Over the past 48 hours a media controversy dubbed ‘Strippergate’ has been unfolding between Channel 7 and Mia Freedman’s popular website Mamamia.
The stoush was sparked when Mamamia’s editor Jamila Rizvi wrote a column admonishing Sunrise presenter David Koch for humiliating his female co-star Samantha Armytage on air about a pair of shoes.
In a clip, filmed for Sunrise’s website, that focuses on what the female presenters have worn that morning, there was some banter about Armytage’s new shoes which she described as ‘stripper’ shoes. Koch comes on screen with a stripper pole and the co-workers then joke about the shoes, the pole and the possibility it will end up on the internet in “a bad way”. Which, unsurprisingly, it did.
Rizvi’s described it as sexist and demeaning. She wrote about the pressure on women in workplaces to ‘take a joke’ and have a bit of fun, lest they attract the angry feminist or uptight princess label.
The headline accompanying Rizvi’s article was this: ‘Dear Kochie. It’s not ok to humiliate your colleague on television’. The headline and the story offended both Koch and Armytage. Aside from their subjective feedback they objected to some factual errors in the piece – for example that it was broadcast to 400,000 viewers, which it wasn’t. This was later corrected by Mamamia.
Koch attempted to write a comment replying to the piece on the website but it was not published. He took to Twitter with his complaints and his comment appeared four hours later. Mamamia publisher Mia Freedman wrote a private message to Koch explaining that his comment hadn’t appeared because of a stuff up on the part of a staff member wanting to protect Rizvi.
This morning, on their television show, Koch and Armytage dedicated a segment to discussing it. Koch took issue with the fact he was painted as a ‘grubby old man’ and he criticised Freedman for dealing with the problem privately, rather than openly admitting mistakes were made. Armytage took issue with the fact she was portrayed as a pushover, not capable of sticking up for herself. She said she respects the men she works with and if she was uncomfortable in a situation she would deal with it herself.
Beyond that, though, the presenters were personally critical of Rizvi, who was formerly chief of staff for Kate Ellis. Rizvi’s picture was on display, her age was brought up and Koch described her as a typical political spin-doctor. When you consider their respective positions – her as an emerging media player and him as an established fixture — it is hard to watch without concluding there is an element of bullying at play.
Since the segment aired this morning both Freedman and Rizvi have apparently received death threats.
It is a mess and I would say, as an objective bystander, that neither party is entirely blameless. Mamamia could have checked the facts and reached out to Koch and Armytage for a comment before the piece was published. They also could have dealt with Koch’s disappearing comment more transparently. Koch and Armytage could have been less personally critical of Rizvi.
It is not hard to see why each party feels aggrieved. If I was David or Samantha, and I enjoyed a respectful working relationship with my colleague, I would have felt disappointed and affronted on reading Rizvi’s piece. Equally, if I was Jamila and had written an article urging others not to force women into ‘taking a joke’, and I was then told to “take a joke” myself, I would be dismayed.
Even though these are well-known media personalities, they are humans like the rest of us and because of that I feel for them. Genuinely. But their personal aggrieves are not the reason I think this really matters. It really matters because the media is a microcosm of society and because the dynamics at play in this particular media maelstrom – about sexism and bullying and calling it out – are dynamics that exist everywhere.
The sexist dynamic that Rizvi called out in this instance might not be applicable to Armytage and Koch, but it is applicable to many. You find me a woman over the age of 18 who hasn’t, at least once, sat at a barbecue or a family dinner or a meeting or an interview and been forced to laugh off a sexist remark and I will show you a liar. Because sexism is alive and well. In Parliament, in business, in families, in workplaces big and small. It exists. It is everywhere.
And that is the tremendous shame in the controversy that has unfolded since Rizvi’s piece. The focus of the discussion hasn’t been around the genuine issue. The focus has been on it being a media beat up. The focus is on the fact that here we have another uptight woman banging on about feminism.
Rizvi may have called it out in the wrong instance, in this case, and it could have been handled better, but none of that changes the fact she has a valid point. It’s a big ask, I know, because I accept they were personally offended, but imagine if Koch and Armytage had used the segment earlier today to discuss workplaces that aren’t as respectful as theirs? To discuss the fact that some women are still objectified at work and that it can be difficult to handle. To discuss the fact they could understand why the segment had been construed as sexist. To use the segment to discuss the fact Rizvi had a point. At least that would have made it constructive.