Gender reduces female people to being secondary to men.
It took Andy Murray to point out to John Inverdale that the Williams sisters had beaten his Olympic record – not the only instance in which women are absent
Wednesday 17 August 2016
It has famously been said that feminism is the radical notion that women are people. While this distinction may seem obvious, it remains a confusing area for some – not least sports reporter John Inverdale. Congratulating Andy Murray on his second tennis Olympic gold medal, Inverdale told him: “You’re the first person ever to win two Olympic tennis gold medals,” leaving Murray to point out: “Venus and Serena [Williams] have won about four each.”
Just days earlier, while commenting on the men’s rugby sevens event, Inverdale reportedly announced that the winning team would be taking home the first-ever Olympic medal for the sport, despite the women’s title having already been claimed by Australia less than a week before. All this has led to the mystery of the week, the question on everybody’s lips: has Inverdale forgotten that women exist, or does he just not realise that they are people?
In fairness to Inverdale, he is far from alone. Women have a pesky habit of slipping minds at important moments – just ask those reporters who discussed our hypothetical new prime minister using “he” and “him” before being left red-faced by Theresa May’s victory.
It’s not surprising that Murray picked up on the error – it’s only three years since he was lavishly congratulated on the front pages for ending the “77-year wait” for a British Wimbledon champion. Which is true. As long as you don’t consider Virginia Wade, who won Wimbledon in 1977, and three previous female winners since Fred Perry’s 1936 victory, to be people.
It is telling that we are so used to such omissions that Murray’s simple statement of fact about the Williams sisters has received rapturous applause across the media and the internet. Under the circumstances, it is remarkable and hugely welcome to see a man in his position be so thoughtful as to acknowledge women’s existence. But wouldn’t it be nice if it was the norm rather than the exception?
The problem isn’t confined to sport either. When Tim Peake was hailed in the media as the first Briton to blast off into space last December, it must have come as a surprise to Helen Sharman, who beat him to it by more than 20 years.
So ingrained is our society’s default male norm, in fact, that many media outlets choose to point out that people are female in newspaper headlines, as if the idea they aren’t male is as newsworthy as the event they were involved in: “Hero gas station clerk saves female doctor from suspected kidnapper”; “Female judge Constance Briscoe investigated over leaking Chris Huhne case, court told”; “Female Belgian rower falls ill after racing on Guanabara bay”; “Woman cyclist fighting for life after horrific crash at danger junction”.
The same shock manifests itself when subjects deviate from other expected norms, too, as swimmer Simone Manuel discovered when her gold medal victory was reduced in headlines to: “Michael Phelps shares historic night with African-American”. The implication is that white men are individuals – human beings in their own right, with personalities and quirks and rich, rounded lives – while other people are still defined as members of homogenous “othered” groups.
This matters beyond the technicality of who gets named in a headline. It impacts on how sympathetic our society is likely to be towards those described. It contributes to the stereotyping and vilification of entire groups who are tarred, sweepingly, with a single brush. It writes out of history those whose contributions we most need to highlight in order to rectify inequality in sport, science and other fields.