Don’t skirt around it, John Laws was objectifying women. Full stop.

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If you needed any further proof of Australian media’s love of blokish enclaves and the irrelevant old men who fester within them, you need only look to the recent broadcast on Channel Ten’s The Project of Steve “Pricey” Price and his pointless interview with John “Lawsy” Laws.

For reasons that still appear unclear, Laws’ reanimated corpse was wheeled out this week so he and Price could hash out some old grievances under the guise of promoting Laws’ newly released memoir. The interview itself was so indulgent and boring that I almost fell asleep numerous times – and listen, it was only seven minutes long so that’s a pretty mean feat – but the part that’s making headlines is the entirely grotesque (and yet mercifully brief) examination of Laws’ take on gender politics in the workplace. Namely, that Laws continues to insist that the women who work in his vicinity wear skirts so that he can enjoy gazing upon their shapely, “feminine” legs.


FM vs AM radio presenter fight

2Day FM’s Em Rusciano slams John Laws for his ‘misogynist’ comments.

You could argue that it’s pointless getting upset about men like Laws. Perhaps you believe he’s part of a generation of old dinosaurs with politics and principles as decrepit as their withered old bones. After all, you’re hardly walking on the cutting edge of social progress when even a walking headache like Ray Hadley considers your values anachronistic. Who cares if John Laws likes looking at shapely legs! What bloke doesn’t like looking at them, amirite?! *nudge nudge wink wink* Besides, he’s an old man. He won’t be around forever, so let him have his old man pecadillos and stop being so sensitive about it! It’s not hurting anybody. If women don’t like it they can always choose not to work for him.

Right?

Ptttttthhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhht. That was the sound of me letting out a long, derisive fart noise from a mouth that is so gosh darn tired of being told to calm down, keep quiet and smile all the time.

Listen. Participating in objectification, no matter how benign seeming, is not the price women should be expected to pay in order to get ahead in their industries. Why should lecherous men both young and old get to decide which of those women is given access to these spaces, based purely on their willingness to smile and go along with insulting rubbish that their male colleagues will never be subjected to? If you look through the offices of any commercial talkback station in the country, you’ll see the floors are filled with female producers on average incomes while the on-air roles are overwhelmingly taken by white, middle class men over the age of 35 pulling six-figure salaries.

It is already hard enough for women to progress through the ranks of commercial broadcasting without expecting them to swallow the humiliation of nursing an old man’s boner at the same time. Oh, you think that’s crude? Well suck it up, sunshine. Because that’s exactly what this is about. When Laws says he likes women to look “feminine” and insists on those who move through his visual space being presented as such, what he’s really saying is that he wants them to appeal to his desire. He might claim to enjoy talking to women more than he does men, but only when those women embody a particular look and character. He doesn’t want to talk to old women, fat women, women in pants, women with bags under their eyes, women with hairy chins, women who don’t wear make up, women with unkempt hair. He doesn’t want to revel in the company of women who act like they might be his equal. What he wants is to have his perception of his own masculinity and power endlessly reinforced and flattered by the attention of women who are perceived by other men to be a kind of prize.  

It’s astounding to see women like Jessica Rowe and Ita Buttrose dismiss this kind of behaviour as harmless. Rowe in particular has been victimised by the kind of boys’ club mentality embodied in Laws’ views, and watching her brush the impact of his own dick-related policies aside is baffling. Is this widespread Stockholm Syndrome? Why are so many accomplished women acting as if it’s just a case of harmless Uncle Reginald getting a bit too blue with his jokes at the annual Christmas barbecue? I read a comment from a former 2UE (female) employee this week that not only lavished praise on Laws, but expressed regret for having once worn jeans on a workplace trip – as if somehow, the choice to assert one’s own sartorial autonomy was letting down the boss. This is crazy! This is not rational behaviour! But it is behaviour that can be very easily manipulated in people who are not supported to negotiate better, more respectful conditions for themselves in the workplace and who are repeatedly reminded that “difficult” behaviour in a female employee renders them quickly replaceable.

It is not a harmless jape to insist that retrosexist ideals be upheld in the workplace. It isn’t funny. It certainly isn’t cute. John Laws might be older than dirt but this doesn’t make his antics amusing. Despite what I have seen argued in his favour this week from women I otherwise admire, he is not a gentleman whose supposedly courteous behaviour (He stands when women enter a room! He always treated me respectfully!) makes up for his old fashioned quirks. He is a man who has been supported, nurtured and protected by the sexism that underpins his industry and he has chosen to codify that sexism in ways that benefit him while disadvantaging others.

And this is the pertinent point. Yes, we are ostensibly able to make choices about where we will and will not work. But if you are already operating in a workplace environment in which your options are limited and choices are less a free market than they are a negotiation, then you are already working with a deficit of power. Women do not wear skirts to work with John Laws because he’s a charming old man who asked nicely. They wear skirts to work with him because he has more power than them. It’s as simple – and as simply disgusting – as that.



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