Why we all need to play the gender card

Prime Minister Julia Gillard during question time at Parliament House in Canberra on Monday 17 June 2013.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard during question time at Parliament House in Canberra on Monday 17 June 2013. Photo: Andrew Meares

It hasn't been a great week for women in Australia. Heck, it hasn't been a great year for women around the world in general. But for women in Australia, this past week has provided an especially bad insight into just how unwelcome women are in public life as anything other than deferential, attractive playthings who accept their objectification as a natural, healthy part of a robust society that apparently doesn't take itself too seriously.

Watching from the sidelines, it's been a little bit like reading the Twilight books. Just when you thought things couldn't get any more ridiculous and unbelievable, suddenly there's a half-human, half-vampire baby eating its way out of its mother's womb and triggering an interspecies war.

Annabel Crabb put it best in this excellent summation of the sexist buffoonery on display in both Parliament and some corners of the media. Simply put, after a week in which politicians, radio shock jocks and conservative commentators tripped over each other to see who could come up with the most offensively asinine comments regarding the Prime Minister, it seemed that “Australian politics might have officially disappeared up its own fundament.”

Prime Minister Julia Gillard during her now famous misogyny speech in federal parliament.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard during her now famous misogyny speech in federal parliament. Photo: Andrew Meares

It's fitting really, given the obsession with body parts that's established itself as just one of the childish fixations from people ostensibly jostling to run the country. 'Menugate' (as it has predictably been christened) illustrated just how seriously the Coalition takes the issue of the humiliating sexualisation of women - that is to say, not very seriously at all.


Revelations that a menu which appeared at a Liberal National Party fund-raiser for Mal Brough – in which the Prime Minister was mocked as having "small breasts, huge thighs and a big red box" – was in fact the brainchild of restaurant owner Joe Richards and nothing to do with Brough seem false, especially given the fact Brough issued an apology for it before he was even supposed to have known about its existence

 Richards claims the menu was a private joke between a father and his son. Leaving aside the obvious question of what kind of man Richards has raised his son to be, it seems like an awful lot of trouble to go to to print a fancy menu just so two blokes can laugh over the hilarious depiction of the Prime Minister as a bird they wouldn't like to bone.

Chief of Army, Lieutenant General David Morrison

Chief of Army, Lieutenant General David Morrison Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

Even if you were to believe that the LNP knew nothing about the menu (which I don't), their response to it has been lacklustre at best and downright offensive at worst. While they held up Peter Slipper as an example of Real MisogynyTM for his (pretty accurate) likening of mussels to women's genitalia, they've responded to the Prime Minister's outrage at being directly reduced to her body parts with the tired gender card nonsense.

Playing the gender card. It's a curious accusation that's come to be applied whenever a woman complains about entrenched sexism of any kind. The use of it compounds the frustration that women face when they come up against the patriarchal structures that reinforce their own inequality. Rather than listening to the experiences of women disadvantaged by said structures and endeavouring to be better as a society, it's used as a way to deflect those complaints while also ridiculing the people who dare to speak out about them. Ultimately, it's also used to justify ongoing inequality because it posits this mythical "gender card" as a desperate tool used by people who can't handle the sophisticated demands of a particular job or social situation.

Oh, the Prime Minister doesn't like having her cleavage called into question, or being asked whether or not she's a glorified beard, or is worried that Tony Abbott's track record on women's reproductive rights not to mention his possible reliance on notoriously anti-choice senators might further clamp down on women's right to choose?  Oh, well you would say that because you're a WOMAN. PLAYING THE GENDER AGAIN, JULIAR.

If we've learnt anything from the tornado of retrosexism that gathers force whenever women in positions of power dare to speak openly about the inequality that even they face, it's that women are expected to smile sweetly even as the most powerful one among us is being aggressively mocked and undermined. Protesting the rampant and ongoing degradation of women is obviously just a manipulative tactical distraction from the "real issues" affecting voting Australians.

But who's really benefiting from the invocation of this so-called gender card? The Coalition, for a start. As the vicious attacks on the Prime Minister's body, looks and domestic partnership ramp up, so too do the Coalition's accusations that she can't handle the pressures of public office; that if she could, she wouldn't allow the silly distractions of "sexism"' (none of which are real anyway) to get in the way of governance. It doesn't matter that the Coalition has yet to release even one substantial bit of policy in the lead-up to the election – they want you to know that, despite the fact they're the only ones who ever talk about it, they'll never play the gender card because they care about "real issues". We're yet to hear about them of course, but apparently that doesn't matter.

What all this tells me is that a large proportion of the people in positions of power across Australia – politicians and media pundits included – just don't consider the beating down of women to be of any consequence. Half the time they won't even acknowledge it, let alone take a stand against it, preferring instead to gaslight women and pretend it's all in their head. Are these the kinds of people we want making decisions for us? The ones who think mockery about women's genitals is bad when it targets no one in particular, but OK when it targets the Prime Minister?

Perhaps there is another way.

Lieutenant-General David Morrison, Chief of Army, delivered a press conference last week in response to another revelation of sexism within the ADF. Unlike the Coalition, Morrison is prepared to accept the ADF has an ongoing problem with misogyny and violence against women. He sees it and he wants to remove it, because he holds the army to a higher standard than that. He holds men to a higher standard than that; he recognises that an imbalance in power exists that negatively affects women, and he is using his own position to change that because he understands the importance of women's equal participation in public life. As he so eloquently stated, "The standard you walk past is the standard you accept."

The standard you walk past is the standard you accept.

After the events of last week, I'm appalled at the standard Australia seems to be willing to accept in regards to its own behaviour and the behaviour of our leaders. Accuse me of playing the gender card all you like, but I will not walk past it any more. You might consider joining me.