Wednesday 28 September 2016

The Sharon saga shows that we still judge a woman by her looks, not talent

Published 25/02/2014 | 02:30

Sharon Ni Bheolain complained of ‘lowlifes’ taking pictures of her.
Sharon Ni Bheolain complained of ‘lowlifes’ taking pictures of her.

On 'Liveline' yesterday, Sharon Ni Bheolain was scathing about "lowlifes hiding in a car on my street" taking surreptitious pictures of her over the weekend and the "rags" that published the offending images.

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Billed as being the first photographs of the journalist appearing in public since the arrest of her alleged stalker last week, a number of tabloids couched their coverage in faux concern yet were scathing of her appearance.

For instance, one tartly noted that she "managed to have a full face of make-up despite being dressed in tartan pyjamas" and, in an editorial comment, said she looked like "a dog's dinner".

Ms Ni Bheolain's understandable outrage was lapped up by listeners, who texted in their droves offering their support, and on social media, where comments were nearly universally supportive of her stance.

However, the public's purported revulsion at these kinds of images being used is at odds with the popularity of the newspapers and websites that use them.

Newspapers wouldn't print these kinds of pictures if there wasn't a market for them, but the unpalatable truth is that this kind of stuff sells – which is why the 'Daily Mail's website, with its infamous side-bar of shame, is the most popular in the world.

Perhaps this explains why, in recent years, women's coverage in the media has been subject to a creeping 'Daily Mail'-ification in which impossible standards of beauty are lionised and any failure to meet these exacting standards derided.

If doesn't matter how successful women are in their jobs, or how accomplished they are on a professional basis, they will invariably ultimately find themselves judged by their appearance.

In that regard, women can't win. If you're too thin you're said to look alarmingly frail, if you gain weight you're lazy and piling on the pounds, if you use botox you're narcissistic, but if you have wrinkles you're letting yourself go.

And if you dare to take the dog for a walk in a pair of comfy pants and Ugg boots, you have an editorial written about you headlined "a bit barking".

While Ms Ni Bheolain said that she considered her alleged stalking incident an "occupational hazard" for a woman with a public profile, what's also an inescapable occupational hazard is a prurient media interest in her public life and ill-disguised glee when she's pictured looking less than perfect.

As the broadcaster now contemplates a complaint to the Press Council, perhaps the unedifying episode can serve at least one useful function – prompt a debate about the coverage of high-profile women in the media.

While most of the celebrities whose faces adorn print pages have signed a Faustian pact with the media – they need it to flog their products and the media needs them to sell newspapers – Ms Ni Bheolain is aggrieved because she doesn't court this attention yet has it foisted on her.

She may have signed up to read the news with RTE, but her public service contract doesn't extend to agreeing to be stalked by paparazzi with long-lens cameras as she walks to the shops.

The problem in Ireland is that our pool of so-called celebrities is so minute that anyone with a public profile, no matter what their job description, is included, whether they like it or not.

But it is not Ms Ni Bheolain's job alone that makes her tabloid fodder – after all, it's hard to imagine Brian Dobson's weekend garb being deemed front-page news and dissected with the same level of vitriol – it is her gender.

And it is not just newspapers that engage in caustic commentary on women's appearances, as any woman working in broadcast media with a Twitter account can attest to.

When two of our best female broadcast journalists, Miriam O'Callaghan and Claire Byrne, present 'Prime Time', many of the comments on social media comprise scathing appraisals of their clothes, hair and make-up.

"Serious" male journalists never encounter this problem. They are judged by their reporting, analysis, insight and expertise.

It may be convenient to scapegoat the media alone for women's objectification in society yet it's much more uncomfortable to consider that, via the media we consume and our interactions with it, we're all in some way complicit.

Irish Independent

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