Since women politicians first entered the overtly masculine space of parliament, they have endured misogyny from their colleagues, the media and the general public. There is something about a woman taking up space in a place that has not only been reserved for men, but is also grounded in power and authority, that riles people up. While the factuality of this phenomenon is proven by an abundance of academic literature, all the proof you really need is in how women politicians have been treated in recent history.
Look at the way Margaret Thatcher was called an “Iron Lady” for showing assertiveness and authority seen as normal when displayed by her male predecessors. Think back to how Gillard was treated for challenging a sitting male prime minister. Do you remember the chants of “ditch the witch” and “Bob Brown’s bitch” covertly encouraged by Opposition Leader Tony Abbott? Or, more recently, how about the ways in which Hilary Rodham Clinton was treated when she tried to run for presidency both in 2008 and again in 2016. She was labelled a “Nasty Woman” by her opponent – and now Chief Agent Orange of the US – and had many violent and sexual insults hurled at her for having the audacity to take up space that had previously only been taken up by men.
So why do women political leaders experience such treatment? This was the question that inspired me to take up a PhD.
I have said it before and I will say it again: my thirst for academia rose out of the intersection of my emerging adulthood and Gillard’s ascendency, prime ministerial term and subsequent descent. As a young Australian woman, I am a product of the Gillard era. While I did not necessarily agree with all of her policies – hell, I am far more left-wing than she is – it was the ways in which she was treated that illustrated to me what kind of society I live in. I was already aware of sexism – thanks to a feminist mother and grandmother – but I was severely naïve in preparing for how our society would treat its first woman prime minister. I received a rude awakening. Gillard became prime minister three days before my 17th birthday and she was ousted on the day of my 20th birthday – it sucked, I cried, it was sad. I didn’t necessarily cry because she was removed and replaced, however, but because it was the end of a sad chapter of how Australia treats women – especially women who have aspirations that are supposedly in juxtaposition with what they ‘should do’.
The media’s treatment of Gillard was the starkest form of overt misogyny that I remember. False stories plagued the media landscape: political cartoons of a naked Gillard wielding dildos, claims that she was playing “the gender card”, endless accusations that she was “murderous”, “bloodthirsty” and therefore should be murdered out at sea, and that her father died of shame. I spent a lot of those three years alternating between anger and sadness. How could we treat a prime minister that way? How could we treat a woman that way? How could the media portray our first woman prime minister in such a gendered, misogynistic manner?My thesis seeks to understand how and why women political leaders experience gendered and misogynistic treatment in the mainstream media. I am interested in how often these women are gendered, and how the media constructs these gendered representations. I also want to find out whether this phenomenon is different for prime ministers in different countries with slightly varying media (though still mostly owned by Murdoch). Lastly, I want to examine whether political affiliation has any impact on gendered representation. That is, do women from the ‘left’ experience more gendered media representation than conservative women? Does the conservative press operationalise gender against these prime ministers more than the ‘left’ press? And how do these two relationships intersect? As in, does conservative media represent conservative women in a better or worse way? Or does gender supersede political affiliation and therefore not matter?
These are the questions guiding my research. To actually find some answers, I have chosen to focus on women prime ministers from English-speaking Westminster democracies: Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May from the UK, Julia Gillard from Australia, and Jenny Shipley and Helen Clark from New Zealand. To explore how the media uses gender against these prime ministers, I am examining mainstream newspapers – some conservative and some ‘left’ – from each country I am looking at. To analyse the newspapers I am using a content analysis – which allows me to quantify or count how many times gendered/misogynistic words/phrases/themes are used – and a discourse analysis to deconstruct the language used by the media to understand the covert ways they use gender against women prime ministers.
So why am I looking at the media? The messages the media sends to readers through language and images are extremely important as this is how they construct meaning – and therefore how they construct misogyny. The media has immense power within democracies as it gives us its version of events we aren’t able to see first-hand. Therefore, the media shapes how we perceive the world, and also what we consider to be important. Both voters and politicians pay attention to the media, and it can shape how politicians see themselves and affect their relationship with the public and their electorate. In short, the media serves as an intermediary between the people and their government. This is all fine and dandy in an ideal world. But our world is evidently not ideal. We live in a world where women are perceived to be lesser, and where the patriarchal, heteronormative, gender binary, white supremacist, capitalist system rules. A world where Cheetos such as Donald Trump can become president over a woman who has decades more political experience than him, and where informed media is labelled “fake news” while fictional or “alternatively factual” media is regarded as truth.
A central idea underlying my thesis is that of “gendered mediation”. Gendered mediation refers to the ways in which the media’s representation of politics is reported through a male-lens in patriarchal societies that privilege male politicians and regard politics as something largely reserved for men. In our society, the media currently supports the status quo – or men as the norm in terms of politics – and regards women politicians as novelties and therefore ‘othered’. The media not only normalises prevailing patriarchal attitudes and the subsequent trivialisation of women politicians, but it is also a ‘gatekeeper’ in helping to determine what politics should look like and how women fit into this. One major influencing factor in gendered mediation is the fact that men have long dominated news and print media, apparent in the ‘norms’ that govern the production of news, which inevitably impact on how a gendered discourse is ‘encoded’ into media texts. In other words, how they have the power to construct women politicians as gendered novelties whereas men are seen as neutral politicians.What I am most interested in is how language – or discourse – is employed by the media to ‘use’ gender against women political leaders. That is, the implicit and explicit ways in which the media ‘constructs’ gendered and misogynistic representations. This can take many forms. For example, a covert way of gendering Thatcher and May would be the amount of times a newspaper refers to their gender (when they don’t do the same for men); an overt way would be publishing a political cartoon that presents Margaret Thatcher as Snow White sending her dwarves (her cabinet) out to work. The ways in which the media uses language and images is extremely powerful and also an insidious way of conveying meaning. When casual misogynistic representations of women are subtly expressed, the average reader might not realise and this misogynistic message can infiltrate their mindsets, impacting their world and political views. This is evident from the fact that although Gillard was one of the most successful politicians, passing 512 pieces of legislation while in a minority government, her public opinion rating was quite low. Therefore, analysing newspapers to examine overt and covert construction of gendered and misogynistic representations will enable me to tackle the ‘how’ part of my overall thesis question.
My thesis is also grounded in Judith Butler’s theory of gender performativity and her ideas about subversive gender acts, which enables me to try and explain the ‘why’ question. Basically – and I will try and condense this complexly written theory as much as possible because Butler is known for her obfuscated way of writing – Butler argues that we cannot be a ‘sex’ or ‘gender’ but that these ideas are themselves the results of ‘feminised’ and ‘masculinised’ actions which we continuously and unknowingly perform. She contends that what we associate with ‘woman’ or ‘man’ is reinforced and enforced by heteronormative societies which empower those who follow gender norms and disempower those who deviate or don’t follow them at all.
An important argument Butler makes is that those who subvert gender norms – whether or not they do so intentionally – are ‘punished’ by our society and culture. In my thesis I argue that this is a reason why women politicians experience gendered and misogynistic media representation. Women politicians take up space in masculine domains and therefore deviate from societal gender norms. They are ‘punished’ for their failure to uphold these norms and for risking exposing the fragility of what our society considers ‘natural’ and ‘inherent’ gender roles. Because parliament is a highly masculinised institution made for and dominated by men, when women prime ministers enter the space they are made to endure different standards than their male counterparts.
The media, therefore, acts as a protector or gatekeeper of societal gender norms and punishes those who deviate or subvert them. The media – again, intentionally or not – protects the gender binary that ensures cishet men remain in power.
Not to toot my own horn, but increasing our understanding of why women prime ministers experience gendered and misogynistic representation in the media is extremely important. Due to the media’s insidious nature and its persuasive effects on the public, it is imperative that we find out how and why they use gender against women politicians so we can hold them accountable.
One highlight of my PhD thus far was publishing an article in the Australian Journal of Political Science which examined and compared the media’s representation of Gillard and Malcolm Turnbull in their prime ministerial challenges, and then reading a comment left by a young woman excited to finally have evidence and facts to go with what we know and who exclaimed that maybe men will finally believe us! I want to do this PhD not only to broaden our understanding – but so this misogynistic treatment can be grounded in the ‘cold hard facts’ required for feminist advocates to be believed and taken seriously. I view this ‘proof’ as necessary to not only to prove to the naysayers that this phenomenon exists, and to start a conversation, but to examine why it exists and to illustrate the impacts it can have. Misogynistic representations of women politicians by the media have negative impacts in the public sphere, on our political systems, and also on the way we view gender norms, our values and ourselves.
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You just tasted a bite of PhD candidate Blair Williams’ thesis. The bite-sized thesis project would not be possible without the generous support of the ANU Gender Institute; you can learn more about the project here.