when a pretty face isn’t the story
Every morning, I get up at 4am to host a breakfast radio show.
When I say I volunteer for such a thing, people recoil and repeat: ‘4am? The morningversion of four?’ on loop. But for all the early bedtimes, what I get in return is pretty swell: the chance to work with a group of great friends every day; access to talented people and lots of chats about creative projects.
One thing I’m not always so good at is making myself look super fancy for a 6am show, given I have uni and work and life to plan for too. The idea of straightening one’s hair at 3am five days a week is mutinous, and my car has become a wardrobe reminiscent of every time a Harry Potter character tries to dress like a Muggle.
Yesterday, I ate chocolate biscuits for breakfast.
When I heard Jo Stanley, of Austereo’s Matt and Jo Show, rebut Facebook commenters who had analysed her appearance on the program’s page last week, my ears pricked up. After a tongue in cheek photo was put up poking fun at Jo’s outfit, fans of the show went to town with explanations for her dishevelment.
Among listeners’ opinions was the assertion that it must have been her ‘time of the month’, or that she may be pregnant. Stanley’s response, found here, sees her explain the pain and offence the comments caused her. In reality, she’d done a TV spot and attended a charity function the night before, then backed up for a 6am radio show – a probable cause for her (unusually) shabby dress.
The importance of female appearance in broadcast journalism and entertainment is a consistently bubbling issue, perhaps aided recently by Julia Gillard’s speech on misogyny. What seems to have followed is a resurgence of popular commentary on unconscious gender prejudice. This includes a spell of female professionals speaking out about some of the more puzzling expectations held of them.
When journalist Tracey Spicer published an open letter last month to employers who had put her appearance before ‘the story’, close to 1000 commenters tried, in an organised yet chaotic fashion, to unpack who was right and who was wrong. Spicer argued that the consistent focus on her looks and role as a woman was distracters from the important tasks of her job.
Good on her, many said, for sticking it to the man (literally). Others were more critical. Isn’t it necessary for those working in television to be easy on the eye? Isn’t presentation a key part of the broadcast?
This raises a couple of questions. One is how important the appearance of presenters and journalists is overall. You can perhaps mount an argument that you should ideally come to work looking your best, and that working in the media ups that ante.
But then we come back round to the knowledge that women are often the sole targets of criticism – frequently sparked by a network or station’s engagement with social media. The point of the Matt and Jo show’s initial post was that, for once, Stanley looked worse than co host Matt Tilley in the morning. The assumption being, perhaps, that she is expected to look smashing for radio, while he can wear slippers and a smile.
The barrage of comments Stanley was objecting to relate to the surprise people felt at a female professional’s dishevelment. And when the nation tries to negotiate concepts of gender bias and expectations in a popular forum, perhaps the treatment of women in and from media circles is more telling than anything.
Stanley and Spicer’s rebuttals are reminiscent of a string of similar incidents on US television – perhaps the most popular of which is US TV anchor Jennifer Livingston’s response to a letter from a viewer expressing concerns about her integrity as a public figure given her weight.
As Stanley said on air, people appear to feel entitled to assume what’s going on in the lives of others they don’t know. Perhaps this is tied in with our sudden fascination and repulsion of trolling culture.
There’s also a sense, though, that it is time we pointed out that appearance of the presenter is not the story, and that consistent beauty and poise are near impossible to put forward when working as hard as women like these are. We’ll see if this feeling keeps momentum.
What are your thoughts on journalists and anchors rebutting criticism of their appearances? Leave your thoughts below.