‘Polly Put the Kettle On’: The Media’s Discursive Positioning of Female Politicians in Australia, 1990 – 2011

1 Jun

“One has only to pick up any newspaper to realize that one is living in a patriarchy” (Woolf 35).

Print media, as a political institution, has a significant impact on shaping societal attitudes on politics and gender. Virginia Woolf’s proposition that the media contributes to the maintenance of patriarchal hegemony remains as relevant today as it did in 1928. In light of a recent Newspoll that reveals Julia Gillard’s waning popularity as Australia’s first female Prime Minister,  I thought it fitting to use Julia Gillard as a case study for interrogating contemporary representations of female politicians in the Australian print media, and how these perpetuate sexist gender stereotypes that work to destabilize and trivialize women’s contributions to the political arena and their authority within it. “When Julia Gillard talks, does her gender speak louder?”Although women constitute 30.7 percent of state and federal politicians, my focus is on Julia Gillard because she is the most senior female politician in federal politics. Gender is embedded in politics. Simone de Beauvoir proposes that “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman” (281). Today, female politicians remain restricted not by their sex but by their gender, which is constructed through the representation of women in public discourse (Markstedt 4).

Jacquline Kent notes that young, personable, intelligent and good-humoured female politicians are always candidates for the role of the ‘Media Golden Girl’ and Gillard is no exception (226). Like her fore-sisters, Susan Ryan, Carmen Lawrence, Natasha Stott Despoja and Cheryl Kernot, Gillard is an interesting case study for analysis of the media’s discursive framing of female politicians. A progressive leader, Gillard has created much advancement for women in politics. She contributed to the establishment of EMILY’s List, a financial, political and personal support network assisting progressive Labor female candidates and became a member of the House of Representatives in 1998 (Kent 110-11). In 2007 she became Deputy Leader of the Australian Labor Party and in 2010 became leader of the Australian Labor Party and the first female Prime Minister of Australia. Gillard holds portfolios as the Minister for Education, Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, and Minister for Social Inclusion. Despite these achievements and her suggested ‘golden girl’ media status, she is repeatedly represented by the print media in relation to her private life and physical appearance. When she is critiqued on her professional qualifications and leadership skills she is usually characterized as unfeminine. Are Australian’s making informed opinions of our Prime Minister or are ‘Joe(sephine) Public’  just accepting the media’s discursive portrayal of women in politics?

Women’s presence in Australian politics has historically been represented as a threat to patriarchy in their contestation of the ‘traditional’ role of mother. When women do attain positions of power, their appearance, intellect, and private lives are constantly questioned. Elizabeth van Acker posits that women in Australian politics are portrayed in the media as either ‘saviours’ who will cleanse politics; ‘sinners’ who are condemned for being too aggressive and are not conventionally feminine; or ‘stars’ whose style is promoted and placed on a pedestal (3). Her argument draws upon Anne Summers’ influential feminist text Damned Whores and God’s Police: The Colonisation of Women in Australia (1975), which locates the origins, development and dissemination of sexist stereotypes. I explore the media’s employment of a hierarchical binary model that positions female politicians as mother/non-mother, beauty/beast, and saint/sinner. I posit that these binarisms foreground the idiom ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ since these schisms ultimately reinforce negative values which are used to hinder female politicians’ legislative roles.

Fair Exposure, published by the Office for the Status of Women in 1983, provides guidelines to assist journalists in recognizing the importance of women’s social contributions. Its aim was to prevent the media’s use of sexist stereotypes and discriminatory language. It states that “Women should not be described by physical attributes when men are being described by mental attributes or professional position…references to a man’s or woman’s appearance, charm or intuition should be avoided when it is irrelevant” (9). It recommends that women, and men, be portrayed with dignity and equality (5). Despite an increased female presence in state and federal politics, sexist stereotyping of women in the political arena still pervade contemporary print media.

Super-mums and barren spinsters: representations of the mother/non-mother

“Anyone who chooses to deliberately remain barren… they’ve got no idea what life’s about” (Heffernan qtd. in Harrison).

In May 2007 Liberal senator Bill Heffernan accused Gillard of being ‘deliberately barren’. He argued that she was unqualified for leadership because she lacked vital experience since she “had no idea what life was about because she had no children”. Heffernan claimed that “if you are going to be a leader you’ve got to understand your community…one of the great understandings in a community is family” (Harrison). Whilst Heffernan’s public comments created a furore, his actions nonetheless demonstrate the pervasive vilification of women in a contemporary Australian society that still characterizes the female primary gender role as mother.

Marian Sawer and Marian Simms argue that traditional gender roles of wife and mother ascribed to women, of whom Gillard is neither, ensure that their involvement in politics remains under scrutiny for possible neglect of their domestic duties (142). This critique remains relevant today because despite increased acceptance of gender equity in Australia, and men’s greater participation in domestic labour, child rearing and housekeeping are still regarded as women’s primary responsibility (Craig 239). Anna Bligh remarked in 2005:

It’s ironic in the extreme that someone like Julia Gillard was deemed entirely unsuited to the role of Prime Minister because she is single and childless. The irony is that, if she had a husband and three small children, she would have been seen as entirely unsuitable for a very different reason. It is never a prohibition for male politicians.  (Bligh 114)

Indeed, despite increased female political presence, Henderson notes that women in politics are continually asked ‘what will you do with the children?’ Henderson argues that this question is irrelevant for male politicians because “males have wives” (159). In 1983, Labor’s Ros Kelly became the first sitting federal member of parliament to give birth. However, she came under severe criticism for returning to work less than a week after her discharge from hospital. Kelly was forced to defend her mothering style when Liberal MP Bruce Goodluck attacked her for alleged neglect of her child. As a consequence the Age published articles that chastised her personal choices (Legge; Porter). Yet, as Jenkins notes, Goodluck’s parenting was not questioned since it is assumed that his wife was at home to look after his five daughters (58). This reinforces the assumption that while “the families of male politicians make sacrifices; the families of female politicians suffer” (Baird 78). Similarly, in 2003, Kirsty Marshall was escorted from Parliament for breastfeeding her eleven-day-old daughter before Question Time because the baby was not an elected member of parliament and therefore, was not permitted in the chamber (Knight). This prompted a re-examination of workplace attitudes towards the issue and in 2007 New South Wales became the first state to accept breastfeeding in both houses of parliament (Summers, “Baby”). Improved workplace conditions for mothers in the political arena have not prevented the media’s pervasive use of stereotypes that frame female parliamentarians as either ‘barren spinsters’ or neglectful mothers.

There is still relatively little institutional and policy support for women who wish to combine work and family (Craig 240). Female politicians face continued pressure to display competence in fulfilling traditional roles of wife and mother in order to be accepted in public life (Jenkins, “Women” 55; Sawer 142). Breastfeeding in public is still depicted as indecent. Female politicians are sometimes even expected to ‘sacrifice’ their children for their careers (Baird 74). For example, when Sarah Hanson-Young, accompanied by her infant daughter, was required to conduct a vote in the Senate in 2009, she was met with disapproval and condemnation from her colleagues and the media, despite politicians such as Mark Latham, Jackie Kelly and Anna Burke having previously taken their children into the lower house. Barnaby Joyce argued:

There are twenty-one million people who rely on the way that Senate votes, you’ve got to take that job seriously…do not ever lose sight of how important that is, the job inside the rails of that Senate chamber, and so this requires certain sacrifices.  (Summers, “Baby”)

Joyce’s comment implies that women cannot be mothers and successfully participate in politics, asserting that a ‘woman’s place is in the home’. Even when male politicians have children their responsibilities are not challenged like that of their female counterparts (Baird 87). Susan Ryan, former federal Labor minister, is critical of male politicians’ focus on their female colleagues’ marital status and family life rather than on their professional qualifications, describing it as nothing but ‘old-fashioned misogyny’. She argued:

If a woman can put herself forward for leadership unencumbered by a husband and children, able to devote herself fully to her work, she gets the Julia treatment. If an aspiring female leader has a spouse and offspring, enemies raise other doubts. Will she be neglecting them? Will her family distract her from the affairs of the state? What sort of a man would play second fiddle to a powerful wife?  (15)

Kristine Keneally articulates the unpredictability of motherhood in relation to paid employment: “I just made the call. My child was going to the emergency room. You do what any parent would do; you rearrange your work schedule and you go be with your child” (Salusinszky). The media’s representation of Keneally as a glamorized mother – ‘career woman’ has the potential to resonate with parent-voters but Joyce’s statement nevertheless remains embedded, albeit more subtly, in the media’s framing of mothers in politics as incapable of continued commitment to leadership.

While Gillard defends her childlessness, female politicians are typically appraised almost exclusively on their personal life (Jenkins, “Women” 61). ABC presenter Sally Loane casts Gillard as a sad spinster, alone and inadequate within the domestic realm. She describes Gillard in her kitchen: “There was something terribly lonely in that room, there wasn’t even a flower or a picture or a knife on the bench or bread in plastic or anything…looked like the kitchen was never lived in” (Stewart 11). 

I read the image of Gillard in her kitchen (Fig. 1) in juxtaposition and reference to earlier presentations of female politicians such as Carmen Lawrence in the home. Baird notes that it is a long-standing cliché that once female politicians achieve positions of public prominence the press push them back into the private sphere (48).

A photograph of Lawrence inspecting the kitchen of an Aboriginal centre with the caption “Dr Lawrence can stand the heat” (see Fig. 2) implies that because of her gender she is experienced and knowledgeable in the management of the domestic sphere. Indeed, Lawrence notes that of her time in politics “more attention was paid to my family circumstances than my professional qualifications with one headline dubbing me ‘Lawrence of Suburbia’” (Lawrence, “Media” 31). Lawrence’s competency as Premier is proportionately measured against her aptitude in the domestic realm (Baird 59). This is comparable to Loane’s portrayal of Gillard as domestically inadequate, which thus renders her incapable of managing political power. Tim Mathieson, Gillard’s partner, publically commented that he often cooks with the barbeque Gillard bought him: “she won’t go near it. She bought it on that premise” (Packham). His revelation, perhaps, unintentionally, further supports the media’s representation of Gillard as ill-equipped for the position of  then, Deputy and now, Prime Minister  because of her non-marital status, lack of children and deficient domesticity. Similarly, Gillard came under the same scrutiny that Janine Haines did in 1987 when the Sun-Herald captured an image of Haines’s husband serving her a cup of tea while she was recovering from pneumonia (see Fig. 3). Journalists used the derogatory term ‘househusband’ to not only emasculate the partner but to position the female politician as negligent of her familial duties (Baird 82). 

Media representations of female politicians influence the public’s perception of the latter as ‘inauthentic’ women. For example, Jacqueline Kent, a journalist and Gillard’s biographer, published details about her friend’s reaction to a display of children’s drawings in Gillard’s sparse and professional Melbourne office. She states: “I mention this to a friend, who scoffs, ‘She’s just put them up there for show, it’s all PR, just fake’” (Kent 279). This highlights the pervasiveness of stereotypes of Gillard as an un-nurturing, barren spinster. However, Kent considers Gillard to have “simply followed the unwritten rule that, if a child draws a picture for you, you will praise it and put it up somewhere it can be admired” (Kent 279). There remains a belief amongst politicians, the media and the public that women must choose either work or family (Baird 74). With or without children, Gillard continues to be framed as ill-equipped. Joan Kirner claims:

It’s hard sometimes for people to get the idea that women should be able to make their own choices. That’s what feminism’s about – making your own choices. And I think it’s improving, but, well, we saw the Julia Gillard thing recently being described as ‘barren’. Blokes – are they ever described as ‘barren’ or ‘impotent’? Um, I don’t think so.  (Thompson)

The binary of mother/non-mother is complex since both schisms occupy a negative value and foreground the idiom ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’. The media’s positioning of Gillard in relation to the mothering paradigm demonstrates how its framing of female politicians ensures and perpetuates their unfair treatment and as a consequence they are not taken as seriously as their male counterparts (Milligan 14).

‘Professional deviants’: representations of the beauty/beast

“It would be cruel to say that the reason there are so few female politicians is it’s too time-consuming to make up two faces.” (Laws qtd. in Burgmann 75)

Female politicians are continually described according to their dress and appearance by which they are judged against a male paradigm of the parliamentarian (Markstedt 2; Ross 195). Naomi Wolf theorizes that the beauty myth destabilised women’s progress when they demanded increased access to power (9). She proposes that “the more legal and material hindrances women have broken through, the more strictly and heavily and cruelly images of female beauty have come to weigh upon them” (1). Judy Motion proposes that women’s physical attributes have become political commodities that are evaluated in conjunction with their political performance (111). In 2007, when Joe Hockey was asked why he was not as popular as Julia Gillard, he replied “I’m not as pretty as Julia Gillard, obviously” (“I’m Not”; Weisser). While Hockey’s comment might appear to be good-humoured, it nevertheless serves to undermine Gillard’s authority. As Lawrence notes, the dress and demeanour of female politicians are privileged over substance (“Media” 31).

Motion states that every change a woman makes to her appearance results in scrutiny and evaluation as a consequence of the male gaze (111). John Berger posits that: “The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object – and most particularly an object of vision: a sight” (47). He notes that there is a discrepancy between the inscribed spectator and the actual spectator. This argument supports the notion that women often perpetuate their own oppression. For example, when Gillard was elected Deputy Opposition Leader in 2006, Anita Quigley wrote in The Daily Telegraph “from one woman to another, Julia, please heed my advice. Get yourself a stylist and get one fast…We’ve seen you look good with a softer, more flattering hairstyle, but Monday was a disaster”. Similarly, Phillip Hudson’s comments in the Herald Sun about Gillard’s physical appearance ignore recommendations made in Fair Exposure that journalists should not describe women by their physical attributes. The premise of Hudson’s article “Julia Gillard is a Lady in Waiting” is Gillard’s increased Labor Party popularity over Kevin Rudd as leader. In the context of this debate Gillard’s appearance is irrelevant. However, Hudson’s primary explanation as to why Gillard was preferred over Rudd is purely based on her change in physical form: “Her wild red locks have been toned down and styled into a slick bob. That tragic technicolour dreamcoat has been replaced with a clean-cut power suit [and] she is also a little easier on the ear, with speculation she has been practicing her pronunciation”. This report completely silences her mental and professional contributions, denying her agency and promoting a sexualized representation of women in the political sphere.

Alison Rogers notes that it was easy for journalists to trivialize Natasha Stott Despoja because she used more popular media outlets to generate publicity rather than traditional press gallery avenues (100). Despoja manipulated her image and brand appeal in the media by making strategic choices about her relationships with the media, however, the media ultimately had a detrimental impact on her political career (Cassandra; van Acker 7). Female politicians are vulnerable to disparagement for becoming personalities and are not taken seriously (van Acker, “Media” 11). Anne Summers claims that: “it often seems that more is written about Senator Natasha Stott Despoja’s hair colour, her clothes and her footwear than about her policies and political strategy” (Summers, End 219). Despite the media’s framing of female politicians it remains necessary for women to secure a clear political voice in the media (van Acker, “Media” 3). Gillard has attempted to avoid popular culture media avenues in order to extricate herself from the superficiality of media and its dichotomous stereotyping of female politicians.

Anne Henderson notes that: “Like it or not, the successful politician now cannot ignore the value of the photo shot” (203). It appears that Gillard made a strategic choice in her posed photograph in 2009 for Australian Women’s Weekly (see Fig. 4). Gillard is featured in a reclined position in a pink candy-striped armchair in a pink room, gazing at a chandelier of artificial silver stars. Gillard is frequently referred to as a ‘rising star’ (Baird 241), and her gaze fixed on the silver stars suggests her political ambition. Her clothes and hair style are evocative of Hollywood glamour film stars such as Lauren Bacall and Katharine Hepburn (see Figs. 5 and 6). These leading ladies of 1930s cinema represented a new modernist feminist ideal. They encapsulated freedom, whereby their clothes allowed for comfort and easy movement in comparison to restrictive dresses and corsets. Hepburn is particularly interesting since she played feisty protagonist roles and had a long-term open de facto relationship with married film star Spencer Tracy from 1941 until his death in 1967. 

Through a feminist lens the photograph of Gillard could be interpreted as an empowering image for women in Australia. Gazing at the stars her expression is smiling and approachable. By not looking directly at the spectator she does not participate in the purveyance of her femininity (Berger 55). Although Gillard’s attire appears to intertextually resonate with images of powerful yet glamorous female film stars, John Frow notes that women in recumbent positions, as she is in, are synonymous with their subordination to the (un)intended male viewer (36). Gillard’s portrait is ambiguous since her gaze, directed away from the spectator might be interpreted as subversive and untrustworthy, but her white-tailored suit invites a reading of her as symbolically pure, open and honest. This photograph contrasts with that of Cheryl Kernot’s media depiction as the ‘scarlet woman’ in 1998.

Kernot entered federal parliament in 1990 and was represented early on as a prominent political leader. As such she was branded ‘superwoman’ by the media (Baird 166). However, after the exposure of several private incidents such as her political defection from the Democrats to the Australian Labor Party, her affaire with Gareth Evans, and sexual relationship with a former pupil, Kernot was chastised as a manipulative seductress (Baird 170). Furthermore, The Australian Women’s Weekly feature on Kernot in a red evening gown and feather boa did not encourage a positive representation (see Fig. 7). Instead, the media framed her as the ‘scarlet woman’. In her defense, Kernot claimed that the image was supposed to reveal her femininity and engage with her constituency (Baird 178-79). However, Nicholson’s cartoon exposes the double standards of self promotion in the media (see Fig. 8). His depiction of Kernot highlights the sexist stereotyping of women in politics as sirens and sexual deviants. His cartoon features the sexual innuendo: “Is that a policy in your pocket or are you just pleased to see me”, an intertextual reference to Mae West (Nicholson “With Apologies”). Mae West, an actress, playwright and screen writer, became a movie star in the 1930s playing risqué roles. West’s typecasting as seductress and siren, comfortable with her sexuality, reinforced her support of women’s (sexual) liberation even though she did not consider herself to be a feminist (Watts 299).

Political cartoons and media photographs often imply female politicians’ sexual personae and silence their capacity for rational argument. Too much focus on women’s appearance and sexual or marital relationships has the capacity to diminish their stature as legislators (Jenkins, “Women” 55). There is a greater concentration on female politicians’ private relationships, sexual lives, or imagined sexual lives and appearance than is applied to their male colleagues (van Acker, “Media” 3). Gillard’s photograph received more positive coverage in media and public feedback than Kernot’s, nevertheless the detrimental impact of the media’s framing of Kernot on her political career remains in the milieu. For example, Mel Campbell responds to Gillard’s appearance in The Australian Women’s Weekly: “Has Julia Gillard pulled a Cheryl Kernot?” (“The Perils”). Gillard notes: “I’m not so critical of Cheryl or anybody who made different decisions because they were the first and I’ve had the ability to watch and learn from it” (Baird 242). Gillard was instead critiqued on her youthful appearance which caused journalists to question the authenticity of the photograph (“Deputy”).

Karen Ross notes that younger women face a double burden in that they are women and they are young and thus their intellect is disparaged (195). However, older women are criticized if they do not maintain a youthful image. Sandra Knack states: “There is resentment from society that we give way to gravity, that our breasts are no longer pert. Our mouths drop and we get crow’s feet around our eyes” (Wright 24). When asked if she had used Botox, Anna Bligh replied: “like most women I care about my appearance. I dye my hair, I do other things. So what?” (Dart). Her honesty might be perceived as a positive leadership attribute, however, Motion argues that too much of an alteration to image can be represented by the media as fickle and dishonest (113). Unlike Bligh, Gillard claims “her forehead is as politics made it” (Campbell “The Perils”). 

Nicholson’s cartoon of Bligh (see Fig. 9) reinforces a negative representation of Bligh attempting to disguise problems in Queensland’s economy by injecting Botox, highlighting her feminine naivety and superficiality that image can solve deep-rooted political issues. Marise Payne admits that she was unconcerned about her own media image but she also notes that her “opponents will chide with comments like ‘Did you see Senator Payne? She didn’t have any lipstick on when she did the interview’” (Henderson 204). This highlights the media’s representation of female politicians as capricious and unreliable; if they can alter their physical appearance they can just as easily change their political stance. Although the focus of the article “Fringe Benefits of Being Julia Gillard” is entirely on Gillard’s beauty and fitness regime: “[she] hasn’t had Botox, has a weakness for facials and doesn’t get freebie haircuts off her boyfriend”, Gillard takes a similar stance to that of Fair Exposure: “women and men in politics should get judged on how they do their jobs and not what they look like” (“Fringe”). Yet, the Courier-Mail’s commentary ignores this and emphasizes Gillard’s nomination for Ralph magazine’s ‘sexiest woman in Australia 2008’, trivializing her political responsibilities.

There is considerably less social commentary on male politicians’ appearance (van Aker, “Media” 4). However, media coverage of Tony Abbott and his budgie smugglers is an exception to van Acker’s argument. Nevertheless, journalists’ references to Abbott’s physical prowess and humorous commentary on his choice of swimwear do not undermine his authority as political leader because as van Acker notes, despite the notion of sexual equality the male body continues to be privileged as normative (van Acker, “Media” 4). Lyn Kosky attests that women are “judged from the top down. You’re expected to be well groomed, far more than the guys are” (Henderson 198). For instance, men are not critiqued on their beer bellies, suit size or familial roles in the same way women are discussed in relation to clothing, shoes, hairstyle and weight (van Acker, “Media” 5; Markstedt 8). These concerns are rarely raised in reference to male politicians.

Angels in the ‘House’: representations of the saint/sinner

                                                                   “A single woman will never be elected Prime Minister of this country.” (Price qtd. in Shanahan)

When Edith Cowen first entered the Western Australian Parliament in 1921 there was an assumption and expectation that women’s participation in politics would cleanse and purify the mess and corruption generated by their male counterparts because domesticity and cleanliness were associated with notions of femininity (Eveline 106; Jenkins, “Women” 56). The Age reported that:

A Parliament composed wholly or mainly of women politicians is not a prospect to be regarded with enthusiasm. Were political office to become the ambition of the fair sex, and were standing for Parliament to become the latest craze of fashion, there would be many dreary and neglected homes throughout the country sacrificed on the altar of political ambition.  (“Editorial” 6)

While this declaration appears to be outrageous and obsolete today, representations of women in politics have changed only slightly over the past century since the mind-set behind statements such as this remain embedded in our attitudes towards women as homemakers, wives and mothers (Jenkins, “Women” 61). The assumption that female politicians have a fundamental and inherently different political style; that they have a higher standard of moral behaviour, and are more honest and less manipulative than their male counterparts is still prevalent today (Eveline 114). This essentialist positioning frames women as ‘naturally’ more principled than men, with more of a propensity for compromise and pacification (Ross 190; van Acker, “Media” 6). Gillard resents “the kind of image that somehow we are too gentle for [politics]” (Kent 7) yet this assumption that women are unsuited to political life remains reinforced through the media’s representation of women’s primary roles as wives and mothers.

Stereotypical representations of female politicians as ‘angels in the house’, undermines their knowledge and experience in the political sphere and denies further advancements for women. Indeed, the media has a tendency to create contradictory representations of women and femininity. Female politicians are continually asked if they are ‘tough enough’ to participate in the masculine domain of Australian politics or run for political leadership, while their personal characteristics must still adhere to accepted standards of femininity (Muir13). Gillard has often been described as the ‘iron woman’, in the mode of former British Prime Minister Maggie Thatcher ‘the iron maiden’, because of her supposed steely disposition (Hudson). Biological determinism remains evident in media descriptions of women in politics. For instance men are often portrayed positively, with particular traits such as competitiveness, resolution and authority depicted as instinctively masculine. Women can be just as aggressive as their male colleagues (Ross 191; van Acker, “Media” 5). However, if women demonstrate these qualities they are typically portrayed negatively. Gillard notes that it is more difficult to be ambitious as a woman (Quigley “I’m Not”). Van Acker posits: “the media often portrays women who do not play traditional feminine roles in negative ways as ‘sinners’” yet characteristics perceived as feminine such as non-competitiveness, vulnerability and volatility are also depicted as negative (van Acker 7). Women are rarely depicted beyond Summers’ two polarities of ‘damned whores and god’s police’ (Summers “Damned”; Henderson 191). Rebecca Weisser criticized Gillard in The Australian for her ‘glamourised’ portrayal in Australian Women’s Weekly arguing that it will not win her any votes. However, Gillard’s feature in the magazine, like those of Stott Despoja and Kernot, is characteristic of a shift from masculine news towards the feminisation of the print media (Muir 14).

Carmen Lawrence argues that the media portrays exaggerated saintly images which are often juxtaposed against imagery of the ‘sinner’ (31). Baird concurs that this dichotomy enables the media to place female parliamentarians on a pedestal by creating heightened expectations that they cannot meet. Female politicians have already challenged normative assumptions about what women’s role is in society (Ross 191). The media framing of women in parliament can provide an opportunity to break down social barriers. Baird also notes that these representations may instead perpetuate stereotypes of ‘traditional’ female gendered roles such as wives and mothers. Lawrence proposes that artificial contests are established by the media which inadvertently reveal stereotypes of women’s ‘hysterical’ behaviour in politics (“Media” 31). She states that: “When I was Minister for Health while Bronwyn Bishop was Shadow Minister, there was much breathless reporting and cartoons about the fight to the death between the two women frontbenchers” (“Media” 31). More recently, Gillard and Julie Bishop have been described as baring ‘claws’ at one another during Question Time (Packham). Lawrence claims that the media shapes these misrepresentations of women in politics, rather than the political landscape (“Media” 29). Kathie Muir concurs that these untruths about women in the public realm as unnatural, that women are power hungry and must be unlovable to undertake such positions, operates in media representations and public discourse (14).

On the subject of pre-marital sex, abortion and maternity leave, Abbott accused Gillard of being “one dimensional” because she had not chosen to become a parent and does not understand what it is like to be a parent of teenage daughters (Maiden). Not only do Senator Brandis and Abbott speak for young women in Australia, silencing their women and their own daughters’ views on virginity and pre-marital sex, they ignore Gillard’s authority and experience as a woman. Gillard states: “the difference that women make [in politics] is not an outbreak of sugar and spice and all things nice. Women have different life experiences to men. They are confronted with different choices” (Weisser).

When female politicians are unable to ameliorate parliament they are denounced (Henderson 158). Labor MP Janice Crosio states: “The general public has such high expectations brought on by the media that builds the woman up. All of a sudden a woman is on the pedestal and as quickly crashes down”. Similarly, Carmen Lawrence notes: “Hey, I didn’t put myself on a pedestal. It doesn’t happen to male colleagues” (Henderson 190). Eva Cox argues that “the media likes to put women on pedestals because they’re easier to kick off” reflecting women’s inferior status (Henderson 191). Gillard has not yet ‘fallen from grace’, nor is she portrayed as the archetypal ‘princess on a pedestal’ (Schubert 2). Yet, unrealistic expectations can ultimately lead to disappointment (Henderson 192). Women and men should have the same opportunities and media coverage based on their qualifications as leaders (Henderson 192). This reflects the recommendations made by Fair Exposure that men and women should be represented equitably and criticism should be based on professional merit, even as Henderson suggests when politicians make mistakes.

‘Malestream press’: who is to blame?

                                                                                                                     “Never let the media tell you who you are” (Gillard qtd. in Kent 282)

The media’s representation of women in politics has been paradoxical. Norman Mackenzie argues that media’s portrayal of female politicians stems from deep-rooted assumptions of masculine superiority (30). However, the media’s representations of women in politics should be considered in the broader societal context. Helen Clark, former Prime Minister of New Zealand, posits that it is not the media’s fault but the prevailing public opinion that influences it (Henderson 197; Markstedt 8). Similarly, Pam Allen acknowledges that indeed journalists do pander to the sexist appetite of their readership (Henderson 211). However, politicians also perpetuate sexist stereotypes of women in politics and voters’ perceptions of political figures are shaped principally through their actions and their reporting in the print media (Lawrence “Media” 29). Rogers notes that despite the media’s focus on politicians’ responsibilities “there is no accountability among journalists” (Rogers 100). Louise Milligan proposes that the media’s distortion of female parliamentarians is directly correlated to the gross underrepresentation of women in management and editorial positions in journalism (14-15). Moreover, she posits that the “prioritization of news issues reflects a distinctly masculine version of reality” (15).

Cathy Jenkins, citing Belsey, notes that “those seeking publicity cannot claim the protection of privacy when the publicity goes sour” (“Private” 52). All politicians are vulnerable to public scrutiny; however, women receive more intrusive inquiry since “the media treat all female politicians differently to the way they treat men” and this difference serves to disadvantage women, “often to the detriment of their professional and personal lives” (Ustinoff 97-100). As a consequence of these double standards, women are frequently trivialized and associated with the domestic and private spheres (Ross 192; van Acker “Media” 5). Moreover, “when women politicians are not being sexualized, trivialized and bullied by the media, they are quite noticeably absent” (Milligan 15).

Concluding thoughts

                     “Until a time when we see men being asked those [personal] questions, we can’t say equality abounds.”  (Bligh 114)

Despite advancements for women in Australian politics, many journalists continue to ignore recommendations proposed by Fair Exposure. I concur with Jenkins that media commentators need to reconsider whether the coverage of female politicians’ private lives is necessary, while women’s political and professional qualifications and policies are being ignored (Jenkins “Women” 62), because this is what the Australian public is (subliminally?) basing its opinions and votes on.  “Until audiences can accept a mass of women moving into the hierarchies of power, and staying there through mistakes and remakes, women will continue to blaze for a while and burn out quickly” (Henderson 192). This case study of Julia Gillard supports previous scholarship by Ross and van Acker that and finds that different standards are still expected of female politicians because of their sex and gender. The media’s representation of female politicians continues to reinforce sexist stereotypes and remains an obstacle to achieving equality in Australian politics.

Works consulted:

Baird, Julia. Media Tarts: How the Australian Press Frames Female Politicians. Melbourne: Scribe, 2004.

Beauvoir, de, Simone. The Second Sex. Middlesex: Penguin, 1972.

Bligh, Anna. “Surprised, Pleased…and Maybe a Little Disappointed.” Queensland Review 12.2 (2005): 113-15.

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One Response to “‘Polly Put the Kettle On’: The Media’s Discursive Positioning of Female Politicians in Australia, 1990 – 2011”


  1. 38th Down Under Feminists’ Carnival - July 3, 2011

    […] Lipton at nobilityporn writes an fantastically detailed post titled, “‘Polly Put the Kettle On’: The Media’s […]

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