The cost of mockery in Australian politics

Have you seen the Prime Minister in person? If you have then you know this – Prime Minister Gillard is quite slender. She’s also quite pretty. Her looks would be irrelevant except that everything about her, including her appearance, has been represented in the media in such an incredibly hostile manner that you’ll be genuinely taken aback when you meet her. And it’s depressing, as a woman, to see this for yourself – the contrast between the Prime Minister as she appears, in person, and how you think she looks based on her appearance in the media. Because, as a woman watching the first female Prime Minister in this country, you can’t help but think about how your own physical imperfections would be seen and magnified were you ever to dare contemplate a public position of power. All politicians get the unflattering caricature treatment and we’re routinely suspicious of politicians, sure, but what we’ve seen with Gillard is truly something else – refresh your memory with Anne Summers’ Her Rights At Work (the R rated version), if you need to. Seeing this woman being picked on mercilessly for her appearance sends a message to you.

The significance of the Prime Minister’s misogyny speech was about this for women. It was about watching the most powerful woman in the country endure a type of sexism that you, yourself, have experienced. And seeing her summon the courage and the outrage to finally confront it was a powerful moment because you wanted to see that it is possible to confront sexism and survive it.  So now, watching the Prime Minister be continually ridiculed and disrespected, and on such a scale, you have to wonder, is she surviving?

As Summers says in her latest article, “PM’s critics make a mockery of political debate”:

Such is the confidence of the journalists and shock-jocks and others who peddle these opinions, that they see no need to wait for history to happen. Why bother waiting for the actual voters to actually vote when these pundits have persuaded themselves that already it’s all over? As a result, they feel no obligation to respect the person, let along the office of prime minister, since in their minds she is already gone.

So they feel free to mock her in ways that would have been inconceivable with other leaders and, as recently as a year ago, even with her.

Gillard has always had to put up with intense, often unfair and sometimes cruel commentary about her clothes, her voice, even her body shape. As I have documented, since she became Prime Minister Gillard has been subjected to vile sexual and at times pornographic vilification of a kind that is new to our political vocabulary (and which still continues).

But now there is a new element. The pundits are scoffing and mocking her every action, from her new glasses to every policy or political step she takes, as if to say: why bother, lady, it’s all over anyway.

A colleague who is proudly conservative told me the other day that he knows he’s biased but this Prime Minister is not representing my gender well. Before you say anything, he said, you’re biased too. How about how your gender is being represented, I said. Alright, I’ve got my issues with some of this government’s policies (although I still think they’re quite an effective government), but for crying out loud, I said, I’m half the fricking gender of this country and it is 2013 and this is the first time, the very first time, I’ve had a woman to represent my gender, at all, as Prime Minister. So yes, I take it personally when she is treated with such disdain and, yes, I’m a little biased, but can you fricking blame me?

Relentlessly mocking the country’s first female Prime Minister in such a dubious fashion is damaging to us as a nation. If you are participating in the mockery you need to take a moment to reflect. Maybe you’ll decide that your mockery is no less than you would give any other politician you disliked, maybe you’ll decide it’s completely absent of any sexism – fine, but in this climate of extreme hatred towards a woman in power you need to at least think about it.

Cross-posted at blue milk.

Categories: gender & feminism, media, parties and factions

Tags: , , ,

9 replies

  1. Have you seen the Prime Minister in person?
    Yep! And Tony Abbott too. Politics is really physically tough and long-term stress has deleterious physical and mental effects, but somehow Abbott’s liver spots, thin hair, dandruff and incredible awkwardness around people dressed as cyberpunk doesn’t get mentioned as often.
    There was a weird segment on Radio National about judgement a few days ago. (Specifically, negative personal judgement.) A basic summary was “judging people is a terrible habit, but also inevitable and natural”. Not much about the acceptable social targets for judgement. It seems the further away you get from the “norm”, the more Other you are, the more people feel the need to place a value judgement on your appearance or behaviour, comment about it, and have a big long conversation about how you are different. Is it about feeling threatened? Trying to gain power over someone perceived as threatening the social order by putting them into a little box? I don’t know.

  2. Great post, bluemilk. It seems to be part of what we see online too, when women are mocked/shamed/targeted with 10x or 100x the negative treatment that men receive for being opinionated, and then when they complain they’re told that they can’t cop it like the men do, when the men never actually get a fraction of the same. Someone had a great line somewhere else about it too, that the folks who dish this harshness out seem to be made of eggshells for all the howling they do whenever anybody returns the same to them, it was just much better phrased and I wish I could remember where I saw it.
    I also think the mockery is meant as a message for the rest of us as much as it is meant to undermine the PM directly. In fact I think some of the men who engage in it so enthusiastically are using her as a stand-in for the women they personally want to discourage and undermine but their organisational anti-harassment/anti-discrimination policies won’t let them get away with it.

  3. It’s gotten to the point where I can scarcely bear to watch the news anymore, and have started avoiding most political commentary. The hyperbolic language drives me nuts. It doesn’t matter what happens, but it must be that the government is collapsing, the PM is incompetent, we’ll all be rooned…This is so not the worst government the country has ever had. I mean compared to the career of Billy Hughes say, Julia Gillard’s government is pretty boring…

  4. Just casting my eye over that Anne Summer’s speech again and I still think that she is grasping at straws when she criticises Pyne and Abbott for using the female pronoun when referring to the PM. It’s a pretty ordinary part of everyday speech. Yes, I’m being picky here, yes, it’s just one in many examples, no, it doesn’t detract from the many other undeniable examples of sexism. It just annoys me. There, that’s my unhelpful contribution.

  5. Tim, didn’t your mother ever tell you “she’s the cat’s mother”?

  6. A lot of it’s about tone too, and that’s really hard to explain – or perhaps more to the point it’s too easy to dismiss. It’s like the thing with Abbott looking at his watch. Sure he could just be looking at his watch. But you know when someone is using disrespectful body language towards you. You certainly know when your children are doing that!

    • It’s the weight of micro-aggressions, basically. What I particularly hate (and Julie Bishop was very fond of this soundbite in the National Press Club panel yesterday) is how pointing out instances of dismissive/marginalising/trivialising behaviours weighted with sexist/misogynist cultural baggage is framed as “casting herself as a victim” (especially when victim is not a word that Gillard or Summers or anybody else has used when pointing out the sexist quotient of these sneers).
      I see this over and over again (in the Deep Rifts in skepticism/atheism repeatedly), this sneering at “victimhood”; as if A saying “B’s attacking me” is somehow worse behaviour on A’s part for speaking about it than it is poor behaviour on B’s part for making the attacks. As if being victimised by bullies is a character flaw, as if acknowledging that an attack is happening is some sort of weakness that should be a person’s shameful secret rather than being seen as a stance of defiance against silencing tactics.

  7. It’s playing into people’s hangovers from school behaviour, isn’t it? Where we learned (some of us at the pointy end) that a bully can be admired, but a dobber must be despised.

  8. What gets me is the old white men in the Liberal party who can’t bring themselves to say Prime Minister so call her Julia at every opportunity. Abbott used to do this too, but I think someone told him it didn’t play well so now he manages to choke out Prime Minister most times.

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