Men Talking About Feminism Is Great! But Why Do They Get More Respect For It Than Women?

Matt Okine gets called a hero. Clementine Ford gets told to "sit on a butcher's knife".

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Twitter was a-flurry with heart emojis for Matt Okine yesterday after he used his acceptance speech at the ARIAs to call out the lack of women featured in the awards night and gender inequality in the entertainment industry more generally. Despite not being aired by the Channel Ten broadcast, his speech was covered widely by mainstream and independent media.

“I’d feel bad if I didn’t make a point of something I feel a little bit weird about,” he said. “I don’t think there were any women in the comedy category at all just then, I don’t think there are female featured artists on tonight’s show — I mean Tina Arena obviously … but other than that, there’s no one.”

“I’d feel stupid if I didn’t use this opportunity to say something about that.”

Let’s get it straight from the start: I agree with him wholeheartedly and I think it’s incredibly important that men are active participants in feminism. But my celebration of men like Okine is also tinged with a little irritation and exhaustion. I know too well that the reaction would have been different had he been a woman. In my experience, when a woman speaks about gender inequity, she’s doesn’t receive the same accolades. She’s far more likely to be called an angry feminist, a complainer, a fat dyke or a bitch.

Working in the arts, I am painfully familiar with all male line-ups. Year after year, my cabaret group is the only female act on the bill. Last year, we made a joke on stage about the sausage fest we’d been inserted into and the next day I received a call from the event director. To his credit he wasn’t calling to scold me but rather to let me know he was doing his best to improve the gender balance in his festival. He even offered to have a meeting with us to discuss how they could do better and we eagerly emailed to set it up. He never replied.

I’ve had much worse clashes with other performers, of all genders, about my approach to calling out sexism directly. Apparently I’m not famous enough to comment, I don’t know the scene well enough, or I don’t see that everyone is trying to make it better. It’s not their fault there aren’t enough funny or talented women, right? For every guy like Okine, willing to listen and make a stand, there are countless others happy to maintain the status quo.

In his speech, Matt said he was inspired by an article “about how it’s important for guys to take a step down in order to ensure equality”. He then said its author, Clementine Ford, was considered “a controversial sort of person”. But why is this? Ford doesn’t write overly provocative or politically dangerous work. Pointing out that for women to have more power in society, men need to have a little less isn’t controversial; it’s simple maths. People only see it that way because she’s a woman speaking passionately about feminism. And, for some reason, that is still some scary shit.

While I understand some female performers don’t speak out because they genuinely don’t think there’s a problem, many more are unwilling to do so publicly as they fear for their careers. Though Okine nervously said he didn’t care if he got in trouble for his speech, he had nothing to worry about. triple j have been championing him on social media all day.

Despite being a relatively progressive organisation triple j has its own problems with gender equality. In 2009, the station’s Hottest 100 of All Time featured no female-led acts and only six with a female instrumentalist or guest vocalist. In their latest annual poll of the station’s best tracks, only 21 acts featured women in prominent roles and only 13 of these were soloists. Year after year, women call out this poor radio representation and nothing changes. Comedy festivals host panel discussions about women’s representation and people wring their hands wondering what to do; the discourse is public, the concern palpable, but the systemic changes required are not forthcoming.

This week’s other celebration of Men Saying Stuff While Women Listen and Feel Grateful, White Ribbon Day, has also drawn criticism for its approach to a gendered problem desperate for systemic change. The Prime Minister seems to think the solution to domestic violence is men “leading by example”. But awareness campaigns and speeches aren’t enough and, as women have been saying for yonks, addressing domestic violence is a mammoth task requiring (re-)funding support services, education, law enforcement, mental health services and cultural change.

Gender balance in comedy and music doesn’t require nearly the same government investment or dismantling of the patriarchy. We just need quotas, programs to support female artists, programmers and audiences to have faith in them, and a media that covers artists of all genders.

By all means, celebrate everyone who calls out sexism. But consider the fact that, while Okine is a hero, Clem Ford gets told to “sit on a butcher’s knife”. Consider how much applause and support he’s getting compared to Tina Arena, who last night denounced ageism directed at women. Consider our politicians who are celebrated for promoting White Ribbon Day, despite axing domestic violence support services and allowing women and children asylum seekers to suffer similar crimes in detention.

If you need to hear it from a man to believe me, let’s end with a quote from Okine. “A lot of guys my age think you’re doing enough by not doing anything bad.” News flash, gents: you’re not.

Maeve Marsden is a freelance writer, director, producer and performer, and the creator of Sydney cabaret act, Lady Sings it Better. She tweets from @maevegobash.