Did the media aid and abet the "pornification" of unhappy Julia Gillard's image when she became her party's leader and then our first female prime minister?
At a public lecture at the ANU on Monday, Professor Linda Trimble asserted they did. Your columnist was there, trying not to stick out as a journalist (hoping I'd be mistaken for an ethnomusicologist) as the professor savaged my callings' sexist treatments of female prime ministers in her native Canada, in New Zealand and in Australia.
Two hours before hearing her allegations of Gillard's "pornification" I would have been more sceptical but as it happened a blush-making experience had educated me that morning. Looking ahead to needing an image to go with a column item about the professor's talk I'd offered my search engine the words "sexism against Julia Gillard".
But what I was rewarded with was a vast gallery of images incorporating Gillard in sexism, under such headings as Julia Gillard and Cleavage, Julia Gillard Bikini, Julia Gillard Nude, Julia Gillard is Hot, Julia Gillard Butt and Julia Gillard Pantyhose. In her talk Trimble accused that the Australian media, while not quite descending to the creation of this porn, had used some of the worst of social media depictions of Gillard as a kind of "peep show", sometimes referring to it and seldom if ever deploring it.
I swear I didn't dwell on any of this aforementioned online nastiness but instead, blushing, hurried off to the splendour of the ANU's Hedley Bull Centre. There the visiting Canadian professor spoke of Body Politics – Media, Gender and Leadership in Australia Canada and New Zealand.
Trimble, who has been gathering material for a book on all this, told us that, looking for proof of the truism that women in politics struggle against the tide of sexism, she has examined 2252 news articles taken from "opinion-leading newspapers" and written about Canadian prime minister Kim Campbell, New Zealand prime ministers Jenny Shipley and Helen Clark and our own Julia Gillard. She, the professor, has looked too at what was written about their male political opponents and sure enough there were far more references to female leaders'/prime ministers' bodies than to their male opponents' bodies.
So, for example, she found in the 2010 election campaign that 8 per cent of the articles about Tony Abbott mentioned his body but that 12 per cent of those about Gillard mentioned her body.
This looks almost reasonable the professor thought, until one makes searching quantitative, feminist analysis of things. But when you do you find that a single article's passing reference to Tony Abbott's blue tie is getting the same score as a single article about Gillard that carries on like a pork chop about her hairdos and hemlines. She quoted one report that sighed about Gillard's "sparkling eyes ... and exquisite ivory complexion".
She accused that the media never discusses male politicians' hair but here my conscience is clear because I delight in reporting how Tony Abbott's hair, miraculously defying greyness, becomes excitingly darker with every event he attends. What's more, I always have written about Tony Abbott's absurd affected, simian walk which he imagines makes him look purposeful and manly when in fact it makes him look like a suffering gorilla getting over a zoo's botched vasectomy.
Trimble is especially scathing about the "pornification" of female politicians by the media.
She say that pornification happens when the media "highlights sexuality in contexts that are otherwise not [normally] sexualised [such as, say, an election campaign]".
One of her arguments is that lots of us, lots of men, in Canada, New Zealand and Australia simply cope poorly with the idea of women being leaders.
"The female's body is regarded as unseemly and unwarranted in political spaces, except as a focus for male desire ... [and so] I found that Campbell and Gillard were treated [by the media] to exploitations of their sex lives with lurid descriptions of their sexual magnetism while the male leaders [opposing them] were never sexualised.
"So ... the news media started reporting commentaries about Gillard's sexual attractiveness" lifting from Facebook opinions like "Julia Gillard is the hottest fantapants in Australia ... is she or is she not the hottest ranger you ever saw?"
"During the 2010 election campaign newspapers depicted Gillard as a sexual temptress ... sexualisation of this sort belittles women by evoking stereotypes of women as always sexually available to men."
The media's portrayal of women in politics is really important and "politially consequential" the professor thinks, because, she says, the media's portrayal of them is the only portrayal the naive and sheep-like masses, the electors, ever receive.
During the talk a thousand quibbles occurred to this (disguised) journalist. The professor's characterisation of "the press" as one undifferentiated lump was very irritating. There are as many kinds of journalists and media outlets as there are scholars and universities.
Generally, though, methought as I hurried off to look up what "fantapants" means, in my case she had preached to the converted.
We apologise to arachnophobic readers for running this picture of Tegan Jones' digital photograph Pointed.
But if it helps you, photographer-artist Tegan Jones (of year 10 at Caroline Chisholm School) explains that "it isn't real" and that this digital photograph is a creation painstakingly photoshopped (she spent a long time creating the right "tonal range") using a real friend's real hand but only a virtual redback spider.
Pointed is part of the vast and exciting ACT public schools art exhibition Step Into The Limelight that continues at the ANU School of Art until August 9.
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