Australia’s renewed focus on gender politics: Human rights in the media in November

By Pia White
Picture of graffiti that says "I Heart Feminism"

Amid the G20 coverage and the announcement of funding cuts to the ABC and SBS, a persistent media presence this month was the topic of gender. Various (sometimes surprising) incidents prompted far-reaching examinations of the role and treatment of women in society.

Julie Bishop distances herself from feminism

This month, politicians past and present offered up divergent personal opinions and experiences on women and feminism. Ever since it was revealed that she would be the only woman in Tony Abbott’s cabinet, Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop has faced scrutiny over how she embodies this role. Earlier in the month she directly addressed the renewed focus on her gender by publicly rejecting the label “feminist” in an address to the National Press Club, stating that it was not a term she found “particularly useful these days”. One of the main criticisms feminists levelled at Bishop following the comments was that she failed to acknowledge that occupying the position she is currently in owes much to the societal changes brought about by feminism.

In response to Bishop’s statements, Deputy Opposition Leader Tanya Plibersek identified herself as a feminist and discussed what this means to her. In what would seem to be acknowledgement of Bishop’s critics, Plibersek states: “I am a feminist… Because I understand how very fortunate I am. And I’m grateful to the women (and men) who’ve made that possible.”

While it is disappointing to witness one of the most influential women in the country seemingly denying the challenges that many women still face, for example by denying ever having experienced the “glass ceiling” (particularly when so much evidence to the contrary is still so prevalent), the fact that two such visible female leaders in a traditionally male-dominated field are around to foster such discussions may be something to celebrate in and of itself.

Mark Latham offers his unprompted view on motherhood

Former federal opposition leader Mark Latham offered an entirely more unsolicited opinion on feminism, writing a piece for the Australian Financial Review exploring his experiences of child rearing and fatherhood. He wrote the piece in response to an article by Lisa Pryor where she revealed she takes anti-depressants and discussed the role that they play in helping her manage raising two young children while studying medicine full time.

His piece attracted a lot of criticism for the sweeping statements he made about “inner city left feminism” demonising children and for his classification of left feminism as a “psychoneurotic disorder”. Some suggested Latham was revealing a hatred of women and others argued that the column never should have been published. In any case, the piece calls into question why it is that a middle-aged, middle class male feels entitled to lecture and criticise women on feminism and motherhood.

Karl Stefanovic’s “sexism experiment”  

Issues of gender inequality were also thrust into the public discourse by Karl Stefanovic. Although a seemingly unlikely ally, the breakfast television host revealed he had been wearing the same suit on the Today show every morning for a year, without anyone noticing. Stefanovic conducted the “sexism experiment” in response to the unending criticism received by his co-host, Lisa Wilkinson for her wardrobe choices. He sought to highlight that while he is critiqued on how he performs in his job, women working in the television industry are much more often judged on their appearance alone. The stunt not only sparked an interesting dialogue about women in the media at home, but also made headlines abroad.

Julien Blanc, the “pick up artist” 

Additionally, the public objection to the arrival of self-described “pick up artist,” Julien Blanc in Australia commanded significant media attention. Blanc had a number of seminars scheduled around the country where he would teach attendees how to “seduce women”. An online petition against him garnered over 50,000 signatures and the hashtag “#takedownjulienblanc” began trending on Twitter. Protesters took objection to Blanc’s racist and misogynistic attitudes towards women and the tactics he taught followers, which have been described as violent and abusive. The online outrage soon manifested in a physical protest against a seminar Blanc was holding on a boat along the Yarra after venues around Melbourne declined to host his event. Shortly after this, Immigration Minister Scott Morrison cancelled Blanc’s visa, condemning Blanc’s views as derogatory to women and he was forced to leave the country without running any further events.

“While the voices of those clinging to sexist ideals such as Julien Blanc are still finding outlets, the responses of those speaking out against them seems to be getting louder all the time.”

Redfoo slammed for misogynistic song lyrics

The power of public disapproval of sexism was also demonstrated after singer Redfoo was forced to address claims that a song he is featured on is sexist and offensive. The song effectively depicts a group of women being belittled for refusing to drink alcohol and “party” with the singers and rappers, trivialising rape and assault.

After the considerable backlash against the song, Redfoo appeared on radio to discuss the allegations that song promotes rape culture. The singer stated by way of apology that “if anything I’ve done in the past, or this song, or something in the future, if it offends you, that’s not my intent,” and claimed they were “just trying to make a fun song, a party song.” While Redfoo’s apology left much to be desired, it is heartening to note that over 23,000 people signed a petition to have him sacked as an X Factor judge and according to one source, it is unlikely that his contract will be renewed.

While it is a difficult to properly quantify, it certainly seems that issues of gender equality are receiving more media attention of late. While the voices of those clinging to sexist ideals such as Julien Blanc are still finding outlets, the responses of those speaking out against them seems to be getting louder all the time. Instances such as Blanc being expelled from the country and Redfoo being held accountable for propagating sexist ideas show that not only are more people committed to speaking up against misogyny, but that that the efforts are yielding results. Clementine Ford sums it up nicely when she states that the “the tide is turning on sexism and misogyny in Australia”.