Monday, February 21, 2011

Men are from Mars...

By all accounts, O'Farrell was roundly defeated by Keneally in the first debate of this campaign last week, although whether anyone saw the debate is another question.

One of the theories that have been advanced for what has been described as a hesitant performance on his part is a fear of being seen as, in short, a bully.

O'Farrell is not a small man. Whilst no longer as rotund or bearded as he once was, there is no doubt that a visual image of him intimidating Keneally either by his words or his actions would be very damaging for the Coalition.

O'Farrell's concerns (if indeed he had them) are is of course on one level ridiculous - unless he threatened Keneally or used foul language, there is no justification for a suggestion that he has sought to intimidate her. That said, the gender issue in politics is often ridiculous, so I suppose we shouldn't be surprised.

When Gillard became PM, the contrast in the way the media reported on her appearance compared to her predecessor could not have been starker. Suddenly we had the All White Jacket conversation. There was speculation and reporting over her hair, her make-up and yes, even her earlobes. I can't imagine a drearier topic, but I suppose if it didn't sell it wouldn't be reported.

Is this just because reporting on men's appearance would be even duller? We never heard a thing about Rudd's appearance (although cartoonists did seem to enjoy his boyish face, Alan Moir especially). One imagines that a report that "Today Rudd wore a dark suit. And a tie. Oh, and look at his tie-clip!" would not excite any editor, even on the slowest of news days.

When Anna Bligh was North-East Queensland over this summer, I can't count the reports about what she was wearing, or the fact that she was not wearing make-up, looking tired and drawn.

This isn't aiming to be a critique of the political reporting style of our Fourth Estate - there are plenty other people who are interested in having that conversation. Rather, I've been thinking about what difference it makes that Keneally is a woman, and O'Farrell is a man.

On one hand, one would presume that a woman would have some inherent advantages over a male politician. These advantages rely to a horrible extent upon generalisations and enforced gender roles, but anyone who pretends they don't matter any way is kidding themselves. It shouldn't matter if Keneally has her hair done in an attractive way, but it does.

People instinctively see female politicians as being more mothering - kinder, more likely to understand how hard it is to raise a family, more capable of empathy. By the same token, some people see women as being more irrational, more emotionally driven, even tempestuous. One only need to look at some of the comments made about the emotion Gillard showed on the first day of parliament this year as the condolence motion was passed.

Male politicians, it seems, are far more likely to be seen as powerful, as strong and able to lead. Along with that though, comes an inference of aggression, and of a thirst for power. If O'Farrell was seen to be being a bully, that would no doubt provoke significant resentment, and not just from female voters.

This all means that the starkest difference between the two leaders will most likely not get a single mention from either side for fear of being seen as taking advantage of the situation. Gender in politics (and in life generally) is such a sensitive issue that if it ever arose the media would presumably talk about nothing else for a week, which it seem both parties see as being counter-productive.

One can barely imagine the vitriol that would be poured on O'Farrell if he even implied that people shouldn't vote for Keneally because she is female. For Labor, it is difficult to imagine how they could possibly take advantage of the situation and explicitly capitalise on the perceived positive aspects of Keneally's gender without beginning a discussion about the perceived negative characteristics.

There has been little discussion of the gender difference to date, and that is of course the way it should be. I've seen no polling on the issue either, which is interesting. Whether the reason is because no one thinks it matters, or because everyone is afraid to ask, is something I would certainly be interested to find out.


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