The Independent Online reported today that Gareth Cliff has been reported to the BCCSA for sexist comments while interviewing Angela Larkan, a young female philanthropist.
To begin the interview, Cliff praised her for starting her work at 22, saying it was unusual because most 22-year-olds “do nothing but lie on their backs with their legs open”. I was listening to the interview at the time, and remember thinking that this was a rather unnecessary, sexist and irrelevant thing to say and something that would make me feel really uncomfortable if I were being interviewed. Larkan managed a brief hesitation before she politely answered him.
According to IOL, the reason that he was reported was because Tex Collins who reported him said:
“He sends out the message that every young girl is nothing but a prostitute and a whore.”
To which Gareth Cliff responded on his blog this morning
“I accept that some sensitive people may have felt the comment offensive, but who (unless they were described by it) would consider themselves so described if there were no truth to the insult?”, and
“The reason I had Angela on my show is because she is precisely the opposite of the kind of girl I am alleged to have offended.”
There are a number of things that are being said here:
* Women are represented as whores by a statement like Cliff’s, and this is wrong (Collins)
* Only sensitive people are offended by sexist comments, if they do not apply to them (Cliff)
* It is acceptable to make sexist comments about “whores”, but not about “good” girls like Angela Larkan (Cliff)
Let’s unpack those.
Message 1: It is wrong to represent women as whores.
Collins thinks that it is wrong to describe women as whores, but the articles don’t go into details on why he felt this way.
Perhaps it was because reducing women to their sexuality is something that denies them alternative ontologies. The power of a label like “whore” is that it says that the woman is nothing more than a vagina on legs, and it ignores her various life achievements.
Second, it might be disagreeable to represent women as “whores” because we are widely uncomfortable with sex work, or women having lots of sex, and with women as sexual beings at all. Society portrays men as predators, and women as passive recipients of sex so calling a woman a whore is saying that she is against society’s acceptable sex roles.
Message 2: Only sensitive people are offended by sexist comments, if they do not apply to them.
Cliff says that he doesn’t understand why someone would be offended, unless the comment applied to them. This is simply a really weak response.
Of course Cliff can understand why what he said was offensive even if he isn’t a 22-year-old sex-crazed woman, in the same way he can understand that what Darren Scott said was offensive even though he’s not black. Labelling those offended as “sensitive” is part of challenging their ontological resistance. It denies that people could be offended unless they themselves were whores.
So if I’m offended, then I’m a whore, in which case he doesn’t hold my opinion worthy enough of his consideration. It’s a clever trick of language which allows him to avoid considering what he has really said. It’s the same bad tactic that you find in many male arguments which undermine women’s rights (like labelling them hysterical).
Anti-female comments affect all women, regardless of their sexual voracity. They either reduce women to sex-organs, or label women who are not sexual “good girls”. This simply creates a message that some women are acceptable, whereas others are not.
Message 3: It’s acceptable to be sexist to whores, but not to “good girls” like Larkan
Cliff’s message here is particularly powerful. He believes the only people he could have offended are women who pursue sex, who he deems to have no right to be offended precisely because they pursue sex, and that his comment could not have affected Larkan’s ability to do the interview because “she is precisely the opposite of the kind of girl I am alleged to have offended”. This is an even more complex statement to make because it says three things:
* He wouldn’t have had a woman on his show that did enjoy lying on her back with her legs open.
* Women who pursue sex achieve nothing.
* Larkan achieved something, so she can’t be someone who is sexual.
This makes it seem as though being a woman and being sexual or wanting to have sex has a negative effect on the chances that you will make positive change in the world. It also says that if you have achieved something as inspiring as Larkan has, then there was obviously no time for you to be having sex.
What Cliff is saying is that it’s OK to be sexist to the “bad” girls who are sexual, but not OK to this girl he interviewed. That sets up standards for acceptable femininity that are completely out of line with the world I want to see. Women’s sexuality is their business, and has no influence on whether they make positive change in the world. You can have sex with who you want as much as you want and still make a difference — this is not for Cliff to decide.
His comments were offensive and I think the report was completely justified. His defence of his comments shows how ingrained his sexism is — if it were a comment that were racist he would understand that racism is offensive to everyone in a democracy based on equality. The same goes for sexism — when you undermine the rights of half the population, the entire population has a right to be offended.