Samuel Webster

November 17, 2011 Stop Fetishising My Prime Minister Posted In: Writing

This is not the first time I’ve written about the Prime Minister, but even in these first few words I fear misrepresentation.

Instead of ‘her’, I used Julia Gillard’s title, wondering to myself if avoiding gender might rob her of her womanhood when in fact I hope to leave it intact. Do I risk the step Australia made in electing a female to our highest rank by refusing to address her femininity in my speculation?

The Prime Minister’s gender is something that Australian critics have been forced to deal with. I barely get through 100 words before stumbling over the personal pronoun for the sake of the line between celebrating a woman’s right to power and judging her as merely a woman from that point on. I even use her full name to avoid another trend I have noticed, dropping her last name – a trespass which could be humbling, but often shows disrespect.

But I do try, because nobody else seems able to, and its worst offenders have begun to sicken me.

The first incident, beyond post-election speculation about hairstyles and marital status, was the day of the carbon tax. Instead of reporting on the impact of what would be a nationwide incursion, papers published a photo of Gillard and Kevin Rudd kissing in congratulations. It wouldn’t be the first time the media has focused heated political rivalry (and the fact that it is within party ranks does make it extra juicy) but no mainstream newspaper would have spun a story about two competing men shaking hands. No – it was a kiss, and sex sells.

The second incident happened with the Queen. Gillard, fully aware of what the custom did and didn’t require of her, chose not to curtsy. She didn’t break any rules or offend any heads of state. The Queen’s political power is arguable at best. But there it was again, headlining the media. Some may draw comparison to Keating’s similar flogging all those years ago, but the two are only similar in their relationship to custom. Keating’s disruption was a choice to make unwanted physical contact, Gillard’s was a personal decision which affected only herself. Avoiding the concept of the curtsy as a sign of submission to greater powers, she was well within her rights to forego.

The third incident occurred yesterday, when our Prime Minister met her American equal (remember that – they are equals) and the Herald Sun’s Patrick Carlyon chose to writean article full of drivel, the least sickening of which was the opening line:


“Gillard blushes, like a high school girl who has, finally, after much bedroom plotting, captured the gaze of the football captain.”

But who am I to say what good writing is? After all, Carlyon is a Walkley award winning journalist. In fact, the 2009 Walkley judge commented that he “has a good forensic detail that gives strength to the story‚Äôs eloquence” and that he possesses “a beautiful turn of phrase.” Now, I admire a good turn as much as the next ballerina, but to what point should we allow it to infiltrate our news media? Is the sexualised elaboration a necessary commentary on leadership?

I tried to ignore it. I tried to tell myself that it was just the media failing to see the point yet again. I tried to pretend that it wasn’t that corruption of sense which I feared most. But there’s no denying it now. Our Prime Minister is not, for the sake of mainstream media, a Prime Minister by majority. She is first and foremost a woman and will be denigrated as such.

If we had a male Prime Minister, would handshakes, foregone bowing or collegial presidential visits remain the subject of such intensely fetishised scrutiny? While the Walkley judge may have admired his turn of phrase, it seems that Carlyon has since taken his talents to the widely published equivalent of erotic fan fiction. Here’s another phrase to turn your stomach (you can have that pun, Patrick, even though it doesn’t have the sparkling wit of “The audacity of grope…”):

“In Obama’s company, Gillard looks like she’s won a date with George Clooney. Their encounters, the respectful gazes as the other speaks, the touches of familiarity, stand to bestow her with a statesmanship she may have lacked until now.”

It seems to me, come next election, that Patrick Carlyon might vote for Asher Keddie, given how convincingly lovesick she was in just about every episode of Offspring.

However, although it’s fun to use him as the scapegoat, these things don’t publish themselves. He is not the only one to have committed to the fetish. The above scenarios which at first seemed like low-rate reporting actually point to a much deeper issue. The Prime Minister, our highest ranking politician, is being reported on her faults as a woman, not her faults as a leader. To go even further, her faults as a leader are being directly linked to her faults as her woman.

And yes, though we might reserve some softness for the feminine kind, swooning over Obama as women have swooned over George Clooney undermines her authority and weakens her political resolve. Imagine journalists writing the same thing of Putin’s interaction with the American president. Though Putin might present himself as the Fabio of Russian politics, he would not take kindly to being painted as submissive to any other leader, male or female.

It’s all well and good to criticise journalists for not doing their job (side note: their job is to report the news, if you’d forgotten) but let’s take a step back from media criticism and look at the big picture.

It would be a little rich for me to say that all of this is a right wing, Liberal Party conspiracy to undermine our Prime Minister. I don’t think that’s the case, though I’m sure you can make your mind up about Tony Abbott’s opinion of women in power. However, it does indirectly serve their agenda to have the PM’s media representation subdued by fanciful tales: flighty, sexualised, submissive and superficial. After all, who is more replaceable than a superficial woman, especially when a strong man is ready to take the throne?

I’m not one to bestow honour upon the holder of great power – I believe that respect should be earned, and loyalty will follow – but such media flub impedes the process. Julia Gillard’s job is to represent the Australian people, and Tony Abbott’s job is to play devil’s advocate. By campaigning throughout the entire political term, Tony Abbott’s catch-cry of ‘no’ has sought to weaken the Prime Ministerial position, rather than strengthen the progression of our nation. By denigrating our Prime Minister because of her gender, she can not continue to represent us, because the relationship between leader and citizen lacks truth. It is a relationship tainted by an invented superficial character – a character which is fuelled by the media’s sexist, male-dominated bigotry.

Patrick Carlyon is just one of many to lead us into the valley while painting it with smoke. Until we can find our own way, and until our media allows us that privilege, we are destined to squander our own egalitarianism for the sake of cheap erotic tricks and testosterone-tainted Kool-Aid.

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1 Comment

  1. Rebecca • November 17, 2011

    I agree with you, except for the whole 'Julia' thing. I don't think she gets called Julia anymore than Kevin Rudd was called Kevin. It may well be used as a mark of disrespect, but I don't think it's sexist. I and many others used to hurl 'Johnny' as an expression of the huge disdain we felt for PM John Howard, and Kevin and indeed KRudd was very common. Julia is subject to shocking sexism but the name thing isn't part of it.

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