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Naga Munchetty and the toxic myth of the “unlikeable” woman

BBC Breakfast presenter Naga Munchetty has been trending on Twitter all day long, but for all the wrong reasons.

Naga Munchetty is an undeniably brilliant journalist, not least of all because she refuses to take any nonsense from any of her interviewees that try and wrangle their way out of her direct, pressing questions.

It should have come as little surprise to BBC Breakfast viewers today, then, that she made it her business to take transport secretary Grant Shapps to task over the enforcement of rules for travellers entering or returning to the UK during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Why? Because it literally is her business.

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The exchange began as Munchetty shared viewers’ complaints of weak or nonexistent enforcement. Some claimed they had not been checked at ports, while others insisted that they knew people who had bragged about not filling in the forms.

“An awful lot of policing relies on people doing the thing that is required to do by law, and in the case of filling out what’s called the passenger locator form, which you must fill out regardless of whether you’re travelling from a country that’s in the travel corridors or not,” Shapps said.

“And it’s a new thing, so people are getting used to it and we’re working very hard with the airlines and the airports… in the end though it is a criminal offence,”

Echoing viewers’ complaints, though, Munchetty replied: “No one is checking.”

Seemingly of the opinion that a personal anecdote would serve as evidence of rule enforcement, Shapps went on to insist that his wife received a phone call “randomly” from the Border Force after returning from their family holiday.

“I know other people who’ve had the same calls,” he said.

Munchetty, however, was keen to focus on hard data and evidence.

“Has anyone been fined yet?” she asked. “How many?”

Shapps, however, proved unable to provide any further information on the matter, prompting Munchetty to ask: “You’re the transport secretary, why don’t you have the data?”

“Because in this country we allow the authorities to get on with their job and they release the information, not ministers, that’s why,” he snapped.

While many were quick to praise Munchetty for her no-nonsense approach to the interview, it wasn’t long before the journalist’s name began trending on Twitter for all the wrong reasons.

“Naga Munchetty is just rude,” tweeted one viewer. “This is not journalism.”

Others lambasted the journalist for “interrupting” Shapps, for being “abrupt”, for being “ignorant”, and for being “unprofessional”.

As one viewer quite rightly countered, though, whenever Munchetty takes a “slippery, evasive or incoherent politician to task, she is accused of being rude. Yet when a male journalist does the same thing, they are invariably lauded for it.”

Indeed, Piers Morgan genuinely makes millions of pounds every year simply because he’s unlikeable.

Naga Munchetty
Naga Munchetty with BBC Breakfast colleagues Louise Minchin and Charlie Stayt.

We can’t quite believe we’re having to say this again, but Munchetty’s job is to ask questions, to interrogate the facts, and to hold her guests accountable.

As she herself noted during an episode for the Women’s Prize For Fiction Podcast: “We [journalists] are not robots. We are not there to simply blankly read the news. That isn’t our job – we are judging the tone of the morning, we are judging the tone of those who are watching, we are judging what they need to know and informing them neutrally but with insight, as much as we can.”

Munchetty went on to add that, if an interviewee says “the sky is pink” when it’s very clearly “the middle of a blue sky day,” they cannot be left unchallenged.

“We are impartial, but we’re not idiots.”

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Like we say, Munchetty’s job demands that she remains fully in control of her interviews, and doesn’t allow guests to evade her line of questioning.

What it absolutely does not and should not entail, however, is that she fulfill that uniquely feminine (and utterly sexist) ideal of “niceness”. 

Naga Munchetty
Naga Munchetty’s job does not and should not entail, however, is that she fulfill that uniquely feminine (and utterly sexist) ideal of “niceness”.

As Suzanne Clisby and Julia Holdsworth explain in their book, Gendering Women: Identity and Mental Wellbeing Through the Lifecourse: “[Young] girls are rewarded for certain behaviours, such as ‘being good’ and not being disruptive and that more outgoing behaviours such as speaking out and being disruptive attract censure from both peers and adults”.

With so many of us taught that niceness and complacency are a woman’s desired – nay, our natural – state of being, then, it should come as little surprise to learn that many balk when a woman in the public eye embraces her so-called nasty side.

After all, women who are assertive or forceful (aka intent on pursuing their dreams and achieving their goals) are perceived as 35% less competent than non-assertive women, according to a 2015 VitalSmarts study. And one Stanford University paper, which compared employees with certain masculine traits – like being “aggressive, assertive, and confident” – with feminine traits such as “acting like a lady”, found that a woman can’t step outside of her traditional role without making waves, or experiencing a backlash.

“To be successful, you must be assertive and confident, but if you are aggressive as a woman you are sometimes punished for behaving in ways that are contrary to the feminine stereotype,” the researchers theorised.

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The situation is, as ever, even worse for women of colour.

“Black women are not supposed to push back and when they do, they’re deemed to be domineering. Aggressive. Threatening. Loud,” Trina Jones, a law professor at Duke University, told the BBC in regards to black women’s depictions in the media (think Serena Williams, Michelle Obama, Meghan Markle, and Maxine Waters).

“I’m so sick and tired of racist middle aged people saying horrific things about Naga Munchetty just for doing her job when a white male presenter will do the exact thing as she does and will get praised for it,” noted one viewer on Twitter, echoing this fact.

“It’s disgusting how racist this country is.”

Another added: “To those who are saying that Naga Munchetty was rude this morning on BBC Breakfast – how was she any different to Charlie Stayt who interviewed Nick Gibb over the exam results shambles?

“Oh wait I already know, she’s a dark skinned female. Can’t be having one of those speak up on TV.”

And still one more noted: “I like Naga. She picks up on when a question has not been answered or being evaded, generally by Politicians. She only gets grief because she’s a woman and BAME.

“If she was Piers Morgan she’d be applauded, and he’s much ruder and obnoxious”

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Essentially, women are expected to be submissive, polite, and accommodating. Always. But what’s our reward for subscribing to gender stereotypes and being as nice as apple pie?

To put it bluntly, fuck all. 

Naga Munchetty
Naga Munchetty is one of our favourite journalists, and for good reason.

It seems well-behaved women rarely make history or money, as polite and accommodating women are scientifically proven to earn far less than those dominant, assertive women who clearly express their expectations and do not retreat from their demands.

“Women aren’t aware that more agreeable women are being punished for being nice,” said Dr. Biron in his paper, The European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology

“The nice women we polled in our study even believed they were earning more than they deserved.”

Historically, anecdotally and as repeatedly proven by research, women have had to adjust their behaviour to be likeable in societies typically unwilling to give us power. But, as women like Munchetty have demonstrated time and time again, there’s no space in this world to sacrifice bravery, ambition or determination (and an unwillingness to take anyone’s shit) just to be likeable.

We’ve got far more agency than that, quite frankly. So thank god Munchetty is on our TVs reminding us of that fact each and every single week, eh?

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