Panels Full Of Women: On Kochie’s Angels, TV Babes And That Elusive “Women’s Perspective”

Geoffrey Barker's op-ed for The Age yesterday did get something right: it's time to hold the commercial networks -- indeed, our entire news media landscape -- up to some standards.

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Two days ago, I watched my younger sister and the overwhelmingly female demographic of her classmates receive their Bachelor of Arts in Communications degrees from UTS — the university behind every winner of the Walkley Foundation’s Student Journalist of the Year for the past six years (in other words, not one of those “undistinguished universities with mickey-mouse diplomas”). Before delivering a thoroughly inspirational speech, stressing the pursuit of quality and work that makes a difference, the guest speaker, Dr Kerry O’Brien (of 4 Corners and innumerable Walkleys), quipped in good humour about how many of the uniformly robed, hatted graduates had chosen to express their individuality through their shoes.

It was a harmless comment, but I couldn’t help but wonder how much difficulty these smart, very well-educated, hard-working and, yes, stylish women would face entering the workforce as young journalists. How many of them would struggle to pursue quality and make a difference, or simply even be heard, in an industry that — despite being an increasingly popular career choice for women — continues to malign, ignore, pigeonhole and fetishise their voices?

As if to confirm my feelings with a sickening kick to the guts, yesterday I awoke to Geoffrey Barker’s horrible, deeply misogynistic word vomit published by The Age — in which he blames young, female journalists and a variety of their good-looking body parts for the failings of commercial TV news programs.

If Barker — a retired journalist — was serious about his beef with the commercial networks, he would have spent more words recognising that these young women and their pretty faces are not the cause of the problem: they’re simply scapegoats in a system geared against them. Instead, his piece ended up a mirror image of the attitudes exhibited by the real people at fault: ratings-obsessed executives who refuse to take female journalists seriously; who force them into tight skirts, bouffant hairdos and fashion/lifestyle segments; who refuse to employ them in equal numbers to their male colleagues or vote them onto boards; and who gather them onto all-girl panels every now and again to discuss “women’s issues”. Because in the world of Australian news journalism, sex — and gender discrimination — sells.

Good morning, Kochie.

Last month, Junkee questioned why the all-women panel on Sunrise we know simply as ‘Kochie’s Angels’ were deemed appropriate commentators on vaccination and the anti-vax movement — given the vexatious nature of the issue, the fact that none of the speakers had any medical expertise, and the importance of avoiding a spread of misinformation that can, you know, kill babies.

Of course the answer to this question is that, like most TV and radio show hosts whose job it is to entertain rather than inform, they weren’t really appropriate commentators. But it’s also breakfast television, and asking a panel of three nice-looking females to discuss the issues of the day in a neat sound bite — preferably one that stirs a few dazed, pre-coffee viewers at home to tune in, and ultimately vent their own views on the social medias —  is exactly what the show’s producers are looking for.

So, what’s the problem? 

Picture the brainstorm that birthed Kochie’s Angels. Somebody convinced somebody else it was a fresh, new, exciting idea: a man asks three women for their uniquely feminine take on issues of the day — how refreshingly different! And the tie-in with everyone’s favourite 1970s T&A bonanza Charlie’s Angels? Genius. Three chicks with lots of hair and makeup, doing activities we usually reserve for men, like solving crimes speaking! And everyone’s favourite bumbling business-man Kochie gets to play Charlie, the man pulling their strings. (Of course Kochie’s usual offsider Mel has to sit this one out, because let’s not confuse things: the man is the boss of the ladiez.)

What’s sinister about a segment like Kochie’s Angels is not the possibility that someone will say something inappropriate, misinformed, bigoted or downright dangerous. I mean sure, that’s all a bit sinister, but we’re accustomed to shock jocks and opinion-makers spraying fecal matter all over our airwaves and newspapers. Plus, in a five-minute segment that covers three topics (with varying degrees of triviality), these lovely ladies are usually only given around twenty seconds of soap-box time on each issue: for better or worse, they simply don’t have time to really push any agenda or examine any topic below the surface.

The losers here are the panelists — something lifestyle blogger and former Masterchef host Sarah Wilson found out the hard way. She’s written about the aforementioned controversy she stirred when she appeared to back the anti-vax movement during the segment, after Sunrise producers requested she speak for that point of view. Asking Wilson to represent such a controversial and overwhelmingly debunked position, without giving her enough warning to research it properly or enough airtime to present a nuanced argument — it would be naive to think they didn’t realise her comments would simply piss a lot of people off and make her look like a fool.

“Sharon, Tegan or whatever they are called…”

The women Kochie condescendingly refers to as his Angels are, in the vast majority, smart, accomplished individuals with the knowledge and experience to express informed, reasoned and persuasive opinions. Hailing from various professional backgrounds, each “Angel” has a level of celebrity that most would rate (with all due respect) as D-grade; many fall into journalistic categories — newsreaders, magazine editors, bloggers, radio presenters — but there’s also the odd sportswoman, model, performer, or Miss Australia contest winner.

Drawn from the diverse pool of generic female talent that is (one can only assume) Kochie’s Harem, the speakers are rotated each day, giving the audience little opportunity to get a sense for any depth of character or political leanings they might have. As pointed out by Daily Life in January, there also seems to be an agreement that the women will toe the line of feminine politeness, which helps them to navigate the often gossipy, judgemental territory chosen by the producers without fear of the backlash Kochie had to deal with that time he said a mother breastfeeding poolside wasn’t a very classy sheila.

That is, until they were asked to talk about vaccinations. Kochie certainly enjoyed the opportunity to end the (barely-heated) anti-vax segment with a patronising “Alright ladies, I’ll ask you to to take it outside now because we’ve got to move on,” winning an obliging giggle from those present — because we all know ladies don’t fist-fight! After all, they’re Angels, not screeching devil she-witches.

Leaving aside the gross, patronising tone of the panel’s title and its subject/object divide, which makes it even worse than The Today Show’s version, ‘Girls On The Grill’,  there’s an uncomfortable irony in the naming of these panelists as Angels. It suggests that these women are inherently virtuous and that there’s something special, mysterious, even mystical, about their character; meanwhile, whatever talents they actually possess are irrelevant to the panel. Their special skill, the real reason they are on the show, is that they’re female — and being angel-women, their opinions carry a specific value that can only be described as novelty. It’s obvious that despite their potential worth as commentators, what these women really think is of little consequence in comparison to the sheer spectacle of an all-girl panel.

Nobody Everybody puts babes in the corner

Of course, Kochie’s Angels is just a symptom of a systemic cultural problem within Australian news media. Published in March this year, an investigation into gender and the media by independent news and current affairs site New Matilda found that women are vastly outnumbered by men on boards, in executive positions and as editors (i.e. all the decision-makers), especially in the big, privately-owned organisations that control the majority of our mainstream media (although gender distribution in the public-owned media isn’t exactly 50/50 either.)

Considering it’s a breakfast TV segment that hardly takes itself seriously, when it comes to marginalising women’s voices there are meatier fish to fry than Kochie’s Angels. Even the ABC’s Q&A is guilty: Tony Jones MC’d its own women-only panel last month, to coincide with the All About Women feminist talkfest held at the Sydney Opera House the day before — also, I guess, to make up for the pathetic number of females who are invited to speak on Q&A every other week. Excepting Ladies Night, there has not been a single episode of Q&A this year with more than two women seated on the panel, which is usually comprised of Tony Jones and five or six other guests.

As expected (and as I’ve written about), the girls-only Q&A spectacle subjected us not to a meaty discussion of important issues, but to conversations about chivalry and whether women are disappointed in Julia Gillard because she’s a woman and you’re women and that must mean your pert breasts feel personally deflated by her. Viewers were well prepared for the inevitable circus, what with the bingo and drinking games urging us to take a shot whenever someone asks if women can “have it all”. We knew the dance already; the panel full of serious, talented, groundbreaking women was a severely wasted opportunity.

When the voices and opinions of women are pigeonholed and fetishised — dressed up all fancy and labelled something cute, ascribed value for nothing more than their feminine otherness to male normality instead of their humanity, intellect, compassion, reason — you deny their ability to represent a perspective with any seriousness. No all-girl panel treated in this way (whether it’s a one-off, a five-minute daily segment, or a complete TV show, a-la the late Beauty and the Beast) will threaten the dominance of the blokey male who sits in the big boys’ chair and asks the questions every day (not to mention all the blokey men behind the scenes). Quite the contrary: it reinforces his dominance. Just ask Geoffrey Barker, who sure doesn’t want his news delivered by crimson lips or fancy coiffures, because anyone who wears makeup or gets their hair did must be a bimbo.

A word on #womensperspective, and the battle to save Daily Life

When Fairfax unveiled its streamlined new website to coincide with the broadsheet’s conversion to tabloid earlier this year, many fans of its feminist-informed sub-site Daily Life were horrified to see it rebranded under the cringeworthy title of ‘Women’s Perspective’. The social media backlash was immediate — even the site’s editor, Sarah Oakes, spoke out against the decision, which wasn’t hers. Eventually, the faceless folk behind the rebrand caved in and reversed their change — but for every few women who spoke out against #womensperspective, there were others who didn’t really get what all the fuss was about.

Allow me to womansplain.

Daily Life started as the online, daily incarnation of Sunday Life magazine, but has become a whole other beast; one of the few sites where unabashed feminists like me can find smart, well-written, reasoned critiques of local politics, culture, current affairs and lifestyle trends that speak to us, instead of the exasperatingly old-fashioned drivel and all-out f-word vilification that we’re all too often met with in our encounters with Australian mainstream media. To that end, it’s the sad, empirical fact that male voices grossly outnumber those of women in the mainstream media which has enabled Daily Life to carve out its niche. Given this state of affairs, the site has an open agenda: to redress the balance by privileging women writers (while still inviting men to the table) and favouring open-minded, progressive discussions about current events, politics, and lifestyle, often with a gender-related twist.

There is a world of difference between that idea and the caging of such writing (and female opinions more broadly) within a mainstream news site under the banner of “women’s perspective”. Marketing it that way gives off a tokenistic, exclusionary reek that suggests a woman’s perspective is niche, as if a woman’s perspective doesn’t belong in every section of the newspaper (and in equal measure to men), and as if female opinions and discussions about gender politics can and should be neatly packaged into a lift-out that men needn’t bother reading.

How can we fix this?

Programs, websites, and news outlets that seek to both represent and speak to women tread a potentially difficult tightrope: there is always the danger of reinforcing the norm of masculine dominance by presenting women’s perspectives as something ‘other’ than mainstream, and falling into stereotypes and sexist cliches. This danger is particularly acute when women’s voices are aired as a spectacle by producers and editors who lack proper respect for women’s opinions, or a serious commitment to promoting diversity and gender equality in the media. As seen in Kochie’s Angels, Girls On The Grill, and, yes, a heap of commercial TV news.

Women make up half the population: our perspective is not niche (although it has been sidelined for as long as history helps us recall). And while it makes sense to group together discussions that centre around the topic of gender, the voices of women on all topics should be as mainstream as those of men, across the board. Only when women in the media are treated with the respect of our male colleagues, only when we stand up against the tokenism with which we’re often treated, will the likes of Geoffrey Barker stop equating femininity with stupidity and blaming our hair, eyes, lips, breasts, complexions and teeth for the fact that the men behind many news organisations are more interested in good ratings than good reporting.

GB was right about one thing: It’s time to hold the commercial networks (and our entire media landscape) up to some standards. It’s time to stop gathering panels full of women for one-off lady events and fluffy five minute segments, and start making room for us to take up an equal number of seats at the speakers’ table — and the board-room table — permanently.

Jenny Noyes writes from Sydney’s inner west. She enjoys music and feminism and other types of arts and politics, and making opinions about those subjects which may or may not be well-informed. You can read some of her music-related opinions in The Brag, and send her compliments @jennynoise.