‘Gayle’-force winds have been blowing through the Caribbean blogosphere in the aftermath of West Indies cricketer Chris Gayle's inappropriate on-air advances towards Australian sports reporter Melanie McLaughlin. The incident — and Gayle's subsequent fine and possible ban from his cricketing league — has inspired intense online discussions about sexism and race, with two extremes emerging: those who categorise Gayle's actions as harassment and those who say his punishment far outweighs the crime, turning the predator into the prey.
To help clarify the intricacies of the discourse on sexism, race, sport and culture, Global Voices talked to two Trinidad and Tobago-based bloggers: one male, Wired868 sports reporter Lasana Liburd, and the other female, writer, political blogger and cultural studies researcher Rhoda Bharath.
Global Voices (GV): Can you put your finger on the thing that peeved you most about Gayle’s comments?
Lasana Liburd (LL): ‘Don’t blush baby!’ For me, that put an exclamation mark on his pathetic soliloquy. It hinted at his own inflated ego and arguably sought to reduce his target’s professionalism in one swoop. And it showed he was not paying attention to the body language of the female reporter and, quite possibly, did not care a jot.
Rhoda Bharath (RB): His blithe arrogance. Gayle felt entitled to speak to the reporter in a way that was unprofessional — because he was being interviewed in his capacity as a sportsman of the region — and sexist. Further, when challenged, his response was even more tone deaf.
GV: Was Gayle’s behaviour sexist? Was it sexual harassment? What’s the difference?
LL: I feel there was a touch of sexism in his closing because she certainly was no ‘baby’ of his and it felt like his speech was partly about reducing her professionally, whether intentionally or not. Because she became less a sport journalist at that point and simply a ‘babe with a microphone’. I think it was harassment in that she was put in an awkward, uncomfortable position against her will while just trying to do her job. If Gayle had said ‘no comment’, it would have been much better for all concerned. I don’t think it crosses the line to be considered ‘sexual harassment’ though. It is a sex-less scandal.
RB: My laywoman's understanding of sexism is when you discriminate against someone based on their perceived gender. So, if I assume someone is physically weak because she is a woman or someone is emotionally underdeveloped because he is male, that is sexism. Sexual harassment refers to abusing your position of power over someone to make unwelcome and inappropriate sexual advances. A good example of sexual harassment would be a tall, handsome, popular athlete using his close proximity to a female journalist and the awkward position of being on air to talk about some part of her body (eyes), make a sexualized comment (don't blush) and an advance (let's have a drink) that would put her in an uncomfortable and compromising position. Why speak to her like that on air? It diminishes her as a professional person, objectifies her on camera no less, and robs her of the opportunity to respond as she really would like because she is at work. Maybe she would have said yes; but that is irrelevant. Gayle showed no respect for the reporter as a professional or a person.
GV: The gaffe has ignited a public discussion about sexism in our society. How should we approach this and what kind of a difference would it make considering that it’s a part of West Indian culture and language?
RB: Sexism is part of how our society was structured. I say constantly that were are a stratified society: Race, class, gender, age, wealth. You name it. We approach sexism every day and shrug. For many reasons. Some of us accept it as a cultural norm. Some of us are so numb to it we do not recognize it anymore. Some of us do not have the language or awareness to articulate and examine it. I think people with the awareness and vocabulary need to tackle and target it. Individuals and groups. And it should be a consistent discussion because sexism permeates every aspect of our lives. Everything. Culture and language systems evolve and change. There is no reason we cannot. What we need is awareness of the issue at hand and mature discussions using the right vocabulary.
LL: I think it is about respect as much as anything else. I’ve had female bosses and I’ve never heard anyone refer to [media executive] Sunity Maharaj, [writer] Kathy-Ann Waterman or [media executive] Shida Bholai as ‘baby’. In fact, I don’t think anyone would have referred to [former Trinidad and Tobago Prime Minister] Kamla Persad-Bissessar as ‘baby’ in a professional setting over the last five years. So I am not convinced that it is just our culture. I think it is something we do when we feel we can get away with it. And it shows a lack of respect for our target. That is when it is done inappropriately, of course. It is a tender, loving term when used properly with someone you have some sort of relationship with. I’m not sure who should lead the charge. It might very well be that the biggest impact in this battle can be done on Facebook walls and the equivalent of water cooler conversations where men and women are made to understand why this is wrong. I feel we need to understand, in a social context from our peers and not necessarily some Tanty heading a NGO, that this will not go over well.
GV: There have been calls for public education on this issue locally, but what would really effect enduring change?
LL: An enduring change would only result from consistent enforcement of a new social norm and tutoring children in what is unacceptable social behaviour and why.
RB: Education isn't a static thing. People think education is a lecture or a lesson. It is ongoing and requires practice exercises. So, I am always going to be advocating for public education. In its realest sense: ongoing discussion and linkages with pragmatic and practical approaches of the skills learned to life. When people become aware of how sexist our language and customs are, the next step has to be how do we address changing these things…and that is ongoing. That is practice.
GV: Lasana, you made the point on a Facebook thread that the entire sports media culture struggles with this, so Gayle is a product of that as well as of macho West Indian society. But should netizens be taking offence at a double standard as well? Why would tennis star Maria Sharapova’s flirting with a journalist not be an issue but Chris’ come-on was? Are West Indians more sexually permissive than their peers down under?
LL: I definitely don’t think we are more liberated. As in everything else, we simply get away with more in the Caribbean and act accordingly. Sharapova made arguably an inappropriate compliment to a male journalist. If Gayle had stopped at ‘your eyes are beautiful’ then we would not have had a problem. Everything he said after that opening was what got him a $10,000 fine. But, yes, I think society is far from blameless. Television stations hire the prettiest faces they can find because they think it helps them to woo viewers and lure athletes into interviews. I think nine out of ten marketing or PR managers look stunning too. It arguably shows that looks and sexiness have become prerequisites in certain fields. Gayle responded to that.
RB: I'm not focused on sexism only in sport. Sport is a kind of crucible, that no doubt would intensify the way sexism is performed. I think all sexism, all kinds, needs to be addressed, not just sexual harassment, which is what the Gayle and Sharapova issues are about. Sexual harassment is one type of sexism. There are many other issues that need tackling.
GV: There has been a lot of talk about whether this would have got as much heat as it did if Gayle were not a black man from the Global South and McLaughlin were not a white woman from a developed country. Did race come into play?
RB: Race comes into everything. And that became even clearer after Gayle's grudging apology. The journalist accepted. The white male media and sporting fraternity continued to froth and call for larger portions of his head. In fact, it began to look like Gayle was being harassed and bullied.
LL: I read a story about Frank Sinatra referring, jokingly, to female Australian reporters as hookers back in 1974. This was the response to that, according to the UK Guardian: ‘The reaction was swift and comically stunning. The Australian press demanded he apologise; Sinatra refused. By noon the next day, the unions were involved, and airport refuellers flatly refused to fill his Gulfstream, while terminal staff announced none of their number would serve him. For the next few days, Sinatra ended up marooned and under siege on the 23rd floor of a Sydney hotel. It took the arbitration and conciliation services of Bob Hawke –- then the ragingly popular leader of the Australian Council of Trade Unions –- to get Sinatra to sign a grudging apology, which finally permitted him to escape the country. That said, I would not rule out an element of racism. There often is. But I don’t think the first response was racist. In fact, the reporter’s own colleagues initially responded with stifled laughter and the hashtag #smooth, while Gayle has also got support from white colleagues in the media, sporting world and among cricket fans. I don’t think this situation has descended into race yet, although I’m sure many racists have been sharing their opinions too.
GV: What many people cringed at was Gayle’s tone. Condescending. Entitled. Disrespectful. What does that tone say about sexism and how it can be dealt with?
RB: Condescending, entitled, disrespectful: we could easily be talking about the attitudes of the wealthy elite to the Caribbean…and to black bodies. And I start off that way to explain that Gayle's response is learned behavior. He picked that up from somewhere. His culture at home or in the community. We need to question who has shaped our culture and how. We need to question and grapple with what is our culture and why. Only then can we move forward. Gayle's arrogant and exploitative attitude isn't new or particular to his gender or ethnicity or discipline. Which makes this even more dire a situation. It means that it is prevalent. And to root it out will be a long and difficult process.
LL: Men with prehistoric views on a woman’s role on this planet are a big challenge for women’s fight for equality. But, to be frank, groupies are an equally big challenge. Some people cannot tell the difference between groupies and women and I think that contributes to incidents like that. Maybe Gayle meets more groupies than women and is more used to dealing with the former than the latter. In most other walks of life, including as a journalist, groupies are not part of the landscape though. So in that case, men have to respect the occupation of the woman in front of them or understand that the woman in the party didn’t get dressed with you specifically in mind. You really need a cultural shift for that to sink in though. And, in that sense, it is absolutely right to use high profile scenarios like this one to make a point and hopefully sway a few people.
GV: What was the weirdest part of the whole scenario for you?
LL: I was bemused by statements that it was just Chris being Chris. Chris needs to pretend to be someone other than Chris then, so he can live in a civilised society. There are many people in cells right now who were keeping it real with their dark sides. We all have to compromise to share space with everyone else on the planet. Celebrities included. Even those who are really good at hitting a cricket ball.