Australian Women’s Media Mistreatment

In Sophie Cunningham’s Meanjin editorial, she examines disaparities in gender representation across the arts, and asks whether our culture is incapable of listening to what women have to say.

French feminist Luce Irigaray was being beamed in from Paris recently, to give a lecture at the University of Melbourne’s law school. She was, despite the inevitable technological hitches, awesome to behold. She talked about natural differences versus constructed ones and drew a link between culture’s preference for constructed relationships and the world’s inability to deal effectively with climate change. She argued that patriarchy has failed in its duty to manage the Earth: that it was ethically unfit to do so.

I first read Irigaray thirty years ago, and found her theory that language was constructed in a way which excluded women very powerful. It seems to me, in the thirty years since I began to engage with feminism, the treatment of women has become worse. Consider the following list of the ways in which women have been publically but, it seems, acceptably humiliated in this country in the last few months.

Louis Nowra described Germaine Greer as ‘a befuddled and exhausted old woman. She reminded me of my demented grandmother who, towards the end of her life, was often in a similarly unruly state.’ Louis Nowra is, as journalist Caroline Overington pointed out, only ten years younger than Greer—so he can take the comment about his grandmother and shove it.

Around the same time senior sports commentator Peter Roebuck wrote the following in the Sydney Morning Herald: ‘Whatever the reality of her life, supposing reality makes an appearance now and then, Lara Bingle stumbles from public relations disaster to public relations calamity. Restaurateurs complain about her manners and the poor company she keeps. Fashionistas talk of her headstrong ways and dubious customs. Moreover she seems intent on boosting the sales of all those magazines purchased by the female of the species. In short, she craves attention and courts controversy. Yet Michael, the class act of the pairing, seems besotted. Beauty and danger have always been a potent combination.’

Australia Post released its Australian Legends of the Written Word stamp series. Five men, one woman (Colleen McCullough). Only three of the thirty-four finalists of the Archibald Prize for 2010 were women (one of them, Kate Benyon, is a favourite artist of mine). The judges of the Miles Franklin Award put out a long list with three women and eight men. The odds improved when the short list was announced and included two women and four men but last year, after a similar proportion of men and women on the long list, no women made it to the short list at all. Much of the commentary around this in 2009 argued that you can’t pick a list based on political correctness—an argument I’d swallow if women writers published that year had not included Helen Garner, Joan London, Amanda Lohrey, Eva Hornung and Andrea Goldsmith.

Last year not a single female lead singer was included in Triple J’s hottest 100 survey. Catherine Strong explores the implications on this in her essay ‘The Triple J Hottest 100 of All Time 2009 and the Dominance of the Rock Canon’ on p. 124 of this issue. I could go on. I won’t. I’ll just say this: either women can’t sing, paint, write or think as well as they used to—certainly not well enough to offset their tendency to become less beautiful with age—or we live in a culture that does not like the things women say or does not know how to hear them when they say it. In other words, Irigaray is right. Women sit outside language.

This is an edited extract of Sophie Cunningham’s editorial from Meanjin, Volume 69 Number 2, 2010.

Portrait of Sophie Cunningham

Sophie Cunningham is the author of five books, the most recent of which is City of Trees: Essays on Life, Death & the Need for a Forest. She is a former publisher, former editor of Meanjin, former Chair of the Literature Board of the Australia Council and was a co-founder of The Stella Prize. She is an Adjunct Professor with RMIT's Non/fiction lab.