Swear in front of me, but don't call me 'darl': A lesson in respect

Assuming women need protection from swear words is not respect.  Photo: Stocksy
Assuming women need protection from swear words is not respect. Photo: Stocksy

I was watching a new show on the Crime & Investigation channel the other day (shh, don't tell anyone). It was called Court Justice: Sydney – a fly on the wall series about the Downing Centre Magistrates courts.

Jane Caro.

Jane Caro.

But it wasn't the effect of the law on real people's lives that caught my attention, fascinating though that was. It was an exchange between Magistrate Jacqueline Milledge (what a woman she is) and a defendant that literally stopped me in my tracks.

The defendant was in the witness box and his lawyer was asking him questions in the usual fashion. The defendant was charged with affray but he was pleading (quite reasonably) self-defence. The defendant was a professional boxer who had gone to the aid of a friend who was being viciously attacked. In the witness box, he was asked exactly what the attacker had said to him.

Defendant: (Looking at Magistrate Milledge) Can I say it?

Milledge: Yeah, please.

Defendant: You sure?

Milledge: Yeah, we won't faint I promise you.

Defendant: "You f---ing c---"

Milledge: Heard that before.

Defendant: Sorry darl.

Milledge: (Quickly) But don't call me darl. That's where we fall out with each other.

And a little later...

Milledge: Don't feel worried about using language, but don't call me darl.

Defendant: I apologise, Your Honour.

Milledge: Now that's a good one (she meant the honorific).

What I loved about this exchange is how clearly it illustrates the difference between respecting women and protecting them. A lot of people, particularly some men, claim to love women – and I have no doubt that they genuinely feel that they do.

However, it's the way they demonstrate that love that can be a problem. The boxer had been taught not to use bad language in front of women, to protect them from it, in fact. I get that. But he unintentionally revealed the worm in the protective apple when he compounded the felony by calling Milledge "darl".

The problem with the urge to protect is you only do it to people you see as less capable than you are. "Darl' is a diminutive – literally, when used to address someone you do not know, diminishing. It's the sort of language we use to children, especially little girls.

Yet I don't doubt that the boxer saw it as his duty, as gallantry even, to protect women from the rough and tumble of real life. This attitude is a direct result of the Madonna/whore dichotomy that has bedevilled women for millennia.

Under that reductive view, a good and respectable woman is pure and unsullied, even delicate and fragile, so she must be protected from reality. Jackie Milledge as a magistrate was a "good" woman, therefore in need of protection.

The boxer clearly did not want to offend Milledge; on the contrary, he was tying himself in knots to be polite. And with good reason, she could send him to jail.

He simply did not know how to treat a woman in such a position of authority with respect.

This urge to protect and venerate is sometimes called benevolent sexism. And while it might be – on one level – kindly meant, it is belittling and controlling.

When the boxer, who was clearly a nice guy, called Milledge "darl", he was patronising her. He would not have treated a male magistrate in the same way. He might have called a male magistrate "mate" (though I doubt it) but "mate" is equal to equal, peer to peer and doesn't assume a false intimacy.

"Darl", "love", "sweetie", "dear" (I get a lot of that now I'm older) all associate women with love – with the personal – not with public and professional authority.

These terms of endearment overstep a boundary between the professional and the personal. The boxer meant well. He may even have seen the exchange as respectful, but Milledge knew that it wasn't and, to her credit, was quick to correct him.

She didn't want or need his protection. She wanted and demanded his respect. She was not his darling. She was Your Honour.

(By the way, she also acquitted him.)

In a microcosm, I felt that this exchange beautifully summed up the essence of the feminist struggle. Which, simply put, is the desire of one half of the human race to be taken seriously by the other half.

Hugh Mackay in his seminal book What Makes Us Tick? The Ten Desires That Drive Us (2010) says he lists the desires in no particular order except for the first one – which is the most important. It is the desire to be taken seriously.

Women don't want to be your pet, your love or your darling. They don't want to be trivialised, indulged or protected. They might accept it, if it's the best they are going to get, but what they want is the same as what you want: to be taken seriously, to be respected, to be honoured as an equal and fully autonomous fellow adult.

It's not a lot to ask. It's not even hard to do. Just don't call me darl.