The entrance exam for RMIT journalism was held in a room so nondescript I can only recall that I was seated at a very small table. It was 1984, and the deciding question read, “What is a gerrymander?”
“A festival in Rio de Janeiro,” I scrawled in the round childish hand the nuns had insisted I adopt.
My fate was sealed. I would never dream of applying for the sort of job Tracey Spicer aced. It was a fair cop, as I was clearly unusually unworldly. I inferred that to improve my life prospects I needed to travel to wild street parties, have more cosplay sex and enrol to vote, as a matter of urgency.
Spicer’s recently published book The Good Girl Stripped Bare delves into the more discriminatory exclusions from the profession of journalism – specifically commercial television journalism. It is irreverent and incisive and, for so many women who’ve been summarily sacked for having children, a godsend.
Combining care with work has always been the sticking point of the workplace revolution feminists led. Since women overwhelmingly provide that care, and mostly as mothers, maternity is the brick wall we slam into having shattered the glass ceiling. Already feeling concussed from lack of sleep, it’s a rotten deal. I can only infer that it must be a significant contributor to post-partum depression (as the studies don’t appear to have been done).
Spicer’s example however is very specific to a certain loss of face women experience in the workplace as they age. She struggles with exhaustion and mastitis, so the link to maternity is explicit. But it is putting on weight after her second child, along with simply “getting on”, that seems to have been the catalyst for her scrap-heaping by Channel Ten.
She’s taken up the fight, commendably and capably, and become a lightning rod for gendered workplace discrimination for countless Australian mothers. As the Fairfax dispute widens, with 125 jobs under the knife in its fourth round of cuts in 10 years, Spicer refracts these workplace precarities through a gendered lens.
But there is a substrata of discrimination to Spicer’s experience. She writes of becoming “not hot enough for television now I’m a mummy”. But what if you never were?
Name me a woman television journalist that isn’t a pleasure to behold. We could get side-tracked here with beauty as a social construct, but just about all women TV journalists share a cluster of physical traits that tally to Conventional Beauty.
On commercial television they are overwhelming white, mostly blonde, slim and young. Their faces have clarity in their symmetry, their smiles are wide and proportioned. Certain things are added in makeup and training. They have a particular address which is engaging and inviting, yet not too assertive and certainly never responsive to heart-rending news.
No Need to Apply, they each have effectively emblazoned over their lapels, if you are none of the above. Try SBS or ABC if you’re Aboriginal or anything other than European-heritage. But wherever you try, always be young, lovely and if not slender, within the reasonable bounds of measuring up to heteronormative desirability.
None of this is not to say that the women who have succeeded in journalism don’t carry with them a whole range of talents. It is not to dismiss their hard slog or their brilliance. It is to argue that those talents, carried within less pleasing appearances, won’t suffice to qualify them for journalism. This is discriminatory.
It’s not the fault or the responsibility of the women who take up these positions, they’ve undoubtedly earned them. Their work has changed and sometimes saved lives, exposed corruption, unseated dodgy MPs, sparked royal commissions and shifted paradigms.
It is the fault of the (mostly) men who appoint such a narrow field, the same men who sacked Spicer.
The issue isn’t that beautiful and talented women are on our TVs. It’s that women are overlooked who don’t satisfy the base need of men to feel a f—able woman awaits them in every room they walk into; and assume that’s what the public all wants from a newsreader, anchor or reporter, too.
That’s the white hetero male worldview populating our screens with women who unwittingly reassure their sexual insecurity. And that isn’t in their job description.
Ironically these television executives are often ageing men themselves. It isn’t incumbent on them to age gracefully. Instead they literally look for reassurance in the physical appearance of their female employees, who should never remind them of their own mortality by ageing themselves.