Tony Abbott's Good Girls


Last week Margie Abbott chose to make a series of public appearances in order to defend her husband’s reputation with women. In her plea to Australian voters, she described Tony Abbott as surrounded by strong, capable women. So far, it doesn’t appear to have worked. What went wrong? What does it really mean to be a man who likes women? What’s grabbed our attention about this latest attempt to soften the image of the leader of the opposition?

Whenever I hear a man described as being "surrounded by strong women", I have a suspicion that we’re talking about a guy who has failed to grow up. Not a man who hates women, but a man who is still dependent on women. A man who has not yet become a man. Having no balls of his own, the nearest woman with a strong pair of ovaries is a good place to hang out.

You never hear a man discredited because he’s surrounded by weak women. This is because men who truly hate women don’t surround themselves with women at all, weak, strong or anywhere in between. It may be reasonable to assume that Tony Abbott doesn’t hate women, but his wife’s defence of his character has somehow failed to make a dent in the strong public perception of him as a man who is less than receptive to many of the needs and interests of women. Margie Abbott’s words are sincere and appear heartfelt, but if many of the women who object to Abbott aren’t just talking policy, why don’t her pleas move us?

Perhaps a better defence of Tony Abbott, one that we might have felt was instinctively more trustworthy, would have come from the men around him. A man who is really comfortable with women is comfortable with himself as a man. To find a truly feminist man — rather than your garden-variety snag — you look at his male friends and their relationships with each other and to the women in their lives. A man with good men around him is a man who doesn’t need women to take care of him. A guy who can do the dishes and cry at movies and doesn’t need his wife to tell the world about it for him.

Imagine for a moment that Abbott’s male friends had come forward in his defence. Imagine that they spoke admiringly about him as a friend and about his relationships with women. Imagine that they had said something about Abbott being the kind of man they hoped their straight daughters might end up with. Now cast your mind to Abbott’s avowed heroes, Howard, Santamaria and Pell. None of them men with a great track record in the women department by any stretch of the imagination.

In a patriarchal desert, strong heterosexual women will often choose a man who prefers to be around women over a bloke’s bloke. This is a sensible choice in a limited market. A man who prefers the company of women is often fun to be around, a better lover and a more caring father. This is a decidedly better option than a man who neither likes nor respects women.

But a man who does not have strong friendships with other men who like and respect women is often a man who is conflicted about women and about his own masculinity. Since he’s not quite sure about how to be a good man or how to be friends with other men, he chooses to avoid the issue and just hang out with women instead. Because this doesn’t help him solve the problem of how to be a man in the world, it leaves him stuck in being a boy. So he can be both highly attuned to and highly resentful of the women he’s closest to. I suspect a good many of the majority of women who said they didn’t like Tony Abbott, know what it’s like to be on the wrong side of this kind of resentment.

After a painful break up, my daughter declared that she would never again date a boy who had "stuff" with his mother. Wise choice really. Men who are unable to resolve their difficulties with their mothers tend to make unreliable partners for women. Sometimes these unresolved feelings stem from a good/mother bad/mother dichotomy that starts in early childhood and manifests later in life in judgements about women for their mothering or childlessness, sexuality, assertiveness, femininity or celibacy. Not unlike the judgements we’ve seen lobbed at Gillard from the Abbott camp.

The good mother/bad mother split starts early. Many developmental theorists think that babies are unable to experience their feelings as their own, and instead see them as caused by their mothers or the people who care for them most consistently. When they’re uncomfortable, they feel bad and when they’re comforted they feel good, and they imagine that this comes from their mothers being either good or bad. Over time, with consistent care from someone who can bear their distress without taking it personally, they learn that they are both good and bad and so is everyone else. They learn that there is grey to every situation and within every person.

But sometimes something goes wrong and the integration of the good and bad mother and the good and bad self never happens. Instead, they stay split and so consequently does their world view. For many boys in this situation, women become either good or bad. Bad-Mother/Good-Mother then grows up to become Good Wife/Bad Mother-In-Law, Bad Ex/Good Girlfriend or simply Good Girls/Bad Girls. Many women sense this split in a man instinctively. They know that being on the good side only means they may end up in the dog house sooner or later, and they know that for them to be in the good books, some other woman has to be trashed.

It’s not hard to understand Margie Abbott’s desire to speak out. It must be painful to hear someone you love publicly criticised for crimes of which you believe him to be innocent. Hard also to see yourself by implication as somehow being the bunny who hooked up with a less-than-desirable man. Who wouldn’t want to respond defensively?

Unfortunately, Margie Abbott’s defence of her husband dismisses the real concerns of other women affected by his work. She claims to know the "real" Tony, so the women who don’t like his attitude to women must of course be mistaken. Instead of being able to see her husband from another point of view, she paints a large proportion of the female population of Australia as misguided. In doing so, she’s helped to group women once again into polarised categories. This time we’re being told that some of us understand him, and some of us don’t. We mustn’t know our own minds. And those of us who persist in our view that Tony Abbott doesn’t like women become once again the bad girls. That’s certainly got our attention.

ABOUT THERAPY FOR NEWS JUNKIES: Why does the news make the news? Why do certain stories gain such traction? Therapy For News Junkies is a regular NM column which looks at why audiences react so vehemently to particular issues. Zoe Krupka is a psychotherapist who uses her knowledge about how we react as individuals to better understand collective responses to the events of the day.

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