gillard and the gender card: why menu-gate matters
Looking back at Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s now famous/infamous “Misogyny Speech” from last year, I am still filled with pride. Here was the Prime Minister of our country speaking up about issues that have, until recently, been swept back under the rug of our apparently post-feminist cultural milieu. Feminist issues have sometimes been understood to be fringe issues only held by a minority of angry harpies who probably can’t get a boyfriend and have daddy issues. (Urgh). On making her ‘epic speech on sexism,’ Gillard was described by Tracie Egan Morrissey at Jezebel as a ‘badass motherfucker.’ As a young woman in Australia, I felt pretty proud to have a ‘badass motherfucker’ woman for a Prime Minister.
I stumbled across the news about what is now being referred to as ‘Menu-gate’ on Jezebel and was profoundly embarrassed. From an international perspective, I’m a citizen of a country full of backward sexist hacks with no class, respect or dignity. If you missed it, Julia Gillard(‘s body) was likened to a ‘Kentucky Fried Quail- Small breasts, huge thighs and a big red box’ in a Liberal party fundraiser menu that surfaced a few days ago. Was it a real menu? Was it ‘just an in-joke’? You know what? I don’t care. It’s wrong on so many levels. It not only draws on the long standing sexist metaphor in our culture of women as meat, but it also reflects a situation where ‘all women in Australia are fair game, from the PM down,’ as Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Elizabeth Boderick points out.
‘Menu-gate’ came after Gillard was criticised for her strategy of endorsing an Obama-esque “Women For Gillard” campaign in the lead up to the September election. In her now controversial speech at the launch of the campaign, Gillard asked the women in attendance to ‘imagine it: a prime minister – a man in a blue tie – who goes on holidays to be replaced by a man in a blue tie,’ demonstrating how women would not be given a significant voice in an Abbott Government.
Gillard also touched on a sensitive topic, stating that ‘we don’t want to live in an Australia where abortion again becomes the political plaything of men who think they know better.’ In bringing up the issue of abortion, Gillard has faced criticism even from feminists such as Eva Cox and Jane Caro who argued that ‘strategically, this isn’t something that should be shouted loudly from the rooftops and certainly not by our first female PM.’ Um, why not?
Gillard has been criticised for ‘playing the gender card’and starting a ‘gender war’ (read: making a big deal out of nothing/looking for trouble) by speaking on legitimate issues that have an impact on Australian citizens (which I’m pretty sure is her job). Just after speaking out against the impending culture of ‘men in blue ties,’ Gillard is met with a sexist slur about her body and then a confronting and offensive questioning of her partner, Tim Mathieson’s sexuality (and hence, manhood) on live radio. This slew of events, as well as countless other incidents throughout Gillard’s tenure as Prime Minister, indicates that ‘the gender card’ should definitely be played.
I take issue with the way the media has framed this sequence of events over the past week, constructing the notion of the “gender war” as an illegitimate battle of the sexes that trivialises the significance of gender issues in contemporary Australia. Just as Jezebel columnist Lindy West was criticised for speaking out against rape jokes and misogyny in comedy with actual expressions of misogyny, Gillard’s discussion of gender issues has been met with responses of sexism. In A Switch in Time: Restoring respect to Australian politics, Mary Crooks argues that ‘Gillard is castigated and vilified, often because of her gender. Typically, this is defended as a justifiable reaction to her individual political performance, personal style and presentation.’ In response to Menu-gate, the NSW Liberal minister for women, Pru Goward, argued that the criticism Gillard has received in the past is ‘no worse than what had been dished out to her male predecessors’.
Though it is true that politicians get their fair share of flack: John Howard was called “Little Johnny,” Tony Abbott gets teased about his big ears and budgie smuggling ways, while Kevin Rudd was likened to the Milky-Bar Kid. What is different is the profoundly gendered nature of comments about Gillard, who has been called ‘deliberately barren,’ ‘a useless cow,’ ‘bitch,’ ‘witch’ and now the ‘Kentucky Fried Quail.’ There has been no gendered equivalent for her male predecessors. No one has questioned the sexuality of Tony Abbott’s wife as a way of depicting him as less of a “real” man. No one made large scale jibes about John Howard’s cock. This is because in terms of the way women are treated and thought of in Australian culture, we still seem to have a long way to go.