Sunrise co-hosts Samantha Armytage and Natalie Barr at the Perpetual Loyal Ladies Lunch, Guillame at Bennelong, Opera House. Photo: BELINDA ROLLAND PHOTOGRAPHY
So you read the article by Natalie Barr yesterday where she asks working women to stop blaming men for their troubles and you want to tell her a few things. How she doesn’t have the first clue what feminism means (man bashing, really?). How her high heels, her white skin, her slim frame — all of it suggests a kind of compatibility with gender ideals that might at least warrant a moment’s reflection upon exclusion. Or how her industry has been notorious for dumping talented female colleagues five to ten years her senior, so just you wait.
But we should be cautious taking part in that conversation with Barr because it is yet another article focusing on the individual experience.
Natalie Barr reads The Age and has hair and make-up done at the Channel 7 studios in Docklands, Melbourne.
Often when we talk about sexism in the media we concentrate on the individual level at the expense of other levels of discussion. Maybe because individual cases of sexism make for more compelling reading than long-winded reports. Deeply personal stories are increasingly popular on the Internet as ways of exploring adversity, redemption and self.
These essays make sense of the world for us. As Chris Maisano noted, such essays are all about the writer’s unique journey working through what are seen to be personal limits rather than broader social problems. Barr’s article is typical of these stories, though hers is a particularly triumphant story for the marketplace with not just hard work but individually negotiated contracts being among her unlikely solutions to sexism. But there is a very big problem with these stories - they prevent us from seeing structural barriers.
Barr’s piece thinks of sexism as an individual experience. Her article sifts through the progressions of her life to evaluate whether she’s encountered specific acts against her. Barr then ultimately uses her own story of a woman transcending sexism to prove that this form of discrimination no longer exists.
Natalie Barr at the Channel 7 Christmas Party 2012.
You are intended to conclude from articles like these that if you aren’t progressing similarly in your career then personal shortcomings must explain those differences. The story of individual success, like a first female prime minister or a well positioned female television journalist, is meant to provide unquestionable proof that sexism is pretty much over.
Reading this you feel defensive, naturally. Your life hasn’t been exactly like these success stories. It is tempting then to continue this conversation of individualism and to describe the specifics of your own life as counter-argument. But unless we’re very thoughtful about it, this kind of discussion tends to be dominated by a lot of very similar voices (ie. those with access to the media), tends to over-generalise, and tends to limit definitions of sexism to intentional acts by one person against another. This capacity to recognise sexism rarely and only on an individual level means we seek to fix sexism simply by shaming offenders. Preferably in public. Sexism is therefore corrected by correcting the individual.
That kind of analysis is one of the reasons why men like our prime minister take such offence at being labeled sexist, despite numerous instances where his own words have marked him such. The failure to acknowledge how entrenched and universal various sexist attitudes are means being identified as sexist marks you as particularly repugnant. We ignore the reality that sexism can be perpetuated as much by inaction as by aggressive design.
But now viewed through the lens of individualism the sexist, too, can have a deeply personal story. He made a mistake, he broke a rule, he’s sorry if what he did offended you. He’s actually a kind of victim here, too, he wants you to know. Accusations of sexism, you see, are graded on the steepest of curves so virtually no-one, except the least sympathetic of villains, qualifies as an actual sexist. All other instances of sexism, watered down by individualism, are thus eventually transformed into reasonable actions and understandable views and your inability as a woman to overcome them is simply a character flaw of yours.
This conversation, hopelessly stalled around individual experience, prevents us from progressing faster to real solutions. The gross differences in outcomes between women and men in terms of income, violence and safety, workplace opportunity, political representation, divisions of household labour and social status affects us on a personal level, but their wider social context is masked by the distraction of individualism.
This is not to say that there isn’t value in sharing personal stories. There’s a rich feminist history that shouldn’t be lost in women telling their stories as a way of building community, initiating political awakening and demystifying our lives. But when the discussion of sexism is dominated by individual experience rather than a focus on institutional sexism, we fail to connect our personal difficulties to social issues. And in doing this, we endlessly explore individual solutions while the collective action that is required lies dormant.