There has been a gendered turn in Australian politics, and to women and men alike, it should be an unwelcome one. The popularity of feminist analyses of 2013’s federal electioneering represents an intensification of sexist discourse in the Australian media that should be rejected.
Let’s make it clear that feminism is not a thing that comes in a single piece. In her 1992 book Who Stole Feminism?, American philosopher Christina Hoff Sommers identified a branch of feminism that she calls “gender feminism.” Opposed to an earlier, classically liberal branch of feminism based on the full extension of universal human rights to women, gender feminism in Sommers’ view is misandric and gynocentric, and unnecessarily criticizes and seeks the abolition of differentiated gender roles. It is this latter kind of feminism–gender feminism–that now appears to dominate Australian discourse about women’s issues.
In recent articles by Ben Pobjie, Ben Eltham, and Van Badham, published in The Guardian, we see a misrepresentation of Australian sexism as one-directional, aimed solely at women by men. Badham argues that the main reason Gillard is subject to criticism by the Opposition is that her body “doesn’t match” those of the “dudes in suits in the National Portrait Gallery.” Ben Eltham writes that “many men find gender discussions uncomfortable. They find them uncomfortable because they threaten male power.” Pobjie writes that “I understand the urge to deny that sexism is happening, because I’m a man and I hate talking about sexism: it makes me feel guilty and self-conscious.”
Sexism is absolutely a reality in Australian culture. The disappointing thing is that those who are most vocally opposed to its application to women are frighteningly apt to be sexist towards men. Eltham and Pobjie’s comments are one example: they stifle male discussion of gender feminist discourse by insisting that the major reason men might question it is because they are afraid.
This totalizing assumption based on sex characteristics exhibits the central feature of sexism: a tendency to foreground sex characteristics at the expense of individual ones, often in a move to dehumanize another, place them in an outgroup, and deny them equal and fair consideration. In this case, men are discouraged from raising the point that gender feminist political analyses may be inherently questionable, by discrediting all male critics as having a base motivation.
Yet there are excellent grounds for attacking the central pieces of the gender feminist narrative now popular:
- men are the only sexist sex
- all men and only men are responsible for sexism and sexual abuse, and for stopping it
- all men systematically oppress all women
- women are the only victims of sexism
All these insinuations are themselves sexist.
Returning to an analysis of Australian political discourse, the focus on sexist insults aimed at Gillard in “Menugate” ignore that the leader of her government’s opposition, Tony Abbott, has also been the subject of insults that draw on sex-based stereotypes. He has, as the Sydney Morning Herald reported in 2012, been “Gina Rinehart’s butler,” “a dodgy snake oil salesman” a murderer, “like Jack the Ripper,” “a thug,” and “a poster-child for … vile, bully-boy values.” The more recent claim that he is a misogynist (a woman hater) wilfully ignores that his traditional views on abortion and the role of women in the family are inspired by his Catholic faith, which both men and women hold.
None of this is necessarily to defend Abbott: the incivility displayed by him and by members of his party is lamentable–but it exists in the cultures of both of Australia’s major parties, and is directed at people of both sexes.
Pointing this out should not be understood as any pleading for special treatment or as a reason to ignore issues that affect women. But it does show that we do not, as the gender feminist argument goes, live inside a patriarchy in which women and only women are systematically oppressed and abused.
Badham asks, “If Julia Gillard isn’t safe from the Liberals’ sexism, who will be?” One answer is that if critics of male anti-female sexism ignore the bi-directionality of sexism within our society, no-one at all will be safe, whichever of two very disappointing sides they happen to pick.