‘And she knew, and we knew, and the whole world knew that the Housewife had become the Superstar’ (Dunne 1979, The Sun)
‘May began to channel her inner, hardcore Thatch … Here was the grocer’s daughter made flesh. The ordinary housewife … who looked after the shillings and pence on the nation’s weekly shopping bill’ (Crace 2016, The Daily Telegraph)
The media often represents women politicians as women first and politicians second and, in what should be stories on their policies, they instead focus on their bodies, fashion and personal lives. My past research, such as my comparison between coverage of Julia Gillard’s and Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership ascensions, has revealed how women politicians are subjected to different and often more gendered/sexist media representation than their male counterparts. But… has this gendered media representation of women political leaders changed over time? Is it better or worse? To answer this question, I have investigated and compared Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May’s first three prime ministerial weeks in 1979 and 2016, respectively.
This general phenomenon is known as ‘gendered mediation’ – when the mediation of politics not only reflects but reinforces gendered and/or sexist norms, stereotypes and assumptions. Through a gendered mediation lens, male politicians are constructed as the ‘norm’ while women are often trivialised, seen as novelties, and their gender is emphasised. While men are allowed to act in stereotypically masculine ways, and such behaviour is regarded as the ‘norm’ in politics, when women act in the same manner they are seen as aggressive, cold and ‘bitchy’. However, when they act too ‘feminine’, they are regarded as not being up to the job, weak and ineffectual.
Simultaneously, with the rise of social media, the 24-hour news cycle and electronic communication, politics is increasingly being transformed into a type of mediatised entertainment where news is more trivialised, sensationalised and individualised. In other words, the ways the media construct politicians are more ‘personalised’ and ‘presidential’. However, while this can be beneficial for male politicians, as it can make them more affable and approachable, due to politics’ inherent culture of polarising femininity and politics women experience personalisation differently. Drawing attention to their non-normative and subversive gender choices potentially risks further trivialisation and ‘othering’. Importantly, while women politicians can and have used their gender and femininity to their possible advantage, the media can always potentially use gender against them.
With this in mind, it is important to mention that Thatcher very successfully used her gender and femininity to her advantage and, coupled with her being the first woman prime minister of the UK, it is expected that the media would focus on her gender and femininity more than May’s. However, on average Thatcher’s gender was mentioned in 44 per cent of newspaper articles while May’s gender was mentioned in over half. Furthermore, while Thatcher’s femininity was emphasised on average in 33 per cent of the articles, media emphasis on May’s femininity increased to 45 per cent of the articles surveyed. Notably, conservative broadsheet The Daily Telegraph tripled the amount they mentioned both gender and femininity for May compared to Thatcher.
Discourse analysis reveals a more entrenched kind of gendering. A Sun article, again with positive coverage of Thatcher, discussed how she was ‘just the girl to do the job’. Calling a grown woman, especially the prime minister, a ‘girl’ infantilises her whilst also emphasising her gender. It is disrespectful and infers that the author does not take her seriously as a politician. When we call women, especially politicians, ‘girls’ we are denying their adulthood, maturity and power and are using the strength of language to make them seem insignificant. This phenomenon is widespread within the media. Similarly, May was portrayed as both a grammar-school-girl and a headmistress. In a Daily Telegraph article, titled ‘Headmistress May has got us all sitting up straighter’, the author discussed how May has ‘formidable powers’ as, ‘since Theresa took over, Boris has combed his hair … if the woman can get Boris to comb his hair, just think what she can do to Putin’ [emphasis added]. In this, she is not the prime minister – a job reserved for men – but a headmistress, the feminine-marked other.
One of the biggest gender tropes the media used was focusing on their appearance and fashion choices, though May was subjected to this far more. Thatcher’s appearance was mentioned in 15 per cent of articles surveyed while it was over double that figure for May. All four newspapers analysed increased this frequency, though The Daily Telegraph again was by far the most prolific, more than doubling from their portrayal of Thatcher. One article, titled ‘Inside Theresa’s top shop’ was advertised on the front page of The Daily Telegraph and accompanied photographs of May in various outfits. The sub-heading asked ‘where does the new PM get her outfits?’ followed by more questions in the body of the article, such as ‘who does Theresa May consult over matters of fashion? Who hunts down the perfect pair of kitten heels?’. The over-emphasis of May’s personal attributes, such as her outfit, over her policies, highlights the subtle ways in which the media undermine women political leaders – here’s the woman, not the politician. Her kitten heels became a metonym for May herself in political cartoons and were frequently mentioned in hard news articles that concentrated on her policies and the state of the new government, illustrating clearly the extent to which the media use gender to undermine her authority and perceived significance.
There are many other covert and overt ways in which the media use gender against women politicians, beyond these two. Despite an increase of women politicians and women in senior leadership roles, coupled with the recent rise of feminist discourse in the mainstream, the increase in gendered media representation of Theresa May indicates that women political leaders are still regarded as novelties.
I’m left wondering – why? Perhaps this phenomenon is due to the rise of personalised mediation and thus the increase of informal journalism, which inherently has gendered ramifications, or is it because we are currently experiencing a societal backlash against ‘political correctness’ and feminism evidenced by the rise of conservative populism, the Alt-Right and MRAs?
Comments Off on Women’s Rights: Rhetoric, Not Reality
This time a year ago I was stomping through the snow-covered streets of New York, slipping on ice and making sure to periodically move my toes so they did not freeze. I was cursing my unpreparedness for truly cold weather: no beanie, no gloves, and not enough layers. I was on my way to the Women’s Rights Caucus, a collective of progressive feminist individuals and organisations from around the world whose knowledge and expertise influence international negotiations on women’s rights issues. These early morning meetings, full of capable and committed women, were the saving grace of my turbulent United Nations experience. I was at my first Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), the annual United Nations forum that brings together member states and Civil Society organisations from across the world to discuss, debate, and decide on the future of women’s rights.
The challenge of CSW is that in two short week’s member states had to negotiate and come to consensus on the Agreed Conclusions: the final document that would lay out rights and obligations for all member states regarding the focus topic. The topic that year: “women’s economic empowerment in the changing world of work.”
I went into CSW feeling pumped! I was part of the World YWCA delegation – a large group of young women from places as diverse as South Sudan and Honduras, with the backing of a long standing and reputable women’s organisation. Being Australian, I was also fortunate that our Government and Civil Society organisations worked closely over the negotiations process. I had my game planned mapped out: attending Government and Civil Society events, soaking up knowledge from Women’s Rights Caucus elders, influencing negotiations through suggesting language and building relationships with representatives – it was an advocacy opportunity I had only dreamed of. And perhaps rightly so. As I soon discovered, my assumptions about women’s rights in the international sphere were completely and utterly wrong.
I feel I should be forgiven for thinking that the Commission on the Status of Women, would be a space for progressive thinking, and progressive people. This was my first mistake. From day one I was confronted with the unsettling reality that for every progressive women’s rights activist there, there was some conservative scumbug to match. Worse, these right-wing, conservative, anti-choice, anti-contraception, pro-“women should only be in the kitchen or making babies” individuals, were often well-resourced and in some cases in positions of power. I should note that this was the first CSW under a Trump administration, and Vice President Pence had the political savvy to appoint conservative anti-choicers as the official NGO delegates on the United States delegation. On top of this, you had the usual regressive suspects – the government from Saudi Arabia for instance – and my new favourite group to hate, Holy See – the Vatican’s delegation.
The power and influence of these people within negotiations should not be underestimated, and indeed contributed much to the degradation of robust language that would uphold women’s working rights. Trading off powerful language for weak language to gain American support was, under a Trump regime, inevitable.
Despite the people, the power and the watering down of language, what I found perhaps more distressing were the personal attacks made by right-wing conservatives on progressive spokespeople, and particularly those who were queer-identifying. This largely took the form of public shaming through verbal intimidation and harassment but also threats and acts of physical violence.
In addition to the targeted attacks on individuals, there was also public demonstrations. Notably, the “Free Speech Bus” better known as the Transphobic bus which espoused the gender-binary in bright orange outside the gates of the United Nations and essentially declared trans, intersex or gender diverse folk as non-existent.
The attacks on women’s rights filled me with rage and enough anger to fuel the long and often frustrating hours sitting in UN corridors or running around to meetings. During negotiations there were attacks on the most basic, but hard fought for rights, such as contraception, through to the complex and often contentious rights, such as regulating sex work. But perhaps what filled my heart with the greatest sadness and despair was the discussion of queer rights. So often the concerns of LGBTIQ people were marginalised, demonised and dismissed. The UN has been moving at a glacial pace in addressing these issues. Not having a forum like CSW to explore the rights of LGBTIQ people, or what is referred in human rights discourse as Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Expression (SOGIE), is perhaps the clearest indication of this. It has only been in the last year that the UN has appointed a Special Rapporteur for SOGIE –the only glimmer of hope I can see in an otherwise broken institution. Other than this, queer rights are a fringe issue at the UN – gaining minimal consideration at forums such as CSW.
My CSW experience was not the productive time I imagined: “women’s rights are human rights” was a statement most often found in rhetoric, not reality. A year on and I can finally look upon my experience with positivity, having become more resilient because of it, and more committed to playing an active role in being part of the solution. Whilst my experience might be disheartening, I would rather speak truth than see more people go in unprepared like myself. The truth is that we need more people fighting the good fight and we do ourselves a disservice by not preparing each other.
Amongst the difficulty, there were many memories to be truly grateful for: the humble, caring and intelligent young women I shared this experience with and the inspiring, strategic, and committed women’s rights activists that shared their knowledge and expertise. Coming into a Canberra autumn I can’t help but want to be back stomping through the icy New York streets and sharing with these amazing women the dream of a fair and just future, whilst doing our small bit to make it possible… and, if I can be honest, sticking it to an anti-choicer who is mortified that a single young woman has even been let out of the house.
Comments Off on Fighting Back Against a Bad-News World
The world is a strange place at the moment. It feels like there is an endless torrent of bad news, stories of faraway wars, devastated cities and atrocities too complex to comprehend. As students we’re told to follow the news religiously; keep up to date with the real world so that we don’t get swallowed up in the theory of it all. Apply what we’ve learnt to what’s happening today. And sure, it feels pretty spectacular when you can smugly whip out the Security Dilemma as the dinnertime conversation turns to North Korea. But reading a chapter of Clausewitz’s On War curled up with a steaming mug of chai provokes a very different emotional response to the 24/7 news cycle on the Syrian and Iraqi conflicts.
Spend too long reading or watching the news and you’ll feel like the world is ending. Leaders become inhumane, situations become unsalvageable and helplessness comes crushing down on you. As a woman, the news at the moment can feel sickening. After the release of the Australian Human Rights Commission’s report into sexual assault and harassment at Universities, all of my friends told me how tired they felt. We had raised our voices in a rallying cry, but hearing it all, every percentage and every story, cycling continuously through the news- we went into shutdown.
The statistics on young people struggling with depression and anxiety are alarming and, no doubt, the endless stream of bad news makes it harder to stay positive when you’re struggling. It fuels the helplessness that is a hallmark of feeling low. The more you read and think you’re gaining knowledge, the more you forget to ground yourself and end up floating amongst endless upsetting headlines. Here are my seven top tips for fighting back.
1. Breathe Deep
Okay this is an obvious one but I’m not sorry for including it – it’s so very important. We hear it all the time, from our counsellors and our friends, on Instagram feeds and even affixed to people’s walls (I’m a big advocate for living, loving and laughing as well). Taking even just ten seconds to focus on your breathing when you’re stressing out about the news will settle you down. You’ll cool that overheating brain, ground yourself in reality and, most importantly, watch that stress gently float away.
2. Take in what you read
The biggest issue when you’re spiralling into a bad news funk is that you’ve read endlessly without fully processing. It’s too easy to sit on the BBC News site for an hour reading every article without taking the time to process both what you’re reading and the implications of it. By the time you’re done, even one of those joke stories about a runaway sheep in Devon seems dire. Read in small chunks and take a moment for each article just to digest. The real knowledge will come from synthesising the facts – which will only be possible when your brain isn’t overworked.
3. Recognise your limitations
We are small fish in a vast ocean. Droplets in a puddle. What makes people most upset is the idea that they can do nothing – helplessness. We’ve all been there: having read one too many articles about a natural disaster far away, or children snatched by bombs, we resolve to drop this useless degree and train to be a doctor. Or give all of our money away to aid groups. When the world seems scary, remember who you are and where you are. You can only do so much. Therefore, be as effective as you can. Write to your local MP; give Malcolm a call; use your voice as passionately and as loudly as you can. Work within your limits and the endorphins will be just as great.
4. Send a message
We all get overwhelmed at some stage. Usually, it’s when you’re in the middle of a 3,000-word history report and you’ve just read an article about the hardships American women face getting access to Planned Parenthood. And then you snap. You eat a block of brie and cry on the phone to an unsuspecting friend or partner, nursing your belly because you’re lactose intolerant. This is not a sustainable way to release emotions (speaking from experience). Send the message when you start to feel it all building up, not when you’re incoherent. Talk to someone about what you’ve read and what’s concerning you. I can guarantee that having a big group discussion on how to solve the world’s problems will soothe your soul.
5. Switch off
I’m not an advocate for removing yourself entirely from the world or giving up. I’m talking about that little button on the right side of your phone (I acknowledge my clear iPhone bias). Press it; go on, I dare you. Switching off for even half an hour to do a bit of that breathing we talked about earlier can do you a world of good. If you’re not that ready to disengage from your phone’s warm cuddle, turn off the devil known as ‘push notifications’. Go to the news when you’re ready and able.
6. Read some good news
This may sound odd, but it’s easier than it looks. Good news can be literally anything: Kylie Jenner had a baby – great! Troy and Ashley from Married at First Sight might just make it work even though he chose that haircut – yay! One state leader said a nice thing about another state leader – smells like progress to me! Sure, these might sound irrelevant or trashy to the untrained ear, but they’re guaranteed to satisfy your cravings for something happy and remind you that life has to keep moving.
7. Change the world
Stay strong and save the planet, solve world peace, resist complacency – fight back against the bad news, one article at a time.
“You may have broken us once but today we stand unbroken together.” – Brianna Keys, Event Organiser
It all started with a crazy idea, enthusiastic volunteers and an announcement. After the challenging year that was 2017, our team at Jasiri were shocked to hear that no march had been organised for Canberra – that this city wouldn’t be contributing to the momentum created for women’s rights. This ended up being the catalyst for the 2018 Canberra Women’s March (held on the 4th February 2018).
Caitlin Figeiredo, the CEO of Jasiri, a Canberra-based youth and women’s rights organization, decided that if no-one had currently stepped up to plan a women’s march, Jasiri was going to be the organisation to host it. Canberra needed to show strength, defiance and unity in speaking out against inequality and injustice experienced within our communities. And so began the momentous experience of planning a local event in two weeks, with no budget and a small number of volunteers.
Organiser, Amy Blain says “Pulling together the Women’s March event in two weeks, on zero dollars, was ambitious and intense! Twice we almost cancelled. We were incredibly lucky to overcome logistical nightmares like insurance (thanks, UnionsACT) and permits. We had incredible support from the Canberra community that generously provided us with highly skilled, passionate, committed and enthusiastic volunteers. There were a lot of long hours and late nights to ensure everything ran smoothly. Accessibility, inclusion and safety were our core values. Our fabulous line-up of speakers platformed the rich diversity of women’s voices in the ACT, many of whom live with multiple and intersecting disadvantages. We prized those voices being authentic. We knew we needed St John’s Ambulance, a Safer Space and volunteers that could de-escalate disruptions. We made sure our speakers and performers could be clearly heard and understood with wonderful technical sound support (SideStage Productions) and two fabulous AUSLAN interpreters that donated their expertise. We had two professional photographers capturing the sense of community perfectly, from fun sign making, glitter and bubbles to serious speeches. You cannot please all the people all the time, but this is a movement, not a moment. We are always learning and growing.”
For this year’s Women’s March, inspiration centred on unity and solidarity, which are strongly valued by Jasiri and were reflected in the event’s theme ‘Unbroken’. Jasiri’s aim this march was to create a united and diverse front to express the strength and solidarity it is to be a woman. The idea behind our unity spiral, a human chain of our supporters holding hands in union, was that enough is enough. Women are tired of being demeaned, bullied, and violated. We were taking a stand and saying harassment and violence is no longer going to be a normal experience to us anymore. We wanted to set a future standard of what the world should look like.
Brianna Keys, an event organiser, spoke about her experience of attending the march and why it was needed: “Before I even arrived at the women’s march to set up, I experienced a common occurrence when I walk alone around Canberra, and that is the verbal harassment. From a personal perspective, loud hollers about my physical appearance, imposing messages about what these individuals would do to me, and the criticism of my response, left me feeling unsafe and cautious towards what the day would have in store for me. This is a situation that is all too familiar to many women. Movements such as #metoo expressed the extent of this violence epidemic, but enough is enough. Women deserve to be treated better and that’s exactly what movements such as this march are all about. It is a public announcement that you may have broken us once but today we stand unbroken together.”
The Canberra Women’s March this year was a reminder that as a community we stand together to combat violence and harassment. This march gave us a physical representation of how our community comes together as a collective to help support one another.
In the months after the #metoo movement spurred a new social zeitgeist in which finally, finally, women’s voices and experiences are being heard, believed, and treated with the same gravitas as men’s have for millennia – some have opined that the movement has gone too far. That we have turned away from centuries-old social and legal framework of ‘innocent until proven guilty’ toward an assumption of guilt. That this is akin to the breakdown of polite society, and that the floodgates of feminism have opened and will not close until all the men have drowned. Naysayers seem inordinately worried – but not about the women getting assaulted and harassed every day. They’re alarmed by the media’s ability to destroy the promising and distinguished career of a famous and powerful man like Kevin Spacey or Craig McLachlan with impunity and little proof. This is despite the fact that women are forty-five times more likely not to report rape than to make a false accusation.
This is an argument that, respectfully, is a bad one. No feminist or champion of the #metoo or #timesup movement is asking for the court of public opinion to replace the traditional adversarial criminal justice approach. What we are asking for is for women to be heard and believed, as it is when we report any other crime. It’s so crucial to realise that in many ways, we already do live in a culture of guilty until proven innocent.
Picture this: tonight your house is broken into. You are in the house at the time and you see and recognise the perpetrator of this crime. When, the next day, you tell your friend/boss/colleague/family member about what has happened, they believe you without question. You saw and recognised the person. Why would you lie about that? Though a judge or jury has not yet tried this case, your trauma and experience are recognised without reticence. However, the experience of survivors who speak up about sexual assault is very different. But if you were drunk, you may have forgotten giving consent? Weren’t you flirting with him all night? But you’ve slept with him before? What did you think was going to happen, wearing that? What did you think was going to happen if you walked home alone with him? If it really happened, why didn’t you tell someone sooner? That’s a very serious allegation, think about the damage you could do by spreading a rumour like that.
On top of the trauma of the assault itself, the experience of disclosing a sexual assault is marred by mistrust and accusations of lying, which can lead to devastating re-victimisation. Despite the societal view of a rapist being a psychopath hiding in the shadows ready to jump out at any moment, we know that the survivor most commonly knows the perpetrator of their sexual assault. The perpetrator is most often a friend, domestic partner, boss, colleague, or a person in a similar position of power known to the survivor. As we have seen time and time again, when a survivor speaks out against their perpetrator, they face the loss of their job, their family stability, their social circle and more. Survivors are routinely not believed in the wake of crimes of sexual violence.
This International Women’s Day, the theme is #PressForProgress. It’s a call to action to build on the incredible momentum made by the movements of the past several months and continue to fight against, not only the insidious levels sexual assault and harassment of women and non-binary people globally, but also pay parity, education equality, and more. It defies those who have said the movement has gone too far, and calls on all of us to reconsider how to be better allies and sisters in 2018. This IWD, the women in your life are finally speaking up, and your only job is to listen with an open heart.