Culture: Agony, mistakes and misogyny (as seen at JUSTB)

Culture: Agony, mistakes and misogyny
It's not just women bloggers who face trolling issues and not just men who perpetuate unthinking misogyny. As noted in Pip's blog and the JUSTB Facebook page yesterday, women and women's media are highly capable of conveying ideas that undermine women, whether intentional or not. Sometimes it starts in high school (Princess Bitchface Syndrome and Queen Bees and Wannabees) and doesn't stop.

Pictures that pit one woman against another; celebrating beauty, hotness or thinness at the expense of character strengths or achievements; unnecessary attention to flaws; playing on weaknesses; spreading rumours; Schadenfreude... Capital ick!

Archaic patriarchal business models, 'this is just how we do things' mindlessness or fear of challenging the status quo all contribute to the problem. It's very few women's magazines, websites or blogs who can confidently say, 'I do nothing to the detriment of women!'.

I for one have certainly not been able to escape the allure of snark culture; that insidious habit of saying the first – not necessarily helpful or edifying – thing that comes to mind in an effort to pip others to the post or display some vague sign of (nit)wit. And for this I am certainly not proud.

In a moment of poor judgement, I once re-posted a cartoon of then NSW Premier Kristina Keneally depicted on the cover of a magazine (titled Kristina! Magazine). The cartoon, published in a newspaper, ran at the time before the last NSW election, where she suffered a crushing defeat but with dignity. Rather cruelly, the cartoon poked fun at Labor's campaign tactics in a series of cover lines:

"Hard Hitting Election Issue: Look! Puppies!"
"Health Care is a Warm Puppy!"
"Awwww Puppies!"
"Vote Labor and Get a Free Puppy!"

Sexist or misogynist? While satirical political cartooning is par for the electoral course, the post attracted the ire of readers immediately, with Sarah calling me out on its inappropriateness and cruelty. "It's highly unlikely I'll vote for Labor this election, but I don't see the need to degenerate our politicians," wrote Sarah quite rightly. Touche. You win. I scamper away like a puppy to the naughty corner with the toilet paper.

The internet can suck you in like that, causing you to forget your manners and mum's advice to 'say something nice or not say it at all'. The fine line between "critique" and "character assassination" can thus be averted by one simple dictum: do unto others as you would do unto yourself.

But there are always clauses; always disclaimers; always BUTs: "But we need to have free speech – it's called democracy!" or "But we need to sell magazines and this is what women are buying!" or "She deserves it, she's a celebrity and therefore public property" or "It's funny!" or "Politicians don't have feelings".

The entertainment world is as steeped in sexism and often women play to part. I love Tina Fey as much as the next woman but she goes to lengths to defend her imitation of Sarah Palin in her (excellent) book, Bossypants:

"There was an assumption that I was personally attacking Sarah Palin by impersonating her on TV. No one ever said it was 'mean' when Chevy Chase played Gerald Ford falling down all the time. No one ever accused Dana Carvey or Darrell Hammond or Dan Aykroyd of 'going too far' in their political impressions. You see what I'm getting at here. I am not mean and Mrs. Palin is not fragile. To imply otherwise is a disservice to us both."

Where do we draw the line?

I was reminded of my own culpability while watching the episode of Australian Story, featuring Kristina Keneally, called 'Something About Me'. As if Keneally hadn't had enough of being belittled on the floor of parliament or in the Sydney press or on the street ("I had one person actually spit on me," she said), it showed a personal side to the politician who did a doctorate in feminist theology with the view to creating change from within the church.

Before she entered politics, Keneally lost a baby, named Caroline, who she had carried to full term before letting the still-born baby go. "I want to make a difference in people's lives," she said, turning that grief and loss and heartache into something she could draw strength from. "Political battles are ephemeral – the loss of a child stays with you forever," she said.

Too often it's women who are the butts of the joke when we allow ourselves to slide over to the dark side, dirtying ourselves in the process. But men too must have some knocks, some chips that they're covering over with their emotional spac filler. Depression and politics often go hand in hand. Sir Winston Churchill had it. So did Bob Hawke. And John Brogden, Andrew Robb and Geoff Gallop. How did Kevin Rudd cope after being deposed?

His daughter, the author Jessica Rudd, made an appearance on ABC 24 on Sunday night, and while reluctant to weigh in on the current state of contemporary politics, she did have this to say: "I think we need to start seeing politicians as human beings... they all have horrible days, what I call doona days."

Of course! But how quick we are to stick a label on someone – politician, celebrity, blogger, activist, greenie, leftie, conservative, superficial twit – and call a spade a spade.

Not okay. Because we are all made up of so many different bits – childhoods, parents, grandparents, siblings, experiences, schools, friends, challenges, triumphs – that to reduce someone to a single title based on their profession, looks or penchant for shoes would be doing their humanity a gross dishonour. "Every daughter's job is to bring their dad back down to earth," said Rudd. Should this be a daughter's sole reserve?

Talking to Kate Waterhouse about appearing on Celebrity Apprentice, Pauline Hanson – a woman who has attracted a lion's share of ridicule and derision – said: "All of them had a preconceived idea of me and Julia [Morris] even made an apology because she used to put the knife in me on stage but she had never met me."

We are obsessed with the minutiae of people's existence because we are relational beings – we all want to feel connected and validated and like we're human and doing okay – but oftentimes it gets too personal. Yes, we over-share and even belittle ourselves in that particularly female self-deprecating way; but when someone else is doing it to you, it's quite a different case.

Misogyny swarmed around Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin during the last U.S. election like a blow-fly to a barbecue. Kirsten Powers – a FOX News political analyst and writer for The New York Post – took a particular interest in the women's media representations.

"It's okay not to like Hillary, and I would never vote for Sarah Palin, but there was a real irrational hatred towards them. The feminists, who always stand out supporting women...looked the other way," she said in an interview. "It scares women off running for office."

To think that our behaviour could deter a burgeoning young female debater from becoming a politician makes me feel ill. How can we build them up and buffer them from the unfairness, the cruelty, the dirty side of politics and the scarring remarks so they can willfully aspire to their vocation: to change the world in some positive way without having their hearts hardened to the point where they lack empathy. You surely shouldn't have to go through something as painful as Keneally to make it?

A school teacher recently posted something on my Facebook page about bullying. It painted the picture of a screwed up piece of paper that had been thrown on the floor and stomped on. Unravelling the paper, the teacher asked her class to tell the paper they were sorry; showing them that no matter how much you try to smooth it out, the damage is already done.

Princess Bitchface Syndrome has sweeping ramifications for us all; every time a woman says something snarky about another woman, we all take a step back. Oftentimes it's when our personal reserves are low – the self-esteem is shot, the belly looks like a pot, the partner has been unkind, work is far from sublime – or we want to impress overs to cover over our insecurity that we give over to these cheap shots; give in to buying the gossip magazine for a quick hit of someone other woman's problems.

"By their fruits you shall know them," Keneally once said on the parliamentary floor. Isn't that the truth? Since the Keneally episode, I have truly tried to only post that which is encouraging or edifying, while being mindful that a critical eye on the world is necessary if we are to grow more humane (hence, if something IS undermining women, then we should speak out).

Last week, a girlfriend of mine, and mother of three, was approached in the street by an acquaintance who ripped into her for her failure and selfishness as a mother in returning to work. It reminded me of the criticism heaped on Jackie O last year. Women are already in opposition to the world's dictates; do we really need someone else condoning this sort of behaviour, reminding us that we're less than great?

Perhaps what we can do in the interim is build up better defences. Tina Fey herself once famously told her haters, "You can suck it!". My own church pastor suggested this one in reference to judgemental, gossipy types: "Mind your own business!". Surely we can mind our own business and yet hold reasonable, respectful discussion about the important issues? We all make mistakes, but we're not in high school anymore. 

This column was first posted at JUSTB

See also:
'The Sian and Crooked Rib guide to sexist online abuse, and the excuses that are made to silence it and pretend it doesn't exist'.
'Women bloggers call for a stop to 'hateful' trolling by misogynist men' @ The Guardian
Christine Jackman, 'War of Words' @ The Weekend Australian Magazine
'Media Study: Bingle v Markson, Fraser-Kirk v McInnes, and sexism in the Australian media'
The GWAS Code of Commenting Conduct.

Girl With a Satchel