Columns » Autumn Tolbert

Sexism everywhere

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This past week I was a member of a panel of attorneys addressing discrimination in the practice of law. Just like any field, sexism exists in the legal industry, especially in certain practice areas. It's something I've been used to and aware of since I was a law student 15 years ago when a professor advised us that some local attorneys serving as judges at our school moot court competition might hold it against female students if we wore pants instead of a skirt. That story didn't make it in to my remarks to the students last week, but the warning hung around with me for a decade. It wasn't until around three years ago that I wore pants for the first time in front of a jury. Previously, I had only worn skirt suits and always with nude pantyhose underneath in the fear that an older, conservative juror might hold it against my client because his or her attorney dared bare her legs in the courthouse.

Because I've been deep in the legal world for the past 15 years, I never had much exposure to sexism in journalism until I started writing this column. But in recent weeks it has been hard to ignore the debate going on in Central Arkansas the "Babe Bracket," a yearly tournament-style contest put on by KABZ-FM, 103.7 "The Buzz" that pits female television journalists against each other. As you can probably deduce from the name, the contest seems to be primarily based on looks. Austin Kellerman, news director at KARK, seemed to start the debate by writing a story calling for the end of the contest. Kellerman was swiftly attacked online for his views and accused of trying to use the contest for ratings. Odd criticism since the contest actually uses the female journalists for the radio station ratings.

The debate over the bracket continued to swirl around Twitter and went nuclear when Governor Hutchinson appeared on the radio station during a charity event and yukked it up by celebrating the "good spirit" of the contest. Big mistake. Either the governor didn't think it through or he just was unprepared, but I can't imagine any public figure not anticipating being asked about the bracket, especially since the men behind the contest seem so proud it. My first words upon hearing his comments cannot be printed here, but if you follow me on Twitter, you'll see that I had to immediately issue an apology to my mother for using such language. I always thought Hutchinson had more sense than to support such a blatantly sexist contest. While he later tried to walk back his comments, his initial attitude toward the Babe Bracket was inexcusable.

I was proud to see a few weeks later that several of the journalists started using the hashtag #morethanababe to push back against the idea that they were just pretty talking heads. Many of the contestants have won Associated Press Awards, Edward R. Murrow Awards and Emmys. The hashtag spread and women from all professions joined together to speak up against sexism and the idea that looks are paramount.

It's fair, as some supporters of the contest pointed out, to criticize the local TV stations for creating a culture that places such a high value on appearances. More diversity in age and size would be welcome, but this is not the fault of the female journalists. After tweeting my support of those who want to end the contest, I learned firsthand that criticizing the Babe Bracket was tough. Women who spoke up were accused of being jealous of the female journalists chosen for the contest, accused of being fat, and accused of being hypocritical if we had ever dared be in a beauty pageant (which is completely different because the women did not choose to be in the radio contest). Well, I was in a beauty pageant many years ago, and today, after two kids, I'm weighing in at my highest, and I'll freely admit that I am jealous of these women. I'm jealous that they make what is a tough job look so easy. Most of them are involved in their communities, are up early or out late bringing us the news, and doing it all while also having to worry about their hair and makeup. They deserve to be celebrated for their accomplishments, not merely reduced to being "babes."

Even after the pushback, the disc jockeys at the station have decided to continue with the contest under a different name. It remains to be seen if it is a true change or a change in name alone. But I'm glad the women spoke up. I'm glad to see sexism and the objectification of women being called out. Let's hope the next time something like this happens, we won't have to hear our governor giving that kind of "boys will be boys" behavior a pass.

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