- Vancouver, British Columbia - This past week, Virgin Atlantic Airlines boss Richard Branson stopped by Vancouver for the announcement of regular service to and from the Vancouver International Airport by Virgin Airlines. In the process, he did a few interviews and met with a few people of influence (read: politicians and business leaders). An invitation was extended to British Columbian Premier, Christy Clark, to go kite boarding with Richard Branson, but later, Branson made a blog post in which he stated that he had forgotten to mention what the required dress code was: that his female passenger be nude on his back, demonstrated by a cheesy photo with the woman's nudity being "covered" by her limbs.
There were a few whimpers of condemnation that this was not only sexist, but blatantly disrespectful to the office of the British Columbian Premier, regardless of whether one supports her policies or not. And some of these criticisms even garnered a little traction and for a moment, yours truly even wondered if this was a news story that would carry. Sadly, I can say that it did not, except in terms of still being referred to as a joke for some who find Branson's attempt at humour funny.
I started to consider why it is that someone like Richard Branson can make comments or jokes like this toward the Leader of a provincial government and generally get away with it no worse for wear. Is it because he is ridiculously wealthy? Is it because he is not from Canada and can easily slip out of the country and never come back if Canadians decided that they weren't interested in his disrespect? Is it because he is famous and known for his rather brash style and his ability to generate media attention? I am not entirely sure.
Richard Branson will largely escape this episode unscathed; in fact, it doesn't appear that this incident has shown up as a blip on the radar of British media. Branson isn't the only one who gets away with these sorts of sexist comments. A great number of celebrities can go on record, making less than edifying comments towards women and they don't get tarred and feathered. Rush Limbaugh stated in 1991, "Feminism was established to allow unattractive women access to mainstream society,” yet within the Conservative community, he is still embraced and listened to by many today. No apology was made. Or take an entertainer like Chris Brown, who can beat his ex-girlfriend, Rihanna, sending her to hospital, and then get convicted of felony, and yet, he is publicly embraced with open arms from many within the musical entertainment community. Sure, Chris Brown did his community service, but he embraces the bad boy image now. Or take Roman Polanski, having being convicted of intoxicating a female minor and of statutory rape, he continues to be embraced by many within the film community. No apologies or anything. Of course, he can't return to the United States to film, as there is an arrest for his warrant, but not too worry because most actors are happy to go out of their way to work with him wherever there are no extradition agreements with the United States. Instead, it apparently makes them more desirable and alluring to the media. The bad boy tends to get more press than the fine, upstanding male celebrity; it makes for more exciting news.
Yet, there comes a certain point in which the media appears to work together as a team to denounce and shame a celebrity into oblivion if they cross a certain line: being racist. I think of two prominent examples of celebrities who were at one time adored and popular. Michael Richards and Mel Gibson.
Michael Richards, the loved actor behind Cosmo Kramer in the sitcom, Seinfeld, was doing a stand-up gig at the Laugh Factory in West Hollywood, California. He got into a shouting match with a group of African-American patrons of the comedy bar, who were allegedly being a little loud ordering drinks, which drew the ire of Richards, who felt it was disrespectful, so he make a derogatory remark towards them. The group responded by heckling Richards, and Richards then responded by making references to lynching and using several racial epithets. It was all recorded on a camera phone and generally speaking, Richards has barely worked again in the film business. Larry David, one of the writers for Seinfeld gave Richards a gig on David's own show, Curb Your Enthusiasm, for him to poke fun at himself for her racial outburst. Richards even called Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton to apologize to the black community. He was even a guest on Jesse Jackson's radio program. Michael Richards called it quits on his stand-up act, but in general, he isn't working, or at least doesn't appear to be. Michael Richards has effectively been run out of time for being a racist. He has taken steps to try to apologize to the black community, and while we may be suspicious about his reasons for doing so, he has acknowledged the gravity of his outburst and how offensive it was. Nevertheless, Richards will likely never work in the film business again, at least not any time soon.
Mel Gibson, meanwhile, was the celebrated actor and filmmaker behind the Oscar darling, Braveheart, which is still quoted by many. The film itself is a bit of a cultural icon today, even if it is nearly 17 years old. Beyond that, he has been involved in many other memorable films like Lethal Weapon, Signs, and Mad Max. Starting with The Passion of the Christ though, Gibson began to be called an anti-Semite for creating a film that allegedly sought to cast the blame on the Jews for murdering Jesus (though yours truly does not agree with this allegation). Gibson's father, Hutton Gibson, however, has gone on record as having denied the veracity of the Holocaust account and made derogatory remarks towards Jews. For the most part though, Mel Gibson survived the anti-Semite accusations related to The Passion of the Christ, as it appeared others doubted the criticisms enough. However, fast forward to 2006, when he was pulled over for speeding and driving under the influence, Mel Gibson was recorded as having made remarks about Jews being responsible for all the wars in the world. And there, his career was essentially finished. Any doubts pertaining to Gibson's status as an anti-Semite would seem to have been confirmed. It is worth noting though that Gibson made several sexist remarks to the female arresting officer, including, "what do you think you're looking at, sugar tits?" Mel Gibson later confirmed that those were in fact his comments and that he regretted them, explaining them as being "blurted out in a moment of insanity." He apologized for his behaviour and reached out to Jewish leaders to try to make amends. Yet since, Gibson's career in Hollywood has been very limited, as few are willing to work with him, nor are enough people willing to see his movies, making him deemed an unbankable star; or worse, one who damages the appeal of film projects.
In both of these circumstances, two celebrities manufactured their quick and timely fall from popular adoration with their racial slurs and epithets. Media and society decided that they could not accept or support entertainers, who espouse racist thoughts or beliefs. Though interestingly enough in the case of Gibson, his sexist remarks to the female arresting officer were not the comments that drew the greatest ire of the media or of society, but instead the racist comments. Make no mistake; I do not seek to diminish the offensiveness or inappropriateness of Gibson's racist comments, but instead to draw attention to the different societal treatment of racially offensive comments from sexually offensive comments.
So why is it that in our society, we do not share the same outrage over sexism and misogyny that we do with racism? What is it about sexism that is more comfortable and palatable to our naive minds? If I think about the attitudes we carry towards those who are racists, I would say that the general discourse supposes that once a racist, always a racist. It appears as if we do not believe in the ability of someone to rehabilitate themselves from possessing racist views towards a particular people group. Or is it possible that a part of our extreme discomfort about accepting someone with racist views is in large part the result of the internal racist views that all of us possess to some degree or another? As if because each of consciously, or subconsciously, hold latent forms of racism towards certain people groups, we try to combat that by damning anyone who blatantly espouses racism.
In Vancouver, I still hear people complaining about "terrible Asian drivers" as if being a bad driver is something that is genetically programmed into people of Asian decent. But even in myself this morning, as I was driving, I realized that I had a rather racist thought towards one driver. I was driving along when someone who was supposed to yield to me cut me off. I saw he wore a turban on his head, and my immediate thought was that he is not from here, therefore he must not know the rules of the road or maybe he simply can't read the road signs telling him to yield. This translated further to yours truly thinking negatively about foreign drivers, who don't make the effort to learn our rules and laws, but then I caught myself. With multiculturalism and immigration being such a part of the Canadian story the last 40 years, I really had no business assuming that just because this fellow was wearing a turban meant that he was a foreigner. For all I knew, he may have been a born and raised Canadian just like me, while just happening to ignore my rights as a driver, feeling that his own drive was more important than mine since he had to be somewhere. He probably had to be somewhere in a hurry, and his turban or his skin colour probably had very little to do with the ultimate fact that he chose to cut me off. I get cut off by many people of all skin colours, especially Caucasians. Then I started to feel bad for having prejudiced him because of his clothing and headpiece. In that moment, I harboured racially motivated frustration towards him and I regretted it.
One cannot say that the difference is simply because one is born into a particular ethnic background and can't do anything about it, therefore racism is abhorrent, because in reality, women are born women and there is very little that they can do about that unless they opt for re-assignment surgery to become a man. I think most of us would say that we believe it is okay to reject someone for a viewpoint that we disagree with, say such as a political view, or one's opinion about same-sex marriage, abortion, or medically assisted suicide. Opinions can be changed and one is not free from discrimination on the basis of their opinion (ie. a gun club could forbid membership to an avow gun control advocate). However, as a Canadian society, we supposedly believe that it is immoral to discriminate against someone because of their ethnic background or sex, according to Canadian Human Rights Act of 1977. Yet through much of society, we passively accept discriminatory views towards women and how we may treat them differently from men.
Richard Branson would never offer a male Premier or Prime Minister to go kite boarding on his back, particularly naked. However, him offering Christy Clark the opportunity to do so, even if in jest, is in very poor taste and very disappointing. Yet it is not merely in individuals that we tolerate sexism. We support magazines that continually discriminate against women because of their imperfect figures, or their inability to mask signs of aging, as if it were a woman's imperative to flee from old age. We do not demand men to be concerned with their figure, but individuals scoop up copies of US Weekly, among others, which eagerly document how bad Britney Spears or Jessica Simpson look in a bikini, or how they've failed to work off their pregnancy weight. Living up to the ideal feminine figure is nearly impossible, but even those who do achieve it are destined to lose it with time, and then draw the scorn of gossip media for letting herself go. And yet when women try to conform and adhere to these latently sexist societal expectations of them, they are mocked even further when they get botox, a nose job, or heaven forbid a boob job. These magazines talk out of both sides of their mouths by pointing which women could use plastic surgery and then mocking those who have had plastic surgery, feeling the need to point out and humiliate these women, especially when the surgery doesn't go perfectly. When these magazines perpetrate these harmful norms towards women, very few call any attention to this. Instead, it is thought normal, even if they can be just as damaging to women as explicit racism towards a black man or woman.
A male colleague of mine once said that the difference is that women choose to accept the societal norms, therefore since it is their choice, they make it okay to be oppressed and discriminated against. Yet this viewpoint fails to give full respect to the situation that many women find themselves, and quite honestly, it is about as moronic as suggesting that the Blacks who worked as slaves under American slave-owners made slavery and racism okay by their "choice" to work as slaves. Who established the terms of employment? Certainly not the slaves. Black slaves didn't have the choice to simply up and leave when they found their work conditions unbearable, unless of course they had a death wish. Women, in a similar fashion, face such a scenario where they aren't in a position to establish the terms of freedom and liberty. They are not given a choice in altering the discourse of women in society, unless of course they wish to be stigmatized. A woman who attempts to rebel against such societal norms is regularly demeaned as undesirable and "bitchy." Because we all know a good woman knows her place and when to shut up...
What is it that makes other people's sexism and misogyny sexy, while without hesitation we condemn other people's racist views and behaviour? In large part, I believe it is because we, as a still male-centric society, like our women the way that they are. We want them to be beautiful, we want them to be submissive, to be insecure, to be demeaned, and to be second-class. It gives us men the opportunity to rescue them, which merely elevates us to a position of power and thereby feeling more masculine. When we continually break women down with our socially accepted forms of sexism, we create a system that makes women feel like they need us as men, so we may rescue them from the harmful aspects of society that we ourselves help to perpetuate and normalize. We are slowly killing the women we claim to love.