I’ll be watching with interest the characterisation — and caricaturisation — of Australia’s new PM, especially as compared to Helen Clark. Some of you might be aware that I once wrote a research paper on the characterisation of Clark by John Banks and Lindsay Perigo in talk radio during 2007. I was informed at the time that, via the usual academic networks, a copy made its way from Victoria University of Wellington to someone at the Australian National University in Canberra who had contacts within the then-Deputy Leader’s office, and that Gillard had read it with some interest. I’m not sure how true that is, but I do know she took a keen interest in Helen Clark’s public image, likely with this very eventuality in mind, so it isn’t altogether implausible.
The Clark-Gillard comparison is a natural one, due partly to geographical and temporal proximity; but also due to genuine similarities between their politics, manner and ascent to power. The comparisons have been highly ambivalent. The usual slanderers have already begun spreading the same ludicrous assertions that Gillard, like Clark, is a closet lesbian, on the grounds that she hasn’t had children and is more apparently bolshy than her husband. Apparently very deep in the closet, since she’s come out against gay marriage. (But then, she would, wouldn’t she?)
Peter Cresswell described her as Helen Clark with lipstick, which I guess is negative as to her politics but positive as to her perceived femininity, notwithstanding that Clark did in fact wear lipstick herself. Auckland University’s Jennifer Curtin pointed out some comparisons as to the two women’s assumption of their roles, though I can’t help but think she must have a more nuanced and complex position on the topic than was suitable for an AAP statement:
“They’ve both started off on the left but moved kind of to the centre of their party,” she said. They both appear to be hard workers, good speakers and have made similar choices in selecting their political allies and portfolios – opting to avoid women’s policies specifically. “If they represent women they do it in a more mainstream kind of way,” Curtin said.
Clark’s biographer Brian Edwards, speaking on ABC Radio National, outlined the similarities in more detail:
Well there are extraordinary similarities. I’ve been reading some of the reports about Julia Gillard in the papers here in New Zealand, and it’s absolutely uncanny, and what we’ve just heard is also true, that from the start, Helen Clark was a professional politician, she was absolutely focused, her intention I guess, long term, was to be prime minister, and she would do everything possible to do that. And if you look at the two women, as I say, the similarities are remarkable. Both unmarried, both decided, clearly, that being a politician and aiming to be prime minister did not go with having children, that was the decision, a positive decision which Helen Clark made, she and her partner, Peter Davis. Helen in fact, never wanted to get married and was actually more or less pushed into it by the Labour Party, and wept on her wedding day, which was relatively unusual. She was an atheist, she received some of the same sort of criticisms that I gather Julia Gillard has received in your country for her voice, she had a strong Kiwi accent, a rather deep voice; for her looks, people didn’t like the look of her hair, they didn’t like the look of her teeth; she was accused of being a lesbian, primarily by her opponents admittedly in those early days, and had an extraordinarily hard struggle to make it at all.
And these were all things that a man would not expect to happen at all in politics. None of those things would have come up if the man was a bachelor or was married or didn’t have any children, or any of those other things.
Clark fought these attacks, in part, by recourse to a “makeover” in mid-2005, when she appeared on the cover of women’s magazines — notably Woman’s Weekly — more heavily made up, more softly and sympathetically portrayed and generally appealing more directly to women, and to men who, if they had to be led by a sheila, wanted to be led by a real sheila. This was probably crucial to her winning the 2005 election. Gillard, The Australian tells us today, already has a similar glossy campaign well underway. It’s a good move. (Anyone who wants to call it fake or staged or a cheap trick or blatant media sycophancy to make such an appeal had better first recall John Key’s appearance on Gone Fishin’ (audio), and accompanying article by host Graeme Sinclair in — you guessed it — Woman’s Weekly. Incidentally, if anyone has or can find a copy of the video of that Gone Fishin’ episode, I’d love to see it. I missed it at the time.)
Other Gillard comparisons have also been made: to Margaret Thatcher (as Clark before her was), and to British Labour’s present acting leader Harriet Harman. In contrast with Jennifer Curtin’s observation that neither Clark nor Gillard emphasise their femininity in policy terms, The New Statesman‘s Alyssa MacDonald argues that the public treatment of Harman illustrates that it’s still not politically viable to be an overtly feminist female leader, even in 2010:
Both come from legal backgrounds, hold multiple political posts, have strong union connections, speak with distinctive voices and are always politically “on”. But while Gillard is popular and respected, Harman is often, very unfairly, spoken of as hectoring, dowdy and not very bright. Even before Gordon Brown’s departure, her chances of becoming Labour leader were the same as the number of forthcoming Harman biographies: zero.
Politically, there’s a glaring difference between Gillard and Harman. One has fought consistently for a feminist agenda, while the other has approached her political career with individualistic ambition. Not to do Gillard down — she’s very good at her job and she deserves her success — but her premiership isn’t necessarily any more of a great lunge forward for women than Margaret Thatcher’s was thirty years ago.
Meanwhile, Harman’s drive to push issues such as rape laws and the Equality Bill into the spotlight has undoubtedly been good for British women — and a huge contibuting factor to her unlovely public image.
Gillard’s success is still a symbolic step forward, signalling that the presence of women in Australian politics has become normal. And it looks likely to be good news for the country as a whole. But it’s not as if Australian women now have a Harman at the top to look out for their interests.
As MacDonald notes, Gillard is much more favourably-portrayed than Harman (and I would add, than Clark was at any point during her leadership). I think a lot of this is down to the “lipstick” to which PC refers: a metaphorical sort of lipstick which speaks to a particular notion of femininity, like the kind which Sarah Palin made famous. For one thing, Gillard’s attractiveness has been emphasised by the favourable comparison to Scottish actress Tilda Swinton:
This distinctive visage, the “bricklayer” voice to which Brian Edwards alluded, and her speaking style have been welcomed by the Australian media and satirical communities, who found Rudd “almost irritatingly bland”, according to editorial cartoonist Bill Leak. This from an article, also in today’s Australian on the topic:
Gillard’s wealth of striking anatomical attributes is almost too much of a good thing, says Cathy Wilcox of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Sun Herald. “She’s got so many features that if you just go for one, it isn’t enough. The challenge is how to get all those things in there without her head being enormous.”
Since Gillard took power, editorial artists have been studying her face with the obsessiveness of a lover, poring over photos and freeze-framing the TV to parse her every angle and expression.
Australia’s first female Prime Minister, seen through their eyes, has a “striking head of hair”, “incredibly beautiful skin”, eyes that manage to be simultaneously “squinty” and “big and distinctively shaped”, “chubby cheeks” with “pronounced cheekbones” and a mouth that “sits small and low” above “a small chin that tucks into an incredibly long neck”. Not even her earlobes escape attention.
And who else but an artist would notice that the new PM has “a reasonably ample bottom in relation to her head”?
But there is one facial feature in particular about which they all rhapsodise: Gillard’s “pointy”, “assertive”, “wonderful” nose. A nose, as Leak puts it, “that looks like you could chop wood with it”.
Fiona Katauskas, freelance cartoonist and producer of the Talking Pictures segment on the ABC’s Insiders, says Gillard’s nose is a defining feature that artists can utilise to express her character, just as the jutting lower-lip of former PM John Howard came to represent his determination, or obstinacy.
“I will take a punt and say Gillard’s nose will become the equivalent of Howard’s lip,” she says.
What’s interesting about all this is that, unlike most of the discussion of Clark and Harman’s appearance, it is robust but not unkind. Gillard’s relatively warm reception is being put down to her status as Australia’s first female PM, and I think there’s some legitimacy to that view; a genuine preparedness to “give her a go” tinged by a fear that bagging her too early would come off as sexist. We’ll see how long that persists, and how long her distinctiveness — of appearance, manner, and political character — is portrayed as quirky and endearing rather than bizarre and threatening.