Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Sexism and Julia

One of the most difficult things I have always experienced when teaching about racism and anti-racism is how to break the instinctive association we often make between goodness and victimhood; the idea that those who are subjected to something bad must be good. It is a deeply engrained thing for, if it is presented in the form of a straightforward logical argument, such as: 'people who are subjected to something bad can be bad, so people subjected to racism are not necessarily good', most people are likely to agree and think that this is quite obvious, and yet the same people are likely to continue to make the slippage between victimhood and goodness at any unguarded moment where they are not being intellectually reflexive enough. Likewise, the argument that 'racism makes life difficult' does not mean that the person subjected to it is otherwise really efficient and graceful. This is partly, but only partly, because thinking of people as victimised is a universalising mode of classification, that is, the classification of someone as victim invites, not by necessity but often enough, a universal image of the victim abstracted from the particularities of whoever is being victimised. through this abstraction the 'victim position' becomes an empty signifier on which the person noting the victimisation can latch their own fantasies of the 'good victim' without being encumbered by the specificities of any particular victim. I am thinking about this because this bears some similarities to the way some feminists are interpreting the fall of Gillard as a prime minister. They position her in the very universalising positions of 'woman' and 'the first woman prime minister', and then proceed to show all the sexism she has been subjected to, all of which, to be clear, is true. But then we are left to make a slippage from this sexism to Gillard's goodness: she has achieved so much, look at all the good policies that have been implemented, so how else to explain her lack of support in the electorate? This is not necessarily an argument against sexism as an explanation but it is an argument about the limits of how much a universalising mode of thinking sexism can explain. For instance, no commentator I know seems to be willing to entertain the idea that part of what Gillard has been subjected to has also to do with her being a 'particular kind of woman' not just a 'woman'. The idea that the sexism that was directed at her was directed at her because she was Julia not any other woman. It is very hard to think what this particularity is but I keep making this thought experiment. If Penny Wong was Prime Minister, I am sure she would have been subjected to some of the sexism that Gillard has been subjected to. Plus, she would have been subjected to racism and to homophobia. And yet, I cannot help thinking that I am right in saying that there would be some types of humiliation that Gillard has been subjected to that would never have been directed at someone like Penny Wong. What are these Gillard particularities/specifities that make the behaviour she has been subjected to possible, I am not sure. It could still be about sexism but it might be about the particularities of Australian sexism and its 'imaginary' of the type of woman that is ok to humiliate - after all sexism is not necessarily about humiliating all women who are in positions of power. For instance, it was the peculiarities of British sexism, not lack of sexism, that allowed someone like Thatcher to thrive as a leader. Pauline Hanson's attempted humiliation by the media worked for her not against her. Other explanations of why Gillard has been subjected to so much could also be something specific to Julia's 'presentation of self in everyday life' as Goffman would say, etc... There could be something about her broad not so classy accent. Australians like to think of themselves differently but they really do like their prime ministers to be a bit 'of distinction'. A male might turn their working class belonging into something endearing, classy and prime ministerial but it will be more difficult for a woman. It could also be that no matter what or how good the rules of the Labor Party are, people don't like others deposing the leaders they have elected, and that this has given Gillard the aura of a coup leader, or even worse, the aura of someone who has been placed in power by less visible coup leaders. It could also be something very disenchanting about Gillard's very achievements. They are arguably well executed social policies. But is that not what one expects the public service to do. what is the difference between the public service and government, at least in people's minds? shouldn't government be presenting some fantasy element that is in excess of 'policy'. perhaps this disenchantment reveals politics for what it now is. that's not something people thirsty for fantasies like. It could be many things, but by not thinking about them, social analysts and commentators who are drowning everything in 'sexism' as a universalising explanation are avoiding thinking about some difficult questions.

1 comment:

  1. I would venture that the particular brand of sexism Julia Gillard was subjected to relates to her status as an unmarried, childless, middle-aged woman. Being one of these myself, I can confirm that it's a category that tends to make others uncomfortable, particularly after a certain age. You are, by definition, not a success as a woman according to the traditional markers. You are not overtly nurturing, not focussed on the needs of your own children and husband, and how is it that have you have 'ended up' this way? Is it perhaps because you're a cold bitch, obsessively focussed on pursuing a career, incapable of personal warmth? Or are you just a failure at being sexually desirable?

    Sometimes reactions to this non-womanliness are hostile (deliberately barren; the Harradine approach), sometimes pitying (poor thing; couldn't catch and keep a man; the private thoughts of colleagues and well-meaning friends) and sometimes sexually denigrating (the 'big red box' brand of ridicule; particularly possible as a woman approaches menopause and, presumably, the end of sexual utility, thus soon to be a well-known object of ridicule, the spinster/crone).

    That is the underlying layer, one form of crisis of legitimacy, that can then be compounded by the crisis of legitimacy that comes from a brutal wresting of the prime ministership from a man who earned it at least in part by presenting to the public as a socially conservative, religious, nuclear family man who also happens to be rather a nerd. Even if his folksy approach grates on the sophisticated middle-class ear, his social status is nowhere near as discomfiting as the sight of an unmarried woman installing the partner to whom she is not married, along with a designer dog, into The Lodge. And then has the gall to reveal, awkwardly, that she might have some traditional womanly hobbies like knitting under her belt as well as all that capacity to drive legislation through a particularly difficult parliament. How dare she, the unwomanly woman, lean on such tropes? The duplicitous cow. What use is she?

    Whether this all amounts to Australian vs British sexism I don't know, but it remains incredibly powerful.