Julia Gillard, gender and the media: Treading the tight-rope

Blair Williams asks why Julia Gillard and other women prime ministers in Westminster democracies experience gendered and misogynistic media representations.

When Julia Gillard stood in front of Australia’s House of Representatives in 2012 and spoke directly to Opposition Leader Tony Abbott about how she will not be lectured about sexism, I regained hope. As a politically-interested nineteen-year-old feminist, the first two years of my young adulthood were scarred by the constant bullying of Australia’s first woman Prime Minister. I would regularly be brought to tears after watching the news or scrolling through social media. ‘How could they do this to her? Why do they treat her like this?’ I would often ask my feminist mother, who looked at me through worried eyes; she too did not have the answers. ‘It’s disgusting,’ she would flatly reply.

Julia Gillard, with Governor-General Dame Quentin Bryce, after her swearing in as 27th Prime Minister of Australia on June, 24 2010 at Government House, Canberra. Image courtesy of the Governor-General of the Commonwealth of Australia.
Julia Gillard, with Governor-General Dame Quentin Bryce, after her swearing in as 27th Prime Minister of Australia on June, 24 2010 at Government House, Canberra. Image courtesy of the Governor-General of the Commonwealth of Australia.

However, the day Gillard stood up, fought back and declared herself a feminist was a day to rejoice. The international media celebrated her act and people abroad flocked to congratulate the nous and vigour that Gillard had shown. But my joy was short-lived, as the Australian media, politicians and the public attacked her and claimed that she was ‘playing the gender card’.

Throughout Gillard’s three years as prime minister, I constantly wondered why she experienced such a plethora of misogynistic media representation. This inevitably shaped my perspective of politics and inspired me to undertake an honours degree on the topic. Using Judith Butler’s notion of gender performativity, my thesis argued that, in a position occupied solely by men, Gillard’s gender and subversive gender performances highlighted the fragility of the seemingly natural heteronormative gender binary. Together with Butler’s idea that those who deviate from the norm are punished, this meant Gillard experienced ‘punishment’ through misogynistic media representations.

My current doctoral research asks: was this kind of treatment normal for other women political leaders from Westminster democracies? Do women from other Anglophone countries with similar political and media systems experience the levels of misogynistic treatment Gillard endured? My Ph.D. focuses on the comparison of five women: Julia Gillard (Australia); Jenny Shipley and Helen Clark (New Zealand); and Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May (Britain). My research seeks to understand why these women receive gendered media treatment.

To do this, I will look at and examine, using a content and discourse analysis, newspaper articles from their respective countries. I will compare all five women’s first three weeks in their prime ministerial roles and then undertake a case study for each, analysing an instance where they are seen to be doing something newsworthy that is ‘feminine’ and something that is ‘masculine’. For example, a case study for Gillard being ‘feminine’ that gathered media attention is when she knitted a kangaroo toy for Prince George. Theoretically, my thesis uses two underlying ideas to explain why these women experience gendered media: gender and gender performativity.

The first underlying idea focuses on gender – these women are occupying a space that has previously been reserved only for men. Therefore, when they enter the public sphere they are seen as ‘other’ or different from the ‘norm’ of men and masculinity. This is evident when we think about how politics is represented in the media. For example, election coverage uses the masculinist language of war and pugilistic analogies, which inevitably label this electoral space as masculine. Or even the way elections trivialise women by weaponising their gender to ‘other’ them.

This was recently experienced by Hilary Clinton when the media constantly discussed her gender, sartorial style and personal life with frequent references to her husband and his blunders. Though my thesis does not focus on Clinton, as the United States is not a Westminster democracy, she is a relevant but also recent figure in this discussion.

Cartoon by Bill Darbee, c. 2010. Image via Flickr.
Cartoon by Bill Darbee, c. 2010. Image via Flickr.

Thus, women leaders must display characteristics that are associated with leadership and are usually coded as ‘masculine’ whilst also retaining appropriate femininity to not seem ‘unwomanly’. This is the theory of having to ‘walk the tight-rope’ where you have to balance between not appearing ‘too feminine’ on the one hand or ‘too masculine’ on the other. If they are too ‘feminine’ then they are seen as weak and not up to the role and if they are seen as too ‘masculine’ then they are painted with the labels ‘bossy’, ‘dominating’, ‘aggressive’ and a ‘bitch’.

Think back to the 2016 presidential debates between then-US presidential candidates Donald Trump (Republican) and Hilary Clinton (Democrat). Trump was arrogant, aggressive, unprepared and at times bullying and domineering, whereas Clinton could not appear too ‘cold’ (ie. bitchy) or too ‘caring’ (ie. weak). Despite the additional limitations which Trump did not have to consider, Clinton couldn’t successfully strike a balance. When she smiled too many times she was considered condescending and creepy.

The second underlying idea my thesis draws upon is Judith Butler’s theory of gender performativity. Butler argues that the heterosexualisation of desire and heteronormativity demand distinct and binary oppositions between ‘femininity’ and ‘masculinity’, or the seemingly ‘natural’ gender binaries of ‘male’ and ‘female’. These gendered characteristics imply that masculinity and maleness are tied to ‘being [a] rational and autonomous agent’ whereas femininity and femaleness are incompatible with this autonomous rationality. Butler makes clear that such associations are not only enforced but reinforced by dominant social structures which privilege those who follow these gendered norms while disempowering those who do not. As cultural norms are crucial in defining the identity of power itself, for example hegemonic masculinity, those who deviate from these norms create illegitimacy. Those who follow the latter path, including many women politicians, are considered a threat to the stability of established gender identities. While a ‘correct’ performance of gender identity reinforces biological essentialism, Butler argues that when one ‘incorrectly’ performs gender, it ‘initiates a set of punishments both obvious and indirect’. These agents of subversion, whether its deliberate or not, are ‘punished’ by their culture and society.

The media plays an important role when it comes to representing politicians, especially women politicians. When women political leaders depart from gendered norms, I argue, they are seen to be destabilising the heteronormative gender binary. The media therefore weaponises gender against them; deliberate or not, the media ‘punishes’ them through misogynistic and gendered coverage. In other words, the media acts as not only a protector of societal gender norms but also becomes an enforcer. The media consequently ‘punishes’ gender deviation so the seemingly ‘natural’ gender norms can continue without challenge.

 Julia Gillard in red and black under Burnley bridge, Melbourne, c. 2011. Artist unknown. Image via Flickr.
Julia Gillard in red and black under Burnley bridge, Melbourne, c. 2011. Artist unknown. Image via Flickr.

It is worth noting that not all mainstream media outlets engage in these acts. However, for those that do portray these women in such ways, whether consciously or not or whether it covers them in this way to sell papers, nonetheless perpetuate the heteronormative gender binary whilst also ensuring that the patriarchy continues as usual – that men are the ones in power. This, however, is slowly changing as evident in media outlets that publish articles in opposition of such gendered treatment. This change is also dependent on societal values and ideas about gender itself.

Understanding why women prime ministers experience, on average, more personal and gendered media criticism than their male predecessors is extremely important. Perhaps the most significant objective of my research is an analysis of how gender performances and subversive iterations of gender impact the media’s treatment and portrayal of women in the ‘top job’. I believe that it is necessary to start the conversation and undertake this sort of research not only to prove to the naysayers that this phenomenon exists, but to examine why it exists and to illustrate the impacts it can have – not only on the public sphere and our political systems, but also the way we view gender norms, our values and ourselves.

While my thesis largely focuses on the past, the future is hopefully bright. To conclude, I turn to Gillard’s inspirational quote:

Smashing through a glass ceiling is a dangerous pursuit; it is hard not to get lacerated on the way through … [though] 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. And I’m proud of that.


BWBlair Williams is a Ph.D. candidate at the School of Politics and International Relations at the Australian National University. Her thesis focuses on why women prime ministers experience misogynistic representations in the media and how the media in turn construct misogyny through discourse. Blair has written feminist themed articles for local Canberran feminist journal Feminartsy, HerCanberra, BroadAgenda, ANU’s Woroni and Bossy and The University of Adelaide’s On Dit. Blair is currently working on an article that compares the media representation of Britain’s Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May to find out whether gendered media portrayals of women political leaders has changed or even gotten worse.

Follow Blair on Twitter @BlairWilliams26.

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