On Christmas Eve my best friend and I were celebrating the season by watching old music videos on YouTube. We were talking about Madonna and I said that I didn’t think she’d done anything particularly memorable since her 2000 song What It Feels Like For a Girl.
My friend rightly pointed out the video was pretty crap. I attempted – albeit in a slightly jet-lagged state – to convey to him that my interest was less in the imagery – although, not having seen the clip in a decade, I still remembered the Ol Kuntz Guest House – and more so in the lyrics.
By accident or by design, the song is a catchy encapsulation of gender difference. Of gender disparity.
I’m not going to provide a potted history of gender inequality here. I’ve written reams of such material in the past, and I don’t really spend much time focusing on inequality as a concept.
In recent days, however, Australian politicians have twice reminded us what it feels like for a girl to live in a world where some men don’t actually think very much of us. Equally, it’s been one hell of an insight into hypocrisy.
My rule – and one I repeat every time a politician is caught dispatching a dick pic – is that I couldn’t care less what they do in their private lives provided there isn’t a jarring conflict with their public works. If, however, a politician is actively pushing a conservative agenda and consciously working to shrink others’ liberties while privately romping with gay abandon, then I care deeply.
Such hypocrisy has recently come to the fore courtesy of a duo of Australian political dolts who have treated us to some predictable lip service while simultaneously being exposed for private ugly sexism and stereotyping.
Jamie Briggs acted like a moron at best and a wretched cretin at worst on a recent Asian business trip. Some late-night, ill-advised, Hong Kong bar shenanigans involving a female public servant led to his resignation from the cities portfolio.
During his ministerial-farewell press conference, Briggs seemed cognisant of the “particularly high standards for ministers”. And such standards were clearly at play in his goodbye letter to the prime minister when he publicly patted himself on the back for choosing – so incredibly nobly – not to name the woman who dared question his conduct in order "to protect her privacy and at her request”.
Such nobleness, such honour, continued when Briggs circulated the woman’s photograph, before and, again, after she dared complain about his behaviour. Cue pretty much anyscholarly work about the psychology and politics underpinning revenge porn.
What it feels like for a girl.
Peter Dutton, yet another minister – charged professionally, albeit ironically, with the task of making us feel secure, and who is no stranger to the public apology – has committed one hell of a fat-finger fumble. In a so-very-dignified attempt to slag off a female journalist to his mate – shock horror, that mate being Briggs – he somehow managed to text the journo herself, calling her a “mad fucking witch”.
These cases aren’t just about men being dickheads. Dickheadery here is an apt summation, sure. But there’s more to it. Here we have two elected representatives – two ministers – who have granted us insight into what they actually think of women.
We have two men charged with representing their electorates, setting a standard, setting a national mood. And who have contended, apparently, that casual misogyny is fine, is larrikin, is Australian.
What it feels like for a girl.
Each March I find myself doing a fairly standard commercial radio interview. It’ll always be with an affable male host and he’ll invariably ask why we’re still talking about gender, about whether we still need an International Women’s Day and about whether this whole bra-burning fiasco isn’t all a bit passé.
I’ll toss out a few examples of inequality, here and abroad, and he’ll make a joke about “maybe having an International Men’s Day next year” – ha ha ha, he he he – and I’ll go about the rest of my day.
As someone who doesn’t walk around feeling unequal most of the time, I understand that for a lot of people in Australia – even for a lot of women – things don’t seem particularly dire here. Certainly not when there are women who can’t drive or vote elsewhere. Definitely not when honour killings / forced marriage / female genital mutilation are the problems of other places.
And yet, I’m always most interested in the minutiae; in how quick we are to dismiss something as a “first-world problem”. I’m fascinated by just how ready we are to dub the spotlighting of sexism as “whinging” and to claim that there are bigger fish to fry, larger problems to worry about and more important issues to devote time, money and column inches to.
For me, the fact that it seems so very familiar that a male politician would call a woman a “mad fucking witch” is because this kind of misogyny has become our ambient noise. We’re used to it. It’s only news now because it’s summertime and we’re all still in a turkey coma.
Publicly, Briggs spoke of high standards and respect for privacy and process. In private he showed that his standards are subterranean.
Publicly, Dutton admitted to sending the stupid text message but couched his confession in a statement about he and the journo’s shared “robust” banter.
Both men framed their explanations in gender-neutral terms. Their behaviour was sub-optimal, sure, but apparently merely of the generic kind. No acknowledgement – predictably – was made that it’s nearly always women who get sexually harassed, or that words like witch and bitch and crone and shrew don’t have male equivalents.
Seemingly such behaviour – such banter – is all too commonplace to be read as gendered and scandalous and reprehensible.
If harassing colleagues in bars and calling women witches is not worth discussing, then we’re considering it OK. Then we’re viewing it as part of the landscape of Australian life. Then we’re consenting that this is what it feels like for a girl.