On Friday, 19 September at the Open Book Festival at the Fugard Theatre, Cape Town, the Daily Maverick hosted a mini-gathering to debate the future of independent, free and intelligent journalism in South Africa. At one point the panel began discussing media coverage of the Economic Freedom Fighters.
A panel member quoted Ray Hartley as saying that EFF were receiving 90% of party coverage in the country. (This is not surprising since the party members wear red onesies and miners’ boots to Parliament and routinely threaten revolution.)
At this Ferial Haffajee (City Press Editor) said that “[we] have seen this phenomena before with Eugene Terre’blanche”.
Haffajee then turned to the audience and said that “Jani Allan had been impaled on the blue flames of ET’s eyes” and asked “could she not see his holey underpants at the time?”
It was a cheap and puerile shot at me made in an attempt to garner laughs from the audience. Those present were in no doubt that Haffajee was slut-shaming me.
The reference was made as if it were a comical anecdote – again compromising any relevance it had as a fair point in the discussion. Some of the older members of the audience laughed obligingly, others were unmoved. The younger members of the audience did not understand the reference at all.
According to the South African National Editors’ Forum (Sanef), “women in the media are still on the receiving end of discrimination”.
“Discriminatory practices, structural inequalities, cultural factors, prejudices, patriarchy and sexism are still alive and well in newsrooms,” the study noted. Ferial Haffajee described the results as “shocking”.
The “snapshot survey” was compiled from responses to a questionnaire answered by 40 of Sanef’s 149 members. It was undertaken to establish the realities and challenges faced by South Africa’s women journalists – especially senior women journalists – and to identify strategies for change.
“However, it has also been established in various studies that women often perpetuate the existing male constructs of the newsroom environment”.
It seemed men still needed to work on their gender awareness and sensitivity. It also seemed as if men’s relation to women staffers and their advancement was not an important issue among senior male news journalists.
“This impacts on how women journalists are treated and how news content is assessed and represented.”
“Racism is hounded by the media themselves, yet they not only allow sexism in their ranks, but even perpetuate it through certain actions (and non-actions).”
Dear readers, I ask you two questions (with tears in my bloodshot, aging eyes):
What culture puts someone through 25 years of ritual humiliation and
Where are the feminists in all this?
Women’s sex lives and sexuality are matters of their own choice and nobody else’s business. Except in my case. While the AWB leader escaped with his reputation unsullied among his adoring ‘volk’ (and even enhanced by some male supporters, who thought an attractive white writer, then in her 30s, to be a prime conquest) my life was all but wrecked by these allegations.
Many indiscretions find their way into the public domain. Somehow it always seems as though the women carry the taint.
The Elliot Spitzers and Anthony Wieners profess abject regrets, retire from the spotlight for a while – and then re-enter the arena as though nothing had happened. Some even get rewarded with a television talk-show. (Spitzer). Literary analogies are as plenty as Hydra’s heads.
In Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy the title character has a highly public affair with the affluent Count Vronsky: Anna Karenina is rejected by her friends, while the reputation of Count Vronsky remains more or less untarnished.
My life, in terms of such media descriptions, is defined by an alleged relationship and a pair of green underpants (which allegedly had holes in them.)
Phillis Chesler’s book Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman points out that women are capable of misogyny too. The mean girls you knew at school are now grown up and mean girling on Twitter. Researchers have been looking more closely and they have diagnosed something they call “intrasexual competition”.
The personal is political and we should understand it.
In the wise words made famous by Beyoncé – feminism is the “social, political and economic equality of the sexes”.
Sexual competition among females seems to increase due to circumstances that tend to be particularly common in affluent societies. Stigmatising female promiscuity — a.k.a. slut-shaming — has often been blamed on men, who have a Darwinian incentive to discourage their spouses from straying. But they also have a Darwinian incentive to encourage other women to be promiscuous.
Women who make sex too readily available compromise the power-holding position of the group, which is why many women are particularly intolerant of women who are, or seem to be, promiscuous.
I have always believed that since sex is coveted by men the best way of maintaining advantage in the negotiation of this resource is to limit access to it. But no-one really cares about what I really, really think.
Emma Watson recently said at the UN the view feminism is ‘man hating’ has to stop. She encouraged men to take up this mantle for their sisters, mothers and daughters so that they can be free from prejudice – but also so their sons have permission to be vulnerable and human, too.
How about some of my gay chums – let’s start with them – taking up the mantle on my behalf? I am not the first person to be publicly humiliated. I have just had to learn to deal with it. Some people can’t.
Tyler Clementi, an 18-year-old Rutgers student was secretly streamed via Webcam kissing another man.A few days later after being scorned, derided and abused on social media he committed suicide by jumping off the George Washington Bridge. The instant communication afforded by the internet not only dehumanises but it also enables the most bloodless and egregiously cruel social commentary.
We are living in a culture of all pervasive humiliation. Historian Nicolaus Mills speaks of a zeitgeist that encourages and revels in Schadenfreude. In this milieu, those that humiliate are rewarded.
Gossips columnists, late night comedians, paparazzi, Twitter trolls, Facebook trolls; the media circus has never quite moved on from me. I accidentally stumbled upon a website a while ago, a kind of forum in which journalists of the seventies and eighties were in a frenzy of slagging me off.
I gazed at the bile spewed about me. It was so over-the-top that is made me think of Vonnegut when he described someone as being dressed up in a suit of armor to attack an ice-cream sundae.
Then, I supposed my face broke like a dyke. I could not hold back anymore. I have watched those that sought to discredit me grow in girth and wealth. Their children are grown. Some have left the country.
I have reinvented myself and created a new narrative and way of being. Will the haters ever acknowledge this or will it remain a koan?
Journalists should serve the public as watchdogs and truth-tellers. News organisations need a broad array of voices and perspectives. To thrive financially, they must appeal to an equally broad array of potential viewers, listeners, and readers. Content analyses and anecdotal evidence suggest that a newsroom leader’s gender can have a subtle but important influence on everything from what stories get covered and how, to who gets promoted and why.
That is why when a woman editor of the caliber of Ferial Haffajee (for whom I have enormous respect) chooses to humiliate me it is especially unfair and incorrect.
I refuse to be the poster child of slut-shaming forever.
This column was originally published by the Daily Maverick on 2 October, 2014.