“It’s Just Banter Mate”: When Does Banter Become Bullying?

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I am writing this whilst sitting in The Stag’s Head surrounded by football fans who are all glued to the much anticipated match of Manchester United Vs Southampton FC. Observing the male fans, I can hear a lot of banter throughout the pub. I attribute the term “banter” to boys sharing jokes, having a laugh and generally being boys, yet a lot of the banter is focused upon the opposite sex and this is where the problem lies. In light of Richard Keys and Andy Gray being overhead making sexist remarks about a female linesman, I pose the question: when does banter become bullying?

Racism, Homophobia and sexism are all forms of prejudice which are not tolerated in twenty-first-century century society. Discriminating against someone on the basis of their skin colour or sexuality is classed as bullying and the same goes for sexism. Judging somebody purely on their sex, whether they are a man or a woman, is unacceptable behaviour, therefore hearing men make sexist jokes, which are degrading to women, can certainly be classed as a form of prejudice. But is there really any harm in a bit of male banter?

It is completely understandable that many women were highly offended by the comments made by football pundits, Richard Keys and Andy Gray. However, most men enjoy joking around with their mates and I am sure that we have all heard the kind of jokes that are often shared amongst a group of guys. The opposite sex is a very popular subject matter: many men enjoy either bragging about their dealings with women or telling some fictitious jokes about the opposite sex. But the result is the same: women are degraded to objects of sexual desire. Yet within this storm of media controversy, we must remember that the conversation between Keys and Gray was private and it was unfortunate that a private conversation between friends was thrown into the public domain. If this type of conversation is typical for men up and down the country, it suggests that the situation has been blown out of proportion.

However, Keys and Gray were working in the media, supposed to be setting an example to fans both young and old. I asked a mother for her opinion on this story and she said that, although she regards the comments to be male banter, she would not wish her young son to consider this an acceptable way to talk about women. Their comments were indeed offensive to women and they should certainly have been behaving better, especially given their jobs.

Although men are renowned for their banter, women can be just as bad when it comes to discussing the opposite sex. Myself included, girls enjoy indulging in a spot of “man bashing”, as my friend eloquently termed it. You only need to watch an episode of Loose Women to see that men can be a popular conversation topic amongst women, who can spend hours critiquing and analysing the opposite sex. However, can these kinds of conversations be considered bullying? I think not. There is a noticeable difference between girlie gossip and the male banter between Keys and Gray. I will fully admit that women can be just as bad in the banter stakes but I am not convinced that we are as offensive. Unfortunately, Keys and Gray over-stepped the mark on this one with many arguing that their sexist remarks were a form of bullying as the female linesman was degraded and humiliated for what turned out to be a correct decision.

The consequence of this story is encouraging in that it proves that sexism will not be tolerated in our society, or at least not in the media. Andy Gray has been sacked and Richard Keys has resigned. Listening to Keys’ public apology, it does seem that he genuinely didn’t mean to offend anyone but it’s too late. His comments did offend many women and, whilst it can be considered a shame that two men who were brilliant at their jobs will no longer be on our TV screens, overall I believe that the outcome is for the best. This story shows that there is a fine line between friendly banter and sexist bullying, so it seems that we should be careful what we are discussing with our mates and be even more careful that there are no microphones around.

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Discussion12 Comments

  1. avatar

    I saw a comment on a facebook page regarding Andy Gray where someone said “the only football women should know about is when I put my foot or my balls in their mouth”.

    So yeah – I agree with you.

  2. avatar

    Nice article Sian, I’m glad you represented both sides of the coin unlike some articles floating around.

    Whilst I don’t agree with what they said, personally I think Sky sacked Gray & Keys because they didn’t want to receive any more negative press, not because they viewed the comments as appallingly shocking. I’m sure that in this debate, you could find as many women that were offended by their comments as those that weren’t, and probably the same would be true of men too.

    The row says more about big society’s views on sexism than the views of a couple of overpaid commentators that got a little too big for their boots.

  3. avatar

    People weren’t offended because Keys and Gray said women in general don’t know the offside rule – let’s face it: they don’t – it was offensive because they said this particular woman who was trained as a linesman/woman/person didn’t know the offside rule. They apparently think women /cannot/ ever learn the offside rule, which is patently stupid. This sort of conversation does not happen up and down the country, and it is offensive to suggest that it does. There is always a moronic minority, but no one I know thinks the same as Keys and Grey.

  4. avatar

    Let’s be honest saying a woman doesn’t know the offside rule is exactly the same as saying a man “can’t multitask” or whatever – only people have the common sense not to be upset about the second example. It was interesting watching Question Time when that businesswoman stated that women’s football wasn’t as good as men’s – and EVERYONE in the audience acted shocked. Give me a break. The way we’re going it’s going to be an offence to state any differences between men and women.

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    I know very little about this story apart from the bare facts but it seems to fall in the same vein as the Sachs-gate, Duffy-gate ordeals. The two men sound like idiots and rather tiresome people but saying something offensive especially when they thought they were having a private conversation should not be a fireable offence and seems ludicrous when you have stated that they were very good at their jobs. Calling this bullying is an untenable stretch given that we are talking about one insensitive comment behind closed doors – not prolonged harassment. The idea that somebodies hurt feelings could be worth two people’s jobs is crazy and that does not seem what this is about. The issue is not whether the individual woman was bullied but whether what they said was so offensive that they should lose their jobs. I am not at all convinced that it is, would not a public apology have sufficed?

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    Sexistly Confused

    I’ve been having an interesting conversation with my girlfriend recently, one that basically ends in her getting really pissed off.

    The conversation is about women being funny. Because I really don’t think they are. Its also been agreed on emphatically by my admittedly largely male cohort of mates.

    She will point out some exceptions, we’ll discuss and I will disagree. Jo Brand is not funny, and neither is Sarah Miligan, she just has a funny voice. Even if she found a valid exception, that’s what it would be, an exception.

    Now is it sexist for me to say women aren’t funny, or even to dilute that and say they just aren’t as funny as men? Even if that is what, looking at the evidence, I believe? Is it better to say “in my opinion”? I mean I thought much would be obvious, by it coming out of my mouth in the first place?

    Basically I’m looking for some advice. Are women funny? Which ones? Should I just not voice my thoughts (even if they are correct?). Am I a sexist or is my girlfriend just on her period?

    Samuel Gilonis
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    This is not entirely uncharted territory. A favourite writer of mine who has been discussed before here on WS, Christopher Hitchens, wrote a fantastically poorly received article on the matter in 2007:

    http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/features/2007/01/hitchens200701

    Victoria Wood also wrote about it (in an inronically desperately unfunny article):

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/tvandradio/5488051/Why-male-dominated-panel-shows-are-a-joke.html

    I think you are unfair to say that you can think of no funny females, I am quite fond of the humour of Sandi Toksvig whose arsenal of anecdotes is simply beyond compare and Jo Brand does have her moments and I can definitely think of female friends who make me laugh although your point about them being exceptions may well be true.

    It is definitely shaky ground for conversation. It may well appear that women are less fixated on humour and trying to be funny (it is after all an extremely competitive activity for men a lot of the time), It is quite well documented by socio-linguists such as Zimmerman and West that in mixed gender conversations men vie for attention and dominance much more than women. Could this not extend to humour? Whatever your thoughts on the matter it is really quite an unimportant issue, perhaps it is better just not to actively bring it up as, it is after all, not a very nice thing to say.

    Sexistly Confused
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    Oh god you mistook that for sincerity. I was just being sexist.Thanks though Samuel. That’s really helpful. I guess she’s not menstruating after all.

    Samuel Gilonis
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    I had not read your final paragraph which I fear was the give away! It is quite an extensively written about subject, I thought that you might have been trying to broach that debate. You have failed to take into account the possibility that both your girlfriend is menstruating AND you are a sexist.

    Gwyn
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    Women can be funny, let us not forget the slapstick carry-ons of a certain Emily Davidson.

  7. avatar
    Sam Tunnicliffe

    not sure that comments about men made by groups of women are any less insulting (and this point isn’t supported in the article, although i understand there are length restrictions) – personally I think they are insulting in a different way – belittling on one side, and objectifying on the other perhaps , but the reason I would disagree with your articles point, although i did think it was well thought out, was that it depends on the spirit in which the joke is made – and this is the thing which is crucial and deserved to be included in your article (i believe… though feel free to rebuke that). It does not particularly mater what is said (in most cases) but whether the person saying it intends it as a joke or as true. Personally i think that whilst richard keys was joking, andy grey’s tone of voice and repetitive offences seem to suggest he wasn’t, and it is down to the observer to judge as to whether another is being offensive, or joking, based on factore other than the particular character of the language used

  8. avatar

    Racism, Homophobia and sexism are all forms of prejudice which are not tolerated in twenty-first-century century society. Yep, but if you are a white and straight male both males AND females like the Miss Hancock expect that you should put up with banter. Banter is how men try to expose the fact male-male friendships are all fake. I am male, straight and white and I don’t want to put up with banter! It’s primitive and it’s not OK.

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