By Jennifer O’Connell
I thought we’d said goodbye to the lazy, casual misogyny that once characterised so much public discourse in this country.
But lately – like acid-wash denim, Charlie Bird and interest rate hikes - it seems to be on its way back.
Perhaps it’s the recession; maybe it’s a misplaced anger at other things - or maybe it was only taking a break, while we were all busy losing the run of ourselves in other ways during the Celtic Tiger.
But there it is again, plastered across our television screens as the unique selling point of the new Saturday night chat show; there it is, introduced into the Lillis trial as some kind of mitigating evidence; oh, and look – there it is, all over that tasteful Facebook page masquerading as an affectionate tribute to “Hot Knackers”.
To be fair to Brendan O’Connor, the host of RTE’s new Saturday night show, he has hardly made a secret of his misogyny – last December, in the heady aftermath of the announcement that he was to be given his own prime time chatshow, he devoted an entire column to the subject of a sheer top worn by Sharon Ni Bheolain on the 6-1 News. “A chilly studio and a sheer top and the normally Victorian-attired newsreader was giving at least half the nation a boost,” the ever-charming O’Connor wrote.
It was nonetheless dismaying to see him setting out his stall on the first night of his new show a few weeks back, as he directed most of his questions for Peaches Geldof – a grown woman who almost certainly earns more than him – at her absent father (“But what would Bob Geldof think of you modelling underwear/ having tattoos/not going to college?” he repeatedly demanded of her.)
Later, getting into his stride with Twink and Linda Martin, he demanded of Linda if she’d had cosmetic surgery and whether she regretted not having children, in a tone which suggested he felt this might at least have validated her existence on the planet.
I doubt if anyone in Montrose was particularly deterred by his debut performance – after all, this must have been exactly what they had in mind when they gave Brendan O’Connor a show.
But if O’Connor comes exactly as advertised, it begs the question: why him, when the station’s own staff payroll is bursting with mostly untried talent? The only rationale can be that someone in RTE believes he will attract the demographic it is chasing. And that is a depressing thought.
Far more depressing that encountering misogyny dressed up as “Saturday night entertainment”, however, is the prospect of lawyers appealing to it in their effort to create some kind of mitigating circumstance during murder trials.
We all know by now that a forensic examination of the private life of the alleged victim is a key feature of many rape trials.
In England just last week, for instance, a rape case was thrown out of court, after the judge heard evidence that the alleged victim of a gang rape had once fantasised about talking part in group sex with a man she met on the internet.
But the Lillis trial may have marked a new low for the way in which aspects of the character of the victim were introduced on the stand.
During the trial, the court heard extracts from a garda interview with Eamonn Lillis, in which he was described as a "second-class citizen" and a "lap dog" in his marriage.
Cawley, in turn, was described by the investigating gardai as a "dominant person, slightly on the bullying side.”
The line of the garda questioning was unsettling enough, though it at least had the justification of trying to force a confession out of someone who was by then the chief suspect in the investigation.
What was more extraordinary was the way it was introduced to the court, as though to at least present the jury with the possibility that Cawley might have given her husband some provocation.
In the cross questioning of a member from the National Bureau of Criminal Investigation, it was put to the detective that Cawley had been a “formidable person and a formidable businesswoman”, who had succeeded in a ruthlessly competitive and male-dominated industry.
I find it hard to see what the relevance of all this was, especially when Lillis was not making the case that he had been provoked.
Was the defence's purpose in pursuing this line of evidence to introduce the notion that Cawley’s ambitions might in some way explain how things had come to such a dreadful pass between herself and Lillis?
Predictably, at least one journalist took up the cue.
O’Connor’s colleague at the Sunday Independent, Jody Corcoran, wrote an extraordinarily speculative piece in the weeks afterwards, in which he opined that, “Celine Cawley, in her own right, appears to have replaced sexual pleasure with the rush of business success; this might explain the weight gain and the reputed aggression towards her husband.”
What exactly did she do that makes her somehow less deserving of public sympathy in the eyes of some journalists? Was it the “weight gain”, or the fact that she may have enjoyed the “rush of business success”? Or was the whole package just too much for some men, and – perhaps - for some other women?
Maybe we’ve arrived at a crossroads in our attitude to women and equality – a point that is made in a controversial new book by Natasha Walter, Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism.
Walter questions how, despite all the achievements of feminism, we have arrived at a place where women are slowly being turned into the primped and hollow dolls they were given to play with as children.
Indeed, it does seem we’re more comfortable with modern womanhood when it forsakes the career, and the ambitions, and the big mouth.
It’s hard to know why exactly – though Walters, for one has all sorts of theories – but it seems we have allowed misogyny to creep back into public discourse and popular culture to the extent that it, once again, seems wholly unremarkable.
Certainly, watching the new Saturday night show on RTE and reading some sections of the transcripts of the Lillis trial, it felt as though feminism had never happened. Now there’s a cheering sentiment on Valentine’s Day.
This column first appeared in The Sunday Business Post on February 14, 2010