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Jul 28, 2010

The sisterhood? Jesus. How about common decency?

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. But it's more than that.

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.

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.”

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142 thoughts on “The sisterhood? Jesus. How about common decency?

  1. steven.r.heath

    You are kidding right? How many column inches/pages were spent on Howard’s eyebrows, teeth, smile, lack of hair, greyness, choice of glasses? Then hours of debate on Rudd’s hair, glasses, similarity to Tintin, Keating’s nose, receding hair, clothes, Hawke’s ear pulling, bouffant and even as far back as Gorton’s ugly mug (rather nasty given his was due to war service) and as for McMahon’s ears? they are still being commented on.

  2. Rupert

    You’re right, Bernard. Pretty awful stuff full of gratuitous and irrelevant bilge and a high degree of double standards. It’s hard enough for women to lead fulfilling careers under the glass ceiling and some of these articles show why.

  3. Alexandra Little

    Bravo Bernard! Couldn’t have said it any better.

  4. Jenny

    Excellent, Bernard.

  5. Frank Campbell

    “Mockery is an important tool in the political communications arsenal.”

    Bernard Keane just doesn’t get it. Of course Gillard is being picked over by the mavens of the Right, not to mention those in the tossariat who just want attention: quirk-diggers like Legge. That’s their schtick.

    Pure hypocrisy. Abbott was vilified on Crikey for months. Not least by me. He’s a deeply unattractive, archaic social type. Even he knows it. A failed priest. A rag-bag of crude Catholicism. Naked exhibitionism and self-flagellation. A vulgar, ugly pugilist for an unfashionable God. His ridiculous ears frame a Neanderthal face, bonily exposed by that 1950s haircut. Abbott makes Santamaria look elegant.

    Gillard by contrast can be portrayed as a modern social persona: free of the dead hand of marriage (unlike uxorious Tony), untrammeled by middle-class consumerism. On the face of it, Gillard could appeal to men as much as women. But she’s doomed.

    Nine months ago the sticky circle of the Crikey tossariat opined that the Libs were headed for oblivion. They failed to see that the patronising upper middle class cohort (Turnbull, Wong, Rudd) were in thrall to the absurdity of the global warming cult. They haven’t changed. And neither has Gillard: her Left faction affiliation is meaningless. Merely a conduit for her single-minded ambition. Like so much of the political class, she has no grasp of empirical reality. Gillard and the Gang of Four were fully responsible for the pathetic incompetence in policy management: Green Loans, insulation, school buildings and the renewable energy scams.

    Gillard’s banality is numbing. Her public speaking betrays intellectual and linguistic vacuity. Metronomic tone-deaf delivery. A voice which would drive anyone insane. And I’ve never seen her ear-lobes.

    Bob Brown, Keane and the rest have, by lambasting anti-Gillard sexism, masked not only her ideological emptiness and incompetence but her partner: a failed hair-products salesman, dubious “businessman” and now employee of a CBD developer- as exposed in The Age. Variously described as a “consultant” and “real estate salesman” for this developer, Mathieson’s role appears to be as an agent of influence in the Brumby government planning process. Not only that,l but Gillard and Mathieson have been drawn into the hard-line Israeli orbit: classic ‘useful idiots’.

    If Fairfax can report this on page 1, why can’t Crikey?

  6. Scott

    See I disagree with this.

    The punters tend to vote for people based on shared personal values. If you’re an environmentalist, you vote for those who share your value of the environment. And so it is for those who value family/kids/religion etc. That is why Julia Gillard is taken to task by those who see family/kids/religion as the be all and end all. Just because these values aren’t our highest priority doesn’t mean that they are not someone elses. They are still values. Yes, it’s not exactly fun to watch these attacks, but it is an election for the highest executive position in the land. Politicians play for keeps .

    As for the physical appearance attacks, again, impression counts in all areas of life. How many people stopped voting for Abbott based on his speedo’s? Probably the same amount who will stop voting for Gillard based on her earlobs. And Gillard can’t court the media through spreads in Women’s Weekly and then complain about people focussing on the physical.

    But the funny thing about values is that they work both ways. Some people see a barren, kid hating, atheist when they look at Gillard, but others see a courageous, intelligent, driven professional woman worth voting for. She will gain as many votes as she loses.

  7. Patrick Brosnan

    Er … not very many? Perhaps you have some references. Shouldn’t be hard if there are so many of them.

  8. baal

    The only amazing thing about this is that anyone is surprised by it.

  9. taust

    If this attention is only give to women politicians and particularly to labour females why did Howard have his ears pinned back?

  10. Patrick Brosnan

    “As for the physical appearance attacks, again, impression counts in all areas of life. How many people stopped voting for Abbott based on his speedo’s? ” (sic)
    Yeah but Abbott is flaunting this image, it’s part of his (misguided) attempt to present himself as an every-man, “He’s an open book” A. Robb declared this morning. Yes Andrew and just to prove it I’ll present myself to the public dressed in my briefs. So really you’d have to try and find some evidence that Gillard is seeking to manipulate public opinion by having a tidy kitchen. Then perhaps Planet Janet may be justified in turning this cynical act back on its perpetrator. I doubt that you’ll be successful though.

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