On Monday night, 300 women assembled at NSW Parliament House to announce the Ernie Awards. In other words, they booed lustily at the mention of public figures who’ve expressed misogynist sentiments over the past year. Then the organisers shared the results with the media and went home feeling awesome.

Of course, the award “winners” didn’t give a rat’s, and institutionalised misogyny continues unabated.

The Ernie Awards ceremony has its origins in a party that female unionists threw in 1993 to celebrate Ernie Ecob’s resignation as president of the NSW Labor Council. Ecob, then the secretary of the Australian Workers Union, notoriously claimed that women only wanted to be shearers “for the sex”.

“It was small, intimate and raucous as we loudly competed for the honour of taking home the sheep trophy on behalf of our male comrades who had lived up to Ernie’s bad example,” recalled unionist Alison Peters, now director of NSW’s Council of Social Services, in 2001.

“We had a great time as we used fun to make the point that we still had a long way to go in the union movement. In fact it was so much fun we decided to do it again!”

But if Peters was worried 10 years ago that the Ernies had lost their bite, they’re completely toothless by now. Does it surprise anyone to learn that News Ltd trollumnist Andrew Bolt made a sexist remark? Or that Tony Abbott happily allowed his supporters to crudely denigrate his political opponent? Or that another noted conservative, Pru Goward, doesn’t really agree with a union campaign for equal pay?

“We’re never going to change them so we’re just waiting for them all to die off,” Ernies founder and spokeswoman Meredith Burgmann told The Observer in 2007. But waiting is not very helpful when future generations are already internalising misogyny.

I’ll admit that shifting this culture is a tough ask, given that a recently released report revealed s-xism isn’t always expressed in a handy sound bite you can boo and hiss at; more often it’s subliminal, intangible — and deniable.

So I have some sympathy for responses of knee-jerk outrage when an anti-woman sentiment is expressed openly. However, it’s dangerously easy for a succession of really quite similar mini-controversies to limit the depth of public feminist debate. Look at that s-xist stock photo! That newspaper is peddling an outdated stereotype! That percentage of women in a given field is not nearly large enough! That well-known conservative demagogue said something insulting about women!

Undeniably, these small injustices rankle afresh every time, and there’s definitely value in pointing out just how commonplace they are. But a satirical award? That’s pretty much just a snarky consolation for jaded observers.

Whether it’s film buffs snorting at the Razzies, lawyers eye-rolling at frivolous litigants in the Stella Awards or booksellers snickering at silly book titles in the Diagram Prize, people laugh in frustration that these “winners” are really only the most notable examples of a general trend we observe with depressing regularity. The film industry puts bankability ahead of craft! We live in an absurdly litigious world! And nutty books find publishers!

Celebrating this stuff in a backhanded way is not especially satirical, and the tired sarcasm evident in many satirical awards means that activism becomes apathy, inspiring only nods and sighs of recognition. By contrast, Charlie Brooker’s audacious commitment to his deeply stupid “David Cameron is a lizard” gag (“At least here you get the truth. Which is that he is a lizard. And by “he”, I mean Cameron. David Cameron. Who is a lizard. David Cameron is a lizard”) actually provokes debate about political name calling.

Collectively, the Ernie Award winners do provoke — they offer a startling survey of misogynist themes in Australian culture. Burgmann co-authored a 2007 compilation entitled One Thousand Terrible Things Australian Men Have Said About Women, which is much more galvanising than any bogus “award” conferred on an individual.

As Sophie Cunningham and Tara Moss have separately shown in relation to women in publishing, an issue takes on urgency when people refuse to let it become a passing diversion. And idiots are less able to dismiss feminist critiques as overreactions or trivialities when instances of misogyny are systematically accumulated and analysed than when each episode is just held up and booed.

Peter Fray

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