Saturday, November 30, 2013

Cultural Cringe and Ja'mie, Private School Girl

Lilley described as “a skinny, long-faced guy in his late 30s
flouncing around with what looks like a horse’s tail on his head”
in the role of Ja'mie. 
Originally published at The Conversation.

Australians love to know that we’ve been noticed overseas. When floods and fires strike, news broadcasts frequently ensure that excerpts from CNN or Fox are shown. It doesn’t matter if the event is a naturally occurring catastrophe rather than any form of achievement, we need to see that other countries registered our existence, especially the United States.

This need for external approval is related to Australian cultural cringe. When A.A. Phillips first used the term in 1950, he referred to the tendency to perceive Australian literature, music, theatre and art as inferior to British and European high culture.

Since then the need for overseas recognition in order to prove the worth of Australian creativity has extended to include all kinds of popular culture, including film and television.

In the past week, it has become national news that several American critics panned Chris Lilley’s current mockumentary series Ja’mie: Private School Girl after its debut on US television.

The AV Club gave praise to the work of Barry Humphries as Dame Edna Everage, but described Lilley as producing “sloppy, transphobic drag” in his performance as teenager Ja’mie King. Tim Goodman at The Hollywood Reporter complimented Lilley’s oeuvre in general, but found the new series “almost unbearable to watch”.

While the involvement of US network HBO in Ja’mie’s production gives a partial explanation for local interest in these negative American responses, cultural cringe is also a significant factor.

We can readily criticise one of the plethora of American television programs included in Australian TV schedules without it being seen as a reflection on American culture overall. Yet when one of our own productions achieves the rare feat of an international release, it is seen to bear the weight of representing us on the world stage.

Comedy induces far greater anxiety than any other genre. It reveals a great deal about a culture’s preoccupations, prejudices, and character—it tells viewers who we’re laughing with and who we ought to be laughing at.

We generally accept that there are national differences in comedy. For example, American humour, as reflected in its film and television, is seen to differ substantially from British humour.

Australians continually express cultural cringe about how our own comedic inflections, especially in programs such as Lilley’s, as well as Kath & Kim, give an impression that we are unsophisticated, racist, sexist and homophobic.

When news of Hey, Hey It’s Saturday’s “blackface” skit drew international attention in 2009 due to the outrage of guest Red Faces judge Harry Connick, Jr., the rightful embarrassment that this kind of humour would have otherwise gone largely unremarked about in Australia was palpable.

Lilley’s previous series Angry Boys also prompted debate in the US, especially given his use of blackface to portray rapper S.mouse. Australian site The Vine interviewed US hip hop artists to collect their largely condemnatory comments about the appropriateness of a white actor playing an African American character and the show’s use of racist terms.

Lilley’s adoption of blackface and “yellowface”, with character Ricky Wong in We Can Be Heroes, can be understood as more complicated than expressions of outright racism than these American responses identified.

As Lisa Bode shows, We Can Be Heroes made “ visible tensions and contradictions within contemporary Australian national identity, as well as the truth of white economic and cultural privilege within a dominant discourse of celebratory multiculturalism that seeks to mask it”. Though there is nothing to prevent racist or non-PC celebrations of some of Lilley’s characters, several of his series also work to expose the racism that lies at the core of supposedly upstanding and accepting Australians.

Ja’mie is a prime example of this tendency in Lilley’s creations. She brings a Ugandan boy, Kwami, into her palatial family home for the sole purpose of appearing charitable in order to receive a prestigious school medal. Yet her performance of tolerance and racial equality is just that. She is mortified when he expresses affection for her, telling Kwami “no offence, but you are really povvo, you live in the western suburbs, and you’re black, and I am… this”.

While the politics of drag, blackface and yellowface are highly fraught, we should not base our anxieties about Lilley’s programs on international perceptions of what is and what is not funny.

Our television comedies often mirror unique aspects of Australia’s cultural make-up and shared history that are largely incomprehensible to those outside of it, in a way that US and British comedies are not unintelligible to us, with our large quota of foreign programming.

When some programs mysteriously find a niche despite their idiosyncrasies, as did a dubbed version of Hey Dad! in Germany, it’s a positive thing for our television industry. Yet we shouldn’t seek to iron out elements of Australian humour because of perceptions that our culture is inherently not good enough.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Boobs vs Brawn: The TV Debut of "Lingerie Football"

Originally published at The Conversation.


7mate will broadcast the first season of the new Australian Legends Football League beginning in December. While the name might make you think that retired footy greats are strapping on their boots again, it’s actually the less overtly sexist guise of what was formerly known as the “Lingerie Football League”.

After exhibition matches in 2012, Australia now has its own league of female gridiron players who only just happen to be wearing uniforms that resemble bras and underwear. The garter belts and lace that were part of the “lingerie” uniform have been dispensed with, but the promotional images suggest that lashings of baby oil and spray tans remain.

There is no doubt that many of the women who have been recruited for the teams are extremely fit and athletic. One new Australian LFL recruit, Elise Chapman, who wrote a letter in defence of the league, played state-level volleyball, for instance.

Looking through promotional photos of the LFL on various sites sees few compliments on the players’ skills, but many references to how “hot” or “beautiful” they are. None of the women have stockier, muscular builds that are common in women’s rugby teams selected purely on athletic suitability for a contact sport.

It is not surprising that 7mate, a free-to-air channel aimed at male viewers under 50, has signed up to air the LFL.

The concept originated in “Lingerie Bowls” that were broadcast against half-time Super Bowl entertainment. Assistant Coach of one of the new Australian teams, the Queensland Brigade, Regan Webb, described the original incarnation in 2004 as “a half-time gimmick. Mitch [Mortaza, LFL founder] teamed up with Hugh Heffner [sic] and had the playmates dress up and pretend to play football”.



The sporting credentials of the players has improved since the first experiment with combining two hallmark interests of stereotypical masculinity: football and looking at scantily-clad women. Yet the commercial attention afforded to officially recognised women’s sports has remained dismal.

The sport played by the greatest number of Australians is netball, with 1.2 million participants. Yet netball is not a popular spectator sport in the same way as the two major football codes. This disparity, and the resulting lack of media attention and sponsorship, no doubt owes something to netball’s comparatively lesser status as a sport that primarily women play.

Where sponsor dollars, broadcast rights, and ticket prices rise exponentially in the major football codes, the trans-Tasman netball league was this year dumped from Channel 10’s schedule. These netball games are now shown on Fox and a “match of the round” live on SBSTWO. There is not room for even one women’s team sport to receive commercial airtime.

Inevitably there are arguments that women’s sport is uninteresting, slower, and less spectacular than clashes between Adonis-like men. Yet for sports that are regularly televised in somewhat equivalent fashion for both sexes, such as tennis and Olympic events including swimming and athletics, these alleged factors don’t seem to hamper public interest to the same degree.

It is therefore disappointing, but predictable, that a sports oriented station like 7mate has chosen to make its first ever female “sport” the LFL. It is a variation of football that was invented as something of a joke, has no established body of players in Australia, and which requires a uniform that is totally unsuited to the game.

Chapman, a WA Angels player, claims that in her years as a state-level volleyball player that there was little commercial or media interest in her sport. The LFL, she argues, is a chance for female athletes who have financed their low-profile careers to enter the spotlight and for their sporting prowess to be beamed across the country.

Regular television broadcast plays a significant part in popularising and maintaining public interest in individual sports. When the National Basketball League lost commercial coverage from the late 1990s to 2007 it had a major affect on its profile and commercial viability.

Televising the LFL will do little to promote recognised women’s sports and nothing to increase the likelihood that they will be picked up for broadcast. It will only reinforce the small-minded view that women’s sports are uninteresting for viewers unless the competitors look like they could pose for a men’s magazine.

While there can still be a place for “hot” female footballers on television, why can’t we also see women’s netball, AFL, cricket, and hockey games on commercial television? And how about regular reporting of results on the news and panel shows devoted to analysing them, as for the AFL and NRL?


Stations might suggest that they’re only working according to audience demands, but this ignores the role the media plays in contributing to perceptions about what kinds of sports, and which kinds of athletes, are important and worth watching.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

TV Presenters, Sexism and the Attractiveness Double Standard

Originally published at The Conversation.
Can you think of a female equivalent of political reporter Laurie Oakes on commercial television?

She would be aged over 60 (or 70 is Oakes’s case) with extensive knowledge of the area on which she reports. She would also not be conventionally attractive, likely with thinning hair and carrying excess weight. But she would keep her job because her intelligence and experience were trusted and respected by television viewers.

I’m assuming that you can’t answer this question because there is no equivalent to the older, trusted male television presenter when it comes to women. While dramas and sitcoms can reflect a more diverse range of women in terms of age, size, and even racial background, the female hosts and reporters of commercial television’s news and morning programmes, all largely fit a narrow mould of young, white, and thin.

The bias toward young female television presenters is not confined to Australia. A recent study of major broadcasters in the UK found that of all presenters aged over 50, only 18%t of these were women. Yet 39% of presenters overall were women, indicating that there is a firm “use-by” date for women that does not apply to men.

The use-by date applies because ageing women often cannot maintain the standard of youthful attractiveness demanded of them, but not their male colleagues. If nobody wants to see “old people” on television, why aren’t grey-haired male presenters also replaced when their jowls start sagging?

Last year journalist Tracey Spicer wrote about her treatment after the birth of her first child. Spicer was allegedly told that she was “getting a bit long in the tooth” and that she might want to make way for “some of the younger girls”. After the birth of her second child, Spicer was fired at the age of thirty-nine, though her employer, Channel 10, denied age or sex discrimination

In her Andrew Olle lecture, given just over a week ago, co-host of Channel Nine’s Today, Lisa Wilkinson, pointed out that the age of female journalists is usually mentioned immediately in media profiles “as if it is a measure of her sexual currency and just how long it will be before it expires”.

Her comments on the inordinate attention given to the dress of female presenters have also proven timely. Wilkinson remarked that as a woman on breakfast television “you quickly learn the sad truth that what you wear can sometimes generate a bigger reaction than any political interview you ever do”.

Just a few days after Wilkinson’s lecture, political journalist Annabel Crabb wrote about the laborious hair styling and make-up required for women to appear on television unless they wish to attract “howls, boos and vicious letters from members of the viewing audience”. Yet too much make-up can also elicit similar responses. Crabb mentions a recent email from an ABC viewer who disliked her make-up enough to liken her to a “two-bit hooker ready for a bit of business”.

We can acknowledge the sexism of television game show hostesses of the past, who were only allowed to silently smile and wave their hands around coveted prizes, while the male host did all of the talking. Yet the remains of this kind of sexism, in which women’s role relies on their conventional beauty, are still with us.

Advertisements for commercial news bulletins repeatedly use words like “experience” and “trust”. The camera usually focuses in on a male newsreader who has had a long career in the industry, such as Ten’s Mal Walden who is soon due to retire after a forty-year television career. Age is an asset for these male newsreaders, who acquire authority with the passing of years and the acquisition of more wrinkles.

On SBS, newsreader Lee Lin Chin, whose career began in the late 1960s in Singapore, is a rare exception. She is a woman over 50 who is valued for her experience and knowledge. However, the ratings-driven networks do not seem willing to allow women to enjoy long careers that are similarly based on their expertise, rather than physical appearance.

Some people will suggest that television is a visual medium and that men are also often selected for presenting roles based on their appearance. Indeed, television, like film, is not a representation of reality and there is no particular reason why, as with models, a particular subset of “attractive” people should not be hired.

What differs with TV presenters is that men regularly do not conform to what is considered attractive in terms of youth and weight, but are valued for their intelligence and an aura of reliability. This is not to say that the young women who are working in television are not equally capable or skilled, but rather to condemn the fact that they’ll never be afforded as many years in which to develop — and to earn a living — as their male colleagues.



Thursday, October 31, 2013

Boo! What's So Scary About Halloween Costumes

The following article was published at The Conversation on 31 October 2013.

As October inevitably draws grizzling about the premature appearance of mince pies and puddings on supermarket shelves, so too does it prompt laments about American cultural imperialism and consumerism.

Halloween is now a fixture in the Australian calendar. Spooky decorations and themed confectionery are a familiar sight in shopping centres and around 100,000 Halloween pumpkins are grown out of season for carving into Jack-o-Lanterns.

Halloween has its origins in the Gaelic festival of Samhain, which coincided with the end of the harvest season and heralded the beginning of winter. While there are many Celtic and European traditions that precede Halloween’s commercialisation in the United States—try carving a face into turnip instead of a pumpkin, as is believed to have been the practice in Ireland— its adoption in Australia has largely followed American customs absorbed from film and television.

Groups of Australian children circulate suburban streets in costume on Daylight-Savings-lit Halloween evenings “trick-or-treating”. Their quest for sweets prompted a 30 per cent increase in confectionery sales in 2012, according to a study of Halloween’s contribution to child obesity published in the Medical Journal of Australia.

Adults from Generation Y, and to a lesser extent X, are also embracing Halloween more warmly than their parents. Halloween parties and nightclub events are common.

With the growing celebration of Halloween by children and younger adults, the practice of wearing costumes has followed. If you hear knocking at your door on Halloween, you’re most likely to encounter pint-sized witches, vampires and  ghosts (the last-minute sheet with eye holes cut out).

However, in North America, and  also among the growing number of Australian adults who participate in Halloween, costumes are not necessarily tied to supernatural or “scary” characters. Costumes are just as likely to mimic iconic film and television characters, celebrities, and politicians. For instance, the most searched-for costumes this year include Miley Cyrus, Minion from Despicable Me 2, Walter White of Breaking Bad and musicians Daft Punk.

For young women, “sexy” costumes comprise a sizeable proportion of the commercially made designs available in a way that is not replicated in similarly themed costumes marketed to men.

There are “sexy” women’s versions of common costumes, including animals, pirates, devils, fairy tale characters, and military personnel. But there are also extremely objectifying women’s costumes, such as the “sexy slice of pizza”,  “sexy bucket of hot fries” and dozens of other combinations of “sexy” with types of food. By way of comparison, a male slice of pizza costume is decidedly unsexy.

There is an entire branch of racially problematic sexy costuming, notably of “geishas”, Native American, Inuit and Middle Eastern women.  The racist stereotyping across costumes for both men and women has been cleverly countered by the “We’re a Culture Not a Costume” campaign originating from students at Ohio University.

Costumes have the potential to permit  the permit the wearer to subvert ordinary social expectations. Nancy Deihl, a scholar of costume studies, points out that “Any time you’re allowed to wear a costume, you’re also allowed to engage in activities outside your normal behaviour.”

Historically, as Valerie Steele observes, women’s sexy costuming at masquerade balls from the eighteenth century onward transgressed conventional expectations of feminine propriety. Today, in the West, where girl and women are encouraged to prioritise sex appeal, sexy costumes do not readily permit the wearer to step outside the norm, but instead to remain firmly within it.

There is nothing wrong with the existence of sexy Halloween costumes for women, or with women wanting to be found attractive. (Even despite the fact that popular demands for men’s costumes rarely call for “sexiness”.)

What is problematic, however, is when the options available for women become so narrow that there is little choices to be anything else. The changing nature of girls’ Halloween costumes shows the requirement to be sexy is now transforming how girls dress up too.

In past decades, girls’ costumes were designed to recreate a particular thing or being, such as a pumpkin, cat, clown or devil. The emphasis in these same themes in modern girls’ costumes is on short dresses, stockings and even thigh-high boots that are then accessorised to faintly resemble a pumpkin, cat, clown or devil. The word “naughty” recently slipped across from the plethora of “naughty” women’s costumes to a Walmart “Naughty Leopard” costume intended for toddlers.

As Halloween gradually weaves itself into Australian culture, commercially made costumes are also finding their way on to our shop shelves. While cultural differences mean that we’re not likely to see the racism of “sexy squaw” costumes or a local equivalent gain acceptance, it is hard to imagine that the overwhelming trend of sexy women’s costumes won’t also be imported, along with the inedible pumpkins.
 

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Miley Cyrus, Sinéad O’Connor and the future of feminism



This article was published at The Conversation on 8 October 2013.
Since her tongue-poking and “twerk”-filled performance at the American Video Music Awards, Miley Cyrus has been the subject of intense media discussion. This has only magnified in the past week, after Irish singer Sinéad O’Connor wrote an open letter to Cyrus, imploring her to “refuse to exploit your body or your sexuality in order for men to make money from you".
Cyrus did not react well to being chided by one of her idols andher tweets in response have provoked two further open letters by O’Connor. Fellow musician Amanda Palmer has appointed herself as intergenerational umpire, offering an open letter to O’Connor in which she maintains that Cyrus has orchestrated her own plan to be a “raging, naked, twerking sexpot".
Some people have been left wondering why one young, white American female pop singer is generating this much attention. Certainly, Madonna deliberately pushed the boundaries with controversial video clips and an erotic photo book, Sex, before Billy Ray Cyrus’s “achy breaky heart” had even settled on Miley’s mother, Leticia.
One of the tensions driving the international debate about Cyrus is the now-entrenched difference between second- and third-wave feminisms. In 1963, prominent feminist activist Gloria Steinem went undercover to work as a Playboy Bunny. The resulting exposé of the harmful aspects of women’s work in the New York club exemplified how feminists once largely agreed that there were exploitative practices inherent in women’s employment in industries connected with sex.
The movement fractured as some women came to disagree with views of pornography and sex work as oppressive. From the 1990s, third-wave feminist rhetoric about “choice” has challenged the idea that stripping, pole dancing, or posing naked are enforced by a male-led – or patriarchal – society.
Michaele L. Ferguson, a political scientist, explains that “choice feminists” see anything a woman says she has chosen to do as “an expression of her liberation". It does not matter whether a woman elects to run for parliament or to ride naked on a wrecking ball — as does Cyrus in her video for her most recent single — as a woman cannot freely choose to be oppressed.
Third-wave – or choice – feminists have been critical of O’Connor’s initial letter. They have suggested that it exhibits“slut-shaming”, which refers to the denigration of women who transgress sexual expectations for their gender. Like Amanda Palmer, third-wave opinions contend that O’Connor denies Cyrus’s “agency” or control over her career. Finally, they also criticise what they see as O’Connor’s misguided assumption that she can judge what is and what is not “empowering” for another woman.
In contrast, women who uphold second-wave feminist ideals haveexpressed admiration for the way in which O’Connor’s letter draws on her own experience as a successful female musician to caution against the workings of male-controlled music industry that markets sex appeal. This week, former Eurthymics singer Annie Lennox has also highlighted the impact on young girls of an industry “peddling highly styled pornography with musical accompaniment".


Second-wave responses also agree with O’Connor’s questioning of the long-term effects of Cyrus’s “choice” to cultivate a highly sexual persona. O’Connor emphasised that at 46 years old, she has not found herself “on the proverbial rag heap” as do many middle-aged female artists “who have based their image around their sexuality". Shaping a career around sexual desirability in a culture that fetishises the appeal of young women means accepting a built-in expiry date.
The third-wave perspective that lauds Cyrus’s choice to be a “raging, naked, twerking sex-pot” rests on the problematic idea that gender equality has been achieved and that women are already fully liberated. Can we really say that the career choices available to female musicians are equivalent or comparable to those available to male musicians?
In her book Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture, American journalist Ariel Levy proposes that women’s “choices” to express their sexuality through exhibiting their bodies for men are created by selling them an extremely limited model of sexuality in the guise of sexual liberation. Levy’s view is approximated by O’Connor’s plea to Cyrus:
They [the music industry] will prostitute you for all you are worth, and cleverly make you think its [sic] what YOU wanted.
Third-wave feminists would argue that O’Connor’s statement suggests Cyrus possesses a false consciousness. Cyrus only thinks she wants to lick sledgehammers and simulate masturbation with a foam finger because she has internalised patriarchal ideas about women. However, a second-wave orientation would counter that it’s impossible to talk about free choices in a world where gender inequality persists and women’s options are overtly and unwittingly constrained.
A war of words among privileged entertainers seems a trivial story in comparison with the major political and social upheavals of the present moment. Nevertheless, the stoush between Cyrus and O’Connor attracts page views, not only because of our thirst for gossip. We are also interested in this debate because we remain uncertain about the rights and freedoms of women and how best to foster them.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

What's Wrong With Merit? Why "Equal" Treatment Does Not Reward the Most Deserving

This piece was published at The Conversation on 19 September 2013.

Just one woman has been appointed to new prime minister Tony Abbott’s first Cabinet of 19. As a result, online forums have been abuzz with debate about gender representation in federal politics.

A number of explanations have been proposed as to why female Liberal MPs remain “knocking on the door” of Cabinet positions. Yet some have also denied there is any problem with new foreign minister Julie Bishop being the only woman on the frontbench.

One of the most frequent excuses drawn on to explain Australia’s overwhelmingly male parliament is the concept of “merit”. According to the logic of merit, a person who demonstrates the highest aptitude for a job, a spot at university, or even a place in the federal Cabinet should be selected regardless of any other factors.

It seems fair on the surface. A person who has worked hard and shown qualities superior to all other candidates should be successful.

What is problematic about the idea of merit is that it presumes all people have the same opportunity to succeed. The movement to formal equality through anti-discrimination legislation has created the impression that there are no barriers to the participation of women, Indigenous people, GLBTIQ people, people with a disability, and people of colour in the workplace and public life.

The Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Act (1984), for example, outlawed the advertising of jobs for “men”, “boys”, “women” or “girls”. It stipulated that women could no longer be paid a lesser wage for performing the same duties as men and also sought to protect women from dismissal during pregnancy.

The metaphor of a running race is often used when comparing models of equality. The formal model, which people invoke when they discuss merit and “the best person for the job”, sees all competitors take their place on the same starting line.

It does not make allowances for whether some of these metaphorical athletes might have been coached at the Australian Institute of Sport with access to elite trainers and equipment, while other competitors might arrive at the line after being self-coached and with no running spikes to wear. Clearly, the second competitor is at a disadvantage in this “fair” race. Yet what if he or she actually had the potential to be the fastest if given access to the same resources?

A real example of how the formal model of equality fails is in the instance of Indigenous participation in higher education. All Australian high school students have the opportunity to sit for their Year 12 exams and apply for university entry. Indigenous students in remote locations in particular, however, do not have the same financial resources, school facilities and community situations to support them to excel.

A strict application of the concept of merit would make no allowance for the disadvantages Indigenous students face in comparison with inner-city children in private schools.

To achieve equality of result – or substantive equality – we must abandon ideas of merit that ignore social disadvantages and barriers that might keep equally good or better candidates from entry into the race. Some find the concept of unequal treatment through quotas or special entry schemes distasteful and unfair, but it is crucial to recognise the unfairness of the presumption of an equal starting line inherent in the concept of merit.

When universities encourage the enrolment of Indigenous students, even if the marks the students have attained at school do not meet the usual requirement, they are not simply penalising students who have already shown “merit”. Instead, they are working to correct systematic disadvantage that leads to an unequal outcome (poor Indigenous representation in higher education).

When political parties take action to counter the under-representation of women, as in the example of Labor-affiliated group EMILY’s List, which has sought to increase the number of women candidates since 1996, or the proposed Foundation 51 initiative to develop and recruit Liberal Party candidates, it is not to force “meritorious” men from positions. Rather, it is about acknowledging the social and cultural reasons why it is more difficult for many women to enter politics.

It means acknowledging that the running race already sees most women start on a tremendous handicap, and that some of our “best” candidates might actually be confined to the spectator’s box unless we take action to work toward equality of outcome.

Australia is a country with affection for the notion of a “fair go”. We therefore ought to realise that getting somewhere on “merit” does not mean that there were not better candidates out there who lacked the same privilege and opportunity.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Tony Abbott's Women in White a Symbol of What's to Come

This opinion piece was published in the The Age online today.

When great political change transforms a nation, there is often a defining image that comes to symbolise it. The iconic Barack Obama “Hope” poster from the 2008 US presidential campaign, for instance, embodied the spirit of a nation that was seeking social change and to make history with its first African-American president.

One of the most striking visions during prime minister-elect Tony Abbott's acceptance speech on Saturday night was that of his three daughters, Louise, Bridget and Frances, by his side, co-ordinated in white dresses. Though the short hemlines and tight fit would be out of place at a Catholic First Communion, the connotations of religious faith and female moral purity were unmistakeable.

Abbott defined himself as the election contender with the “not bad-looking daughters” during a televised address to Big Brother housemates and championed the “sex appeal” of Fiona Scott, the Liberal candidate for Lindsay, yet the white dresses provide a far more telling indicator of what a Coalition government promises for Australian women.

Abbott is evidently proud of his daughters' good looks, but he is clearly not entirely comfortable with the idea of them having sex, infamously describing their virginity as “the most precious gift” that they could give to someone. His personal views on the undesirability of sex before marriage also invade his politics. As health minister under the Howard government, he stymied the availability of the “morning-after” pill RU486, and lamented about abortion being used as “the easy way out” for women.

Given his pronouncements on abortion, and numerous unfortunate statements over the years about women's natural abilities and their family duties, Abbott was understood to have a “woman problem”. Abbott's wife, Margie, and his daughters, became important tools during the election campaign to counter the perception fanned by Julia Gillard's impactful “misogyny speech” that he held sexist and outdated views about women.
Louise, Bridget and Frances were so prominent in the campaign that there are now several Facebook pages with tens of thousands of “likes” devoted to them. (One of which perverts Abbott's pride in his daughters' looks by purporting to encourage masturbation to their photos.)

When Abbott assessed the “sex appeal” of Scott, his response to the resulting media commentary was filtered through his daughters' perspective. The reduction of a female political candidate to her sexual desirability was merely a “daggy dad moment” that the community ought to be able to simultaneously excuse and chuckle about, like a lame joke at a family barbecue.

Men with political and economic power who do not believe in gender equality are not immune to getting married or bearing children. Being a “daggy dad” does not guarantee leadership of a government that will support women. Yet the stage-managed magazine spreads and television interviews aimed at convincing us that a man with sassy, fashionable daughters, who were not afraid to express their disagreement on issues such as same-sex marriage, could not be a problematic prime minister for women.

Posing for photo opportunities with his daughters was not the only measure Abbott took to divert attention from his past statements about women. The Coalition's generous paid parental leave scheme was an unexpected promise from a leader who had previously expressed his opposition to such a concept. The scheme also allows for fathers to take up the 26 weeks of paid leave in place of mothers, a surprisingly progressive measure.

Yet, the slick, modern look of this policy needs to be placed within the context of the Liberal Party's failure to foster women's representation within its ranks. Though the final results in several seats are not known, less than a quarter of the Coalition's members in the House of Representatives will be women. As I clicked on the current counts for each seat likely to be won by a Liberal representative, I occasionally thought I had clicked on the same seat multiple times, as similar, older white male faces continually appeared on screen.

The likely proportion of Coalition women heading to Canberra is not too dissimilar from the figures during their most recent period in opposition, in which 21 per cent of Coalition parliamentarians were women. Only two of these women were then appointed to one of the 20 places in the shadow cabinet, Julie Bishop and Sophie Mirabella. The Coalition lags behind the more equitable federal representation by women achieved by the Labor Party (42 per cent in the previous term of government) and the Greens (60 per cent).
In this way, the Coalition's key policy for appealing to women is much like the white dresses worn by Abbott's daughters, which were praised for being “modern” and “stylish” yet brought with them conservative ideas about women's purity.

The Coalition's paid parental leave scheme is a decidedly contemporary idea that will help support professional women maintain careers they have worked and studied hard to enter. Yet it is offered by a government with an extremely low proportion of female representation, headed by Abbott who holds demonstrably outmoded views about women's potential to lead. We can't let the lure of much longed-for paid parental leave distract us from the risks to the rights and welfare of women who don't wear white.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Why Girls' Work is Worth Less Than Boys' Work: The Great Pocket Money Swindle

Frustratingly, it seems I’ve lost the girlsliterature.com domain name, at least for now. I do apologise to anyone who happened to end up viewing some slightly different images of “girls” than they expected and am endeavouring to buy the domain back. I’ll keep this new URL active regardless of what happens.

At the moment, I’m continuing to work on the colonial girlhood project and this has meant boning up on Australian feminism, girls’ education and women’s work at the beginning of the twentieth century for a book chapter. As I’ve spent a lot of time researching British girls in this period, I naively thought that attitudes to work and education would be reasonably similar in Australia. (Research assumption that proved false no. 374.)

Attitudes to women’s work were substantially different in Australia in part because of changes brought about by the Harvester Case in the Commonwealth Arbitration Court in 1907. The judge’s decision prompted the introduction of a “family wage”, in which it was deemed that a man’s salary ought to be sufficient to pay for his own expenses, as well as those of his wife and children. In some respects, this was a welcome development for the welfare of many families, but it had major repercussions for women’s work. The family wage innately suggested that women need not work once they were married, and that young working women were merely passing time and earning frivolous spending money before marriage. With these assumptions about women’s work, it became easier to justify lower wages for female employees—women were not going to be responsible for ensuring that their children were fed (never mind about families in which husbands had deserted their wives). Branches of work that were traditionally performed by women began to pay lower wages than ever before. These poorly paid areas became even less desirable prospects, thereby discouraging women from seeking employment and, to an extent, compelling them to marry for financial security.
I thought of these changes when I read about bank surveys in the UK and Australia that suggest that today’s girls and boys, on average, receive different amounts of pocket money, which is quite often tied to performing chores. In the recent Westpac bank survey, boys earn an average of 7 per cent more pocket money than girls, which is not a huge difference. However, the same boys spend 28 per cent less time undertaking household chores than the girls. If the boys spend less time working than girls, then the extra money they receive can perhaps be explained by the difference in the kind of jobs they are being rewarded for. Boys are sent outside to take out the rubbish, mow the lawn or help with gardening more often than girls. Girls do more work inside, like cleaning their room and washing the dishes. Even in the family home, parents are assigning greater value to work that is understood as men’s work, and providing greater rewards for it.

Predictably, the odd male online commenter has argued that jobs such as mowing the lawn are so strenuous and beyond the ability of most girls and that the hard slog involved should rightly be “worth” more than bringing in the washing. Others have rightly pointed out, however, the increased frequency of many indoor tasks. You might need to mow the lawn every month in winter, but the dishes will need washing, drying and putting away each and every day. How is it that a far greater amount of time spent working on typically feminine housework doesn’t equal, and is in fact regarded as far less of a contribution, than a short amount of time in the backyard, the stereotypical domain of men's work?

It seems we have internalised the values assigned to different forms of work based on gender that were responsible for forcing many Australian women to marry in the early twentieth century. If treating their children’s help on different value scales according to their gender is something that parents who love their children unconsciously do, what hope is there in the wider workforce for valuing the jobs that women typically undertake, such as childcare, for example?

And, for the record, I mow the lawn with a push mower and would much rather take on a football field with it than iron a basket full of laundry.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Duly Noted: Online Abuse will Not Silence Women

This appeared as an opinion piece at The Age on 30 July 2013. 

It could be because we've got more banknote real estate to spare, but since the 1990s Australia has found it easy to recognise the historic contributions of women on its currency. Of our five notes, women feature on every single one. While Queen Elizabeth II might be there by default on the five dollar note, Dame Mary Gilmore, Dame Nellie Melba, Mary Reibey and Edith Cowan proudly symbolise women's achievements in journalism, music, business and politics.

In the United Kingdom, with the reigning monarch printed on the obverse of all four circulating notes and a plethora of big names in the arts and sciences to select from, the choice of which four people to memorialise is more difficult. Just who will schoolchildren learn are among the four most important and lasting contributors to British culture?

Since the Bank of England first depicted historical figures on the reverse of its banknotes in 1970, only two women, apart from the Queen, have ever enjoyed a stint in the line-up. Florence Nightingale appeared on the £10 note from 1975 to 1994. The current series of notes includes Elizabeth Fry, noted for reforming English prisons. The other three notes represent Charles Darwin, Adam Smith and pioneers of the steam engine, Matthew Boulton and James Watt.

With Fry scheduled to be replaced by Winston Churchill from 2016, the four places that could be allocated to any eminent Briton would have been entirely occupied by men. Feminist campaigners, however, successfully lobbied the Bank of England through a Change.org petition to demand that a woman, aside from the Queen, appear on at least one note. It was a clear victory for women when the Bank of England announced on July 24 that Jane Austen would oust Darwin to become the third historical woman to appear on a banknote.

This was until the woman who spearheaded the campaign, journalist Caroline Criado-Perez, was subjected to a barrage of abuse and rape threats on Twitter in the days that followed. A polite campaign to ensure that historical women were not erased from the British currency has taken an unexpected turn and raised serious questions about Twitter's failure to provide mechanisms for reporting abusive tweets. It has also once again exposed deep antagonism and hatred towards vocal women in the public eye.

Most of the rape threats and abusive messages targeted at Criado-Perez are believed to have been sent from men. We can also presume that these men probably felt very little personal grievance about Austen being honoured. Criado-Perez herself expressed disbelief at the aggressive response to the ''tiny, tiny thing'' of lobbying for women's representation on a banknote.

What the messages directed at Criado-Perez collectively show is a desire to silence women who take a stand and who speak out. Though women ostensibly enjoy formal equality, the undercurrent of sexism bubbles up at unexpected moments like these to expose discomfort about women's progress and anger at their gall to seek further gains.

Instead of Criado-Perez facing vigorous argument and debate about her feminist campaign, she was threatened with sexual violence in an onslaught of tweets. For example, ''This Perez one just needs a good smashing up the arse and she'll be fine'' and ''Wouldn't mind tying this bitch to my stove. Hey sweetheart, give me a shout when you're ready to be put in your place.'' One man has since been arrested in Manchester in connection with the abusive tweets.

In societies in which a woman can rightfully work in any field, earn her own living, or stand for office, there are few ways to press women back into the subordinate position that they once occupied. Threats of rape, however, are a crude last-ditch attempt to reassert male power and female powerlessness.

Powerful women, as in the case of former prime minister Julia Gillard, endure obscene put-downs and rape threats as part of efforts to undermine them. While a handful of crackpots can be dismissed, the endless and prolific nature of the sexually charged verbal abuse of women like Gillard suggests a real effort to silence them.

In the same way, the abuse that Criado-Perez experienced represented a concerted, if not actively co-ordinated, attempt to bring her down from her feminist high horse. The aim of the threats was to drive Criado-Perez from Twitter and to inhibit her confidence to lobby on women's issues.

It is fitting to remember that two women who have graced Australian banknotes, Edith Cowan and Catherine Helen Spence, who appeared on the $5 note in 2001, were involved in the movement for women's suffrage. Two of the women Australia has chosen to acknowledge in this most visible of ways agitated for women's rights.

Though suffragettes, including Cowan and Spence, were subject to intense opposition from men who thought the extension of voting rights to women was preposterous, it seems unlikely that they were confronted with repeated threats of sexual assault. While women's rights may have been gained, allowing Cowan to become the first woman elected to the Australian parliament and paving the way for our first female prime minister, the ways in which women's work towards equality are opposed have regressed into despicable abuse.

In answer to the men who work to keep women silent, it would be fitting if the women of today who relentlessly fight for advancement in the face of increasingly personal, sexualised attacks are honoured on the banknotes of the future.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Five Things Girls Will Learn from Julia Gillard’s Prime Ministership

“The problem with the pursuit of equality is that, while admitting women to the world of men, it reinforces the idea that men’s way of organising the world is natural.” Marilyn Lake, Getting Equal: The History of Australian Feminism, 4. 
In the week since Australia’s Prime Minister of three years, Julia Gillard, was deposed as Labor party leader, there has been much analysis of the role that sexism might have played in her poor poll results and subsequent overthrow by Kevin Rudd. The denials of the effects of sexism have ranged from eloquent musings on the different kinds of attacks that might be directed toward different woman in power to outright delusional claims that Gillard being a woman had no effect on the responses of the public, the media and her political colleagues.

Gillard herself felt that sexism definitely played some role in perceptions of her as the nation’s leader: “[T]he 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.” In her concession speech, Gillard also optimistically looked forward to a future in which “it will be easier for the next woman and the woman after that and the woman after that” to serve as Prime Minister.

With the level of bile directed at Gillard, it is hard to imagine that we will see another female Prime Minister in the next several decades, in the same way as it’s been almost a quarter of a century since Margaret Thatcher left office in Britain. The second Australian female Prime Minister is most likely still a young girl. We ought to ask ourselves what would intelligent, promising Australian girls have learned about how women leaders are treated during Gillard’s term as Prime Minister.

1. As a woman, how you look will override the substance of what you do.
In 2006, when Gillard was appointed as Deputy Opposition Leader, journalist Anita Quigly suggested that she 'bungled it with a less than flattering haircut and a frumpy ‘80s tapestry print jacket’. ‘Get yourself a stylist and get one fast’, Quigly urged Gillard. While the leader of the day, John Howard, had wild, unkempt eyebrows and a penchant for striding purposefully in a daggy green and gold tracksuit on his morning walks, clearly no one thought that he “bungled” his political career because of his grooming habits and lack of fashion sense.

The obsession with Gillard’s appearance ramped up once she became Prime Minister. Even Germaine Greer, the most influential Australian feminist of the past half century, expressed a dislike for Gillard’s choice in jackets, which she claimed only emphasised the leader’s 'big arse'. Gillard's new pair of fairly ordinary glasses earlier this year occupied headlines for days.

2. Activities traditionally performed by women are a waste of time and conflict with important business.
In the week before the leadership spill that ousted her, the sexist criticism of Gillard reached the heights of ridiculousness after her appearance in the Australian Women’s Weekly. Whether the decision for Gillard to pose in the act of knitting was that of her own team or that of the magazine is irrelevant to the response that the photograph elicited. We’ve seen many male leaders making feeble attempts at throwing and catching cricket balls, and we can’t forget, however we try, the sight of Tony Abbott in his extremely brief Speedos exiting the surf. These sporting activities don’t lead anyone to question men’s abilities to lead. After all, schemes like the Rhodes scholarship, of which Abbot was a recipient, seek candidates who excel at sports as well as academic pursuits.

Knitting, however, is not on that list of accomplishments. Internationally, Time magazine thought the photographs of a female leader knitting were “weird”. Locally, the attempt to show Gillard engaging in one of her long-term hobbies, and one which clearly resonated with the historical audience of a magazine like the Australian Women’s Weekly, was seen as an attempt to “soften her image” that conflicted with her calling out sexism in Parliament. The BRW  described the photos as “a jarring and perplexing interlude to the bigger gender politics of recent weeks and months”. In other words, if Gillard was trying to make a point about being a strong and competent leader, despite being a woman, she shouldn’t have showcased her interest in a typically women’s activity like knitting. The BRW also declared  that “[v]oters don’t like Gillard’s ploy to make gender a vote winner”. So by pointing out the way that sexism was making her job harder, people became disgruntled, according to the BRW, and further responded by lambasting her for her interest in a traditionally feminine skill. Many online comments referred to how much time Gillard must have “wasted” knitting or being photographed when there was the important business of running the country to attend to.

But, conflictingly,
3. If a woman is not fixated on tasks that usually fall to women, such as providing a welcoming home and raising a family, regardless of the demands of her career, then she cannot understand normal people.

The first suspicious evidence on this front was the photograph of Julia Gillard seated in the kitchen of her Altona home in 2005. The benches were clean and tidy, with only a few appliances visible, and the bowl on the kitchen table was empty. It did not matter that she’d just returned from overseas, having not yet even unpacked her suitcase, and that there was a potential challenge to then Labor leader Kim Beazley in the works. Gillard was clearly not preoccupied with her home and with ensuring partner Tim Mathieson ingested enough fibre because THE FRUIT BOWL WAS EMPTY! How could we trust a woman to lead the country if she couldn’t even ensure that some Pink Ladies and bananas were on hand at home?

The emptiness of Gillard’s fruit bowl was a sign of a greater emptiness in Gillard’s life. Senator Bill Heffernan infamously described her as “deliberately barren” because of her choice not to have children. His idea being that those who fail to reproduce have “no idea what life’s about” (Bulletin May 2007). And Heffernan cannot be seen as a lone dinosaur with an outdated view, as this criticism was repeated frequently. Senator George Brandis described Gillard as “very much a one-dimensional person” when commenting on her choice not be have children and her perceived inability to understand parents’ concerns (ABC Radio, Jan. 2010).

What did it matter that she was the first Australian female PM and how hard she must have worked, how much she must have sacrificed, to reach this milestone. As Janet Albrechtsen put it: “She’s never had to make room for the frustrating demands and magnificent responsibilities of caring for little babies, picking up sick children from school, raising teenagers”. Of course, if Gillard had been consumed by the demands of “caring for little babies” and “picking up sick children from school”, unlike her male political colleagues who presumably don’t perform the bulk of the childcare in their families, then it’s highly unlikely she’d ever have become Prime Minister in the first place.

This sticker is currently still being sold on eBay
4. As a powerful woman you are sexually undesirable and therefore unlikeable. You are a “bitch” and a “witch”.

Girls and women learn that being sexually attractive is vitally important. One of the worst ways to cut at a woman’s feeling of self-worth is to attack her appearance, regardless of her other skills and abilities. Labelling a woman “fat and ugly” is a way to dismiss all of her achievements and cut her down. Though Gillard is clearly not overweight and is a far more physically attractive woman than, say, Tony Abbot is an attractive man, you don’t have to look far online, or in talkback radio discussions, to find a plethora of “fat and ugly” comments.

Witches, of course, are commonly portrayed as the ultimate in female ugliness. They’re also figures who are disliked because they use magic to reverse the physical power imbalance that exists between men and women. Female witches are figures to fear because they can’t be controlled by men. The infamous “Ditch the Witch” signs in Canberra show the simplistic associations of powerful women with upending the natural gendered order and the need to denigrate the appearance of these women.

5. If you’re a powerful woman, it compromises the masculinity of the men around you.
A powerful woman like Gillard not only attracts personal derision, but those close to her are not safe either. Girls watching the treatment of Gillard would also learn that the hatred directed at her as a woman also directly affected her colleagues and partner. Gillard was asked if she had sex with Tim Mathieson and questioned on “rumours” that he is actually gay. The latter question supposedly arose because of his hairdressing profession, but at the bottom of both accusations is the idea that a masculine man could not possibly form a sexual relationship with  powerful woman. Such a thing is unnatural.

During Gillard’s term, due to the nature of the hung parliament, intricate negotiations were required with the Greens party. One of the other infamous placards displayed in Canberra alongside “Ditch the Witch” was “Bob Brown’s Bitch”. Yet offensive cartoons by Larry Pickering, including one depicting Gillard wearing an extremely large strap-on, with the caption “Time for your daily briefing, Bob”, showed that the real anxiety was not about Gillard doing the Greens’ bidding, but Gillard exerting her power over men and rendering them effeminate just like her hairdresser partner.

As the opening quotation from Marilyn Lake suggests, the pursuit of gender “equality” enabled us to get to a position where our country could boast its first female Prime Minister. Formal gender equality does not, however, change the fundamental structures and beliefs that underlie a patriarchal society. And this is why Gillard faced rampant sexism in her role as Prime Minister. And it's also why the next Australian girl with high political aspirations might be dissuaded from following a path that will lead to hatred and ridicule, but which must be borne stoicly unless she wishes to be accused of  “playing the gender card”.

Friday, May 31, 2013

A Battle for an Unconventional Princess: "Saving" Disney's Merida

Left: Merida as she appeared in Brave (2012) and
Right: a  promotional image from Merida's induction
into the Disney Princess range.
Why would over 240,000 people feel compelled to sign a petition asking a multi-national, mass media corporation to alter the design of an animated film character as she appears in their merchandise, including clothing and dolls? In the past three weeks, A Mighty Girl, a site that promotes books, movies and toys that celebrate "smart, confident and courageous girls", has promoted the "Keep Merida Brave" campaign. Those  who have signed the petition are disappointed that an unconventional girl heroine, who is confident wielding a bow and arrows yet uncomfortable in a fancy dress, has been homogenised in order to enter the Disney princess stable. (The Disney princesses are a lucrative merchandising phenomenon, until now based on the characters of Ariel [The Little Mermaid], Aurora, [Sleeping Beauty], Pocahontas, Snow White, Mulan, Rapunzel, Belle, Jasmine [Aladdin], Cinderella and Tiana [The Princess and the Frog].)

Everyone from Jon Stewart to Brave writer and director Brenda Chapman  has criticised aspects of Merida's makeover, including her noticeably thinner build, her dress's lower neckline (indeed the very choice to place her in the more formal dress that she despises in the film), the use of make-up, taming of her unruly hair, and, most significantly of all, the removal of her bow and arrows. Here is one "princess" heroine who does a little more than wait for her prince to come, and yet in her leap from film to Disney's merchandise machine, she has lost most of the qualities that made her distinctive.

Merida merchandise in the Disney store,
Manchester, England
It is astonishing to see so many people mobilise, even if only via an online petition, to preserve what they see as a more inspiring role model for girls in popular culture. There will always be comments that call debates about the representation of girls and women a "first-world problem". However, the view that endless depictions of passive girls and women in fiction plays at least some part in limiting options for them in reality has gained widespread acceptance.

While Brave was not quite a Disney production, in that it was produced by Pixar Animation Studios, Disney has owned Pixar since 2006. Though Pixar may have found a way to present a heroine who breaks convention (although in some fairly typical ways, such as through her fiery red hair, the signifier of "different" yet beautiful girl heroines since Anne of Green Gables), it is unthinkable that the homogenising force of the Disney Princess entity would not take some steps to make Merida conform to its brand.

Merida as a baby-face doll for young girls and sparkly
gold sandals from the range
The photograph above, which I took yesterday in the Manchester Disney store, shows a shirt that depicts something closer to the film's original image of Merida. The slogan that accompanies it describes her as "boldly beautiful". The adjective that describes Merida is "beautiful": her appearance is her most important quality. She is unique in that, as the adverb indicates, she is beautiful in a way that is bolder than the likes of Cinderella or Belle, but she's not sufficiently different to be "beautifully bold". Like other princesses in the range, Merida needs to be adapted to sell items like wigs (also available for Rapunzel) and shoes (like the sequinned sandals shown above). These items relate to transforming a girl's appearance in a way that a Merida set of bow and arrows do not. Merida's bow and arrows were not available in the store I visited in England, yet they are currently sold out at the Disney online store for America. The Merida tiara, puffy, sequinned pale blue dress, which bears no resemblance to Merida's preferred dress, and gold gladiator sandals (intended for girls to "embark on a courageous fashion adventure") seem to be in plentiful supply.
Merida dolls in two styles of dress.
Though Merida dolls in both the plain and more ornate dress are available in UK stores packaged with sets of bows and arrows, the overwhelming direction of the Disney princess juggernaut has been toward a particular vision of princesses, even as it has made superficial moves to accommodate diversity. Mulan and Pocahontas may have been granted admission into the pantheon of princesses, yet there are no costumes for these princesses to be found on the US Disney site (however problematic they might be if they did exist there). You can find a Mulan headband, complete with orchid leaves, and a Pocahontas jewellery set, but there is no way for girls to emulate these characters in the same way as they can dress as Cinderella or Rapunzel (who has several costume dresses, both regular and "wedding" edition).

It is still clear that a Disney princess means one particular model or ideal of being feminine, which originated with Snow White in 1937. Individual characters in recent films may break convention in some ways, such as The Princess and the Frog's Tiana, who aspires to own her own restaurant, yet the Disney princess- as an object to be consumed- minimises difference and unique qualities as an integral part of maintaining a brand.

While Disney has clearly been taken by surprise by this social media campaign, it is hard to imagine that the world of Disney princesses will ever expand to fully embrace a natural-faced girl heroine with a drab dress and messy hair. An average appearance and focus on skill rather than beauty is not the dream that Disney sells to small girls and, presumably, their mothers. While the campaign to keep Merida as she appears in Brave shows strong public support for different fictional role models for girls, the ongoing popularity of the generic Disney princess shows that she will be hard to dislodge from her throne.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

MasterChef Offers a Slice of Sexism

This article was published in today's Age newspaper.


We don’t switch to reality television when we want to expand our minds, but their frivolous pleasures do not mean that these shows are beyond criticism and public debate. In the past week, the teaser promotion for the new series of MasterChef Australia has drawn international attention for its sexism.

The offending ad pitches the upcoming series of the cooking program as a battle of a sexes, with the infantilising title of “Boys vs Girls”. The contestants are segregated on pastel gender lines with the women wearing pink and the men blue.

A volley of stereotypes relating to women’s and men’s respective abilities are traded as the teams trash talk. Women are “better at presentation”, for instance, because they’re “used to grooming” themselves. While the quality that “all the top chefs in the world” share is that “they’re all men”.  The women face off against the men raising their pink oven mitts like boxing gloves, while the men wield baguettes like batons.

Yet the repeated national broadcast of limiting views that suggest women are naturally suited to tirelessly producing meals for the family while men are destined to elevate cooking to a sophisticated art form has been defended by some online commentators. Indeed, the counter-response to criticisms of the MasterChef ad shows just how complicated it has become to critique sexism in popular culture.

From both within and outside the feminist cause, we are told to ignore the reinforcement of sexist attitudes in the media because there are more worthy battles to fight. Proponents of this argument point to violence against women and female poverty as “real” causes to which outrage should be more rightly directed. Last month, for instance, Helen Razer described the Destroy the Joint feminist social media movement as a kind of “dessicated...masturbation”. She argued that such campaigns about sexism in popular culture mean  that “we are spending our climaxes in tiny online moments when, really they are due elsewhere...”

Another common argument, which has been used frequently in support of the MasterChef ad, is that sexism sometimes arrives in the form of harmless jokes. Maudlin feminists are simply barging in to interrupt good-natured humour as self-appointed fun police. For those who subscribe to this view, there are innate gender differences that mean that men are incapable of doing two things at once (“A woman can multi-task”) and that women cannot complete most endeavours as well as a man (“When a man puts his mind to a job, it always turns out better”), and hilarity ensues from pointing out these fundamental truths.

Nevertheless, it is crucial not to separate the worst outcomes of sexist societies, such as violence against women, from the cultural ideas we take for granted that support them. The widespread propagation of ideas that women are inherently inferior and are primarily valuable because of their appearance and ability to perform domestic work contributes to the existence of the “more important” problems confronting women. While we need to agitate for political change to continue the process of lobbying for substantive equality in the workplace, reproductive rights and protection from violence and poverty, these victories will only come alongside transformations in how men and women are understood by our society.

This is not to say that MasterChef’s Stepford wives dancing with shopping trolleys have a direct impact on the treatment of women. Yet the continued acceptance of gender stereotypes as fact, and even as subjects of amusement, continues to imprint the belief that gender inequality is the result of natural differences rather than discrimination. An ad that was humorously playing with these stereotypes, rather than reinforcing them, might show a male contestant alongside a tiered stand of delicately iced cupcakes or would depict a woman bringing her tongs into the sacred realm of the masculine barbeque. Instead MasterChef gives us the uncomplicated view that biology determines whether we can bake or char-grill.

The show promises entry into an industry in which the majority of chefs are male for various reasons, including the incompatibility of restaurant working hours with the family responsibilities that primarily fall to women. The male hosts and judges are the resident experts on the profession.

One of the female contestants on the sexist ad spuriously claims that “the average woman cooks over 1,000 meals per year” in the home. Yet we understand that this kind of cooking is not regarded with the same esteem. Two of last year’s female “Professionals” contestants were repeatedly relegated to dessert duties, though they were not specialists in this area, while men took command of the mains, showing the entrenched view that a man’s work “always turns out better”. With real-world discrimination against women in professional kitchens, as in other prestigious male-dominated industries, MasterChef’s decision to exploit baseless gender stereotypes is thoughtless rather than entertaining.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Women Lost in the Academy: Why We Need Gender Studies

The following article was published at The Conversation on 17 April 2013.
It is sad to see perceptions in the article comments that Gender Studies must involve hatred of men or that it is irrelevant as an area of study if it does not extensively focus on men. Sadly, I think such views on a site that attracts educated readers provides even more conclusive evidence for why Gender Studies is needed in universities and beyond.

In his response to the Steubenville rape case, musician Henry Rollins suggested that women’s studies should be incorporated into high school curricula. Rollins proposed that if young people were to understand that women, as war heroes, politicians, writers and revolutionaries, “have been kicking ass in high threat conditions for ages” that it would help to improve respect for women.

As we express outrage at rape culture and other manifestations of misogyny in a supposedly “postfeminist” age, it makes sense to support the study of gender in classrooms. In this context, it is astounding to see Australia’s universities dismantling their gender studies majors.

The University of Queensland houses a 41 year-old gender studies program. It plans to discontinue its undergraduate major from 2014. This will mean the loss of the last gender studies major in the state. Students at the university have planned a rally to protest the decision.The program itself, as at many universities, has no dedicated staff member. It relies on committed staff in disciplines including history, English and philosophy to teach subjects within the major.

This year has already seen the elimination of the gender studies major at the University of Wollongong. In 2012, La Trobe University began to restructure its Arts faculty, and gender, sexuality and diversity studies was targeted for discontinuation and inspired significant student protest.

The University of Melbourne abandoned its gender studies major in 2008. In response to continued student interest, a new gender studies lecturer was appointed in 2011 and the major was recently reinstated.

Overall, however, the trend toward the reduction of the number of majors within Arts degrees is endangering the formal existence of gender studies within Australian universities.

Enrolments for subjects in these programs are healthy, but the number of students who undertake gender studies majors are usually small. More than 80 students are currently enrolled in UQ’s introductory gender studies subject. Yet Executive Dean of Arts Fred D’Agostino justified the program’s axing because only 13 students have declared a gender studies major this year. Despite the phasing out of gender studies at Honours level in 2005, the students are committed to the major.

D’Agostino maintains that “most” gender studies subjects will continue to be offered at UQ. The primary difference is that students will no longer graduate with a gender studies major and their ability to pursue postgraduate research in the area at other institutions will be compromised.

If the subjects will continue to be taught, what are the savings that the removal of the major will generate? The price is the erasure of an important, interdisciplinary field. Nevertheless, the gradual dissolution of gender studies programs cannot be viewed purely as economic or demand-based decisions.

These courses arose out of the women’s movement in the early 1970s. They were sparked by activism for women’s rights and aimed to counter and critique the heavy male orientation of academic disciplines. In many instances, battles were fought to launch the study of women and feminist scholarship as legitimate areas of inquiry.

Activist and academic Merle Thornton taught the first women’s studies subject at UQ in 1972, establishing the program with Professor Carole Ferrier in the following year. It was as much of a challenge to the status quo as when Thornton chained herself to the bar of Brisbane’s Regatta Hotel with Rosalie Bogner in 1965 to protest women’s exclusion from public bars.

When a women’s studies course was put forward at a Humanities Board meeting at Flinders University in 1972, it was mocked. A Spanish Professor circulated a joke proposal among the male members of the Board for a course on “The Philosophical, Social, Sexual and Artistic Transcendency of Tauromachy [bullfighting]”. It belittled the very concept of the women’s studies bid.

Universities often suggest that the pioneering feminist scholars who initiated these courses have been so successful that “gender” is now integral to most subjects. Clearly there have been transformations in Australian society and university culture since the 1970s. However, simply because English departments, for example, no longer set entire courses devoid of women writers, it does not obviate the need for a distinct space for a focus on gender in the academy.

Today we grapple with the continued realities of misogyny and sexism even though our nation has achieved formal gender equality. Now is not the time to dismantle the courses that help us to understand how gender impacts upon us all.