Orla Shanaghy asks why, when it comes to gender issues, Irish telly is still in black and white….
It was with great reluctance that I turned on my TV last night to watch the latest episode of RTE’s The Frontline. Not because I wasn’t interested in the topics (I was), or because Pat Kenny and John Waters don’t irritate me (they do). I am always reluctant to tune in to The Frontline and other current affairs discussion programs like it because their false-dichotomy format makes me physically squirm.
Take last night’s program, titled “Do women need a quota to get ahead in business and politics?” As the producers clearly recognise, there is no better vehicle for a good false dichotomy and the ensuing media-friendly spat than a gender-related issue.
In the arena sat, on the “men’s” side, John Waters, prominent advocate of men’s rights. On the supposedly opposing, “women’s” side, sat Camille Loftus of the National Women’s Council. The audience speakers had, as always, been selected on the basis of which “side” of the “argument” they stood. Pat Kenny as facilitator did excellently what he is paid to do: ensuring that the debate never strayed far from black-versus-white. For example, he lead in to the first audience speaker, Crumlin youth worker Jody Garry, with “The whole business of ‘It’s a man’s world – oh no it’s not…’”. When Rosemary McCabe, also in the audience, made a deceptively simple and hugely important point, stating “I don’t really understand why we can’t all just be human together”, Pat did his best to pull things back to dichotomy territory with a cringingly simplistic remark on “the feminist lobby”.
Clearly, it is the purpose of programs like The Frontline to present a topic in a way that engaged and sustains viewers’ attention. The black-versus-white format works well in this context. However, this format is seriously damaging when it comes to issues as complex as the under-representation of women in public life. How many viewers watched the credits roll after last night’s program believing that they had listened to a serious debate and feeling that they had gained a more rounded perspective on this issue? Several, I am sure, as The Frontline presents itself as a serious, analytical program and is widely regarded as such.
Sadly, despite the excellence of the individual participants, what we saw last night on The Frontline was an over-simplified, tabloid-style representation of the issue that does justice to nothing and nobody: black versus white, women versus men. Sad, and ironic too, because one thing that unwittingly emerged from the program was that issues such as the lack of formal paternity leave and the gender pay gap, as referred to by Jody Garry, affect everyone, not just one gender or the other. Fathers in Ireland cannot take proper paternity leave, so their partners are obliged to shoulder more of the childcare responsibilities, which reduces women’s ability to participate in the workforce, which means that women’s economic contribution to society appears to be less than men’s, which reinforces a perception of men primarily as breadwinners and producers of economic output, which mitigates against anything that takes them out of the workforce for any length of time, with the result that fathers in Ireland cannot take proper paternity leave.
This illustration of a perfect circular system that ultimately benefits nobody was there in last night’s program. It was the unacknowledged nub of the whole debate. You just had to look very, very hard to find it.
If the format had been one that facilitates nuanced debate and shades of grey – such as allowing speakers to avoid coming down completely on one side or the other – this holistic view of the issue could have come to the fore. It would then be possible to move the discussion to the next level of “What can we do about it?”
As it was, the battle-lines remained clearly drawn, chests were beaten, everyone got their say, and the status quo remained firmly in place. As long as the dualism-based format continues to be the dominant one in current affairs programs, the nubs of many important arguments will continue to go unacknowledged on the airwaves.
Orla Shanaghy is a native of Waterford where she lives and works. Her work has been broadcast on RTÉ Radio One’s Sunday Miscellany and Lyric FM’s Sunday Serenade. She has also been published in The Stinging Fly magazine and in the forthcoming The Sunday Miscellany Anthology 2008-2011. Orla blogs at curmumgeon.wordpress.com.