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Crass comment is an insult -- but not to women

What Mick Wallace TD said in the Dail about Mary Mitchell-O'Connor, TD, can be described in a number of ways, none pleasant. It was crass. It was horribly rude. It was ungentlemanly to the point of crudity. It was exceptionally spiteful. Technically speaking, it was not sexist: Ms Mitchell-O'Connor is female; so is Miss Piggy. I suppose you could even suggest that describing Ms Mitchell-O'Connor as Miss Piggy was complimentary: that pink porker was no victim, but a powerful self-publicist and self-believer, as Kermit the Frog could testify.

Except that it wasn't intended as a compliment, and certainly wasn't taken as one: it reduced the object of Wallace's spite to tears.

Yet everyone is mouthing off about "sexism in the Dail" because of it. What actually happened? Wallace was criticising Mitchell-O'Connor's dress sense. An awful lot of people, many of them women, criticise Wallace's own dress sense, but it's not called sexism. But perhaps Mr Wallace may be a far more fragile flower than appears on the surface. Maybe his sotto voce lash-out about his female colleague's dress sense stemmed from wounded feelings; it is, after all, believed that the proposed introduction -- now unlikely to happen -- of a dress code for TDs in the House may be aimed principally at him.

How would it have been described if Wallace had said, "I see that f*****g Mitchell-O'Connor one has toned it down a bit today," rather than saying, "Miss Piggy has toned it down ... "?

Green Party TD Paul Gogarty during the Budget debate of 2009 turned to Labour Party deputy Emmet Stagg and said "F*** you, Deputy Stagg," in a venomous tone. Nobody then worried about Emmet Stagg's sensitivities: it was the insult to the House that was of concern; and nobody, as far as I know, interviewed Mr Stagg about his possibly wounded feelings.

Gogarty had disgraced the dignity of the House, as Wallace's comments during the week and the replies of his fellow independents Luke Flanagan, and to a lesser extent Shane Ross, also disgraced the House. But why is a callous and crass insult to a woman sexist by definition? Could it be that female deputies and senators have still not shaken off the victim approach to their lives, and expect special consideration?

Interviewed on RTE the morning following the incident, Mary Mitchell-O'Connor said that we needed

"respect for women" in the House. Really? I would have thought that we needed respect for the House, and respect for all deputies elected by the citizenry, irrespective of gender, as well as respect for the employees of the House. Women are not entitled to any more respect than men are. They're entitled to civility within their work, and respect as human beings.

In private life, it's nice if men still stand up and open doors for women. It's also nice if they do it at work. But a lot of the women who think that men should be garroted for a joke about women, would also want to garrote the same men for standing back in a doorway.

Shane Ross, in commenting on Wallace's remarks, agreed that Mitchell-O'Connor did indeed seem to have toned down her dress on the day in question. He said that she usually wore "garish" colours. She does. So do many of the women in the Dail and Seanad. Why? Because (and I have it on the best authority -- a former Fine Gael female government minister) women TDs are advised by PR gurus to "get a good red jacket" to make them "stand out from the men".

Sad, isn't it? That in this day and age, women elected to Parliament still feel the need to define themselves in relation to men.

Confident people, people who are concentrating on an important job, don't do that. They dress suitably for the job. In a parliamentary context, as in any other serious and important occupation, that means you should adopt a dress code that does not draw attention to your appearance in any way, be you an Adonis/Venus, have a six-pack ribcage/hour-glass figure to rival that of the late Marilyn Monroe, or are just an ordinary Jack or Jill. When you have something important to say (and what is said in the Dail should always be important, or it should not be said), your listeners and viewers should not be distracted from your content. (It was once described to me as "the dress of a sober gentleman of either gender".)

So maybe Wallace should look at the mote in his own eye. Most people don't have a bull's clue what he stands for: people just know him for a mop of untidy shoulder-length hair, sagging jeans, and a crumpled pink shirt or T-shirt. And don't tell me that it's not carefully planned: otherwise, why so often pink? Wallace appears to me to be making a point, and a silly and childish one at that. He is a developer "by trade". Did he ever, I wonder, appear on one of his building sites wearing stiletto heels and sporting a clutch handbag? (I know: horrible thought!) Leaving aside the thoughts it might inspire in onlookers, it would merely be bloody stupid. Because such dress, for women or men, is unsuitable on a building site. And following my earlier argument, it sure as hell would draw attention to your appearance, and ensure that, be you man or woman, your average site-worker wouldn't be paying attention to a word you said.

So what Wallace said about Mitchell-O'Connor was spiteful, unsuitable, and in bad taste. But it was not an insult to "womanhood"; it was personal. Personal and unpleasant. And people make personal and unpleasant remarks about each other all the time. Probably Mr Wallace has made equally unpleasant remarks about some of his male colleagues, without their being caught on microphone. Just as it's quite possible Mitchell-O'Connor and some of the (male and female) parliamentary colleagues who have rushed to her defence with po-faced horror have made equally nasty remarks about each other.

Some of the remarks may indeed have been genuinely sexist, implying that the subjects have allowed their gender to influence them to be unfair to a person of the opposite gender. Others may just be idly nasty. Sometimes they may even be funny as well. It's called life.

Beau Brummell was the only man in fashionable Regency London who dared to tell the appalling Prince Regent that he should get rid of the corset, the pink and white striped jackets, the green satin breeches and the flounced collars. "You should never notice the clothes on a well-dressed man," he told the future King. Good advice for parliamentarians, male or female. And nothing at all to do with intakes of breath about sexism and gender prejudice.

Sunday Independent