Fighting Sexism with Laughter

A couple of nights ago I went with feminist friends to the Ernies.  This is an annual ceremony in Sydney, held at Parliament House, at which spoof awards are given for the most disgusting sexist statements or actions in Australia in the past year. The Ernies are named after an infamously sexist union official.  This year was the event’s 21st birthday.
About 400 women come, and over dinner, we pick the most disgraceful public statements by men in six categories: politics, sport, media, celebrity, judicial, and industrial.  The decisions are made by a unique voting system.  The statements, collected by alert researchers during the year, are read out by the Mistress of Ceremonies, Meredith Burgmann (former president of the Legislative Council of NSW, she knows how to manage a crowd).  The quote that attracts the longest and loudest boo-ing – assessed by highly-trained Boo Monitors – is the winner.
Meredith Burgmann officiating at 2013 Ernies ceremony
To preserve gender equality, there is also an award for unhelpful statements made by women.  At the end of the night, the “Gold Ernie” is awarded by competition between the winners of the individual sections.  It usually identifies a ripe example of public misogyny.
A special award is reserved for Repeat Offenders.  This year the new Prime Minister – who had a long record of hostility to women’s interests when Health Minister in a previous government, and who has appointed a Cabinet that includes only one woman – was an easy winner.
There is also, I’m glad to say, the “Good Ernie”, a real award for men who make public statements positively helpful to gender equality.  There is particular kudos for men doing this from unpromising circumstances.  This year the Good Ernie was awarded to a Lieutenant-General in the Army, who defended equal opportunity measures.
The Ernies event is good humoured, in fact some of it extremely funny.  There’s a dress code; this year we were supposed to wear what we wore (more often, should have worn) to our own 21st birthday party.  I did my best for 1965, but the younger folk were much more glamorous.
But the Ernies is also rather dire; you have to listen for a couple of hours to horrible, bullying, and sometimes really vile, quotes.  That so much sexism is still spilling forth on the air waves and into print, forty years after the Women’s Liberation Movement, is discouraging.  A few years ago, Meredith Burgmann and Yvette Andrews compiled the nominations and awards 1993-2007 into an Ernies book, 1000 Terrible Things Australian Men have Said about Women.  It makes compulsive, and aversive, reading.
The Ernies is a unique piece of social research – a kind of crowd-sourced data bank on gender ideology.  This year seemed to show a real surge of nastiness, one component being the vicious attacks on Australia’s first woman Prime Minister, Julia Gillard.  (In the face of which, she was dumped by her own party during the year.)
But mainly the Ernies is a form of politics and education, a creative counter-blast to sexist assumptions about women. The “awards” do get media exposure, and so hold up misogyny to public ridicule.  The Ernies slogan is “keep them nervous!”  Over the years, they seem to have had some impact – there are now many fewer nominations of judges, and union officials.  But the Murdoch media, the radio shock jocks, and the neo-conservative politicians, are unrepentant bullies.
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