Róisín Ingle: Here’s the thing about harmless, sexist fun

There might be currency in all those pennies finally dropping about violence against women

We know better than to go looking for inspiration from the Benny Hill school of marketing don’t we? Photograph: iStock

We know better than to go looking for inspiration from the Benny Hill school of marketing don’t we? Photograph: iStock

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I noticed an eye-catching advertising billboard on the roof of a house in Dublin at the end of last year. The billboard, advertising the services of the roofing company that was working on the house, definitely did the job. It caught the eye. It stayed in the mind. I’ve been thinking about the ad and a lot more besides in the seven days since Ashling Murphy went for her last run.

On the billboard, beside the details of the company, was a large photograph of a conventionally attractive young woman in a very short skirt. I had a few thoughts: maybe the ad was for that mythical unicorn, an all-female roofing company. Or perhaps the woman in the photograph was the only female roofer they had on staff and they wanted to make a virtue of that.

This verbal abuse is known by the less-harmful sounding word ‘catcalling’ and is even called ‘complimenting’ by some really stupid people

I had other thoughts: If in fact she was not a roofing expert, then why was she on the roof advertising a roofing service? These days we know better than to go looking for inspiration from the Benny Hill school of marketing don’t we? That would be a bad look for a roofing company, especially when construction sites are notorious as safe spaces for men who verbally abuse women as they jog or walk past.

(A small aside: This verbal abuse is known by the less-harmful sounding word “catcalling” and is even called “complimenting” by some really stupid people. “Not all construction workers...” I hear some donkeys bray. Yes. Of course not all construction workers. Thank you very much as always to the bleeding obvious brigade, permanently available 24 hours a day with their bleeding obvious, entirely superfluous statements.)

So let’s have faith and assume the conventionally attractive lady on the roof was a roofer. Except, she wasn’t wearing the kind of outfit conducive to climbing ladders. She was wearing a bright blue shirt cropped and tied above her belly button. Around her waist was an orange and beige tool bag which also doubled ingeniously as a micro-mini skirt. Across one shoulder she carried a long red spirit level and her other arm rested against her taut bare midriff. She’d have caught her death on a roof in that gear.

Like I said, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking since Ashling Murphy was killed last Wednesday while going for a run. The usual stuff that preoccupies me from time to time. The stuff about the systemic societal mistreatment of women which is everywhere from a Constitution which says a woman’s place is in the home, to a church that bans women from positions of leadership to nightclubs where women are groped as part of a normal night’s entertainment to the depressing prevalence of single-sex, religious-managed schools to dodgy sex education to the thousands of domestic violence calls cancelled last year by the Gardaí to a political class dominated by men to the low conviction rates for violent crimes against women in our courts.

And the ad on the roof keeps coming back into my mind. Working as I do on The Irish Times Women’s Podcast, I sniffed a story when I saw the billboard. Before Christmas I called the company to ask whether their female contractor – the one wearing very little on the roof – would come on the podcast to talk about her life and times in roofing. I told the man who answered the phone that it was quite unusual to see a female roofer and that we’d be interested in hearing her inspiring tale.

The man from the roofing company paused slightly before divulging that the young woman in the interesting work uniform of a thigh-skimming orange and beige tool bag was called “Caroline”. He said Caroline would ring me back in an hour. It’s been several weeks now and I still haven’t heard from Caroline. I don’t mean to be cynical but I’m starting to wonder whether she exists. And to doubt whether she is actually a roofer at all. Ah look, it’s all a bit of harmless fun, right? And here comes the likes of me (as per usual) taking things too seriously, yet another feminazi on her high horse ruining the buzz.    

Some of us who have been banging on about this stuff for years dare to hope. That there is something seismic happening as a nation mourns the bright and talented Ashling Murphy

I don’t want to be a buzzkill. I just want us to see things as they really are. A situation where half the population of this country is scared to go walking or running in the dark does not exist in a vacuum. The truth is we all have a part to play. Can any of us, men or women, truly say we’ve never once fed into, for example, gender stereotyping or body shaming or that we haven’t stayed silent when those kinds of things were happening? I know I’ve been guilty of some of that - my own body shaming for example, of not speaking up  - especially at a younger age. We are all evolving, we are all learning and we need to be mature enough to acknowledge that the murders of women and girls such as Urantsetseg Tserendorj, Ana Kriegel and Nadine Lott are underpinned by the wider culture and are not not isolated, random events. Nor was the heartbreaking burial yesterday of a much loved 23-year-old woman.

And still, some of us who have been banging on about this stuff for years dare to hope. That there is something seismic happening as a nation mourns the bright and talented Ashling Murphy. That all the solidarity being shown by men, privately, in calls and texts, and publicly at vigils is a sign of momentum and change. That there’s actual currency in all those pennies that seem finally to be dropping.

We have to hope that Minister for Justice Helen McEntee’s newly announced zero-tolerance strategy to deal with domestic, sexual and gender-based violence might amount to something lasting and important and groundbreaking and healing for women and men, for boys and girls. She has said it’s not reactive, that it is something she has been working on for a year. The Government’s new strategy will begin in a couple of months. Something might finally be done about all of this. And maybe that’s worth shouting from the rooftops.

roisin@irishtimes.com