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media round up: sexism and our politics

You may have noticed that Julia Gillard is of the female persuasion.

Perhaps you’ve also seen that her government has received a fair chunk of disgruntlement from the Australian people lately. Leaving the ‘faceless men’  and leadership worries aside, is there actually sexism hiding within the walloping that Ms. Gillard has received? How do we pinpoint sexist critiques in political media?

who said what…

Two weeks ago Greens Senator Bob Brown suggested to countless media outlets that criticism of our Prime Minister have been relentless and sexist. Brown’s argument went that the media have been unnecessarily and relentlessly hard on Gillard, and that they have asked things of her that wouldn’t be asked of a man. This included criticisms of her emotional side, and a greater scrutiny on her need to be ‘warm’ and personable as a leader. Senator Brown was also critical of the tone of the media’s attacks on the PM, including the harshness with which she is sometimes referred to, and the demands made on her to show emotion when ‘needed’. The analysis excited the mass media into explorations for the true reason behind the PM’s lack of popularity. Many voices suggested that her political performance deserves such harsh critique, and keeping her accountable is necessary.

the ‘s’ word and criticism

Using the S word gets people pretty fired up. Commentators have suggested that what would be more sexist than attacking the PM would be to act soft on her. Sexism is exacerbated, it is argued, when women within politics are treated with kid gloves. Opinion pieces and comments across online media have agreed that what is more damaging to the cause of women in politics is a failure to engage with the ideas that female politicians put forward, especially when criticism is warranted. To be soft on a woman’s arguments is to discount her abilities more than if you were to engage in a meaningful way.

This is an argument reminiscent of parts of the US presidential race in 2008, in which Republican Sarah Palin was joked about as a woman before the Democrats engaged with her politics or criticised her for a lack experience and strongly-held views. Upon being asked about Palin in 2008, Vice Presidential Candidate Joe Biden reportedly said the difference between him and Palin was ‘she’s better looking than me.’ While perhaps witty, such avoidance of engagement with a female politician (especially one whom commentators believed could be so easily discounted) was viewed by some as sexist. In Australia, currently our political discourse is tense, and  Gillard is receiving a large bite of scrutiny in relation to her minority government’s performance. There might not be anything overtly sexist about this – but can  gender affect the way that criticism is delivered?

the flip test and grey areas

One method of determining if a criticism is based on gender is to flip the situation and ask if a male would receive the same treatment. If the kinds of arguments against Julia Gillard and other female politicians were applied to men, would they be justified? At this point grey areas emerge. It’s impossible to determine if public opinion is ever squarely sexist or free of gender binaries. Instead there are always going to be undertones and grey areas. Criticising the PM’s asylum seeker policy because you think it might not work? Not really an argument based on gender. Criticising her lack of emotion over the Queensland flood victims may have more to do with an assumed expectation that women get emotional in times of crisis. Not too many people were asking where Tony Abbot’s tears were then. One of these instances seems to be framed more around what should be expected of her as a woman. The other may have nothing at all to do with it. Then there’s the focus on appearance and looks that may distract from issues – is this more about our expectations of women looking neat? Ms. Gillard could be criticised for not communicating well with the public, but the public can apparently also focus on her earlobes and spend time analysing them.

Some have suggested that 24 hour political news coverage results in shallower analysis. Maybe with this it also becomes easier to let gender inform commentary. The media in this country are quick to chase the policy ideas, gaffs and mistakes of female politicians. But they’re also chasing women’s child bearing choices, their wardrobes,  their likeness to witches or evil queens and the recommended quota of tears shed. The same goes when males are described as over-emotional or weak as evidence of their poor political form.  In particular, there may be something in what Brown says about appealing to “proper” use of emotion as sexism. While overt sexist criticism may be scarce, there still could be something in the suggestion that women in politics are expected to be less “callous” and more “feeling”. Federal politics has bigger hurdles to face at the moment, but monitoring the tone with which women and men are referred to in coverage might not be such a bad thing.

What do you think? Is gender an issue at all in politics in Australia? Outside of Australia? Is it possible to be covertly sexist, or should ladies in political games take all the criticism that comes their way?

(Image credit: 1.)

3 thoughts on “media round up: sexism and our politics

  1. Pingback: The Forty-Sixth Down Under Feminists Carnival « Zero at the Bone

  2. i agree, i think a lot of the criticism against julia gillard is sexist. a male politician would not get so much focus on them over wether they were married and have children and how this reflects on their gender. i also a disproportionate amount of attention over her appearance and her emotional reactions; which has nothing to do with her abilities and policies. it’s tiring.

  3. Pingback: who’s the biggest sexist of them all? | rebekaholdfield

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