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getting outraged about tony abbott’s ‘sex-appeal’ gaffe does feminism more harm than good

Tony Abbott Day 9 Penrith Stadium

So, once again, Tony Abbott said something inappropriate in the media. This time, it was referring to Liberal candidate for the seat of Lindsay, Fiona Scott’s ‘sex appeal’, while singing her praises to the media.

Naturally, the media had a field day with the comment, which didn’t do Tony any favours considering his already low standing with women and his reputation as a bit of a misogynistic dickhead. But, watching the story explode over the internet, I can’t help but wonder – should we really care if Tony Abbott thinks Fiona Scott has sex appeal? Does it matter? Is it even particularly sexist?

I mean, in the context of Tony Abbott’s numerous sexist statements to the media on topics ranging from abortion rights, to the economic capabilities of women, and his proven predisposition to being condescending when speaking about women in general, I can see how this gaffe points to a bigger issue. It serves as yet another reminder that the Leader of the Opposition has deeply problematic views on the female gender and women’s issues more broadly.

That said, this particular incident, to me, is not that offensive. Yes, Abbott was speaking about Scott using the same tired tropes like ‘feisty’ which are regularly used to describe women who are leaders, because for some reason terms like ‘ambitious’ or even ‘strong’ come with a negative connotation when applied to women. But the throwaway line about ‘sex appeal’ was clearly meant as a bit of a light-hearted, jokey comment – a stupid one, sure, but that’s no more than what we’ve come to expect from Abbott – the same man who brought us the ‘suppositories of wisdom’ line.

I worry that blowing this comment out of proportion will do more harm than good when it comes to raising the profile of important women’s issues in the election campaign. The general public are already more than willing to view feminists as humourless, constantly angry bitches who are likely to turn any offhand comment into an example of hardcore sexism. This view is obviously both wrong and offensive, but by giving attention to incidents like this one, we are playing into this stereotype and drawing attention away from far more important issues (most of which haven’t even made it to the middle, let alone the front of the election campaign).

Since Julia Gillard was pushed out of the top job and election campaigning by both major parties began in earnest, reproductive rights have barely made a headline, no one seems to be talking about the very real issue of the cuts to the Newstart allowance creating incredibly difficult living standards for single parents, the gender pay gap is apparently no longer an issue, and preventing domestic and sexual violence hasn’t warranted a mention.

However, Tony Abbott making an offhand and yes, ill-advised, comment about a colleague’s ‘sex appeal’ has been covered through more mediums and more outlets than I can be bothered counting.

I fear that the more time we spend being outraged about comments like this, the less time we spend advocating for the real issues that are being sidelined for the more sexy (pardon the pun) media soundbites of political gaffes and angry feminist reactions.

If as feminists, we react just as strongly to a trivial incident like this, as we do to much more important issues that have very tangible implications for women, it makes it easier to disregard our cause – it lends credence to the ‘feminists make a fuss about everything’ viewpoint, which makes it all the more likely that when real issues occur, they will be pushed aside as yet another example of a feminist storm in a teacup.

Tony Abbott’s comments about Fiona Scott were steeped in sexism and demonstrative of his demeaning view of women more broadly – but in my opinion, letting an incident like this slide and staying focused on the bigger picture will do more for feminism in the long run.

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3 thoughts on “getting outraged about tony abbott’s ‘sex-appeal’ gaffe does feminism more harm than good

  1. I agree to a certain extent. That it is just another ‘Tony-ism’ and in itself points to his misogyny is true, but there needs to be some sort of middle ground whereby it is ‘flagged’ as sexist, but not turned into an absolute storm that gets in the way of the bigger issues. Without ‘flagging’ many people would not know that it was sexist, and it is because of all the absolute minutiae of sexist jibes, not just Tony’s, but just in society in general, that the big things, like the gender gap in pay, become entrenched. So while I do agree that the media kerfuffle over this does make feminists seem irrational… I have no good answer. The problem is the media. Perhaps if every time Tony does something sexist someone in media used it as a platform like you have done here, to explain what is really happening, life would be a little better. My answer, get more feminists into mainstream media positions.

  2. Considering that Fiona Scott’s primary vote has skyrocketed to 60% (way above the national average) since ‘Sexy-gate’ perhaps its worth considering the electoral wisdom of “calling out” Tony’s sexism.

  3. Pingback: The 64th Down Under Feminists’ Carnival | A life unexamined

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