Sending the wrong message on body image
The ACT Government has taken steps to address body image concerns, promoting media literacy and positive body image. It is examining the development of a voluntary code of conduct for retailers and supports a school curriculum looking at the how the “media might at times be sending the wrong messages to young people”.
All these initiatives I support, of course.
But it seems somewhat counter-intuitive and inconsistent that ALP Government Whip John Hargreaves would share a joke in the Assembly in which he drew attention to the physical appearance of a female colleague.
Hargreaves leant forward and said to Chief Minister Katy Gallagher and Deputy-Chief Minister Andrew Barr: “Well she ought to know”. Two of Dunne’s colleagues heard Hargreaves words across the room. One, Alistair Coe, Shadow Minister for Urban Services, demanded that Hargreaves withdraw.
While not recorded in Hansard (‘members interjecting’ is how the exchange is described) a recording has it running like this:
Coe: Are you right, John? You better withdraw it. You know exactly what you said. Have the guts to withdraw it.
Coe: Was that hard?
Hargreaves: There you are. Are you happy now?
Coe: Yes, I am.
Hargreaves: Well, all you have got to do, Alistair, all you have got to do is ask. You do not have to go and get all upset.
Coe: Better not to say it in the first place, John.
Hargreaves: Oh mate grow up. It is past your bedtime I think.
Opposition leader Zed Seselja wrote to the Chief Minister objecting to Hargreaves behaviour and Hargreaves addressed the matter the next day:
Last Thursday after I believe a week of some tension I made a remark by way of interjection intended to amuse and not to inflict any offence or any hurt. But I did say to a member and the member took offence to that remark as did her colleagues. And I wanted the Assembly to understand that firstly there was no offence intended, there was no hurt intended, but as an unintended consequence it did have that effect and I unreservedly apologise to the member. I am not going to name the member nor name the remark otherwise it just keeps the thing alive.
Mrs Dunne responded:
… I was the member who took offence and I thank Mr Hargreaves for his apology but I think that the context needs to be put on the record. Mr Hargreaves made a comment in the course of a debate which was of a personal nature about my appearance. My understanding from what my colleagues saw because I was in full flight and was only marginally aware of what he said was that he lent forward and shared the joke with the Chief Minister and Deputy Chief Minister who both, I understand, laughed at the joke.
I thank Mr Hargreaves for his apology but I also ask that the members who shared the joke should also apologise. This is a matter that raises issues about how we behave in this chamber…I think that under the new leadership of a female Chief Minister it is time to stop the personal attacks and is a sign of how this Chief Minister proposes to go on. I expect an apology from her and her deputy because they also joined in the joke.
Chief Minister Gallagher claimed she did not hear the comment. “I certainly apologise to Mrs Dunne for any offence.”
The apologies are not for the body shaming inference in and of itself, but for the offence taken by another person. Let’s not beat about the bush. Hargreaves isn’t referring to the term “pear shaped” in the way Triumph might use it as a descriptor for various body types. An underwear manufacturer isn’t using the term in a joking way. And it’s not a term I’ve ever heard applied to men.
Hargraves says – as though in his defence – that it was meant as a joke, for amusement and not to be taken seriously.
Gallagher and Hargreaves don’t seem to understand – or don’t want to – the reality that the “joke” which derides Dunne on the basis of physical appearance, is offensive to all women. And apologising because Dunne took offense puts it all back onto her for being oversensitive and not tough enough.
It’s not ‘I was wrong to use such sexist derogatory language about a female colleague in a workplace where I represent my Party as Government Whip and also my electorate’ but ‘I’m sorry you were offended’.
In Question time, Ms Gallagher described the comment as inappropriate and said she had urged Hargraves to apologise. She said he was mortified by how “upset” Dunne was. Then she added: “I am very sorry that you still feel upset about this, Mrs Dunne. I am not sure what further action I can take in order to make you feel better”.
Again, it’s about Dunne feeling “upset” and The Chief Minister – the female head of Government- not knowing how else to “make you feel better”. Why can’t Dunne just cheer up and get over it?
This issue goes beyond personal offence, but to professionalism in the workplace, the entrenched and seemingly unrelenting focus on a woman’s dress, looks and appearance – especially women in public office – and the hypocrisy of a Government claiming to care about body image issues and “wrong” media messages while sending out some bad messages of its own.
If an elected female representative can be made fun of in the place where Government exercises its power, this reflects negatively on the status of all women.