Wendy Mesley: Was it a Woman Thing?
It's a little too easy to blame sexism for the firing of Lisa LaFlamme
By: Wendy Mesley
I have something of a chip on my shoulder, having been raised by an ornery single woman.
I am down with blaming the patriarchy for pretty much everything. But in the case of the terrible firing of chief anchor Lisa LaFlamme, I don’t think sexism is the only story. After LaFlamme was “blindsided” by CTV, everyone seemed to rise up to defend women, especially women over 50, and particularly if they let their hair go grey.
To which I say, “thanks, I guess?”
If the executive in question, the now on-leave Michael Melling, really asked who approved letting “Lisa’s hair go grey,” that is outrageous. But I still don’t think her firing was entirely a matter of sexism or ageism. Until the L’affair LaFlamme, women anchored the news at all three big networks. They run the CBC.
Of course, we know there are problems at the top of the media industry, and in others. In most every sector, women may now be at the table, but they are usually not calling the shots. So I share the public’s outrage at how LaFlamme was treated, which seems to be, at least in part, a touchstone for deeply felt sexism in the culture at large. On the other, I maintain a distaste for victimhood and a wariness about failing to see the whole picture. As audiences dwindle, news has increasingly become a power struggle between the journalists and the corporate suits. And the suits are winning.
I am an angry optimist. I’m frustrated by the pace of change, but grateful it is happening. It sometimes seems that I have become the ornery woman who remembers when all the anchors were men. Shit still happens, but there’s a lot less of it now than there once was, and sometimes female managers are just as at fault as the men.
When I began my career in journalism, there was no female Lloyd Robertson or Peter Mansbridge to retire gloriously at 77 or 69. They just didn’t exist. Other than my hero Barbara Frum, women just weren’t considered for those roles. It was widely believed that “Women’s’ voices just aren’t authoritative enough” to anchor the local news. People said that to me with a straight face. Who would believe us? Who would trust us? But how would people be able to judge female authoritativeness if they'd never heard a woman read the news?
Bias wasn’t just a problem in the newsroom, but also in the subjects we covered. Take politics: Liberal MP Sheila Copps was no more bombastic than her pals in the House of Commons, but she was the only one attacked when then-justice minister John Crosbie told her to “Quiet down baby” and joked about lying down with “Tequila Sheila.”
Misogynist jokes were seen as funny not so long ago.
When I moved to Ottawa in 1986 things were starting to turn. I was the first female journalist to cover the prime minister for The National in CBC-TV’s parliamentary bureau. Yes, there were lunches that observed the “no skirts” rule; yes there were calendars with naked women plastered throughout the edit suite. And yes, we were all so desperate to be treated like men that we wore big honking shoulder pads, macho jackets, and flat, ugly shoes. It was the fashion! That and my Barbara Frum perm. Hair was — is — always a thing.
CTV’s Pam Wallen’s thing was high heels. At Liberal leader John Turner’s media garden party at Stornoway in the late 80’s, she took them off after they started aerating the lawn. “You can put those shoes under my bed anytime” she said Turner told her. Ha ha. A few days later she filed a story suggesting Turner had a drinking problem. Wham!
These days most people know not to make comments like that. A crisis manager told me that after #MeToo, his phone rang off the hook with men terrified that stories of their bad behaviour could ruin them. They should be afraid. They should change their behaviour. And largely, at least publicly, they have.
I look back at photos of the parliamentary bureau just a few years before I got there. It was all men, seemingly oblivious to the fact there wasn’t a female in sight. But right after me, my pal Anna-Maria Tremonti arrived in the bureau, followed by Denise Harrington and Catherine Wright. Maureen Boyd and Julie Van Dusen filed lots of stories during the day. This was progress, but there were no Indigenous and no people of colour, male or female.
It was as if news bosses suddenly realized: “We have no women on air, we gotta get some women.” Almost overnight, Mr. Grizzle was given a Barbie-like co-host as young women with little experience were parachuted into news studios throughout North America. I was suddenly offered all kinds of anchor jobs, for which I had no experience. I chose, instead, to stay in the field as a reporter and learn. Ultimately, I benefitted from this change in attitudes and was given the same break as the men who had also paid their dues and won those jobs before me.
Now it can be the opposite. On an upcoming episode of my new podcast, Women of Ill Repute, Maureen Holloway and I talk to Marilyn Denis about how women are now (sometimes) allowed to age on air. She’s the star of the show in her sixties while her co-host is young and male. Quite the reversal, and long overdue.
Change is happening. Politicians now know there’s a good chance that if they say something stupid about women they will pay for it. Back in the ‘80s John Crosbie said he thought he was cracking his misogynist jokes to a friendly crowd when he made his remarks about Sheila Copps: that he was safe — until he realized there was a camera in the room. Now there is always a camera in the room. Phones are everywhere. Women, people of colour and others from marginalized communities can expose, and prove, bad behaviour.
So here we are. Despite many groans about the media’s seeming obsession with the Lisa LaFlamme affair, the clicks prove the rule: Women are still fascinated with the story of women in media. Perhaps because they see their own careers, and their own fears about aging, so obviously reflected in the high-profile firing of such a public figure.
And here I am refusing to completely buy in; there’s ample evidence to suggest that this tale is more complicated than one of simple sexism. TV news is in a state of decline, and media outlets across the globe can tell a tale about how the increasing corporatization of media has played out in petty bun fights and power struggles within newsrooms.
But I’m also skeptical because simple, outright sexism simply isn’t as prevalent a force in this industry as it once was.
A few years ago there was a flurry of coverage about the “Fuck Her Right In The Pussy” fad. Men were surrounding young reporters and yelling obscenities while the women were live on air. CBC The National wanted a story on what it was like for female reporters and came to me as a supposed trailblazer. I told the producer that when I was that age, there would have been no woman holding that microphone. I argued that women should be tough, not cry, and tell the assholes screaming at them to fuck off!
It was not the story they were looking for. My comments did not make the cut.
Later I was asked a good question. “Why can’t it be better?” They’re right. It should be better. The angry optimist in me knew those obscenities would only be hurled at women, but I was also frustrated by the women who collapsed when it happened. One woman did fight back, on air, and became a superstar. I cheered from the bleachers. Fight as a woman attacked, but also fight for your right to tell the story. It’s a fight that has been hard-won.
And, now, Lisa. Everyone from Katie Couric to Lloyd Robertson has weighed in on how she deserved better. I agree. But reducing her departure to a matter of ageism and sexism — let alone watching idly as brands use her story to advance their own agendas — doesn’t solve the problems in our current media environment.
I suspect the fact that she fought for good — and expensive — journalism in the face of increasingly tight-fisted corporate interests played a bigger role than the colour of her hair. We need to keep up the fight against the patriarchy; but good journalism, and the resources to produce it — fighting for our right to tell the story — needs defending, too.
Wendy Mesley is a former anchor/reporter for the CBC’s The National, now co-host with Maureen Holloway of Women of Ill Repute podcast.
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Appreciated reading Wendy's incredible insight and story. But "patriarchy", really? I just replaced that word in her piece with "the system" and it reads so much better and way less victimhood-y. Aren't we all part of said system, responsible for it and also at its mercy?
As usual from Wendy Mesley, a balanced, big picture, thought-filled and experienced analysis.