Sunrise host Samantha Armytage.
Let’s pretend you’re reading this at work. This afternoon, after a jaunty chat with a couple of intra-department colleagues whom you almost certainly don’t know particularly well, you will be told to go into a pitch black room and try to figure out what’s in there. Your colleagues call this ‘the Panic Room’. You agree, but not without a little uncertainty. You’re worried there might be a snake in there. You are very frightened of snakes. You know that your colleagues will be filming this, and you don’t want to wet your pants on camera.
But you go in anyway, not wanting to be a bad sport. Your hands are groping the dark air before you until they suddenly make contact with something large, human shaped, apparently male and possible naked. As your hands recoil, the lights flip on and you realise that you were right. Before you stands a completely nude man - one of the intra-department colleagues in fact - laughing hysterically at what he seems to assume is an hilarious joke. You are also laughing, but you run out of the room and yell at him to put his clothes back on.
This is exactly what happened last Friday when Sunrise presenter Sam Armytage appeared as a guest on Nova FM’s Sydney based breakfast show, ‘Fitzy and Wippa’. In any normal workplace, this kind of jape would constitute sexual harassment. Given that the duplicity of the act involved Armytage being tricked into touching a naked man, I imagine it could also be argued as a form of sexual assault. It is certainly a demonstration of the thoughtless privilege Fitzy and Wippa enjoy as men in a world in which one in three women will experience some form of sexual violence.
But in the offices of Nova 96.9, this kind of retrosexist, Benny Hill-esque behaviour is just par for the course.
Who can forget the time ‘Fitzy and Wippa’ (and can we pause for a moment to observe the frequency with which our poorly behaved male public figures also sport the kind of ghastly monikers marked as celebration of the chauvinistic spirit of Aussie larrikinism?) filmed a similarly aggressive and undeniably sexist ‘prank’ for their audiences?
Called ‘inappropriate kissing’, it showcased the supposedly hilarious practice of engaging unsuspecting female colleagues in benign weekend related conversation before suddenly and unexpectedly kissing them on the lips. Wippa’s tactic for this is to ‘catch them off guard - be friendly and engaging, and then land one on them.’
These are not lighthearted pranks but part of the cultural understanding that gives men licence to treat women as they please if it can be passed off as a joke. Because while it’s true that their male colleagues and peers are also the targets of Fitzy and Wippa’s juvenile tricks, they aren’t targeted in quite the same way.
It’s difficult to imagine ‘inappropriate’ kissing being attempted on the men Fitzy and Wippa work with, nor would they invite Armytage’s co-host David Koch onto their show and then trick him into groping a completely naked Fitzy.
But it’s even more difficult to imagine such things happening without consequence - if Koch expressed disgust and humiliation at being placed in Armytage’s position, no one would denounce him as an oversensitive banshee who needs to learn how to take a joke.
The reasons for this aren’t just due to the insidious homophobia that pulses throughout Australian culture (and particularly so in the red-blooded, Good Old Aussie Bloke section in which men like Fitzy and Wippa thrive) but because it simply wouldn’t be considered funny for a man to be sexually intruded upon and/or humiliated by anyone, let alone a fellow male industry colleague.
And so while much has been made of Armytage’s apparent enjoyment of the joke (or at least, her willingness to laugh along and accept Fitzy and Wippa’s thanks for her being ‘a good sport’), her capitulation or disinterest in the incident isn’t really the point. What IS relevant is that she works in an industry which is demonstrably hostile to women. And whether or not she believes it deep down, Armytage has been well trained in trotting out the company line whenever its rank sexism is placed under a microscope.
For the time being at least, she has been given some form of a seat at the table as an Official Woman, but it is precariously held and the barons who make up her tablemates do not take kindly to women who question the status quo. If she wanted to (and it’s entirely her prerogative either way, although it would be nice to see her use her position to challenge patriarchal power rather than help enforce it), she could make a complaint to Nova’s management on the grounds of sexual harassment and it would be entirely reasonable. As one member of the public said, such a course of action would cause no one to think any less of her.
But Armytage’s reaction to being lured into a dark room and forced to fondle a naked man really has no bearing on the context and intent of such an aggressive form of trickery. Someone’s reaction to a criminal act does not change the act itself. To use the analogy of property theft that so many like to invoke to derail arguments about rape culture, if someone steals my wallet and I choose not to press charges, it doesn’t make them any less of a thief.
The real question is why Nova (and about a million other media outlets) still think it’s okay to pass off base, sexist and aggressive behaviour towards women as ‘jokes’ while continuing to defend, support and pay the male presenters who do such things.
Unfortunately, given that broader Australian society seems to have given a mandate for such rampant disrespect towards women to continue unabated, it’s a question that I think will be met with the one thing it would actually be great to hear coming over the Nova FM airwaves - eternal silence.