Sweet charity, sleazy catfight

Article by Lauren Rosewarne /
ABC The Drum /
November 09, 2010 /

Click here to view original /

Innumerable insidious things happen to women. There are the nightmares that feminists are always accused of labouring – violence, assault, objectification – and then there’s the other stuff, notably for today’s purposes: the encouragement to duel.

Newspapers this morning reported that breast cancer charity, the McGrath Foundation, recently polled to gauge sentiment about Glenn’s new girlfriend, Sara. The Foundation weren’t querying what we thought about the relationship, we were assured, rather they were just concerned about how Sara impacted on the brand. Aha.

There are two divergent ways to think about charities. Blind faith centring on altruism and goodness complete with wicker baskets overflowing with wildflowers and pennies for the poor, or there is the narrow-eyed cynical version centred on tax deductions, ego and legacy. Whether we’re devoted or dubious, let’s not forget that even in the world of doing good, reputation is everything.

But did it all have to become so tacky?

Jane McGrath died in 2008. Not for one moment do I want to detract from the tragic and untimely nature of her death – I cry watching news stories about puppies in wells, of course her death impacted on me – but I’m also mindful that dying young, dying a fighter and dying an “inspiration” affords one a very special status. An honoured status, a lauded status, an untouchable status.

When a celebrity widow or widower recouples, the story is treated to any number of judgmental angles. A favourite is the particularly horrible “too soon” frame.

Culture places on us any number of vague “shoulds”. While the length of time is always sketchy, apparently there are right and severely wrong periods we should mourn. More menacing are the right and wrong ways to display grief: just ask Yoko Ono and Courtney Love who, apparently, got it so gravely wrong that decades on we still find reasons to hate them.

While Glenn McGrath becomes the protagonist in the “too soon” story, it’s Sara’s role in the “vulture” angle that I’m particularly interested in.

The black and white narrative is irresistible. Good vs evil, Brumby vs Baillieu, Bono vs humility: it’s just so much easier to get our heads around two ideas than a multitude. Glenn is one of those hand-eye coordinated folks who society reveres, and Jane’s death from breast cancer beatified her: these are factors which will condemn any woman stepping into the McGrath wife role to heavy scrutiny. That Sara is 28 to Glenn’s 40, that she’s attractive, that she’s foreign (read: exotic) are elements that can only conflate the situation.

I’m going to play academic for a moment and speculate that our viewing of revolting shows like Next Top Model and Beauty and the Geek is not explained by a dearth of decent programming. It’s not explained by our love of the reality TV genre and it’s likely not explained but our laziness to change the channel. Rather, it is testimony to our preoccupation with catfights.

Apparently there’s something just so thoroughly beseeching about women duking it out. Whether it’s for the affections of a man, for a modelling contract or as part of some R-rated spectacle complete with string bikinis and a vat of custard, the reality is audiences of both men and women watch this stuff. In disturbingly great numbers.

For the McGrath Foundation to poll about Sara’s impact on reputation, in essence they’re encouraging this disturbing preoccupation. They’re asking people to compare women. They’re asking us to judge whether one woman is “good enough”. They’re encouraging us to speculate whether the anointed Sara might just sabotage the brand.

As though women aren’t under enough pressure.

Without doubt the foundation has to be mindful of reputation. Of course, it’s a business and wants our dosh. But what was the point of the poll? What information could possibly be gleaned that could actually be acted on? “Glenn, I think it’s time you dump the brunette and pop on a black shroud, your public just isn’t ready.”

The whole thing is bizarre, ridiculous and just sexist enough to have piqued my interest.

November 09, 2010

© Lauren Rosewarne