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The Wrong Rationale Down Under

Today in Slate, Chloe Angyal has a piece on the sexist media coverage of Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard.

This argument is familiar, of course, because it bears some relation to recent charges of sexism in the media coverage of other female political figures, be they Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin, or Elena Kagan. I understand that when confronting foreign political circumstances, American audiences typically demand some kind of governing metaphor, or at least some relevant metonymy, that makes the circumstances “over there” more closely analogous to those at home. It’s for this reason that the lede to this story attempts to universalize, and holds that “the Australian media have hit all the same sexist notes about Gillard that the American media played in their coverage of women in politics like Hillary Clinton, Elena Kagan, and Sarah Palin.”

But what evidence are we given in Angyal’s piece that this is in fact the case? Is her wardrobe subject to continual, banal, and bizarre speculation? Does she mysteriously lose credibility for looking haggard, overly “masculine,” or simply unattractive? Is the possibility of her undergoing breast enhancement given as a potential analogue for her inexperience? Is that very inexperience perhaps too the consequence of having sacrificed ambition in order to raise a family?

While one can quibble over the significance (or believability) of any one of these media narratives, surely they at least suggest a standard of feminine political character different from that which might be applied to their male colleagues (although, likewise, if John Edwards looked like Joe Lieberman, I doubt he’d make it to the cover of the National Enquirer). The point is that they are each valid issues that, if not necessarily as inflammatory as they might first seem, at least create a space for questioning dominant paradigms of appearance, personal conduct, and parenthood.

But what this article attempts is to build a baseless case upon the reverse paradigm: that Gillard is the subject of misogynist scorn because we’re already familiar with the treatment of Clinton, Kagan, Palin, et al. What evidence are we given that this is the case?

Foremost there’s the accusation that the relationship between political allies of opposing genders is sexualized because they’re painted as being “in bed together”… an expression which 0.33 seconds of Googling would reveal to apply equally to David Petraeus and the Karzai brothers, the entire federal government and the firm of Goldman Sachs, and Google, Inc. and Verizon Communications as personified by their CEOs Eric Schmidt and Ivan Seidenberg. Unless we’re meant always to think that the relationship between Petraeus and the Karzais is an entirely homoerotic overture, it’s fair enough to say that the expression ought to stand as a commonplace metaphor for entangling alliances (and is likewise a byproduct of how we categorize these alliances when they seem ill-fitting: “strange bedfellows,” a characterization apparently common enough to bear a distinct dictionary definition).

We’re likewise given the assertion that the media, blindly, can only characterize the dissolution of a partnership as “divorce”…and yet the article in question is actually about Kevin Rudd, not Gillard, and moreover is in reference to the end of his “honeymoon period,” another common expression which certainly forgives the extension of the metaphor.

Surely there’s a case to be made for the speculation regarding Gillard’s living arrangements, but here we’re not even given evidence that said arrangements even remain an issue: the most recently dated article we’re given is Gillard’s own statement that “decisions in [her] personal life, [she]’ll make for personal reasons.” It’s difficult to suppose that a politician is being “dogged” with speculation when her curt avowal of personal privacy appears to be the final word on the matter.

Again then, rather than simply using recent precedents in American politics as a point of comparison, Angyal’s article exploits their very prominence in order to magnify an otherwise entirely trivial case. The reader of such an article is only meant to think, “Oh, yes, it was so terrible how Kagan was treated,” and to then transpose that instinctual horror onto the particular case in question, irrespective of its merits. I am positive that women in positions of authority are subject to closer, more varied, and more arbitrary scrutiny than many of their male peers, but to judge that this is so in every instance simply because it is true elsewhere does no one any favors.


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