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Our Response to Sexism Requires More Than Louboutins

17/07/2013 11:00 BST | Updated 13/09/2013 10:12 BST
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Since Marion Bartoli won the 2013 Women's Singles at Wimbledon last Saturday, the internet has been awash with analysis of the French star. But the vast bulk of the digital wave has been not discussion of her style, her power, her focus; her status as the first French woman to take a Grand Slam singles title in 7 years; or even the dubious honour of record holder for most female appearances in a Grand Slam tournament before winning a title [47]. Instead, the commentary has focussed - almost exclusively - on one aspect: Bartoli's sexual appeal.

Observations cohere to 2 basic thematic points:

  1. The commenter does not find Bartoli sexually attractive;
  2. As a result, Bartoli should not be able to win Wimbledon.

This logic is that being subjectively unappealing is a strong handicap, if not bar, to being a successful sportswoman. Sport is thereby reduced to competition for sex.

It has been widely assumed that the negative media wave derives from original derogatory remarks made by high-profile BBC commentator John Inverdale, live from the commentary box. The commentary actually comprised a lengthy discourse including Inverdale wondering whether Bartoli's Dad had told her

"Look, you are never going to be, you know, a looker. You are never going to be somebody like a Sharapova, you're never going to be 5ft 11, you're never going to be somebody with long legs, so you have to compensate for that.."
Later, he dismissed the incident as "poking fun, in a nice way, about how [Bartoli] looks". Such "fun poking" has caused Inverdale trouble in the past, including inciting numerous complaints to the broadcaster in 2009, for his "sexist and patronising" approach to none other than women's Wimbledon.

Inverdale's latest remarks produced nearly 700 complaints in the hours following. And in the context of his career thus far, his words appear to illustrate a level of persistent sexism. Yet, the BBC's reaction:

"We accept that this remark was insensitive and for that we apologise".

Is taking offense to sexism now a 'sensitivity'? This may be (at best) an apology for the fact that Inverdale was live on air.

Inverdale has said that he has written to apologise to Bartoli. Last Sunday he stated on air that he "probably ought to just briefly return to yesterday", and was sorry "if any offence was caused" by a "clumsy" and "ham-fisted" remark. His begrudging and brief revisit, and glibly hedged 'apology', provide a hand-waving brush-off. If he is apologising at all, it is for making his comments on air - not for their intrinsically sexist, unseverably offensive content. Inverdale's 'apology'- both on air, and in his letter, the BBC statements, and the resulting media coverage, go nowhere to address the insult to Sharapova, and implied insult to all female tennis players: that their success is based on being '5ft 11.. with long legs'; that winning Grand Slam titles is by looking pretty.

No coverage appears to have taken issue with the other party to the conversation: former world number one (female) tennis player Tracy Austin. In dialogue with Inverdale, Austin described how

"You look at [Bartoli] and you get the sense that she's a street fighter when she goes out on court, and she's willing to scratch and claw for every single point she gets, every win that she manages to have."
Further, in response to Inverdale's "never going to be a looker" remark, Austin says
"I'm sure her and her Dad are well awareof reality - of what her strengths are and what her weaknesses are".

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Tracy Austin; John Inverdale

It is unlikely however that the online mass of anti-Bartoli commentators heard the remarks on BBC Radio Five Live. The torrent that flowed before, during and after the match, commented contemporaneously on visual aspects of the live action: every time Bartoli won a point, every time she fist-pumped in victory. It appears therefore that the majority of voices were live TV viewers - part of the 4.95 million peak audience of the BBC coverage.

Whilst the Inverdale/Austin comments are unacceptable, those found on social media sites often take the sentiment to a horrifying new level. The statements are quite straightforwardly declarative, with no hedging or implication:

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They also range from mindlessly expletive, to appallingly sexually violent:

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Perhaps the most worry aspect is the consistency of the disparagement - and the enormous volume of comments. This becomes clear from postings by organisations such as the Everyday Sexism Project, who have collated numerous examples, for full, horrifying effect.

There's scope for several 'Socio-linguistics, sport and sex' theses in this mass of comments. Objectification is the norm, Bartoli does not conform to expectations within the norm, so commentators re-assert the system, in which women are commercialised objects for the pleasure of male observers.

Bartoli's response has been admirably incisive:

"Have I dreamt about having a model contract? No, I'm sorry. But have I dreamed about winning Wimbledon? Absolutely, yes."
But whilst she has attempted to refocus attention on to her huge professional achievement, mainstream media have continued to divert to her objectification. This has not been helped by her Dad's well-meaning, but ultimately misfired response. Told of Inverdale's remarks, the new Wimbledon champion's father, Dr Walter Bartoli, said: "I am not angry. She is my beautiful daughter." Equally Bartoli post-match told Inverdale she couldn't wait to put on her 15cm Louboutins for her victory celebrations - "I have the dress and the heels ready" she told him; "We cannot wait to see that" Inverdale replied.

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Marion Bartoli embraces her father after her Wimbledon final victory

Thus we have seen a glut of "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder!" editorials, accompanying images of Bartoli appearing "stunning" and "every bit a looker", most often in her red carpet attire at the Wimbledon Winners' Ball. This is optionally accompanied by various critiques of the commentators' physical appearance - "Yeah, well - you're not so great yourself!" - and countless examples of male sports stars who are successful and popular despite an apparent lack of sex appeal.

This response simply compounds the objectification: merely - more insidiously - re-framing it in the context of "You go, gurl!", celebrity-endorsed faux-empowerment, in which women are objectified, objectify each other, and are encouraged to objectify themselves.

It has been argued that the anti-Bartoli comments can and should be dismissed - that the various commentators were either joking, or 'morons', or 'not true sports fans' - and therefore their words just don't matter. Indeed several Twitter commentators have since defended their remarks with the classic, "Chill out - it was just a joke", mirroring Inverdale's response.

Psychologists have shown, however, that unfortunately these words just do matter. For example, studies in 2007 and 2010 indicated that sexist humour may cause greater acceptance of rape, greater victim-blaming, and a reduced sense of seriousness of rape as a crime. They have also shown that enjoyment of such humour is correlated with acceptance of rape myths and endorsement of hostile sexism, or misogyny.

Further studies indicate that use of sexist language creates an environment of sexual stress for women. This triggers the release of the stress hormone cortisol, associated with risks of diabetes, heart problems and stroke. Repeated or prolonged sexual stress over time may inhibit the release of associated neuro-chemicals, resulting in lowered levels of women's confidence, creativity, focus and hopefulness.

Despite the media coverage, the issue is not Inverdale, singularly. The reason his remarks are not ok is not because he is a BBC commentator (though the recent revelations surrounding the culture of impunity at the organisation suggest this may be relevant to the persistence of his attitude - and his unbridled career).

John Inverdale is one example of a mass of sexist commentators. Together their remarks present a deeply alarming prejudice. But it is our response that has illustrating an increasing casual acceptance of sexism, to the point of failure to recognise it; a convenient dismissal of the damage it causes; and a wider failure to effectively admonish it. In this context, Inverdale's "poking fun" defence, and any "lad" / "banter" -based dismissals, will sadly always fall short.