The growing media obsession with both Julia Gillard’s physical appearance and her marital status could be dismissed as indicative of both the essential inanity of the press and its casual sexism.

That’s certainly enough as it is. The media subjects female politicians to a blatant double standard, requiring them to conform to standards on physical presentation and lifestyle choices that are never applied to men. Moreover, it’s not as if the media perpetuates a single stereotype to which female politicians must conform. Instead, it’s a constantly changing set of requirements that means there’s always something to criticise and the media always wins. Look too good, you’re condemned as vacuous, or reliant on your appearance.

Don’t look good enough, you’re disparaged as unattractive. Don’t have a family, you’re deliberately barren. Have a family, you’re a career-obsessed harridan neglecting your kids.

But it’s more than that. The Australian yesterday launched a series of personal attacks on the Prime Minister, with the clear aim of ridiculing her and delegitimising her as a political figure. It complements an effort by Liberal Party figures to attack Gillard over her childlessness and her de facto marital status.

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First was the already-notorious piece by Kate Legge on the Prime Minister’s ears, discussion of which, Legge assured us, “drowned out any serious post-debate analysis of her policies or performance” and which “could derail her ability to keep the electorate focused”. Well, indeed, Kate, that’s why you’re drawing attention to it.

Mockery is an important tool in the political communications arsenal. The Right is particularly adept at using it. Frequently there need be no basis in reality for it; it’s enough to simply reiterate something so often that it becomes part of mainstream debate whether it has any reality or not. Fox News particularly effective at this in the United States. Look at the relentless insistence that Barack Obama is a socialist, or was born outside the US. What a shame Tony Abbott was born in England, or The Oz could have got a good local version of the Birther movement up and running against Gillard.

Cameron Stewart then tried to find a way to turn Julia Gillard’s high ratings among female voters into a problem. Stewart insisted that it wasn’t so much that Julia Gillard rated well with women, it was that she rated badly with men. He apparently arbitrarily mentioned the earlobes, just for good measure. To aid his case, he drew on “previously unpublished” polling data that showed that “men are not necessarily impressed with the more substantial aspects of the Prime Minister’s performance”.

The problem with Stewart’s “analysis”, and that’s being generous, is simple maths. If Gillard has “man trouble”, then why does she have a 16 point lead over Abbott as preferred Prime Minister in the most recent Newspoll? Why isn’t her “man trouble” cancelling out all those women conspiring together to unaccountably elect one of their own? As I explained recently in Crikey, where we’ve been looking at the gender issue rather longer than the mainstream media, the polls consistently show that male and female voters prefer Julia Gillard over Tony Abbott, but women like Gillard more and Abbott less than men.

Until recently that was reflected in voting intention, too – women were leaning more strongly toward Labor, but the parties were neck-and-neck among men.

Then again, the real “man trouble” The Australian wanted to draw our attention to was the Prime Minister’s unmarried status, about which Gillard has been peppered with questions over the last two days. The Oz hasn’t been alone in obsessing about this high issue of state, but has run two stories on Gillard having to justify why her partner wouldn’t be joining her on the campaign trail and how that contrasted with Tony Abbott and her Prime Ministerial predecessors (Hillary Clinton famously “couldn’t keep the dog on the porch”; poor Julia Gillard can’t even get Tim to help her out at work) and the shock revelation that Gillard’s partner would actually live with her in the Lodge.

But The Australian’s smearing of Gillard reached new heights this morning when reactionary lightweight Janet Albrechtsen launched a deeply personal attack on Gillard. Albrechtsen didn’t mention the ears, but that was because her sights were trained somewhat lower on the Gillard anatomy, accusing her of “showcasing a bare home and an empty kitchen as badges of honour and commitment to her career” and not knowing about how to meet “the needs of a husband or partner.”

It was Bill Heffernan’s “deliberately barren” tripe all over again.

And of course needless to say, no male politician was subject to the same withering assessment. But they never are, no matter how many ruined marriages or disappointed kids they leave behind.

None of this is accidental. It’s part of a systematic assault to smear Gillard by an outfit that wants to be the local version of Fox News. And her gender is at the heart of the campaign.

“The sisterhood should stop reading,” said Albrechtsen before attacking Gillard. Sisterhood? Jesus.

You don’t have to be part of any “sisterhood” to find this sort of garbage deeply offensive and contrary to the simple notion that a politician should be judged on his or her performance and on her policies, not on what she looks like or how she serves “the needs of a husband or partner.”