Julia Gillard came under fire for playing the so called ‘gender card’, but a closer examination of the Rudd v Abbott contest reveals that it is her male adversaries who have been using gender as a political weapon.
The relationship between masculinity and ‘strong leadership’ is a persistent theme in Australian politics. Hawke positioned himself as an Aussie larrikin, while Keating used his aggressive style to establish his authority. Howard channelled masculine concepts of power when the War on Terror saw him emerge as a ‘Man of Steel.’ Both Rudd and Abbott have sought to draw on these themes, projecting their own versions of masculinity and using this to define their opponents.
In taking on Julia Gillard, for instance, Abbott’s use of gender stereotyping was far from subtle. The language used in his three-year campaign against the then prime minister, suggests that he was more than just gaffe-prone; rather he sought to de-legitimise Gillard’s prime ministership on the basis of her gender. Using gendered phrases, Abbott framed Gillard as a dangerous liar, tapping into long established myths about feminine power. Whether he was describing Gillard as ‘Lady Macbeth,’ suggesting that “when she says no she really means yes,” or posing in front of placards describing her as a “bitch”, the message was clear: women in power are intrinsically dangerous and not to be trusted.
In the lead-up to the 2010 federal election campaign, images of a teary and sullen Kevin Rudd only sought to reinforce these messages. Rudd was cast as the ultimate victim of a woman’s ruthless ambition.
This election, gender has played out differently and the contest between two male opponents has emerged as a battle between two contrasting versions of masculinity. Traditional masculine power versus masculine weakness. The jock versus the nerd. The policy aversion of both leaders and the resulting focus on personality has only brought this into sharper focus.
Rudd has long tried to cast himself as a ‘daggy dad.’ The uber-nerd, non-threatening, inoffensive but diligent. The kind of school prefect who’s begrudgingly respected for their intelligence.
The contrast with his adversary couldn’t be starker. Whether he’s life-saving, budgie-smuggling, horse-riding or fire-fighting, Abbott taps into another well established masculine stereotype: the man of action. The guy who gets the job done.
Even his slogan for the 2010 federal election campaign, ‘Real Action’ contrasted his more active and assertive style with that of his equivocating opponent, Rudd. Although Rudd was rolled before that campaign, this time around the theme is being reworked.
While our newspapers are filled with images of Abbott jogging around the country, Rudd has been cast as tired, weak and ineffectual. In particular, emasculating language has been used to de-legitimise Rudd and contrast him with the Opposition’s action man. Rudd’s ‘not man enough to stop the boats.’ Kevin ‘Kardashian’ is ‘hysterical,’ ‘a celebrity,’ ‘a flip flopper’ and a ‘flim-flam.’
The Courier Mail recently observed that while Abbott always makes time for his ‘morning run, these days Rudd barely finds time for a walk.’ Apparently, rather than emulating the Opposition Leader’s punishing exercise regime, the Prime Minister has resorted to ‘comfort eating’ and ‘the stress of the looming election can now be seen in his jowls and double-chin.’ Insightful political commentary indeed!
The election campaign is starting to look more like the biggest loser than a battle for the Prime Ministership.
Even Wednesday night’s debate had the feel of a boxing match as both leaders muscled up against their opponent. Although neither delivered a knock-out-punch, it was clear the two see an advantage in ‘playing the man’ in this contest. A more combative Rudd took Abbott to task over his paid parental leave scheme, while Abbott shot back – ‘does this guy ever shut up?’
Like Abbott, Rudd has also used gendered language throughout the campaign – challenging Abbott to “man-up” to this and that. Here, however, Rudd has found himself out-gunned.
The Abbott persona channels the quintessential, unpretentious Aussie bloke. A Rhodes scholar, he is master of creating the impression that he’s has never read a book in his life. Like a modern day Les Patterson he simply lurches from one foot-in-mouth incident to another, without any care for those he offends along the way. This ‘straight talking style’ has made Abbott a repository (or rather a suppository!) for some of those disillusioned with spin politics. More broadly, he frames his directness as part of a broader rejection of political correctness and intellectualism that resonates with those uneasy with the pace of social and cultural change.
The casting of intellectuals as elites is a device that’s been used by a range of right wing politicians from Hanson to Howard. It’s again being used to tear down Rudd ‘the nerd.’ The man of endless ‘talk fests’ and ‘waffle,’ his intelligence has been framed as a weakness.
Much like George W Bush in the United States, Abbott’s projection of old fashioned notions of masculine power resonates with the so called ‘angry white men’ who perceive themselves as the big losers in the social and economic reforms of the last few decades.
Abbott’s embrace of this masculine stereotype also explains why he is held in such disdain by so many. It sits uncomfortably with today’s diverse and predominantly urban society. It harks back to an era romanticised by some and loathed by others.
While many seek to dismiss the impact of gender on Australian politics, it’s clear both Abbott and Rudd have drawn on gender stereotypes in constructing their own political personas. Here, it seems both have been all too willing to play the man rather than the ball.
This piece was first published on the ABC’s Drum Opinion on the 23rd of August 2013.