The furore surrounding the publication of a demeaning, suggestive photograph of Maxine McKew on the front page of the Canberra Times underlines the embedded nature of sexist reporting of women in politics.

Last week was an extraordinary one for women in Australian politics. On the one hand, Julia Gillard became the country’s first female Prime Minister – albeit in an acting capacity. But on the other hand, newly elected Labor MP, Maxine McKew – the woman who ousted former Prime Minister John Howard from his seat – was publicly humiliated by a revealing photo taken at the official Electoral Commission declaration of her victory. Taken front-on, apparently at the height of the seated McKew’s skirt (i.e. from perve’s eye-view), the photograph appeared at first glance to suggest McKew was fond of going both ‘Brazilian’ and ‘commando’, evoking comparisons with Sharon Stone’s ‘performance’ in Basic Instinct .

In the face of a community backlash against the publication of the photo, the Editor, Mark Baker, was defensive and apparently unable to fathom people’s objections, telling AAP it was a “tremendous photo”. Attempting to justify his decision to his staff, he wrote in an internal memo: “It was not obscene. It was not voyeuristic. Those suggesting the picture shows more have vivid imaginations.” Publicly, he argued that he did not anticipate the photo would cause offence.

However, this journalist has been told by Canberra Times staff that at least one female sub-editor complained about the use of the image before it went to print, saying she found it “offensive and wrong” but her objections were over-ruled. Other female reporters are known to have been deeply offended and embarrassed by the incident.

What makes Baker’s decision to run the photo even more offensive is the fact that it undermined what should have been a story about female power – of a woman punching through the glass ceiling and claiming the most prized political scalp in the country. Instead, the focus shifted to the s-xual exploitation of women and, once again, to the dress code of women in politics.

It’s the same old story – men are perceived to be the natural inheritors of power but women are treated by some in the media as a decorative novelty. Cheryl Kernot was pilloried for wearing a red dress and a feather boa in a photo shoot; Julia Gillard’s hair has been the subject of more critique than her politics; Pauline Hanson’s fashion sense was ridiculed above her policies and now, in an act that resembled a sordid locker room joke, Maxine McKew, the woman who brought down the most powerful man in the country, has been s-xualised and objectified by the National Capital’s newspaper…a publication which has broadsheet pretensions but increasingly tabloid practices.

It’s time to confront s-xist media coverage of women in politics head on. Until men and women in power are represented equally, female politicians will continue to suffer the indignity of the sort of treatment meted out to Maxine McKew – even on a day when a woman is in charge of the country.

Julie Posetti is a journalism lecturer at the University of Canberra. She blogs at www.j-scribe.com .

Peter Fray

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