Senator Larissa Waters.
Australia is home to many world class comedians, but there's one act that is often overlooked despite its consistent delivery of excellent satire. Day after day the Daily Telegraph's cover design team put their noses to the grindstone, toiling away at the page layout coalface. These brave soldiers Photoshop our elected representatives in absurd get-ups, and such is their connection to the Gods of Bizarro World that they raise chuckles even though Australian politics has long since passed the point of natural self-parody.
Nobody panic, Larissa Waters is not trying to kill Christmas
But this morning they really outdid themselves, putting in a heroic effort against Senator Larissa Waters. Senator Waters, a Greens representative from Queensland, had the temerity to suggest that confining little girls' and boys' toy collections to My First Domestic Drudgery Playset and Rambo Murderin' Spree action figures, respectively, might be slightly at odds with our more egalitarian conception of gender roles in the modern world.
Defending poor maligned Barbie, as well as little boys' natural right to shoot each other with toy guns in peace, is a stock conservative trope at Christmas. True to form, the Tele wheeled out Dr. Michael Carr-Gregg, child psychologist beloved of breakfast television and prime time current affairs shows alike. "These gender differences are hard wired," he says, asserting that there is no evidence to indicate gender-specific toys harm children's development.
Arguing on a normal reality-based level with these kinds of claims is trivially easy, but it's like trying to reason with a rotten log. We know about stereotype threat. We know that children learn about gender expectations from many social sources, including their toys. It's not drawing a long bow to say that manufacturers' rigid ranges of Boy Stuff and Girl Stuff is one of many factors that influence how little kids understand what activities and behaviours are appropriate.
But this kind of conversation is not the Tele's style. "For years the Greens have been hell-bent on ruining the economy for everyone," goes the first line, "and now they want to ruin Christmas as well." You half-expect the story to reveal the Greens are proposing a mandatory Santa-burning ceremony in all schools, where crying children are forced to throw their dear little Christmas wish lists onto the fire. "I just wanted a new dolly," whimpers Madison, 9. "But now I have to give all my toys to illegal immigrants, and Mummy says we're signing over our house to the possums that live in the roof."
Absurd political caricature is nothing new, and the Tele is continuing a rich tradition when it invites us to imagine Senator Waters cracking Barbie dolls over her knee. Some of the best examples came out of the Suffragette era, when anti-Suffragists produced posters [http://historyoffeminism.com/anti-suffragette-postcards-posters-cartoons/] containing the genesis of anti-feminist stereotypes that we still hear tossed around today. Unmarriageable harpies! Gangs of roving flappers terrorising refined gentlemen! Wives expecting husbands to interact with their own children!
Political correctness gone mad, or as Dr. Carr-Gregg puts in in the Tele piece, "a nail in the coffin of common sense," is another go-to rhetorical strategy of the knee-jerk right when they can't think of anything better to say. Of course deploying that particular admonition is a tried and true method of shutting down debate, which is exactly the phenomenon it purports to be identifying among the PC Police. When you're fighting on the front lines of the culture wars, phony concern for the procedures of productive debate can be abandoned at a moment's notice when there's a more pressing issue. Like the possibility that somewhere, a little boy might be pretending to breastfeed a baby doll. Quickly now! I think I hear some lefties encouraging their daughters to play with Matchbox cars!
The stubborn staying power of this and many other regressive old chestnuts, plus the souped-up Photoshop department at News Limited, combine to give us some of the most entertaining reactionary circus tricks available in this country or any other. Each Tele front page is a self-contained work of art, a terrarium in which the embarrassing tabloid journalism substrate nurtures a green canopy of crowd-pleasing image manipulation.
Our outrage over these nuggets of evil genius proves how well they work: even though the affective response might be qualitatively different among the latte set, the fact remains that their messaging is tight as hell. What chance do facts have against such masterful wind-up merchants? Though we might not want to sink to their level, we could do worse than picking up a few lessons on the finer points of shit-stirring.