Framing Gillard in pornographic terms is part of a concerted backlash against women in power, argues Dr Helen Pringle
This is an edited extract from an essay by Dr Helen Pringle in Bewitched and Bedevilled: Women Write the Gillard Years, a collection of essays published by Hardie Grant and edited by Samantha Trenoweth. This book, write the publishers, “looks at the reasons Julia Gillard, our first female Prime Minister, was so vehemently attacked, the varied reactions to being a female prime minister, her unfortunate position at the receiving end of a barrage of sexism and misogyny and how much this played a part in her political problems, her public perception and her ultimate undoing”.
By Dr Helen Pringle
Picture this: a naked middle-aged woman, her face distorted by a crooked grimace, is sitting with her legs spread wide apart so as to expose her whole body to the world. Her breasts are bare, but her genitals are obscured by two squares, added by the sketcher of the picture as if he wished to avoid accusations of obscenity, while simultaneously humiliating his subject by marking the squares, in a juvenile way, as 1 (her vagina) and 2 (her anus). The caption to this cartoon commands its audience, ‘Tick the Right Box!’.
This picture of Anna Bligh, then Labor Premier of Queensland, was sketched on the side of a hire van during the state election campaign in March 2012. The van belonged to Wicked Campers, a global hire company founded in Queensland by John Webb. A photograph of the van was posted on the ausgamers.com site, along with this note to clarify the political issue at stake: ‘I am not sure if anyone else has seen this van getting around Brisbane but I just had to share. So people, please remember to tick the correct box, otherwise we could end up in the crapper.’
One comment on the picture read: ‘That is an eerily accurate likeness.’ Most posters on the ausgamers site laughed at the picture, writing comments on the thread like ‘rofl’, ‘hahaha!!!!!’, or ‘fucking hilarious though’. Another poster to the thread contributed to the general hilarity by adding a photoshopped picture of a naked Kevin Rudd being spanked by Julia Gillard, with Kristina Keneally looking on, both women wearing black leather and dominatrix boots. The figure of Rudd was posed to suggest he was greatly enjoying his ‘pussywhipping’.
The world to which the cartoon Anna Bligh opens her legs is increasingly shaped by such pornographic motifs and themes. The term ‘pornography’ once referred to artifacts like magazines, books, films and videos — things that were, for the most part, bought masked in special covers and consumed in non-public or intimate spaces. But our public spaces are now increasingly shaped and marked by pornographic traces, through what Linda Williams has called ‘on/scenity’ — that is, ‘the gesture by which a culture brings on to its public arena the very organs, acts, bodies and pleasures that have heretofore been designated ob/scene and kept literally off-scene’ (‘Porn Studies: Proliferating Pornographies On/Scene: An Introduction’ in Porn Studies ed. Linda Williams, 2004). Like many other academics, Williams argues that this appearance of sexual themes and scenarios on the stage of public and political life should be welcomed as indicating a lifting of sexual repression and as heralding a greater openness about sex.
Cartoons like that of Anna Bligh on the Wicked Campers van, however, make such a view of public sex seem simplistic, and suggest instead that pornographic themes and motifs can be effectively used to humiliate women and to shut down their voice in public life. That is, when our culture brings sexual themes on to its public arena, it provides new ways to subordinate women in such spaces. At the same time as women, in increasing numbers, are standing for political roles, ‘on/scenity’ accentuates the character of politics as ‘a man’s world’, in which women’s place remains insecure. Political pornification is striking not only in Australia but also in other countries where women have sought or hold high office. The form taken by derision of Hillary Clinton when she ran for the US Democratic nomination in 2007 is a case in point.
In thinking about how the pornographic is put to work to subordinate women in political life, an analogy with women’s entry into male workplaces is helpful. In some industries, like construction, engineering, and mining, the percentage of women workers still hovers around 10% (Women in NSW 2013). Women’s entry into such segregated industries is often marked by systematically intimidating, hostile and abusive behaviour towards them, such as name-calling and commands to ‘show us your tits’, hostile graffiti, or the display and use of pornographic pin-ups (Helen Pringle, ‘Pornography: The Harm of Discrimination’ OnLine Opinion 10 October 2011). A business that requires employees to work in such ‘an unsought sexually permeated work environment’ is subjecting them to unlawful discrimination.
Women’s equal standing in and enjoyment of political life is corrupted by the acceptance of similar forms of behaviour as those that qualify as discriminatory intimidation in workplaces, even where not legally actionable. When men at work display sexual cartoons or photographs of naked men or women, or call women obscene names and epithets, it is not merely rude, offensive and inappropriate behavior. It is a form of gendered power that creates and sustains a hostile environment that puts women in their (proper) place, the place of inferiority. It is also a sign, to both men and women, that women are not assured of equality of treatment.
The abuse and ridicule targeted at Julia Gillard after she became Prime Minister in June 2010 often took this gendered form. The most extreme exponent of pornographic imagery and themes as a form of political criticism and satire is the cartoonist, Larry Pickering, notorious in the 1970s for his ‘Jungle’ series and ‘Playmates’ cartoons, which depicted male politicians with strangely-shaped penises, accompanied by smutty captions. Pickering claims that he came out of retirement specifically to combat Gillard’s Prime Ministership. The full range of his post-retirement cartoons was displayed on his website, The Pickering Post, with all designs available to be printed on t-shirts and purchased from his website shop ($38, or $48 with collar).
Pickering’s characteristic style of satirizing Gillard was as a cartoon figure with a strap-on dildo. His websites also feature vicious diatribes against Gillard and other women in politics, or women commenting on politics, such as Anne Summers. ‘Understand this, Summers, it’s obnoxious vermin like you who emboldened Gillard to take the misogynist road,’ Pickering ranted after Gillard lost office (‘A vile piece of trash called Summers’ The Pickering Post, 28 June 2013, ).
Pickering’s cartoons remind women in politics, like Julia Gillard, that they are not men, and that women can only play at doing politics. The cartoons make clear that being a woman and being politically competent are out of alignment. They also make clear that a woman who attempts to ‘play the game’ as if she were a man opens herself to derision. Pickering uses his own pen to discipline such women by showing them as out of place and as thus inviting mocking laughter. The cartoons also function as a sort of ‘Virility Monologues’, a shout out to men about what is at risk or threatened by powerful women, and a warning to men about what happens when they do not successfully play the man part of the political script.
Men like Pickering who use, or rather wield, such brutal language against women are thereby marked as properly masculine — they have the capacity and power to police the world of politics to ensure that those who enter it know that its structure and its script are defined in male terms. Femininity and democratic competence are made to part ways.
It is crucial to add that Pickering’s cartoons of Julia Gillard are pornographic not because their intention is to produce sexual arousal or to incite desire for the subject of the cartoon, as is the traditional understanding of pornography. Rather, to call them pornographic is to draw attention to the way in which they incite a cruel laughter that takes delight in humiliation and that finds subordination funny. In fact, perhaps the most effective form in which sexual hierarchies are policed today is pornographic laughter, which has become the stock in trade of unrepentant discrimination.
Pornographic laughter is also used against those who voice concerns about any kind of demeaning treatment of women, whether in entertainment, advertising or political discourse. That is, the response is that pornography is all just one big joke — and that women, in particular, need to stop taking things so seriously.
Chiding women for lacking a sense of humour in regard to pornography crosses party lines. The self-styled humourist, Ben Pobjie, for example, wrote in the left-wing magazine, The King’s Tribune: ‘There are many reasons a person might be weird enough to not like pornography. For example, that person may be suffering from nervous hysteria and just need a good finger massage or fire-hose-induced orgasm to set things right’ (‘Porn. Don’t knock it ‘til you’ve tried it’ The King’s Tribune, 5 January 2012). Complaints about the pornographic depiction of women become the occasion for further mocking laughter and derision.
Images and themes drawn from pornography are increasingly used to belittle women and denigrate their standing through making them figures of fun. This is not entirely new: the cartoons and rape jokes in Playboy and Hustler, for example, have been standard features since the magazines’ inception, and were not just ‘filler’ for the nude pictures. What is new is that the use of the pornography to incite laughter against women has migrated into the heart of political discourse, as a way of humiliating those who do not know their proper place.
It is no longer considered acceptable to bar women from the political world, or to say outright that they do not belong in that world. The primary way to practise exclusion now is through a pornographic laughter at the women who enter the political world. In that world, a woman may still be openly lampooned for being (or being like) a lesbian. A woman may still be ridiculed for having too shrill a voice or for having too manly a voice (in the case of Kerry Chikarovski, for example). A woman may still be derided for being too fat or too thin or for being both at the same time (big bottom and small breasts, say). The infamous menu at the Mal Brough fundraising dinner included ‘Julia Gillard Kentucky Fried Quail – Small Breasts, Huge Thighs & A Big Red Box’. The menu was explained away by the restaurant owner as ‘an in-house joke’, as if it was just a Benny Hill-style prank (Ben Packham, ‘Restaurant owner says demeaning menu mocked up as an “in-house joke,”’ The Australian 12 June 2013).
The criticism of women in politics in the form of crude and often cruel pornographic derision is always ready to mask itself as ‘just a joke’. This peculiar mix of the pornographic and the snigger deploys itself as discrimination, while trying to defuse itself as playful and fun. The use of gender (or racial) stereotypes is often excused in this way, giving the mistaken impression that it can’t be discrimination if it is a sleazy joke.
A flourishing deliberative democracy rests on the equal standing and treatment of its members and, as Jeremy Waldron has argued, it also depends on the recognition and assurance of that equality in society’s ‘signage’ (The harm in hate speech, 2012). My concern here is not what the cartoons might cause someone to do after viewing them. The concern is what the cartoons signal or tell us about ourselves — that we live in a world in which the hatred of women is still acceptable, and still able to be openly spoken, and spoken for. Abusive or hostile remarks and jokes about women (made even to their face) are rarely prefaced by the disclaimer, ‘I’m not a misogynist but…’ Such jokes are rarely introduced by the phrase, ‘You can’t tell this joke any more, but…’ Misogyny still falls within a framework of acceptability and this framework helps to convert the prejudices of individuals into discrimination.
Our world is increasingly shaped by pornographic motifs and themes, as well as by pornographic artifacts like magazines, books, films and videos, and these motifs are no longer quarantined from political culture and public life. The migration of pornographic imagery and discourse from entertainment and commercial arenas into political spaces was accenutuated during Julia Gillard’s tenure as prime minister. Images and narratives from journalism, pop culture and especially cartoons placed Gillard in a pornographic frame, a frame signifying not just political opposition to her and her government, but a concerted backlash against women taking positions of power.
The cartoons I discuss do not merely target specific women in politics, like Anna Bligh or Julia Gillard, but assign women more broadly to a place of inferiority in the political order, and reinforce the picture of politics as a man’s world for which women are ill-suited and in which they do not fit. Pornography in public is not sexual freedom but same old, same old subordination. And despite the sniggers of its proponents, this is actually not a laughing matter.