Playing The Sexism Card


Is it sexist anytime anyone ever criticises any woman?

Can anything any female politician ever does be shielded from criticism on the grounds that to do so is sexist?

If a female politician who happens to be a Prime Minister screws up royally and appears to make a habit of doing so, can she ignore all the slings and arrows that come her way because they’ve all been hurled by sexist bastards who want nothing more than to see a good woman fall?

The answer to all of these questions should obviously be "no".

The latest brouhaha over sexist treatment of Julia Gillard by the media has exposed some fundamental misunderstandings. Just how did the idea take hold that any criticism of a woman is sexist? That’s a preposterous notion and at heart, it’s anti-feminist, suggesting as it does that women should be held to a lower standard of criticism than men.

So how did we — again — get to this point?

In an interview with Mike Willesee on Sunday night, Julia Gillard was asked about leadership and her leadership style. She said, "I’m a woman running the country, I don’t ask people to come to the view that they want to have me round for dinner on Saturday night, that’s not what I’m here to do. What I’m here to do is to do some tough things, some hard things that make a difference."

Fair enough. Willesee asked her straight out whether her job would be easier if she were a man. Her reply?

"Look, I think it’s different and I’m not surprised about that. I mean I grew up watching the Prime Ministers of this country and if you’d asked me then ‘close your eyes and imagine a Prime Minister’ I would have imagined a bloke in a suit."

"Now I’m the first person to not be a bloke in that suit, exactly the same sort of suit as you’re wearing."

"It’s a different image of leadership."

This is hardly controversial.

Later in the interview, Willesee asked Gillard about her "lack of emotions" and whether she loosened up a bit at home. Kevin Rudd was also accused of being robotic in public life and faced similar questions about his personability. As far as I can recall, he never got asked by a host whether he cried much — as Gillard did on Sunday.

It didn’t take long for a response from the Coalition HQ. Abbott accused Gillard of playing the "sexism card because she sees the endgame coming". She must have had it up her sleeve the whole time! This is a particularly noxious comment because it plays so readily into the misogynist myth that women call out discrimination (or harassment) in the workplace to get ahead — rather than because it actually happens.

It’s fair to say that Bob Brown’s comment in a press conference the next morning inflamed the situation. He said:

"She is getting a rough time and let me state this as others might not be quite so blatant. Quite a bit of the criticism is sexist and unfair and unrelenting and the Prime Minister needs a bit of a break from that and it is time she got that break and the Australian people are indicating she should have it."

He went on, "The degree of relentless criticism on this Prime Minister, coming from male commentators, it is probably all subconscious, is sexist and quite ridiculous at times."

This may not have been a precise or helpful way to characterise criticism of the PM. It does not pay to be careless when talking about gendered language, as was revealed in the aftermath of the press conference.

Brown’s comment provoked a quick and angry set of responses from commentators — and it was the specification of "male commentators" that got them particularly worked up. Actually Bob, said John Birmingham, Andrew Bolt and Richard Farmer, you’re the sexist one. Why? Because female commentators also criticise the PM. This is schoolyard stuff. Yes, Brown was vague and no, he didn’t name names or provide any concrete examples of what he was talking about. Still, it’s astounding to hear a chorus of (male) voices on sexism get it so wrong, all at the same time, and in the same fashion.

John Birmingham reckons that Bob Brown sidelines the female commentators who get stuck into Gillard. "Is it the case that their critiques were fair and reasonable, but the harsh words of a few misogynistic male trollumnists were beyond the pale? That’s sort of insulting to professional word slingers like Grattan and Crabb, isn’t it?" Birmingham charges Bob Brown with mounting a "weird, knightly defence" and then goes on to demonstrate his own downbeat "sort of" chivalry in action as he defends female political writers.

Richard Farmer in Crikey doesn’t say much, he just lists some blistering criticism of Gillard by a bunch of female commentators, asking "I wonder what he [Bob Brown] thinks of this lot of commentators?" As it happens, none of the examples Farmer cites strike me as sexist. They don’t pander to the conventions and expectations around gender to advance their arguments and they don’t rely on gender stereotypes to make their point. In my book, that qualifies as non-sexist criticism. There should be more of it.

Both Farmer and Birmingham seem to be suggesting that if female commentators are giving Gillard a hard time, they couldn’t possibly be being sexist. Does this mean women can’t be sexist ever? It’s worrisome too that observers like Farmer and Birmingham aren’t able to tell the difference between tough criticism and misogynist crap.

And finally, Andrew Bolt. "Brown is a sexist, a fantasist and the most brazen hypocrite." Bolt’s spray is hardly surprising, but his indignant parade of rhetorical questions suggests that he too just doesn’t get it.

"When some of those male commentators praised Gillard, were they sexist then? Or are we only sexist now that we’re criticising her for the deceit and incompetence since? And when female commentators criticise Gillard in exactly the same terms as we men, why doesn’t Brown call them sexist, too?"

It’s disappointing to see what could be an important discussion about gender in public life play out in such degraded terms. Unfortunately, Brown’s charge of sexism hasn’t actually prompted a discussion about sexism in the media.

Is there a deluge of sexist criticism of the PM? Does gender play a role in the torrent of extremely negative criticism of Gillard? Does gender have anything to do with the expectation that the PM look tough and suck it up? These are all questions worth — at least — considering. Claims that Gillard has done a bad job should stand or fall on their own merit. There are plenty of reasons to criticise the PM. Commentators who can’t do so without measuring her against rigid gender conventions aren’t trying hard enough.

In the meantime, we shouldn’t need to be reminded that there’s a difference between sexist bilge and legitimate criticism. The current debate so lacks nuance that it’s hard to imagine a level-headed debate about the role gender has played in perceptions and appraisals of Gillard’s performance as PM. Surely we’re capable of having a discussion about the idea that it might be somehow different to have a woman as PM — without hysterical invocations of the "sexism card".

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.