does not box with her smile. (Someone said that Clare Balding has commented on Chris Hoy’s thighs; firstly, I bet she didn’t do it to his face; and secondly, his thighs are absolutely intrinsic to his sporting achievement, so you could justify it in any case. We’re allowed to appreciate the physical appearance and attributes of others; this is not about thoughtcrime, it’s about how we express ourselves and what we say out loud.)

Context is key. Women’s boxing is an Olympic sport for the first time in 2012. That’s historic. Nicola Adams is GB’s first medal-winning female Olympic boxer, and the first Olympic gold medalist in the sport ever. She is historic. She is a powerful sportsperson, and, you might argue, an even more powerful sportswoman. Boxing federations have fought hard (ha ha) against women’s boxing being regarded as equal to men’s. I don’t even like boxing, but if men are allowed to punch each other for sport, then so should women be. It strikes me as subtly patronising that women are allowed to box like men, but are still expected to fight shorter rounds (four rounds of two minutes, as opposed to three rounds of three minutes for men), but one assumes this might even out in time. Since you ask, yes, I also think it’s bizarre that women play fewer sets in tennis. Women had to fight to get equal prize money in tennis and were quite prepared to play five sets in order to achieve that at Wimbledon, but the tennis federation left it at three sets. Hey, don’t want Wimbledon to go on too long, do we? Get the women’s matches out of the way quickly and bring on the men. (Anybody doubt that the Williams sisters could go five sets? Or beat the men?)

I’m not much of an expert on sport, as you know, so please correct me if I’m wrong, but women’s football matches are played to 90 minutes, right? (Another victory for women at the Games.) And so it should be. Women should surely be allowed to do the decathlon, too. Institutionalised sexism is all around us, never mind in sport – equal pay, anyone? – so it’s not missing the issue to get upset about a boorish remark made by a male TV presenter to a female athlete. (It was as if this woman in front of him was so powerful, he felt some subconscious urge to attempt to reduce her to a lovely smile.)

I’ve had some vexing responses to my arguments on Twitter, too. One person told me that I am “part of the problem” and that “the media” are too quick to brand someone sexist or racist. (This smacks of the Daily Mail‘s feverish fantasy about “the PC Brigade”.) I’ve also basically been accused of being a killjoy and a sourpuss and been advised to celebrate the fact that a man has complimented a lady. (One Tweeter, female, said, “It is a terrific smile: there has been a fair bit of smile coverage over the Games. Try it yourself!” – which is the reverse-equivalent of a builder on some scaffolding shouting out to a fetching lady, “Cheer up, love!”)

Well, I’m old enough not to worry about being regarded as a grump, or a fossil, and I’m afraid I’m sticking to my guns. The “isms” must be policed, by all of us, wherever they are found. Just as apartheid, segregation and ghettoisation are the logical conclusion of unchecked casual racism, casual sexism points us back at Victorian times when men smoked cigars in the drawing room and talked about politics while the ladies sat around sewing. But had beautiful smiles!

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17 thoughts on “Writer’s blog: Friday Pt 1

    • Comment on. Not complimented on to his face? Also, he’s a man, in a sport that has been for men and women for decades. Women’s boxing is in its first Olympics after a titanic struggle for equality; so a time for extra sensitivity, I would say.

  1. Thought provoking as usual, Mr Collins. Three things: you just reminded me tha it’s Friday today and therefore the last day of your blog (not good). You’ve titled this ‘part one’ which means there’s more to come (good). Lastly, I hope you include your’ commute music’ list.

  2. Re: the sexism. I think “boorish remark” is a bit strong – it’s not as if he said “nice tits, love”. It was perhaps, at worst, ill-considered, patronising and, as you say, out of context with what she was being interviewed about (in general – although, as you state, the conversation had turned to her smiling on the podium, but admittedly it was GL who mentioned it). But sexist? Cringe-inducing, yes. Embarrassing, definitely. But sexist? That’s harsh. That’s a very bold conclusion to make. And you jump to another conclusion that Gaby Logan wouldn’t make the same comment to a male athlete. How do you know? It’s an assumption that enhances your own position.

    I’m not defending GL, or the comment. But let’s get some perspective (and perspective is as key as context): GL is not a renowned interviewer – he is no David Frost, but an ex-sportsman who has made a career of being an easy-going, polite, reliable but non-controversial, MOR presenter. His “beautiful smile” comment is simply an embodiment of his “Mr Nice Guy” persona combined with his inability to be anything more than adequate for sports presenting. His greatest crime is his blandness and his aiming to please. He is not a deep thinker or a penetrative questioner. Is he being sexist, or is he just trying to be nice. Yes, they’re not mutually exclusive, but this “casual sexism” isn’t necessarily not the root of a deep-seated sexist attitude. (Or, perhaps it is, but it’s a helluva leap to suggest so.) It’s unfair to label him so based on that comment – an muddled, off-the-cuff attempt at a compliment. You say that “casual sexism points us back at Victorian times when men smoked cigars in the drawing room and talked about politics while the ladies sat around sewing.” – No, it doesn’t. Again another leap you have taken.

    I am not sure I follow your point about it being sexist to make the remark to her face, though. Why is that different?

    • Put simply, if a presenter makes a remark to a female guest that he wouldn’t make to the equivalent male guest (ie. in this case, a gold medal-winning Olympian), then it is, by nature, sexist. Whether conscious or unconscious, to compliment an athlete on her smile because he is a man and she is a woman is to – in my view – subtract from her sporting achievement, which is a significant one. I don’t regard the “leap” from what he said to what he thinks as great. The leap from a patronising comment to Victorian Britain was intended as a ridiculous one, but I am flattered that you would take my words so seriously. If I was making a serious point there it’s that, unchecked, men treating women as decorative or weaker than men is something that does nobody any credit in the modern age.

      My complaint is less about Gary Lineker specifically; it’s no witch hunt, and I don’t have that much knowledge of how good or not he is at interviewing as I don’t watch that much sport. My beef is more about the way women and men are treated in sport. I wish for greater equality.

      Also, you can think “Nice tits, love”, to use your example, but to say it out loud would be sexist and offensive. One is able to check one’s thoughts and filter them. This is how society works, surely. Alan Partridge is a great comic creation as he is a man, in a public forum, who does not filter what he thinks before he opens his mouth. That way lies disaster. If John Terry had thought “black c—” and not said it, he wouldn’t have ended up in court.

  3. If a male presenter said “you have a lovely smile” to a man, that would seem an odd thing to say. I don’t really know how to articulate why. The sentence is only likely to occur said by a man to a woman. It may be less sexist than unlikely to occur in another context.

    • I think I can articulate why it would seem odd for a male presenter to tell a male athlete he has a lovely smile: because we live in a predominantly heterosexual society, albeit one that’s increasingly tolerant and even affords them some statutory rights (not enough, but some), which is a quantum leap from homosexuality being illegal until the late 50s. But even the most liberal among us might subconsciously assume a male sports presenter to be heterosexual until advised otherwise.

      None of which subtracts from the fact that a man telling a woman she has a beautiful smile could be perceived as sexist if he wouldn’t do it to a man. And Lineker wouldn’t do it to a man. Sexism is merely treating someone differently because of their gender. But I fear it’s impossible to simply substitute “man” and “woman” in the same equation to prove or disprove it.

  4. Faultless arguments from my perspective and a very interesting read. I’m sick of hearing people moan about political correctness like it was something that was all dealt with in the 80s and has now outstayed its welcome. Quite frankly there still are a sizeable number of people in our society who simply need to be reminded about what is acceptable and what isn’t.

    PCness has always been with us in one form or another, it was just moved into more important territory in the 1980s. After all, what’s putting your knife and fork together at the end of a meal (and most aspects of table-manners that we all adhere to without thinking) all about if it isn’t a form of PCness?

    Racism, sexism, homophobia and then table manners. That’s how I’d place them in order of importance.

  5. Just a quick quote from an interview with Hillary Clinton from 2010:
    MODERATOR 1: Okay. Which designers do you prefer?

    SECRETARY CLINTON: What designers of clothes?

    MODERATOR 1: Yes.

    SECRETARY CLINTON: Would you ever ask a man that question? (Laughter.) (Applause.)

    MODERATOR 1: Probably not. Probably not. (Applause.)

  6. I think you’re right on the Gary Lineker thing.

    As it happens I’m pretty damn sure that I have seen male interviewers telling male athletes that they’ve got a “great” smile, or how it’s great to see them smile. Not “beautiful” obviously – they’re not, you know… But it probably also goes without saying that the athletes in question were always black. Because – hey – we all love to see a happy-go-lucky smiling black man, right? Ask him if his natural rhythm helps him time his steps between the hurdles, Ron. No one ever told Allan Wells he had a great smile.

    Attitudes clearly take time to change. You can only choose to say the politically correct thing when you’re aware that what you’re about to say or do is politically incorrect. If you tell a commentator that he talks about black athletes in a way that he wouldn’t dream of doing about white athletes he might see your point and think about what he’s saying. (That situation has improved a great deal in the last ten to twenty years, though it’s hard to watch an Olympics opening ceremony without thinking of Alan Partridge talking about the plucky Moroccans.) All I’ve ever done is sit squirming in front of the TV. Starting a bit of public debate even on a small scale can hardly be a less effective way of hastening change.

  7. I wasn’t sure if you were being ironic but I wanted also to say that Michael Johnson’s over-seriousness should not count against him. But perhaps stupidly I felt that needed to be in a separate box from the comment above. He’s got medals in taking sport very seriously indeed. Ultimately doing what athletes have to do to win gold could start to appear as slightly odd and perhaps unhealthily obsessive behaviour if you looked at it too hard. The Olympics only matter because the athletes want desperately to win. As is the way of all things, it’s self-justifying: the athletes want to win because the Olympics matter. It’s a cycle driven by serious competitiveness.

    While I watched the opening ceremony I haven’t seen any of the sport because I can’t stand the “Team GB” approach. I did catch this satellite feed of a US reporter though. In itself there’s nothing wrong with this, but you’d have to imagine this is the way we’re heading. Give me Michael Johnson any day.

  8. Just thinking aloud here, but would you feel the same way if GL had described that smile as infectious? Nicola Adams enthusiasm for what she does is surely part of her success, and part of why she is perceived as an ambassador for her sport. Her enthusiasm is conveyed in large part by that smile. And in the context of a smile, a beautiful smile is one that lights up a face, indicates joy and enthusiasm, and is infectious. Anyone can have a beautiful smile. I wonder would ‘the Nicola Adams effect’ on women’s boxing be as great if she were dour and taciturn? Her smile is irrelevant to her boxing prowess, agreed, but I don’t think it’s irrelevant to the fact that she has just made history.

    • Let’s be clear: whether or not Adams’ smile is beautiful or not is simply not the issue. When a female athlete achieves something in a sport that is only just achieving gender parity after years of inequality, it is not the time for a male presenter to compliment her on her smile, as it deflects from her achievement (even if, as you suggest, it reflects her enthusiasm). This is a time to focus on her athletic achievement, and indeed her achievement for women in a male-dominated world. That is surely the only “context” that matters. If Nicola Adams was dour or taciturn, she would still be an amazing role model and ambassador, for athletes and for women. I’m starting to wonder if even discussing her smile, even in this context of intelligent debate, isn’t becoming patronising. I say again, if a male boxer had a beautiful smile, I seriously doubt GL would have mentioned it.

      And, by the way, if she was dour or taciturn, would Linker have said, at the end of the interview, “Cheer up, love, it might never happen”?

      • Totally agree, dour and taciturn or smiling and joyful, either way she is the kind of woman other women seek to emulate, if not in boxing per se then in commitment and achievement. And I’m sure athletes of either gender feel the same. She has literally fought her way to the top in a male dominated sport and that is beyond exceptional.

        GL wasn’t the only person to mention her trademark smile. It worries me more that the Daily Mail described her as ‘a bonny little lass from Leeds’. Now that is patronising.

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