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  • Writer's pictureHugh Lawrence

Power of the dog and white (film industry) privilege

A topical post this week as this month we acknowledge world class women cricketers here in New Zealand for the Women’s Cricket World Cup.

Jane Campion’s classless comments about tennis greats, the Williams sisters, at the 22nd Critics’ Choice awards last week, once again exemplifies entertainment celebrities’ lack of expertise on anything except their industry. Too much to say from overprivileged positions about subjects they know little about!

Before everyone leaps to Ms Campion’s defence, had either Ms Venus or Ms Serena Williams observed that Ms Campion didn’t really compete in the sense that athletes compete – the media response would have been over the top . But let’s look at that point: I’d be surprised if Ms Campion or any other distinguished film director made their film as a competition entry to beat some other director. The Critics’ Choice awards, Oscars, BAFTAs Golden Globes etc are what someone once described as “essentially [ceremonies] of self-congratulation, [the Academy Awards] where rich, mostly white people pat the backs of other rich, mostly white people in an award show of reverence and pretension.”

By contrast, the Williams sisters and all other elite women athletes have lived most of their lives in a world of competition where they have fought for recognition of their high performance credentials despite prejudice over their gender and race, and – whether or not they are that good compared to the men. Ms Campion, I strongly recommend a film playing at theatre near you – King Richard!

Ms Campion’s apology was prompt – no doubt nudged by the widespread criticism of her remarks. Much of that criticism in the US focused on her privileged position as a white women claiming oppression while, at the same time, thoughtlessly putting down two world class athletes who have faced racism and misogyny their whole careers.

But that brings us back to the unconscious (and sometime conscious) bias that continues to plague women’s sport generally and elite women performers in particular. In my view, it’s a sport media problem. There’s no doubt that when the best in women's sport is on the world stage alongside the same men’s sports, the demand for tickets is high and pinnacle events on TV attract big audiences. New Zealand recognises its women elite performers better than many countries. Amongst many others, Dames Val Adams and Lisa Carrington, Zoe Sadowksi-Synott, Amelia Kerr, and in past years Annelise Coberger, Beatrice Faumuina, Belinda Cordwell, Val Young and Yvette Williams are all or have been household names.

In 2021, a Wellington research company analysed 68,124 online sports stories from New Zealand’s major news organisations from 2018-2021 and found only 9.95 per cent of online sports coverage was dedicated to women, men received 83.02 per cent and 7.04 per cent of media articles covered both men and women.

Also in 2021, Purdue University’s Cheryl Cooky observed that the women’s sport narrative portrayed in the mass media (print, broadcast and online) has failed to unravel “deeply entrenched forms of inequality”. Cooky and colleague Michael Messner found that in 2019, coverage of women athletes on televised news and highlight shows, including ESPN’s SportsCenter, totalled only 5.4% of all airtime, a negligible change from the 5% observed in 1989 and 5.1% in 1993.

Gendered perceptions that often start as a joke reinforce the stereotypes and biases that have an implication on the role and status of women in society generally and the work place specifically. And we have useful measures to test the proposition. In 2020, a US sports consultant, Rebekah Box observed that women in the US made up 40% of participants. But as of 2020 they continue to only receive 4% of the total sports media coverage in print and broadcast devoted to them. This, despite fluctuations during key events like the Olympics or World Cup.

And yet despite the androgenised advantage held by men, the best women in sport are better than most men but more importantly, deserve the same recognition for their achievements. Today the world of elite women’s sport is struggling with big policy challenges relating to the importance of separate sport for women contrasted with other values. Ms Campion chose to recognise the Williams sisters on the one hand, “what an honour to be in the room with you” then insult them on the other.

When you’re on the world stage and say something out of line – expect and wear the consequences. Serena Wiliams could tell you something about that Ms Campion. At the 2018 US Open, Ms Williams was fined US$17,000 for verbal outbursts in the final and was docked a game. The worst you got Ms Campion was criticism. Oddly, that 2018 episode was notable for men at the competition raging and cursing at umpires without code violations being issued or fines imposed. Hmmm.

Finally, I couldn’t help but noticing that it was the 22nd Critics Choice Awards. Twenty-three years ago, Serena Williams won her first major singles title at the 1999 US Open and Venus had won her first US Open title in 1997, twenty-five years ago.

(photo sources: Getty Images)

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1 Comment

Mar 21, 2022

Well said and something all us privileged white women need to check ourselves on. Jane Campion has apologised and hopefully sincerely gets why the comparison between her challenges and those faced by black female athletes is completely inappropriate.

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