Women in A Political Frame


(Image reproduced by kind permission of Scribe Publishing)

During Julia Gillard’s candidacy for the Labor Leadership much ink was spilled about whether Australia was ready for a female Opposition Leader, and whether such a Leader would need to be married with kids. I don’t want to go over too much old ground, and the link collects together all the relevant posts since Latham resigned if you want to refresh your memories, but I do think this is an appropriate time to review Media Tarts: How the Australian Press Frames Female Politicians by Dr Julia Baird, as I’ve been promising to do for a while now… And this seems like a good time, Gillard’s candidacy is fresh enough to make Julia Baird’s theme highly topical, and at the same time, with Beazley’s election, enough water has passed under the bridge now to facilitate a broader and more reflective discussion of the issues raised by the media (and the ALP’s) treatment of Ms Gillard.

A Review of Media Tarts: How the Australian Press Frames Female Politicians

Julia Baird’s my favourite Sydney Morning Herald columnist, and I was really pleased to discover her excellent book, having been interested for some time in the representation of female politicians in the media. In a previous post on this topic, I referred to Alison Rogers’ book The Natasha Factor: Politics, Media and Betrayal. Baird’s treatment of the issue is much superior, and obviously much more comprehensive in her examination of women in politics and their media portrayal over the last few decades. Before going any further with the themes of Media Tarts, two points are worth making at the outset.

The first is that Julia writes extremely well. She has a natty turn of phrase, and an eye for the well chosen metaphor:

Joan Kirner was a fat whinger. Cheryl Kernot was a self-obsessed whore. Meg Lees was an ageing headmistress with the personality of a laxative. Natasha Stott Despoja was a vapid yuppie princess. Carmen Lawrence was a murderer. Amanda Vanstone was the charge nurse from hell. Bronwyn Bishop was a rottweiler with lipstick. If you believed the insults flung by their detractors, aired in the press, you’d think female politicians were a pitiful, possibly evil bunch. How did they become such caricatures? Each of the women who has blazed most brightly through the political firmament over the past decade has been pursued with an unprecedented enthusiasm. They have been courted and feted by the phalanx of reporters who hanker for a touch of colour and difference in the blokey world of politics they daily scour for stories. Then, with few exceptions, they have been dumped or discredited with an intensity that has surprised even the most experienced observers.

Julia’s argument is also very tight indeed, and well sustained by the evidence she musters, probably reflecting the book’s origins in a Sydney University History PhD thesis. Incidentally, anyone in scholarly publishing (let alone general non-fiction) will groan with horror when they recount the proposals and manuscripts they read based on theses which are completely ignorant of any knowledge about communication to readers (except examiners, of course). So it’s very much to Julia’s credit that she’s demonstrated such a facility in communicating outside the Academy – in short, she is that rare beast, a public intellectual.

Befitting also her extensive media experience, Julia argues against the stereotype embedded in the early feminist literature of a hostile male-dominated media monolith. That’s not to say that she doesn’t recognise journalism shares with politics a blokey culture, nor that she is insensitive to power relations. Rather, she looks at the interaction between women politicians and the media that reports them as a dynamic one – women have played on some of the stereotypes that the media trades in when it has suited them. Again, that is not to suggest any particular uniqueness to women and the media. It could easily be used to model the relation between pollies generally and journos, and the broader audience politicians want to reach. Think of Hawkey with his love of sport, his beer drinking and his “larrikin” persona – and how that hooks in with another set of stereotypes.

This constellation of images, and the devil in its dialectic, is nicely captured in this passage:

They would be promoted when they deserved it, or a man stepped aside, not because their ambition propelled them forward. They would not be pragmatic premiers, driven leaders, or vicious backbenchers who sought publicity; undermined enemies; and relished playing the game of politics. Their chastity and virtue depended on their removal from the heat of the political fray. Parliament was not their natural home; they were intruders in whom signs of difference were alarming; and signs of sameness – or political acumen – even more so. In this atmosphere, their flaws became monstrous.

In exploring how this process of labelling and reflection works, Julia Baird ranges across political history, in the process enlivening our understanding of the careers of prominent women such as Natasha Stott Despoja, Flo Bjelke-Petersen, Bronwyn Bishop and Carmen Lawrence. Baird has a deft touch for the dynamics of politics, and Media Tarts is interesting political history indeed. The story, though differing not just in nuances, like a lot of narratives in politics and the media, recurs again and again. Blokes make a mess, a woman is brought in to clean it up. Initially she appears as a saintly restorer of all that is good. But shown some evidence that she is actually human… and…

The book’s core argument is:

The difference between what women are thought to bring to politics and what they actually do has played havoc with the careers of our most successful female politicians. An assumption – often fostered by women to their own advantage – that women are cleaner, more ethical than men, and that their presence will bleach politics of grime, has been their greatest burden. Trumpeted as sincere, honest, and accessible, when they turn out to be human and flawed the pundits marvel and stare. Women and power; water and oil. Or at least that’s what you’d think if you relied only on the media for information.

This is absolutely right, and this is a vicious circle that must be broken.

Notable also, and in contrast to that part of the academic literature which bemoans the stereotyping of women in politics but fails to offer a way out for all of us of whatever gender, is the range of sensible suggestions on political and media management Baird makes in her last chapter for women politicians. But obviously, a more inclusive polity will require a more general reorientation, and her strong arguments should make us all stop and think. To the degree that we do, she has succeeded.

The extensive interviews and archival research on which Media Tarts is based enable Baird to weave together her tale of the personal and the political and hold a mirror up to not just the frame through which we view politicians, but also the way we participate in rebuilding it again and again. How many of us will remember Julia Gillard’s kitchen most of all the images of the ALP leadership contest? And how quickly will we forget her proposals on policy and political culture? If we take Julia Baird’s book to heart, hopefully the answer to these questions will rightly be in the negative.

About Mark Bahnisch

Mark Bahnisch is a sociologist and is the founder of this blog. He has an undergraduate degree in history and politics from UQ, and postgraduate qualifications in sociology, industrial relations and political economy from Griffith and QUT. He has recently been awarded his PhD through the Humanities Program at QUT. Mark's full bio is on this page.
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2024 years ago

If it’s not the kitchen, it’ll be the photos on the beach.

Judging by my kitchen, I just need to get married and the leadership is mine.

2024 years ago

Very interesting review Mark. I was particularly taken in the point about ” that women are cleaner, more ethical than men…. thus making them special with a higher bar to reach. Reading blogs and webdiary many arguments were made that Gilliard should have been chosen solely because of her gender (it’s time to have a woman at the helm’) ignoring the fact that Gilliard is an intelligent able person..irrespective of whether whe is a female or not.

2024 years ago

Australia is ready for a female PM. Problem is that I don’t think either the Liberal or the Labor parties are ready to give a female the reins just yet.

Could it be that men are just more naturally adept at climbing the greasy pole because they are (generally speaking) more power-hungry and more willing to put themselves first, before their colleagues?

2024 years ago

It’s very important that women’s increasing entrance into the political realm is not weighed down with the expectation they will be “cleaner” and “more ethical”.

Such arguments have been used in the past to claim women were totally unsuited to politics.

They should be there because of equity and justice and merit (the latter being a hard thing to define).

It was refreshing to see on the 7.30 Report that we are moving on from concepts like quotas.

In the end acting like an equal is the only way you will get equality.

2024 years ago

Gillard/kitchen/beach. I remember those pictures and I wondered at the time why she allowed herself to be filmed in those poses in such locations. Sure the photographers try their darndest to set up the shot, but an experieced, media savvy politiican like Gillard should know better and take control of the setting. Or am I too naive?

2024 years ago

“In the end acting like an equal is the only way you will get equality.”

You can act your heart out but who are the directors, producers and backers?

Or as someone once said, “you’ll know we have a true sexual meritocracy when there’s as many incompentent women as there are men in top jobs.”

2024 years ago

Women in A Political Frame

“Joan Kirner was a fat whinger. Cheryl Kernot was a self-obsessed whore. Meg Lees was an ageing headmistress with the personality of a laxative. Natasha Stott Despoja was a vapid yuppie princess. Carmen Lawrence was a murderer. Amanda Vanstone was the …