Gender equality

Sex, Freedom and Misogyny

Extract from Quarterly Essay 50, Unfinished Business: Sex, Freedom and Misogyny, by Anna Goldsworthy. Out now. www.quarterlyessay.com


Q&A, broadcast on Monday nights, offers a parallel version of Question Time. Tony Jones presides over a panel of politicians and public figures, who nervously field questions from the studio audience and home viewers on the issues of the day. Accompanied by a live Twitter feed, the audience response provides some barometer of public feeling.

On 19 March last year Germaine Greer participated in a panel on “politics and porn in a post-feminist world.” She offered a succinct assessment of the prime minister, invoking Gillard’s own ethos of getting things done: “She’s an administrator, she gets things done, she understands that she has to constantly get people on side, give people jobs to do, make sure that they do them. It’s unglamorous, it’s not star material, but it’s what she’s been doing.”

At this point her commentary took a different turn: “What I want her to do is get rid of those bloody jackets! … They don’t fit. Every time she turns around, you’ve got that strange horizontal crease which means they’re cut too narrow in the hips. You’ve got a big arse, Julia, just get on with it!” The audience roared with laughter; the camera cut to panelist Christa Hughes, mouth agape with delight. As Greer must have predicted, this last sentence became the sound bite. Any complexity in her argument was overridden by that gleeful Tourette’s moment, the ever-dependable punchline: She’s got a big arse!

And so the prime ministerial arse became fair game. Early the following week, Tony Abbott agreed that “Germaine Greer was right on that subject”; in a later edition of Q&A, the satirist Barry Humphries claimed to have “got it better” with the observation that “Julia would be interesting on a bike … just get a mental picture of that.” When Greer returned to Q&A in August, she conceded that it was an “unwise speech,” but defended her position: “You don’t understand how tough it is for little girls who think that to have a fat arse is to be dead, is to be finished. Women are fat arsed creatures. Go right ahead, Julia. Wave that arse.”

On the surface, this might be a sound point. It is still accepted that the cruellest insult a woman can receive is one that impugns her appearance: hence the silencing power of “fat” and “ugly.” Tanya Plibersek remembers being rebuked while campaigning for having a “fat face”: “I had no emotional response to it all – I just didn’t care whether he thought I was fat or not – but I thought it was a really unusual criticism. I mean, if he talked to me about letting down my electorate, if he talked to me about a policy issue I cared about, it would have had much greater impact on me than an insult about how I looked.”

The employment participation minister, Kate Ellis, makes a similar point about one of her own Q&A appearances: “[The respondents] were saying and Kate Ellis sitting there with all her Botox and her hair extensions and at that point I thought – they’re actually just talking rubbish, but they’re focusing on appearance because they think that’s the thing that’s going to hurt me the most. And that’s what people do with women, they think we care.”

Perhaps Greer’s remark was offered in this spirit, as a prophylactic insult, proof that such things should not stick. And probably it did not stick much to Gillard, who has sustained much worse and just got on with it. But by making Gillard’s butt the butt of the joke, Greer only reaffirmed its relevance. This was fat joke posing as cultural critique. Any little girl who imagined that “to have a fat arse is to be dead” would have found little reassurance in the laughter of that studio audience.



Although it was not mentioned in the misogyny speech, there has been a constant hum of chatter in the media about Gillard’s appearance: her earlobes, bottom, cankles, shoes, jackets, haircuts and even her spectacles, which opened their own Twitter account in January. We have in fact seen considerably less of the prime ministerial body than the body of the leader of the Opposition, and yet there has been an anxiety to remind us of its existence. Some of this has been idle gossip; some has taken a darker hue. In internet memes, Gillard’s head is photoshopped onto giant female nudes. It is misogyny’s standard fare: You have a female body, shame! Back in your box! Then we no longer have to listen to you.

Such scrutiny is not limited to Australia. Hillary Clinton described it as the “significance of the insignificant,” telling the writer Ayelet Waldman, in an article for Marie Claire, that “I no longer fight it. I no longer complain about it. It’s just what you have to live with.” The demands of grooming represent a significant temporal handicap for the prominent woman; more problematically, they divert attention from her message. Senator Penny Wong finds it “trivialising that people want to talk about what someone looks like or focus on that rather than on an issue which is actually important.” According to a veteran reporter quoted in Waldman’s article, “the story is never what [Clinton] said, as much as we want it to be. The story is always how she looked when she said it, or what she was doing when she said it.” It is as if we were capable of processing only one type of sensory input at a time. The noise of a woman’s appearance – too low heels/too high heels/shiny nose/inappropriate cleavage/frumpy dress/bad hairstyle – drowns out all other information, and becomes a type of silencing, regardless of intent.

Gillard sees this as a “critical mass issue,” suggesting that “if you look around the world at other democracies and the number of women, if there’s a first female leader or a couple of very prominent women, then it’s got to be appearance appearance appearance and then when it gets to more routine it falls away, because it’s not as intriguing anymore.”

But does appearance appearance appearance ever fall away? Although women are very well represented in our community, they have not been released from this scrutiny. The point is made constantly: a woman must strive to be attractive. Some celebrities, for being professional beauties, might invite such criteria, but it extends to all women. She might be a Booker Prizewinning author, politician, scholar, miner or comedian, but let’s cut to the important question: what does she look like?

As a woman, it is difficult to take a stand against this. Should you question it, the scrutiny turns – inevitably – to your own appearance. Could this be sour grapes? Are you a poor loser in the looking contest? Or is it a perverse form of narcissism? Is it – as Naomi Wolf, author of The Beauty Myth, was frequently accused of – an attempt to draw attention to your own good looks?

The problem is there are no real winners in the looking contest. Beauty might be a form of power, but it is a limited power, predicated upon the approving gaze. It contains a note of beseechment, however artfully concealed. And it is a power with a built-in redundancy.

“I just turned 29 so I probably don’t have that many good years left in me,” confessed Gwyneth Paltrow to the magazine NY Rock in 2001. In 2001, a UK study found that women start to feel invisible at forty-six. Our definition of female beauty is inextricably bound up with youth, so that even with the most expert interventions, it becomes an investment of ever-diminishing returns. According to this equation, the best one can hope for after a certain age is to be a fascinating freak, a youth impersonator: Joan Collins at seventy, Demi Moore at fifty.

For the beautiful woman, age is a particular cruelty. Perhaps there is a note of ambush in her expression: she is not practised in plainness, and age has caught her by surprise. Having escaped other laws of average, she imagined she might escape this too, that the usual rules of the flesh would not pertain. But age is a relentless democratiser. At some moment every woman realises the game is up: that she is now on the downward leg rather than the ever-promised ascent; that from here onward the Cinderella promise no longer applies; that she will not – gasp – be getting any more beautiful. And so her reluctant efforts in front of the mirror are no longer animated by hope, but by dutifulness, as proof that she has not let herself go.

It would be comforting to blame this on the patriarchy, except that women police beauty as much as men. We reinforce it as we comment idly upon the newsreader’s hair, or as we pore – with moral indignation – over Worst Dressed Celebs. The journalist Natasha Hughes complained in the Age that you see “women in their lateish fifties … schlepping about looking disgruntled with life and themselves. There’s a bitterness, a resignation … I think it was Catherine Deneuve who said that getting ready takes so much longer as you get older. That the older you get, the earlier you have to get up to get ready just to look OK. She’s French, of course, but why don’t Australian women seem to do that?”

Perhaps Australian women have done the maths and found that getting up even earlier “just to look OK” no longer computes. Writing for the Toronto Star, the columnist Tracy Nesdoly found something to celebrate in this: “The wolf whistles may have stopped but, if I am to be honest, I’m grateful for the silence – there was a kind of invisibility associated with that as well.”

It is futile to campaign against beauty. We are a visual species; sight remains our dominant sense. Women’s and men’s magazines alike are glossy tributes to female beauty. We are all looking, and we are all looking all the time. And beauty is beautiful. To do away with it would be to inhabit the bleak egalitarian universe of Kurt Vonnegut’s Harrison Bergeren: “The year was 2081, and everybody was finally equal … Nobody was better looking than anybody else … All this equality was due to the 211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments to the Constitution, and to the unceasing vigilance of agents of the United States Handicapper General.”

But if we are not to do away with beauty, could we at least reconsider its status as prerequisite? Not only to getting ravished, but to being heard? As a woman, you learn early that you are attractive or you are invisible. If you are invisible, you are frequently inaudible also. And so the young woman checks the eyes of the men she passes on the street, seeking a type of confirmation. To be desired is to be allowed to exist. Caitlin Moran has described fashion as a game, “but for women it’s a compulsory game, like netball, and you can’t get out of it by faking your period. I know – I have tried.” But it is not only fashion that is compulsory: it is also hair and makeup and cankle-management and ensuring at all times that your bottom remains within acceptable limits.

“What kind of impact does this coverage have?” asks Julia Baird. “Well, firstly, it is a serious disincentive for other women to join politics.”

The young woman glances away from Facebook for a moment, to join her parents to watch Q&A, for a brief window into adult discourse. What does she learn? That if she steps into the public sphere, she is asking to be undressed by the electorate. That if the prime ministerial arse is too big, it is quite possible that hers is too. That if she succeeds to the extent of becoming Australia’s prime minister, she will still have failed at being a woman, because she’s got a big arse!


Anna Goldsworthy

Anna Goldsworthy is a writer and a pianist. Her most recent book is Melting Moments, and her most recent album is Trio Through Time.

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