Gendered Lens: The Problematic Portrayal of Women Politicians in Australia

9 mins read

The reality for most women politicians or for those who are forging a political ground is that there is a prevalent biased media portrayal. Starting out as political candidates, women are often struggling to receive media coverage and face questioned legitimacy in the eyes of the media and subsequently, the public as well. 

According to a 2018 study, in the publication Invisible Women? Comparing Candidates’ News Coverage in Europe by Maarja Lühiste and Susan Banducci in 2016 which employed the 2009 European Election Media Content Data covering candidate level media coverage in 25 countries, it shows that women candidates appear less frequently than their male counterparts. Although this finding is related to political party affiliation, the data still reflect a portion of the large scale media sexism. 

The study also notes the definition of media sexism as a both under- and misrepresentation of women in media. In addition, it says, “Media sexism both reflects sexism in society (media reproducing sexism) and portrays a more gender-segregated picture than reality (media producing sexism), such that media is a good measure of societal sexism but also makes society more sexist than it would be otherwise.”

Women politicians are often accountable on standards not given to their male counterparts, described in terms of their sex, children, and marital status, and are products of traditional stereotypical images as mothers and wives. Such that even if they have shattered a glass ceiling like Hillary Clinton becoming the first woman presidential nominee by a major political party in the US, women leaders will still battle an uphill path for equality. 

What is Murdoch Media?

News Corp  is a media empire built by Rupert Murdoch which at its peak included newspapers, television stations, and film studios on three continents and was powerful enough to sway elections, according to Taylor Nicole Rogers of Business Insider.  

It has also dominated the Australian media landscape in both political and cultural influences. According to an article by The Sydney Morning Herald last October 15, News Corp is the largest newspaper owner in terms of number of newspaper owned and its viewership. 

“Its titles include national broadsheet The Australian and Sydney’s The Daily Telegraph, Melbourne’s Herald Sun, Brisbane’s The Courier Mail and Adelaide’s The Advertiser.” Additionally, it runs Australia’s second biggest digital website, news.com.au. 

According to former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, Rupert Murdoch’s media empire is extremely influential and not in a good way. Last October 10, he created a petition which asks to establish a royal commission to look into the strength and diversity of Australian news media. He expressed that his concern was that  “Australia’s print media is overwhelmingly controlled by News Corporation”. He also added that, “this power is routinely used to attack opponents in business and politics by blending editorial opinion with news reporting.” In a statement, he also called News Corp a “cancer on democracy.”

The petition acquired 501,876 signatures prompting a Senate inquiry. 

Murdoch Media’s Reputation on Women Representation

While Rudd’s petition is a much needed investigation towards media diversity, it failed to raise an important discussion which is News Corp’s problematic hostile attitude towards women politicians. In a study by Blair Williams, associate lecturer in the School of Political Science and International Relations at Australian National University, she noticed a striking difference in Murdoch’s media coverage between men and women leaders. 

The study focused on the comparison between “Australian media portrayals of Gillard’s prime ministerial rise with that of Helen Clark’s in New Zealand” wherein both leaders experienced a sexist focus on their gender, appearance and personal lives, Williams noted. Her research also explored the more frequent and intense sexism experienced by Gillard. 

Julia Gillard, who was promptly elected as leader of Australian Labor Party after Rudd conceded, served as the country’s Prime Minister from 2010 until 2013. She broke the political status quo as Australia’s first woman Prime Minister adding to a long list of unconventional qualities as “unmarried, child-free, atheist, and leftist”. According to Williams, Gillard threatened Murdoch’s conservative morality, traditionalist values, and opposition to left-wing movements. 

As such, Gillard faced a highly gendered and even borderline misogynistic portrayal in Murdoch’s newspapers. 

Over the decade, not much has changed on Murdoch’s reputation. It still actively attacks women politicians regardless of affiliation. One of the many and seasoned victims of its sexist coverage is Queensland Labor Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk. Palaszczuk was featured in crosshairs with the headline, “Anna, you’re next” on the front page of Sunshine Coast Daily in 2019. 

Julie Bishop, the Coalition’s former foreign affairs minister, was depicted as the power hungry “Lady Macbeth” by The Australian for her 2018 leadership tilt and was also ridiculed by the same paper when she called out the Liberal Party’s sexist bullying culture. 

Liberal NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian also faced sexist reportage but partisan bias has put the sexism into a sympathetic note instead of the “onslaught coverage” that they did for Gillard. 

Even international leaders like New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern have also been attacked. Columnist Greg Sheridan claimed in an article in The Australian that “part of the international Jacindamania comes from the fact she is a young left-wing woman who gave birth in office and took maternity leave” in response to the hype that Ardern had been receiving during her campaign for the 2020 elections. 

Moreover, when Ardern won the Election in a landslide victory, The Australian was also quick with their sexist remarks describing her as “grossly incompetent” and “the worst person to lead New Zealand through this economic turbulence”. 

Even US Vice-President Elect Kamala Harris was not spared from the sexism. In a cartoon for The Australian, Johannes Leak depicted US Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden calling his then vice-presidential running mate Kamala Harris a “little brown girl”. The cartoon received “international condemnation” labelled as misogynistic and racist. 

In a tweet, former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd called the cartoon out saying, “So how on earth does Murdoch editor Chris Dore justify publishing a racist and sexist cartoon about a US Senator who is likely to be the next Vice-President of the US? Murdoch is a Trump mouthpiece. But this is gross even by Murdoch’s gutter standards.”

These instances are just a few of the large scale sexist coverage supported and proliferated by News Corp which broadcasts a message for women: “No matter how privileged or powerful a woman might be, it’s nearly impossible to escape sexist commentary and the objectifying male gaze.”

Thomas Lake

Resident tech nerd for the SF Times.

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