On politics and gender and stuff

I’ve tried to move away from talking about politics in a partisan way here – for a few reasons.

Firstly, I’ve moved away from thinking about politics in a particularly partisan way, I’m one of those people who feels largely disenfranchised by our adversarial political system (at least as our media reports it). Secondly, the differences between our major parties are greatly exaggerated – they’ll both do a reasonable job at the majority of policy setting in our country – and both have hugely problematic approaches to big issues that mean neither gets the “Christian vote” automatically. Thirdly, there’s a tired old trope I’m prone to reacting against that says something like “Real Christians should vote conservative, so must therefore eschew the Labor Party (and can’t possibly think the Greens are anything other than extreme).” But what is conservative anymore? And this seems to place some sort of odd moral issues on a pedestal above stuff like looking after the poor, and the marginalised, and the people that our so-called “left” focuses its energy on. I think the suggestion that to be Christian is to vote a particular way is patently ridiculous.

I’m also not all that concerned that our Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, is an atheist. She’s either up for the job of governing, or she isn’t. Governing a secular democracy with a relatively nominal attachment to a “Judeo-Christian heritage” doesn’t take a theologically orthodox Christian. In fact, in a democracy, Christians might be forced to compromise their views to a degree where standing apart from the political sphere is a better way to contribute to society and love people than being elected to represent a swathe of people they fundamentally disagree with.

I’m especially not concerned that our Prime Minister is a woman. I know there are some from my complementarian camp of Christianity who have problems with women in leadership roles. But I think that any “submission/authority” relationship dynamics happening in the context of Christian relationships (marriage, church, or otherwise) are to be voluntary from both parties, and only really make sense if your thinking is being shaped by the relationship dynamics modelled in the Trinity and some notion that they’re created by God. Women might feel otherwise – but I have grown up without any major awareness of different capabilities of men and women when it comes to the corporate, business, or political sphere (I’d rather watch men’s sport – but that’s because part of the watching sport is the vicarious “I’d like to be out there” thing). I was taught predominantly by women at primary school, and high school, and there was probably a 50-50 split in the classes I bothered going to at uni. My first CEO in my professional job was a woman, as was my line manager (and my managers in my part time jobs while I was at uni were women too). Most of my colleagues were women.

I don’t feel particularly enlightened on the basis of these aspects of my history – I think they’re pretty normal for people my age. I wrote a speech last year for a young professional (about my age) for a women’s function she was speaking at, and she said this was pretty consistent with her experience in the business/corporate world too. I’m not saying it’s universal. It’s probably a generational thing. I hope. I love that my wife has the same opportunities to study that I have, I hope that we’ll continue to make decisions that allow her to use her gifts and abilities to serve others. I hope my daughter grows up in a world where she has the freedom to make choices about her life, where her gender isn’t really a factor. I pray that she’ll grow up as a follower of Jesus, and be prepared to make sacrifices of some of her freedoms for the sake of others – but I want those sacrifices to be voluntary and driven by love, and her convictions about the world God has created and the way he created people – not chosen for her.

Which is why the rhetoric in Julia Gillard’s speech during question time today plays into a world I wish we could just leave behind a bit. Here are the words she said today that are echoing around the media, as I’m sure they were intended to…

“Let me say very clearly to the Leader of the Opposition – it will be a contest, counter intuitive to those believing in gender stereotypes, but a contest between a strong, feisty woman and a policy-weak man and I’ll win it.”

I’m still trying to parse this statement. I’ve been staring at it for quite a while. She has a go at people who believe in gender stereotypes while reinforcing gender stereotypes by making gender an issue (she also called Abbott a misogynist again).  I think there’s a real danger that despite her intentions to the contrary – this sort of frontending of gender is perpetuating a dangerous form of cultural misandry. In rejecting one stereotype, the Prime Minister is creating, or buying into another.

She may as well label Tony Abbott the dumb/incompetent/bumbling man we’re familiar with thanks to so many TV sitcoms and advertisements (more here). Here’s what TV Tropes says about this cultural meme:

Often used as an enabler of several Double Standards. Sometimes, on the rare occasions that a mom does something dumb, she’s cut more slack than she otherwise would be, since the Bumbling Dad is there to make her look better by comparison. On the other hand, if everyone just gets used to tolerating Dad’s incompetence, they might still hold Mom to the standards of a competent adult – in fact, she may end up being held responsible for fixing his screw-ups. After all, somebody’s got to be the grownup in a family, and you can’t hold Dad accountable for not acting like one if he’s just an idiot. The frustrating and stagnant sexual roles enforced by this trope are often pointed to by feminists as a sign of how sexism hurts men as well as women.

This trope is still mostly seen in sitcoms and cartoons, along with many commercials, especially ones aimed at kids. In anime, this type of character is taken more respectfully, since it usually consists of a goofier dad, more involved with his family than the stereotypical Salaryman. This is even more common when his children have no visiblemother.

This is an example of how a Subverted Trope can end up becoming the norm. Back in the day, fathers were assumed to be wise and in charge, and the Bumbling Dad was something fresh and unusual. Today, sitcoms have made Bumbling Dad an Undead Horse Trope, and consistently competent fathers are a comparative rarity.

In the political sphere this guy would be the “policy weak” man. Which makes Gillard and Abbott a pretty odd couple. If politics is a comedy. There’s the related “Man can’t keep house” trope…

“It doesn’t matter if a male character is a globe-trotting super-spy, a hyperintelligent genius, or a Millionaire Playboy — according to this trope, any male who’s responsible for maintaining a home, apartment, or regeneration pod will inevitably fail in the most spectacular way possible.”

You could add “country” to the list of domestic situations a man can’t possibly be responsible for and you’re, I think, tapping into the kind of image Gillard is trying to paint for us.

I have no doubt our Prime Minister is a capable and articulate woman – and I’ve got no doubt she has fought through barriers created by her gender so her feelings on this issue are genuine.

But surely the time has come for gender not to be part of the public conversation like this. It feels like a political trope “pandering to a constituency on the basis of what you are not what you stand for” that is ultimately unfulfilling.

Making the election a contest between a “feisty leader” and a “policy-weak leader” regardless of the gender of the leaders involved is doing a disservice to the electorate. If its an amuse bouche for the election campaign that’s about to be forced down our throats then I’m kind of hoping the media regulation legislation gets amended to provide some politics free zones in our media or I’m going into some sort of self-imposed media blackout.

Gender is a huge issue for us to think through. Not just in the church – where how we think of gender as created by God, and the implications we see that having for how we structure our church community as a testimony to that created order – but in society where there’s a push to do away with gender distinctions altogether. The big question in both cases is whether or not the genders (and gender identity) are “essentially” different, not just constructed differently by different cultural forces (be it our culture, or the culture operating when the relevant bits of the Bible were produced). This is a huge, defining, landmark, watershed, pivotal, and important discussion that flows through to myriad social issues from marriage, to abortion, to education, to defence, to toymaking, to sport, to how we do democracy, and most importantly to how we conceive of what it means to be human…

Gender issues are still big issues – I’m not trying to play down the way women are mistreated by certain people in society – there are all sorts of industries where glass ceilings exist. There are serious policy questions surrounding gender, just as there are serious theological questions about gender for the church to continue answering well. There are serious cultural imbalances to be addressed – we see that as we speak up against violence against women (perpetrated by men), or when we recognise that an Oscars host has been incredibly unhelpful in his objectification of women and identify an ugly sub-culture that underpins that, or when TV reporters talk about a sexual assault in a way that blames the victim or tries to sympathise with the perpetrators (there’s a significant trigger warning on that article)… All of these are issues – big issues – gender issues. But they’re not the sort of gender issues that Julia Gillard is using to whack Tony Abbott with – I don’t think he’s blameless here, I’d say there’s merit to more than half of the criticism she levelled at him in her famous misogyny speech. The “gender issue” at play there is that there seems to be genuine antipathy between Abbott and Gillard, which has unfortunately, at times, involved terms that have been a little loaded when it comes to gender (but seriously – have you heard many men describe themselves as “feisty”?).

It’s great that we have a woman as Prime Minister. It’ll be greater still when we don’t really care what gender our Prime Minister is, when that’s completely unremarkable. It’s a tragedy, I think, that gender is being used to score cheap political points. It saddens me that her legacy, gender wise, will be making an election campaign about gender stereotypes, using her gender in such a cheap way for cheap votes.

That is all.

Nathan Campbell

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Nathan runs St Eutychus. He loves Jesus. His wife. His Daughter. His Son. Coffee. And the Internet. He is currently a campus pastor at Creek Road South Bank, a graduate of Queensland Theological College (M. Div) and the Queensland University of Technology (B. Journ). He spent a significant portion of the last 8 years working in Public Relations, and now loves promoting Jesus in Brisbane and online.