What the Australian Media missed in Gillard's misogyny speech
Who's saying what
Caitlin Welsh writes.
Maybe, after all this time, we have finally seen the Prime Minister treated like any other politician.
If Keating, Howard or Rudd had stood up in Parliament and made an impassioned, eloquent speech tearing the Leader of the Opposition apart for rudeness and hypocrisy – let alone on a day when the Speaker of the House resigned under a cloud of crude text messages – the headline the next day would never have been PM GIVES ELOQUENT SPEECH. (In fact, it would have been on page 17 between DOG BITES MAN and SKY REMAINS BLUE.) And indeed, had Gillard made an impassioned speech about education reform, the NDIS, or any of the causes to which she’s declared her commitment, that too would have been just another day in parliament, admittedly a better one than most we’ve seen lately.
But she did not talk about those things. She barely even addressed the question at hand: Should Peter Slipper remain as Speaker? Instead, she made an impassioned and indignant speech about the fact that after the week, the year, the career she has had – after all the insults, harassment and disrespect she has suffered purely because of her gender – Tony Abbott had the gobsmacking gall to not only repeat Alan Jones’ universally-condemned “died of shame” comment, but to accuse her and her party of sexism. Not, as many have claimed, to defend Peter Slipper’s tenure as Speaker and thus her numbers in parliament – she said very clearly that she found his language in the text messages to James Ashby offensive. We might never know what she had planned to say before Tony Abbott said his piece – it might well have been the same line repeated by Anthony Albanese about matters before the court and not trying people in parliament. But that’s not what she ended up doing; she got to whip out her debate skills and powerfully undermine Tony Abbott’s entire self-righteous tirade, all because he chose the least appropriate rhetorical tactic possible to attack his friend Slipper and his enemy, the government.
Much has been made of “stopping the trolls” lately, and it’s worth going after the culture of bullying and negativity that exists in many online spaces. But a true troll, in the word’s original meaning, is not necessarily a bully – trolling is saying things simply to make people indignant, to “get a rise out of” someone, as your mother would tell you when you came home complaining of school meanies. If I didn’t know better – and I’m not sure I do – I would suggest that the combination of the shame comment and the accusation of misogyny was in fact a giant poking device constructed by the Opposition to try and provoke the shrieking harpy they believe to be lurking beneath the PM’s cool exterior. Perhaps they expected (or hoped) that it would break her, that she would screech incoherently about it being terribly unfair and then run from the floor in floods of tears. Or – and it says something about Abbott’s choice of words that this is the option that makes him look better – perhaps it was just an incredibly stupid and illogical line of attack, one that they thought was a trump card but actually left them open to the most undeniable accusation of idiotic hypocrisy levelled at them yet.
The SMH’s Katharine Murphy described the PM’s demeanour as “pure, white, rage”; initially following it via her politics liveblog on the SMH website, The Pulse, I could see her anger in Andrew Meares’ terrific photos (my favourite being the one where she assumes the pose that the Internet at large refers to as “Come at me, bro”). Watching the speech in full later, however, showed that photos could not capture how precisely that white-hot rage was channelled. Gillard, who often comes off stiff and school-marmish when reading prepared remarks, is a deceptively eloquent speaker and is her best self when speaking off the cuff (recall her solo appearance on Q&A, where the party lines were offputtingly wooden and her spontaneous responses were natural and charming). While her full remarks might not have been written down on the page in front of her, I would not be surprised if some of them had previously been muttered under her breath, vented to a sympathetic partner or staffer, simmered in her mind for months as she, members of her party and fellow women around the world had one of the most frustrating years on record. She didn’t just speak – she erupted.
The most telling reaction to the speech, in fact, is not the local one. It’s the fact that Gillard’s speech has gone viral worldwide overnight. Feminist writer and humourist Caitlin Moran has scored over 1000 retweets after she shared the video with her followers; American liberal-feminist blog Jezebel picked it up after reporting on the Facebook harassment Gillard suffered during her education chat earlier this week; British comedians, New Yorker, The Guardian and even the conservative Spectator all expressed their astonishment at the force of her fury. But this cannot be read as an expression of Australia’s international status as a fairly quaint backwater, with our odd little Washminster system and our distant queen and funny accents; politicians yelling at one another in any language is not news. What is news is when a female leader calls a male colleague out on hypocrisy and sexist comments; the world reacted so quickly because removed from the partisan micro-squabbles that come with a hung parliament, and our sadly degraded political discourse and media culture, the speech felt like a long-overdue rebuke to all the indignities women have been suffering at the hands of English-speaking politicians in recent times. Every time a member of the US Senate (and a member of the US Senate Committee on Science) claims knowledge of some magical, imaginary function of the female body that diminishes our agency as survivors of violence; every time a female federal minister on national television is talked over and interrupted with such blithe persistence it seems like intentional cruelty; every time a politician makes catty comments about “handbag hit squads”, or assumes that a homemaker’s primary concern is the energy costs generated by ironing, or trots out women who love him unconditionally as proof that his past sexist behaviour and comments mean absolutely nothing, there have been millions of women itching to wheel around on these people and shine a harsh light on the absurdity of their attitudes, expose their behaviour for the untenable, antediluvian bullshit that it truly is.
This is not to mention the global and systematic oppression of women as documented in Nick Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s Half The Sky project, or horrific individual incidents like the shooting of teenage activist Malala Yousafzai by the Taliban this week. We have so many reasons to be angry, and everything from the poisoning of Afghan schoolgirls to Kate Ellis being called “the weathergirl” by a fellow MP is worth fighting.
I am not putting motivations in Gillard’s mind that were not necessarily there. I am not claiming she was hurling the full force of the world’s feminist indignation at a man who has earned only a tiny, tiny sliver of it, just because she had a microphone and he was there. I am only pointing out that the first female prime minister of this country gets more coverage for calling out misogyny in parliament than she did for actually becoming the first female prime minister of this country; outside of the relatively minor scandal of the Speaker being a crude old man (and, let’s not forget, the important ramifications for the government of having the numbers not in their favour), international commentators can recognise Gillard’s speech as the tour de force it is, but local writers have chosen to ignore the fact that she is a woman in power standing up against misogynistic attitudes with more rhetorical force than women in power usually feel comfortable using. They have expressed their disappointment or disdain for her words and her assumed motivations. (I’m choosing to ignore the laughable claims by Neil Mitchell and others that Gillard was actively defending Slipper’s sexism.)
Men all over Australia and the world found the PM’s righteous evisceration of Abbott’s appalling rhetoric just as thrilling as so many women did. For commentators – even someone as usually even-handed as Peter Hartcher – to characterise it as a “disappointing” and cynical attempt to shore up her numbers is the real disappointment, and a failure on their part to recognise how important it was for women (and frustrated male feminists too) to hear these things said by a person in power, to watch a woman in power point out such staggering hypocrisy while men and women in power nodded solemnly in agreement behind her. It’s political catharsis on a par with hearing the leader of the free world state his support for marriage equality.
But there’s another comparison that Gillard’s new international badass status brings to mind: the final rap battle in Curtis Hanson’s film 8 Mile, where Eminem’s white aspiring rapper Jimmy Rabbit enters a rap battle in a Detroit club full of black people whose assumption is that because he’s white, he doesn’t belong there. He proceeds to destroy his opponent’s predictable attacks on his legitimacy by pointing out that he knows what hardship is, and the privileged other guy actually has far less in common with the people in that club than he does and has no right to try and pretend otherwise; that you either live the life or you’re just a poser.Don't ever try to judge me dude
You don't know what the fuck I've been through
But I know something about you
You went to Cranbrook, that's a private school
What's the matter Doc, you embarrassed?
This guy's a gangsta? His real name's Clarence
And Clarence lives at home with both parents
And Clarence parents have a real good marriage
This guy doesn't wanna battle, he shook
Cause ain't no such thing as half-way crooks
Well, Abbott went to Riverview, not Cranbrook, but despite his apparently strong relationships with the strong women in his family he still says shitty things about and to women – and there ain’t no such thing as halfway feminist either. As soon as Gillard saw him start in on the sexism supposedly displayed by her government’s refusal to sack a speaker because of disgusting things he said about women outside of parliament (never mind that Alan Jones is allowed to remain in the Liberal Party!), she saw it as her chance, and her responsibility, to call him out for pretending even for a second to care about the denigration of women. It was bigger than the Slipper question.
Fuck this battle, I don’t wanna win
Here, tell these people something they don’t know about me.
To watch Gillard's speech in full click here.