Gender, Media, and Leadership: The Case of Julia Gillard

Political scientist Linda Trimble reflects on her new book, Ms. Prime Minister: Gender, Media, and Leadership (University of Toronto Press, 2017).

I started writing Ms. Prime Minister: Gender, Media, and Leadership well before Julia Gillard won the top job in Australia. Intending to offer a detailed analysis of news reporting about three women prime ministers – Canada’s Kim Campbell and New Zealand’s Jenny Shipley and Helen Clark – I could not resist the allure of another compelling story. As was the case for Shipley and Clark, Gillard’s ascent to the upper echelons of power was narrated as a melodrama, replete with villains and victims, emotion and pathos, myths and morals. The moral of Gillard’s particular story, revealed at its denouement, was simple: never play the so-called “gender card.” And, as it turns out, never underestimate the discursive resonances of a phenomenon Canadian political scientist Sylvia Bashevkin aptly terms the “discomfort equation” (women + power = discomfort) in her book, Women, Power, Politics: The Hidden Story of Canada’s Unfinished Democracy (2009). Gillard’s final words as prime minister, spoken as she left that office with dignity and remarkable good humour, resonated so profoundly that I use them as powerful and prescient book-ends for this monograph.

I launch Chapter 1 with Julia Gillard’s widely quoted observation:

The 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 … it explains some things.

Similarly, gender explains some things about the ways in which the news media narrate women prime ministers’ careers. Not all reporting is gendered – far from it – but gender stereotypes were abundant in mainstream newspaper accounts of Gillard’s leadership. While Gillard’s rise to power was celebrated, and Australia’s first woman prime minister was not infrequently praised for her strength, intelligence and fortitude, I argue that a considerable amount of the news about her three years in office was profoundly de-legitimising.

Ms. Prime Minister carefully analyses news reporting about Campbell, Shipley, Clark, and Gillard at key points in their careers, from their ascents to the party leadership role to their exits from the prime minister’s office. Gillard’s media coverage was the most overtly and perniciously sexist. Gender served as a central reference point in reporting about her rise to the top through a process widely deemed a leadership “coup,” during which Australian journalists cast Gillard as a puppet of the shadowy powerbrokers within the Labor party. Her looks, sexual attractiveness, marital situation and childlessness were relentlessly dissected by a press corps determined to mark the unusualness of a woman’s body in the upper echelons of power. And when Gillard dared to speak out about the sexism and misogyny she had endured while in that office, she was vilified in the newspapers for unfairly “playing the gender card” and waging a destructive “gender war.”

Prime Minister Julia Gillard and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton fter their bilateral meeting at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., on March 8, 2011. Image via U.S. Department of State.

At this point, some readers might want to exclaim that all politicians are roundly criticised, especially when they make mistakes. As such, Gillard deserved to be castigated for her own actions and her government’s policies. Well, sure. The media perform an essential accountability function, and their reviews can be biting. But what I’m talking about here is not the sorts of insightful commentary about maladroit decisions or adroit investigative revelations of government ineptitude that render the “unlovable press” so valuable in a democracy. Instead, I am referring to persistent and demeaning commentary about the prime minister’s physical persona and vicious condemnation of her willingness to speak about sexism in parliament. None of Gillard’s male predecessors or successors have been “pornified” in mainstream news coverage, and none have been so violently condemned for speaking about their experiences while in that office.

“Pornification” is a technique of condemnation and discipline. It works by highlighting an individual’s sexuality in contexts that are not typically sexualised. In Gillard’s case, by describing her “damned sexy,” and “the kind of babe that made conservative men quiver,” news writers cast the newly minted PM as an object of sexual fantasy. Journalists chose to highlight similarly lascivious sentiments expressed in the electorate, as “evidenced” by Facebook groups titled “Julia Gillard is the hottest ‘fanta-pants’ in Australia” and “Is she, or is she not, the hottest ranga you ever saw?” (141-142). Journalists persisted with the “our PM’s a hot babe” theme during the 2010 election campaign by presenting Gillard as a sexual temptress who strategically deployed her charms to win support from voters and media personnel alike.

Julia Gillard and Tim Mathieson, National Flag Raising and Citizenship ceremony, Canberra, January 26, 2013. Photograph by Nick-D. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

And, stunningly, unbelievably, Gillard’s love life became the plot device of a four-part television comedy series titled At Home with Julia (2011), broadcast by the ABC while she was still in office. Eschewing political satire for a personal twist, the program zeroed in on the prime minister’s relationship with her intimate partner Tim Mathieson. The Gillard character, played by Amanda Bishop, was shown throughout artfully dodging the marital advances of a wedding-obsessed Mathieson, portrayed by Phil Loyd. Pornification was most evident in a scene in which the couple shared a post-coital cuddle on the floor of the prime minister’s office, their nude bodies partially shrouded by the Australian flag. As these examples illustrate, the nation’s first woman prime minister was portrayed by mainstream news commentators and the public broadcasting corporation alike as an appropriate subject of the pornographic imagination.

That Gillard’s sexual persona became the site of derisory online and social media commentary was seldom observed and even more rarely condemned by the press. Only when her departure from office seemed imminent did a columnist from the Sydney Morning Herald acknowledge that she had been “sexualized in a way no previous prime minister has been sexualized.” As the examples offered in Ms. Prime Minister, and even more abundantly enumerated by Anne Summers’ 2012 speech and article “Her Rights at Work: The Political Persecution of Australia’s First Female Prime Minister,” illustrate, these interventions ranged from inanely chauvinistic to malicious to hateful (142-3, 200). Yet when Gillard stood in parliament and castigated opposition leader Tony Abbott for expressing sexist and misogynist views and for calling her a liar, a bitch, and a witch, she was accused of sparking a destructive “gender war.” The trope of the unjust war dominated news coverage of the speech, and the prime minister’s words were deemed unfounded, farcical, outrageous and dangerous. This was a strategy of containment, and one that worked. When their female prime minster dared to point out the many ways in which she had not been accorded a “fair go,” commentators reacted swiftly to characterise the speech as a form of illegitimate political discourse, thereby re-instantiating cherished national myths of equal opportunity and fair play.

In her final remarks as prime minister, Gillard sounded a note of optimism:

What I am absolutely confident of is it will be easier for the next woman, and the woman after that, and the woman after that.

I echo this sentiment in the concluding chapter of Ms. Prime Minister. It will be easier for the next woman because the Australian media’s fetish for firsts has been (somewhat) sated, and the sight/site of a woman in power is no longer unusual. After all, seven women have held the office of state premier, and two states have had seen more than one woman in the top job. It will be easier because the presence of women in high-profile, powerful leadership roles visibly disrupts gender stereotypes, notably by challenging the assumption that it is invariably men who take charge while women take care. It will be easier because Gillard departed from the role with such dignity and such a strong message of hope, despite wearing the battle scars from the so-called “gender wars.” It will be easier because her premiership positioned gender a site of discussion and contestation, exposing and exploding some of the discursive landmines that could, if left untouched, destroy another woman’s political career.

All that said, women’s struggle to achieve mediated legitimacy is far from over. What are the lessons for the woman who will, hopefully sooner rather than later, become Australia’s second woman prime minister? The final chapter of Ms. Prime Minister offers six lessons to be learned from the experiences of Gillard, Campbell, Shipley and Helen Clark.

First, and especially relevant to the Australian context, avoid the specter of the “coup,” which unfairly situates women who initiate leadership “spills” as vicious bunny-boilers. If timing is beyond your control, the new leaders’ staff and the party itself must be prepared to manage the narrative, pitching a leadership turnover as a legitimate and necessary political decision-making process, not a bloody execution.

Second, deliberately model certain leadership qualities, with the goal of prompting the media’s use of acclamatory words such as resilient, intelligent, capable, strong, knowledgeable, and inspiring. For the communication team: don’t describe your candidate as a strong woman, or the female contender, as this sort of phrasing positions gender as the focal point of the story. It’s not. The focus should be on her skills, ideas, acumen, and experience.

Third, carefully craft a family strategy. This is difficult, because women with conventional nuclear families are accused of neglecting caring duties, while women without one husband and 2.5 kids are called “deliberately barren” and pundits ask if they can truly represent “Australian families.” So it’s best to neither emphasise nor downplay your personal life. We all have families, with beautifully diverse configurations, so accentuate the importance of the extended family and the value of personal and political friendships. Explain that the policy needs of families are best understood by empathetically listening to all citizens.

Fourth, because press and public alike will comment on your looks, wardrobe choices, hairstyle, it’s (unfortunately) necessary to accept grooming is a key part of the leadership performance. While there is no set uniform for women politicians, it is possible to convey gravitas through careful adornment and styling. Hopefully, when enough women occupy elite political roles, ideas about what a leader should look like will broaden to the extent that women’s bodies are no longer seen as remarkable. (That said, I will probably die of shock when I read the words “she looks like a prime minister” for the first time!).

Fifth, act allegorically. The news media rely on metaphors to tell stories about politics, and journalists draw so liberally on allegories of sport and battle that we now understand political competition as a form of bloody combat. To be perceived as capable of winning the metaphorical war, leaders must project confidence, determination and forcefulness. These qualities, falsely associated with men and the performance of masculinity, tend to be enacted differently by women, but no less authentically. For example, strength and competence are demonstrated when leaders model “power with” (power enacted alongside others) and “power through” (achieving goals through collaboration).

Sixth, anticipate the use of, but don’t deploy the “gender card.” As Julia Gillard’s experience reveals, this is a card every woman politician is dealt and opponents certainly do not hesitate to play it to their own advantage. But a woman leader risks censure when seen to play the card herself by drawing attention to the gender bias she endures every day merely by participating in public life. Since it is politically debilitating for women politicians to highlight the sexist, biased and hateful treatment directed at them, it is incumbent upon the media and citizens alike to do this work. Australian news organizations had a responsibility to report on, and denounce, the shameful treatment of Gillard. When the next woman prime minister emerges, will the media do better?


Linda Trimble is a Professor in the Political Science Department at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada. Her most recent work is Ms. Prime Minister: Gender, Media, and Leadership (University of Toronto Press, 2017).

Follow Linda on Twitter @DrLindaTrimble.

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