Women are people, right? Right. For most people, that goes without saying. But for others — the ones we’ve trusted to speak plainly and sanely on live television, that truth seems a little harder to grasp.
There’s practically no end to the salvo of (accidentally? egregiously careless?) sexist comments pouring out of the media’s coverage of the 2016 Olympics. For just one example, check out the firestorm that followed NBC’s coverage of Katinka Hosszu’s impressive win in the 400-meter swimming competition.
As the camera panned to Hosszu’s husband, who also happens to be her coach, sportscaster Dan Hicks said: “There’s the man responsible.”
Briefly: A Word About “Political Correctness”
Let’s get one thing straight about “political correctness,” because people at both ends of the political spectrum seem to have trouble with it. For folks on the Left, political correctness appears to have become a thing with which we trip up our rivals. We wait quietly for them to say something insensitive, and then we pounce on them — pronouncing ourselves morally superior because our language has been scrubbed free of anything remotely offensive. Look at the way in which somebody like Hillary Clinton addresses the public, with each word having been hand-picked by what I assume is a small army of public relations experts.
And then there’s the Right, which treats political correctness like an affront to Lady Liberty herself. “It’s freedom of speech!” they squawk, citing a Constitution they’ve never read to defend statements that no rational or compassionate person should be saying out loud in the first place. (Recommended reading: the ongoing “Duck Dynasty” dumpster fire, or Trump supporters in general). We don’t think less of you because you speak differently from the rest of us — we think less of you because you’re an ass****. Political correctness isn’t out to get you — but basic expectations of decency and respect are.
Long story short: no — what we’re discussing here today about the almost comically sexist Olympic media coverage has nothing at all to do with political correctness. It’s about nothing less than treating human beings as human beings.
A Comedy of Errors
So: were NBC’s Dan Hicks’ words politically incorrect? Yes. Were they also stupid? Of course they were. That’s the real problem.
Whatever he might have intended to say, it’s not what was broadcast to millions of viewers around the world. What he might have meant was: “There’s the man who coached this remarkable woman.” But what the world heard was: “Women aren’t responsible for their own success.”
The onslaught from Twitter and the rest of the online community was swift and merciless. Maybe the fury isn’t wholly justified — who among us hasn’t misspoken to comedic or tragic effect? And who among us wouldn’t be doubly likely to misspeak on national television?
Those would be perfectly valid points if sexism didn’t have a tendency to rear its head any time female athletes are being televised for our entertainment purposes.
There were also comments from John Inverdale of the BBC: “You’re the first person ever to win two Olympic tennis gold medals.” He said this to Andy Murray, while completely forgetting the fact that Venus and Serena Williams have won four medals each.
There was another embarrassing moment when the Simone Biles, winner of three Olympic gold medals for gymnastics, posed for a photo op with the rest of her team. The commentator on duty let loose this little gem: “They might as well be standing in the middle of a mall.”
Would he have said that to a team full of male athletes? One thinks not.
How about the time bronze medal-winner and trap shooter Corey Cogdell-Unrein was referred to by the Chicago Tribune as the “wife of a Bears’ lineman.”
She’s a person! She has a name!
Perhaps the jewel in the crown of Olympics-based sexism, however, was the response to Helen Skelton’s choice of attire while she represented BBC poolside in Rio. Skelton’s dress began to ride up her legs just a little bit during one segment, and sent millions of armchair journalists to Twitter to voice their outrage.
Nobody was that outraged about this, however. In fact, the world has been giggling for weeks about all the swooning female news commentators did over Mr. Tonga’s confident and triumphant entrance during the opening ceremony. It seems only the female body is meant to be an object of revulsion, to be hid away from sight. The double-standard on display here would be hilarious if it wasn’t so pathetic.
We’re not asking people to walk on eggshells. But the truth is, some people live on eggshells. To be clear, I go most days without accidentally saying something racist or sexist. But that kind of language does seem to come more easily to certain members of the population than to others. Maybe we’re really asking them to find another line of work — one that doesn’t require them to barely restrain their obvious prejudices as they deliver live reports to a globe full of spectators.
Why is this still such a problem in the year 2016? We pretend we live in a sexually liberated culture, but the truth is that too many of us are still disgusted with sex in general — and with our very natural need to engage in it. Part of the problem, undoubtedly, stems from the prudishness built into our institutions, from religion to public education. When people are expected to reach adulthood without ever having been taught sex education in a comfortable and nurturing environment, how can we expect said adults not to leer? For how many more generations are we going to let our embarrassment over human sexuality stunt our growth as emotionally mature adults?
Human beings have been on this planet for many thousands of years, and we still can’t quite believe that women look a bit different from men. How embarrassing for us. Even in the midst of a worldwide celebration of the indomitable human spirit, the differences between the genders still make us quail and titter like schoolchildren.
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