How 'ugly' comments remind women of the beauty tax we owe to be in public

Since the exposure of her affair with President Clinton, Monica Lewinsky has been hounded, harassed, shamed and mocked ...

Since the exposure of her affair with President Clinton, Monica Lewinsky has been hounded, harassed, shamed and mocked in steady heapings. Photo: Pascal Le Segretain

I n case we were at risk of forgetting that women's appearances are always fodder for public dissection, Channel Ten's Paul Bongiorno has issued a reminder. Late last week, the veteran journalist responded to an article posted by Slate regarding an upcoming telemovie about Monica Lewinsky with the words, "The actress not ugly enough". The tweet has since been deleted and Channel Ten has issued a tepid apology on his behalf.

Now, in the grand scheme of things, this isn't that extraordinary an issue. After all, it's rarely a surprise when men behave as if their opinions on women's looks are both incredibly insightful and highly necessary. As much as people might like to sneer at words like 'patriarchy' and 'male gaze', the fact is that we live in a society in which men and women are accorded different levels of power when it comes to their physicality. More to the point, men are given the flexibility and privilege of having their looks considered secondary to their skills. Women, on the other hand, are judged first and foremost on whether or not they've satisfied the appropriate levels of attractiveness before anything else will even be considered worthwhile.

Think that isn't true? Well, I hate to stoop to Bongiorno's level - but his career, like that of many of his male colleagues, certainly hasn't been hampered by the fact he is both ageing and balding. Nor would it even be considered a question that it should, because men are not required to pay a beauty tax in order to be seen as valuable contributors to the world. Indeed, being neither young nor hirsute has no impact on whether or not a man will be given respect in the workplace, particularly in a field like journalism where such attributes on a man are considered symbols of his experience and trustworthiness.

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For women, the story is very different. Very rarely will they continue to be venerated as journalists and news anchors once they've passed a certain age. Nor do they manage to escape the ever-present scrutiny of both the public and rival media outlets - Sunrise's Samantha Armytage, for example, is constantly hounded about how apparently 'fat' she is, while Studio 10's Sarah Harris was forced to defend herself last year against verbal attacks about her weight when she was pregnant.

Ask any woman who works visibly in media, and she'll tell you that comments and jibes about her looks come just as often, if not more so, than actual engagement with her work or arguments. Hell, ask any woman in general and she'll tell you about all the times she's had her contributions to the world dismissed as a secondary concern to the more important fact of whether or not her face or body is considered appropriately pleasing by a stranger on the street.

These attitudes about women's worth are so deeply ingrained across society that most people are guilty not just of failing to see them but also of actively perpetuating them. Think about the commentary levelled at female politicians; former Prime Minister Julia Gillard was famously called "deliberately barren" by former Liberal Senator Bill Heffernan, because women who choose not to have children are still cast as freaks, shrews, witches or infidels by those who consider child-rearing at the core of our fundamental purpose. The Democratic nomination front-runner Hillary Clinton has endured decades of abuse about her looks, including having them blamed for her husband's infidelities. The idea that a woman could exist with power in her right rather than that bestowed on her by the male gaze is one that still manages to baffle and horrify people in turn.

And speaking of Clinton, Monica Lewinsky has fared no better. In the decades since the exposure of her affair with President Clinton, she has been hounded, harassed, shamed and mocked in steady heapings. From the very start, she was made a target of ridicule - her big teeth, big gums, big hair and big bottom all fodder for caricatures and hysterical disgust.

By her own admission, this onslaught caused her to consider suicide on numerous occasions. Bill Clinton has never been forced to atone for his sins (the majority of the public preferring instead to blame Hillary for them), but Lewinsky - who was at the time a young, vulnerable intern who in no way, shape or form could be considered to have had the upper hand of power in their relationship - has instead spent a lifetime being reminded of them.

Yet here we have one of Australia's most respected journalists joining in what has been a decades-long pile on, simply because the consequences for being judged solely on one's looks has never been more than theoretical for him. This behaviour isn't just reflective of thoughtlessness or a cavalier attempt at bad humour. It's indicative of how easily those kinds of words still roll off the tongues of people who don't question society's imperative to view women as nothing more than window dressing.

In the end, is there anything uglier than the wilfully ignorant belch of tired old trope that, like the dinosaurs still stalking the halls of power everywhere, refuses to just give up and die?