Playing the sexism card:a guide for politicians*

Leader of the House Anthony Albanese and Prime Minister Julia Gillard during Question Time at Parliament House in Canberra on Wednesday 10 October 2012.

Leader of the House Anthony Albanese and Prime Minister Julia Gillard during Question Time at Parliament House in Canberra on Wednesday 10 October 2012. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

Yesterday was an interesting day for the old guard of the media. Less than 24 hours after Valkyrie Gillard swooped into the swamps of Parliament House and delivered her blistering battle cry to an increasingly glum looking Tony Abbott, newspapers were filled with op-eds desperately trying to paint it as the whimpering cries of a government in its death throes.

Curiously, there was little acknowledgement of the extraordinary support the Prime Minister received across social media platforms, participants of whom moved quickly to reblog video footage, memes and gifs - the preferred shorthand of internet activism these days. Instead, focus (particularly from the usual conservative suspects) was trained on the least interesting part of the day - the content of Peter Slipper’s texts to James Ashby and the supposedly egregious offence they committed against women.

Various commentators have claimed Julia Gillard exercised incredible hypocrisy regarding Slipper. Given that the issue of sexism and misogyny in the Coalition (particularly Abbott) has formed such a huge part of the Government’s attacks lately, how could they possibly ignore the terrible - nay, VILE! - bits of filth that Slipper released into the text stream? HYPOCRISY, THY NAME IS GILLARD!

Let’s review the sudden concern for women being displayed by people with a proven track record of not giving two hoots about them either way.


Janet Albrechtson pompously warned that Gillard would ‘struggle to be taken seriously about the very serious issue of misogyny. Double standards don’t get much worse than this.’

Well, that sounds very ominous. I’d say a pretty good example of a worse double standard is Tony Abbott suddenly seeking Peter Slipper’s vote for the Coalition now that he’s resigned as Speaker. But it makes sense for Abbott to want him back - I guess where the ‘very serious issue of misogyny’ is concerned, he’s probably safer surrounded by people who know exactly what that looks and sounds like.  

Miranda Devine, champion of misogynists everywhere, somewhat bizarrely wrote: “After weeks of taking high umbrage at imagined instances of misogyny emanating from the muscular Opposition leader, yesterday the Prime Minister and her sanctimonious sychophants, such as Tony Windsor, voted to protect an actual proven misogynist.”

While it’s very nice that Devine seems so fond of Abbott’s chiselled physique and the things that emanate from therein, I can’t help but bristle at her mention a sudden disdain for ‘actual proven misogynists’. Muscular as the Opposition leader may be, it doesn’t change the fact that his track record includes using his power as Health Minister to vote against the wide availability of RU486 for women, speculating (and recently too, as Gillard reminded him) about how physiological differences in men and women make men more suited to leadership, assuming that the best way to talk to women about the carbon tax was through the example of ironing, and rejecting the inclusion of the anti-cervical cancer drug Gardasil on the PBS.

But given that Devine recently used the opportunity of a 30,000 strong peace march following the murder of Jill Meagher to launch into an attack on feminists I’m not surprised she’d be confused by the distinction.

3AW’s Neil Mitchell was particularly floral in his criticism, blogging: “But while the super sleaze did the right thing, that defender of women, that attacker of sexism and that crusader for decency, Julia Gillard, did not. Slipper knew for the sake of decency that once his vulgar and vile text messages had emerged, once he has been caught talking about women as disposable objects, he knew he had to go. Julia Gillard did not – she continued to support him. This is extraordinary hypocrisy. Slipper is a sleaze. He has demeaned women in a way I have no [sic] seen before, and the Prime Minister defended him.” [my emphasis.]

Really? Neil Mitchell works in commercial talkback radio, at a station where the only three women paid to sit behind the desk do so on the weekend and discuss gardening, health and weekendy things. His industry colleagues have used their paid time on the airwaves to variously call women ‘sluts’  and declare they’re ‘destroying the joint’. Across the whole of Australia, only one woman hosts a show in a prime time commercial radio talkback slot, across all stations.

And Neil Mitchell has never seen women demeaned in a way like this before?

While it’s wonderful to see the issue of sexism and misogyny delivered so decidedly to the public conversation, I can’t help but feel that the real hypocrisy here is with people who so often exercise its use suddenly pretending they have a zero tolerance policy. Albrechtson and Devine routinely denigrate women. Mitchell works in an industry that prides itself on excluding them almost entirely. Yet their desire to stick the boot into Gillard, detract from what can’t be described as anything other than a passionately stirring speech, sees THEM employ the worst kind of hypocrisy. They’re not making a point about misogyny - they’re exploiting the fight against misogyny to make a point against Gillard. And with the Coalition awkwardly trying to flex their 'credentials' when it comes to defending women, the whole thing resembles that scene at the end of The Birdcage when Gene Hackman tries to sneak out of the club in a dress.

And at the end of it all, what really was so offensive about Slipper’s texts? I’ve heard them described as vile, degrading, sexually depraved - the sign of a man with no tolerance or respect for women. For heaven’s sake, he compared women’s vaginas to a mussels without shells. You can hardly fault the man for accuracy. The vast majority of women I’ve canvassed about the issue are either wholly unmoved or merely embarrassed for him at having such a naff approach to courtship. Are we women really so delicate that we can’t handle a few fishy metaphors about our nethers?

Or perhaps it’s that other people are so uncomfortable with talk of vaginas that they can’t help but assume any mention of them at all is depraved and unseemly. Perhaps this isn’t merely the response of an Opposition government and conservative media force trying to wedge their way into any opportunity to deflect from Gillard’s blaze of glory, but more a genuine reaction to the fact women’s ‘private parts’ (as I’ve seen them mentioned - ‘Now We Are Six’) have been thrust into the public consciousness. Because surely the greater issue with Slipper's texting is that they form part of a sexual harassment case against him - or do we consider the supposed gentility of women to be in greater need of protection than a man's safety at work? They do remember that vaginas exist, right? And that women know about them? After all, WA Liberal Troy Buswell certainly expressed a fondness for them when he sniffed a female staffer’s chair a few years ago.

The real hypocrisy here is in trying to pretend that Peter Slipper’s awkward attempts at text flirting are in any way comparable to the sustained sexism displayed by Tony Abbott in his entire history of public office. Comparing a vagina to shelled mussels might be crass, but I’m fairly confident the women of Australia can cope. Unlike conservatives trying to spin this scenario to their advantage, I know what misogyny looks like. And I’d rather a man compare my vagina to a delicious, briny creature of the sea than have them tell me they know better than I what I should be doing with it.