Several years ago, while visiting my adult children in Melbourne, I waited for my daughter to return home from a social function. She didn’t. I became dysfunctional. She wasn’t answering her mobile. As darkness turned to dawn I got worse. The phone was running hot to all sorts of contacts – everyone known who was at the function, her university lecturers (because the function was a post-exam get together), her friends… and then the police.
I was in total meltdown by 9 am the next day. Should we scour the streets from the tram station by foot? Should we ring hospitals? What else can we do?
My daughter was not used to having me in Melbourne, and saw no need to tell me what she was doing that night. She was living her life, and it just happened to be a special occasion for her. She decided it was best to stay over at a friend’s house. Nothing unusual.
Except for mad Dad. He’s unusual. He’s not often here in Melbourne.
Over reaction? Of course. Unforgettable? Of course. Possibly tragic? Of course.
But my daughter knows the dangers. She recently told me of how she dealt with a bloke who decided to let his wandering hands wander while she was on an evening Melbourne tram. She was loud and assertive – “keep your hands to yourself, mate!’ – so everyone else could hear.
But that is no protection for her or for her sense of safety. She works at night. She travels by public transport at night. As do many women. That should not be risky for any women in our society. But it is.
When I spoke with her about this she immediately related it to mainstream culture in Victoria – represented strongly but not exclusively in the culture of male sport, especially football. She has developed a passionate suspicion of the male athletic model, particularly but not exclusively as it is portrayed in the personification of the ideal image of Australian manhood’s success in the world at large by the ability to mark a football.
Television football shows confirm her views of a prevailing contempt for women in the male world of sport, and her suspicion of how that reflects mainstream views about women within Australian society.
Who with any sense would question her conclusions after watching episodes of channel nine’s AFL endorsed, Footy Show, over the last decade? If any TV show was designed to endorse misogynism since the introduction of television broadcasts in the 1950s, you don’t have to look beyond the amazingly popular Footy Show.
My daughter has asked me some questions, not all at the same time, but over some years, about aspects of this. What are the reasons for linking male sport with stereotypically sexist attitudes to women in our culture? Has it always been like this? Why is it condoned as acceptable and continually reinforced in the mainstream media? Why is it part of the weekly television fare? Why do women actually participate in support of such programs by appearing as guests or in the audience?
My daughter refuses to watch or read anything to do with Australian football. She is appalled by how the Brownlow Medal function is conducted. To her it is an insult to women. It demeans. It destroys. But more importantly, she thinks it creates mindsets of misogyny, or reinforces them, in ways that can lead to or justify much worse.
One of the aspects of this social behaviour which my daughter finds difficult is the role of women in promoting it, at whatever level it occurs. She cannot understand women becoming involved in football media. She cannot understand women sitting on football management boards. She cannot understand women, such as those holding ministerial office in governments, finding it acceptable to appear on the Footy Show – and being subjected to gratuitous insult.
Has it always been this way? There was certainly a time – it seems a generation ago - when there was absolutely no connection made in the media between male sport and sexist attitudes and values. Now they walk hand in hand. Even on AFL grand final day the traditional breakfast, with its obligatory attendees of Australian political leaders, is invariably the occasion for “featured artists”, such as stand-up comedians, to run a line of smutty jokes. In fact it’s mandatory.
She asks the obvious question. Why is there so much sexual assault involving footballers, and isn’t there a link between its prevalence and the overt endorsement of sexism, or its tacit acceptance “as part of the game”? Why do high-profile women like the Age’s Caroline Wilson and former Tasmanian Minister for Sport, Paula Wriedt, treat the Footy Show with kids gloves when they, and by extension all women, are treated so appallingly?
Or, as in the case of a less-high profile female newspaper reporter at this year’s Brownlow Medal being harassed by a drunken Brendan Fevola, she decided understandably (but unfortunately?) not to pursue legal action. My daughter was not surprised by Fevola – his mindset is culturally set – but how could the reporter not be protected in such a public place? People saw what was happening. What were they doing?
Why do women let this happen? How can young women be safe? I wanted to say, why do high profile young women pose naked for Playboy or Penthouse? Why are photos of Geoffrey Edelsten’s fiancée (the naked and the dead, as one wit said) splashed across a double page spread the day after her exhibitionist outing at the Brownlow?
But I didn’t. Instead, I decided to do a web surf of porn to see what was happening out there. Where to start. Burlesque model Dita von Teese was a name I knew. That got me into boobs and bums and the most recent Playboy playmates. From there it was mushroom land. Hundreds of sites. I got a shock. Beautiful young women in their hundreds, with their own porn sites, shifting easily from soft core into hard core. You could spend the rest of your life surfing these sites without seeing them all. In some cases you’d be hard pressed to find all the photos online of some of these really stunning looking girls.
But then my daughter rang me a few days ago. The alleged Montmerency football team gang rape was in the news. Are all men like this? Do all men behave like this in a group environment? I mentioned the Anita Cobby rape case in NSW in the 1980s. I told her how some women close to the men convicted of her murder had said “she had asked for it, she had brought it on herself”. We talked about rape through history – the abduction of the Sabine women by the Romans, slavery of women here and now.
We talked about protection. I said that one form of protection, in my view, is to learn the range of cultural attitudes and values out there, on the streets, on the trams. Don’t hide yourself from understanding them. I didn’t say have a look at the porn sites. But I think she should. Have a look at the porn sites, have a look at the age of the girls, have a look at what is there at the click of a mouse for anybody with an internet connection.
My daughter is right. She has good reason to feel unsafe. The questions she asks are the right ones, and they make the right connections. I hope she can bear to keep asking those questions. I agree with her that we are tacitly ignoring the dangers of the sexism which is now explicit in the presentation of male sport, especially football.
She is right to as ask what does the AFL think it is doing? What does the mainstream media think it is doing? To what extent are they, are we, all complicit in the sheer terror inflicted on women and girls by the culture we overtly or tacitly endorse?