June 08, 2004 | Unknown

Ms Portrayal

This is a slightly edited version of a piece I wrote some time ago for Heretical, the University of Queensland’s Women’s Area publication. I thought I would drag it out since Cheryl Kernot has been mentioned again as a warning about Peter Garrett’s potential new career as a Labor parliamentarian. The inference of this discussion is that problems associated with Ms Kernot’s stint with the ALP were all about her and her status as a celebrity recruit. It’s worth remembering that there were many factors at work during Kernot’s political fall, including the woman herself, the insularity of some ALP members and the media’s relationship with her, which played out like a love affair gone badly. I suspect that since Garrett is a bloke he’ll probably be in for an easier ride, where the press are concerned at least.
In 1997, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s (ABC’s) The Media Report wondered whether Cheryl Kernot was doomed to suffer the same fate as other high-profile female politicians including Canada’s scandal-ridden former Prime Minister, Kim Campbell.
When the radio program revisited Kernot in 2002 it was apparent the program had answered its own question. Kernot’s political career was over and her memoirs had been greeted with derision and sexual innuendo.
The demise of a political career can be complex but the media has been accused of “symbolic annihilation” by the way it represents female politicians.
Former Senator Rosemary Crowley’s statement that “if you are a woman, quote, you are either a bimbo or a drone, a sex object or a drudge” neatly encapsulated discussion at the Keating Government’s National Forum into the Portrayal of Women in the Media.
If the Forum had been specifically examining the representation of female politicians, Crowley could have added harridan, emasculator and androgyne to her list. The blokes at The Bulletin explicitly used such images to oppose women’s suffrage and early political activism.
After cataclysms of the first half of the 20th century quietened feminism for a while, the male-dominated media wanted to make sure it was not re-ignited by photographing the few female elected politicians in conventionally ‘feminine’ poses. Witness, for example, a 1944 magazine cover of Labor’s first female federal Senator, Dorothy Tangney, dutifully pouring a cup of tea.
Second-wave feminists received a similar reaction to their first-wave sisters. Minister for Education in the Hawke Government, Susan Ryan, recalls the media responding to her single-motherhood by representing her “as a potential reportee to child-welfare”, while fellow Laborite, erstwhile Victorian Premier Joan Kirner became a “Mother Hubbard” figure who was devoid of sartorial elegance.
Feminist commentator Rosamund Else-Mitchell argues that it is attributes traditionally regarded as masculine that are seen as eminently suitable for the political realm. It should be conceded, however, that an increasingly jaded electorate does not necessarily view any of the qualities of our political elites highly.
In such a climate, political parties find female candidates electorally useful because voters and the media do not instinctively associate ‘femininity’ with politics. A photograph on page seven of the 4 April 1998 edition of The Australian shows a beaming John Brumby, the then Victorian ALP leader, surrounded by a bevy of preselected female candidates who had replaced male factional deadwood.
Although in that instance, a group of women were presented as restorative, more often individual women are supposed to revamp a discredited party.
Mitchell labels the interplay between parties and the media to elevate the perfect women politician to prominence as the “golden girl syndrome”. The problem for “golden girls” is that when the media catches a whiff of ‘weakness’ she gets unceremoniously pushed off her “pedestal”.
Cheryl Kernot is not the only female politician to have the media turn against her but perhaps no other has been so sanctified and then crucified in Australia. Kernot moved from Democrat anti-politician (a positive) and saviour of a floundering Labor Party to “Demo-Rat” (Laurie Oakes coined that one), red-dressed political harlot, seducer of a former student, princess, whinger, sore loser, adulteress and heaven knows what else.
Initial media reaction to Kernot’s defection from the Australian Democrats to Labor ranged from very positive to antagonistic. Informed by The Media Report’s description of predecessors like Campbell, it should have been apparent that hagiographic representations of Kernot paradoxically presaged her political doom.
Cartoonist for The Australian, Bill Leak, drew Kernot as a bare-breasted Marianne brandishing an ALP flag, while John Howard and Peter Reith lay vanquished at her feet. No flesh and blood woman could live up to such symbolism. Indeed, the 1998 National ALP Conference marked the beginning of the end for Kernot.
With tradition dictating that only certain displays, such as stoicism, are acceptable in the supposedly rational world of politics, Kernot was accused of having fluctuating emotions after she let fly at a journalist. According to Elizabeth Van Acker, author of Different Voices: Gender and Politics, Kernot received “negative coverage” after this incident.
Besides defences from a dwindling band of supporters, Kernot’s relationship with the media continued to deteriorate until it reached perhaps its lowest point with a Hollywood-like car chase after her affair with Gareth Evans was revealed.
Representations of women who are notorious, hated or in traditionally masculine occupations tell us a lot about society’s attitudes to women. While conceding politics and media lend themselves to meaningless stereotypes, surely in the 21st century newspapers and television can do better than typecasting women, as one contributor to The Media Report said, as “the saint virgin…the whore…and the mother character” and other such narrow representations”.

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