Gender Cards, Facebook Narcissism and Girls: Anna Goldsworthy on her Quarterly Essay

Last week, Australia’s first female PM was replaced by the man she had replaced as sitting prime minister, in a political manoeuvre reminiscent of Groundhog Day.

Her approval rating had dropped to below 30%. Her ‘men in blue ties’ speech, claiming an Abbott government would ‘banish women’s voices from our political life’ and seek to change abortion laws, was poorly received. And she had presented as awkward instead of the desired ‘everywoman’ in a Women’s Weekly photo shoot where she posed knitting a kangaroo for the royal baby, her dog at her feet.

In her concession speech, Julia Gillard said ‘the reaction to being the first female Prime Minister does not explain everything about my prime ministership, nor does it explain nothing about my prime ministership’.

Last Friday night, Sophie Black interviewed Anna Goldsworthy about the fiftieth (and remarkably timely) Quarterly Essay, Unfinished Business: Sex, Freedom and Misogyny. Unsurprisingly, much of the talk centred on The Gillard Question.

‘To say that she has been on the receiving end of sexism and misogyny is not the same as saying that’s the cause of all her political problems,’ said Goldsworthy. ‘She has been on the receiving end of some really foul behaviour.’

Gillard had once told Julia Baird, for her book Media Tarts: How the Australian Press Frames Female Politicians (Scribe) that she was keen to avoid the ‘golden girl’ vortex, where a woman is about who she is, not what she does.

‘To me, Gillard represents doing stuff, not a cult of personality,’ observed Goldsworthy. ‘What we’ve seen in the last few days [with the return of the electorally popular Kevin Rudd] is the elevation of the cult of leadership again.’

‘She made such a point of her stoicism and it was admirable, but sometimes we long to see what’s behind that. She showed us some of that in her misogyny speech.’

Julia Gillard's misogyny speech.

Julia Gillard's misogyny speech.

The all-powerful gender card

What of the mysterious gender card? Is there such a thing? And does it work?

‘If it was as effective as the people who denigrate it say, wouldn’t that be great?’ quipped Goldsworthy, to general laughter. ‘You could whip it out of your pocket at any time - Hey, I’m a woman.

‘If you say, you can’t be mean to me because I’m a woman, that’s playing the gender card. Calling out sexism isn’t.’

She pointed out that, in reality, women working in a masculine atmosphere are more likely to downplay their gender than to highlight it – and that, for most of her career, this is what Gillard had done. ‘You don’t necessarily want to draw attention to it.’

Black said there had been fears that Gillard’s treatment as prime minister – and her fate – might detract the next generation of women from entering politics.

‘I’m sure we internalise some of these scripts, as young girls,’ said Goldsworthy. ‘One thing that really struck me about the misogyny speech – and why I wrote this essay – was all the women tweeting and Facebooking that they sat down their daughters and made them watch it with them.’

They wanted their daughters to internalise this script too: that of standing up to gender-based insults and discrimination. This reaction proved the point that the sexism Gillard decried not only exists, but it is widespread – even ordinary.

The internet and women

Goldsworthy is conflicted about the role of the internet in the lives of girls and women: on the one hand, social media sites like Facebook intensify our image-based culture in a way that’s not entirely healthy, particularly for young women. She says Facebook culture ‘only furthers our celebration of narcissism’. (Though ‘I kind of like Twitter – it has a haiku quality, it brings you back to the world.’)

On the positive side, the internet enables women’s voices to be heard; the advent of ‘mummy bloggers’ is a really positive thing, forging connections and enabling expression for mothers isolated at home.

Then again, the ‘vitriol directed at women’ online is a problem – though that may be less about the internet fostering such vitriol, than it making visible what was already there in our culture.

And what does the internet mean for the notion of privacy, which is being steadily eroded as we offer up more and more of ourselves online?

‘It’s hard to know, for those of us still connected to the idea of privacy, if that’s just a notion we’re connected to, or if we really do need some kind of privacy for selfhood.’

Speaking for all women

In her Quarterly Essay, Goldsworthy writes about Lena Dunham’s TV hit Girls, and the criticism it’s received for its white, privileged point of view.

Why was this criticism not extended to Girls’ many precedents, ranging from Friends to Frasier? Could it be because white privilege here is regarded from a previously unsanctioned point of view: that of a young woman? … Dunham presents a viewpoint we have seldom seen on television; as a consequence we demand she represent us all.

‘It’s a curious form of silencing,’ Goldsworthy said to the Wheeler Centre crowd. ‘That every time she opens her mouth, she’s representing all women.’

This has also been a problem for Julia Gillard, she believes.

‘But surely the success of feminism is that women get to be people, just like men.’

Julia Baird, in Media Tarts, observed that female politicians are dumped and discredited with astonishing speed.

‘We’ve just seen an example of that,’ said Goldsworthy. ‘We’re done when we can stop talking about it.’

’Everyone’s entitled to their hobbies’

‘Watching Julia Gillard’s concession speech, I had a vision of her in posterity. History’s only going to smile on her in all sorts of ways,’ said Goldsworthy.

What of the knitting debacle: one of the last images we saw of her as prime minister? Why did Gillard put herself in that position?

‘I think everyone’s entitled to their own hobbies. But she became so good at not deploying the gender card that when it came time to reach out to women, she did it in a clumsy way: the blue tie speech, the knitting photos.’

‘Maybe she was reading from the same playbook as Kevin Rudd. This is what humans do. With her, it was, This is what women do.

‘I think culturally, we have women backed into a corner. She chose to put her head down and get on with it.’

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