Beers and leers: Sexism at the World Cup
AFP video journalist Celeste Jones found herself in a jam-packed bar in Manaus, in the heart of the Brazilian rainforest, to film English football fans the night before England’s World Cup match against Italy, on June 13...
MANAUS, Brazil, July 2, 2014 - It must be 40 degrees Celsius in here. Not a breath of fresh air, and a stifling humidity that makes you feel like you’re standing in a swimming pool.
I’m wearing a rain jacket and the heat is quickly becoming unbearable. I want to take it off, but I’m also keenly aware that I’m standing in front of 15 men sitting at the table, a battery of drinks spread out before them. So, I reckon that as soon as I start unzipping my jacket, there will be an avalanche of whistling and cat calls, which would make me feel very uncomfortable.
What to do? I decide to wait. Five minutes... 10 minutes... I can’t stand it any more, the heat is killing me. Ziiiip, and the jacket is off.
Sure enough, one second later, the whistling starts. And last for five minutes.
And then they go ‘yououhouuuuuuuuuuuuu’, all 15 men, for another five minutes. Plus everyone in the bar turns their heads to see what’s going on.
It’s alright in the end. There are no insults, no violence, just a lot of noise. Some may say I should be flattered.
After all, this is a very common experience for most women, except not all of us have to go through it while holding a camera in the middle of a football World Cup, where usual reactions tend to be amplified by a factor of 10. But just because this kind of thing happens often, it doesn’t make it pleasant. This is the part of my job as video reporter that I like the least during the World Cup. I was much less worried about, say, covering a demonstration in Sao Paolo, than I was filming a group of men in a bar on my own. Because I know that I will be treated as a woman first, and as a journalist second.
I reckon that 80 percent of the journalists covering the World Cup are men. In news conferences I was always, without exception, the only female video journalist. AFP’s video service AFPTV has redressed the balance, since half of our World Cup team is female. On the photo side, there’s only one woman in a team of 51. Sports journalism is male-dominated because, for many years, it was a male monopoly. And who can deny that the art of mastering a football has always interested men more than women. It's plain to see that the immense majority of football fans who made the journey to Brazil are men.
Julie Jammot, an AFP video journalist normally based in London, says she is also astonished by the testosterone-charged atmosphere of the World Cup. "I was prepared for most of the challenges here, such as endless working days, language problems, or stressful drives alone at night in the rain on bad roads. But not for the ultra-masculine environment," she writes in reply to my request to share her experience. Between Recife, Natal and Salvador, Julie has met all kinds of fans. She says their behaviour seems to depend less on their national cultural codes than on how many drinks they’ve had.
'It's tiring, and insulting'
"There are those who try to kiss you at the end of an interview. Or those who try to act all charming, grabbing you by the neck and kissing you on both cheeks. Sometimes a hand strokes my hair so quickly that I don't have time to figure out whose it is. Some want to take photos, and some want to buy me a drink 'when you've finished filming'. At the end of day, most of these situations are manageable. But it's tiring, and insulting," Julie says.
That conclusion will strike a chord with many female journalists. We take it on the chin, otherwise we couldn't do the job that we love. Should we file an official complaint? No way, because we fear that it may be held against us when the teams are selected for the next big sporting event, the next demonstration or the next armed conflict.
(In fact, the head of AFP’s video service, Marie-Noelle Valles, says nobody would ever be disqualified from future assignments because she makes known her experiences of sexism. Being subjected to macho behaviour is regarded as one of several risk factors for reporters on the job, and handled as such.)
Maybe none of this is very serious in comparison to all the other risks that a reporter faces when on assignment. But it wears you out in the end. It's frustrating because you can't defend yourself. Responding to sexist comments when you're holding an expensive camera alone in the middle of a crowd means looking for trouble. You might just look daggers at someone, or preserve your dignity by pretending that you didn't hear.
Having said all that, my male reporter colleagues have all, without exception, treated me as an equal at this World Cup. This is worth pointing out because it’s not always the case on all my other assignments. When a fellow reporter offers to carry one of my five bags here in Brazil, it's out of professional courtesy, not because I'm a woman.
As Julie puts it, "the biggest challenge here is not being a woman, but to have to work alone in these conditions", and you accept all the help you can get. And when a man carries our tripod for us when we're rushing to a press conference with a camera slung over a shoulder, sound cables around our necks and an open laptop in our hands, it's not some sexist ploy, but simply helpful.
Let's not fool ourselves: A woman covering the World Cup will always suffer more from sexist comments than from the weight of her gear.