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Rachel Smalley and the dangerous waters of female opinion

As a former broadcaster in a previous life I still, occasionally, suffer the broadcaster’s recurring ‘dead air’ dream. The one where the song has finished playing, and a yawning chasm of silence has descended on the studio, waiting for me to back-announce, or jibber-jabber some other reassuring words to you, Dear Listener. And I can’t do it because I am hammering on the locked studio door, from the outside. Yet through the glass panel I can still see the record spinning, pointlessly, and soundlessly. (Well, like I said, my broadcasting days are a few years ago now!). Ms Smalley will probably have a similar dream about the comments she inadvertently made on-air naming New Zealand women over a certain weight as ‘heifers’ and ‘lardos’. Only her dream will likely remain a waking nightmare for years to come perhaps until she reconciles herself with what she said and what she thought at the time she said it. If she ever does. 

My dream (and other professions will have similar dreams, no doubt) is, and was, an anxiety dream. In my dream, I am supposed to perform, and I fail. It doesn’t matter what the reason are for the failure, there it is, my inadequacy exposed for all to hear. I don’t actually remember if I ever did leave ‘dead air’ out there for any lengthy period of time; the imagery of my dream has overtaken the humdrum reality of a pretty ordinary job. 

In no way is this blogpost intended to be an examination of Rachel Smalley, or her professionalism, or even of her ethics. Those are her private matters, and I wish her well. My interest is really in that exposure that broadcasters experience in a way that few other professions really do, and how broadcasters must reconcile their inner lives with their public personas. As I type now, I can cast and recast my sentences to make me seem better than I am; I can choose to delete my annoying adverbs, I can pull my punches so as not to offend, or, for that matter, generate any interest. Broadcasters, like other public performers don’t have that luxury, and are usually trained so as to minimise the risk of on-air stuff ups. Of course, we all want just a few on air stuff ups, as they can become the stuff of legend. A couple of my favourites include Wendy Petrie’s fist-pump, outside the courthouse when the Bain verdict was to be released, and Jim Hickey’s notorious invention of the word ‘come-burger’ as a companion to the more usual ‘gone-burger’ during a weather bulletin in 2007. “Heifers and Lardos” will probably find their way into the same pantheon, and life will carry on, eventually. But the broadcasters who commit such little faux pas may likely chew on them far longer than the public will, because of what they fear those moments reveal about them personally. I recall the ultimate exoneration of Petrie’s ‘fist-pump’ came about as people realised her action was not about agreeing with the verdict, but about the elation of doing a good live cross. The alternative scenario was unthinkable; that Petrie was a journalist expressing an opinion, ‘editorialising’ the news, especially with what was (by then becoming) an unpopular opinion. I don’t know if Jim Hickey ever realised what he added to New Zealand’s obscenity lexicon, but Rachel Smalley’s apology indicates that she was mortified at being thought of as having held an opinion like the one she apparently expressed: “It was stupid, it was judgmental and offensive. It was not made as a statement of fact and it was in no way representative of any opinion I have ever held, ever. And I’m sorry, I truly am.” (http://tvnz.co.nz/entertainment-news/rachel-smalley-s-tearful-air-apology-after-calling-kiwi-women-lardos-5883829.

It interests me that a broadcaster such as Smalley denies the possibility that she holds the opinion she expressed. Even more, it interests me that she is currently being excoriated on social media (on my Twitter and FB feeds for example) for having (or presumably having) such opinions in the first place, thus not being a ‘good enough role model’ for our young and not so young women. Oh for crying out loud. Putting aside my deep misgivings about anybody being a ‘role model’, it makes me uneasy at how ferocious we can be at high profile women when they express opinions, especially about other women. As one of my own FB friends put it, neatly reflecting the general tenor of much of what I have seen on social media: “F*** you and your tears, Rachel Smalley. In the same vein of your comments to other women: you are just a weak whiny b*** who is crying because you got snapped out not because what you said was awful. Women have enough issues without other women attacking them for weight issues.” [**** added, for extra delicacy]. In this, and other angry expressions, Smalley has become a mirror for other people’s (women’s) insecurities and fears about themselves and their own lives. Comment negatively about women’s weight as a feature of the New Zealand populace and one likely becomes, as Smalley has discovered, a ‘fat-shamer’ a hater of women’s bodies, a purveyor of patriarchy. It matters not that the comments were meant to be private, or whether she said them loudly, proudly and intentionally. The result, I think, would have been the same. Simply put, a high-profile female broadcaster just oughtn’t think like that. Apparently.

I wonder if this response to Smalley provides us with a reason as to why we have relatively few female broadcasters that might be accused of having known political beliefs or actual opinions. We have some fantastic female broadcasters, but only a few would be able to come out of this kind of attention unscathed. Kim Hill, Linda Clarke, Mihingarangi Forbes, Carol Hirschfeld, Pauline Gillespie, all strong women who do hold opinions, have all probably got their own ‘dead-air’ nightmares they could tell you about, but all of them are probably long enough in the tooth (except perhaps Forbes) to come through such an episode without inciting perhaps so much of a Twitter hate-storm. None of them is known for outrageous opinions, all of them are intelligent, articulate, and eminently professional. Perhaps a good exception to the trend might be Pam Corkery, who was certainly known as an unapologetic ‘personality’ in broadcasting. In comparison, the list of male broadcasters that could, and actually do, get away with pungent views is far longer: Paul Holmes, Paul Henry, Willie Jackson, Mark Richardson, Kevin Black, Michael Laws, Duncan Garner, John Campbell, Derek Fox, Marcus Lush, Sean Plunket, just to name a few. In short, and based on my pretty unscientific analysis, we prefer our male broadcasters to have a degree of personality; to be seen to be bucking current conventional thinking perhaps, and even those that attract the most vituperation (Henry, Holmes, etc) have appropriately large followings that insulate them (so it seems). We are less able, it appears, to allow our female broadcasters quite the same latitude in having and expressing opinions that might rankle with some. While there are exceptions to this observation, obviously, it still is a shame, to my view, that a high profile broadcaster feels the need to apologise for what people thought she thought, rather than for what she did. A nightmare, indeed.

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About Sparrowhawk/Kārearea

Writer and legal Academic, Wellington.

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