Politics

The many styles of sexism in Election 2017: a retrospective

It finished over a week ago, yet we still all feel a bit gross. To while away time until Winston Peters decides who our next prime minister is, Madeleine Holden has compiled a handy list of the worst sexism of Election 2017.

The 2017 general election is at a close, and as the main parties jostle for coalition partners, it’s still too early to tell for sure who will be comprising the next government. It’s not too early for a jaunty little retrospective of the sexism that occurred during the election campaign, though!

Comprehensively detailing all of the sexist comments and misogynistic assumptions that characterised the election would be the job of a lifetime, and the average Facebook feed would generate a bible’s worth of material, so treat this instead like a depressing highlights reel of gender regression in New Zealand politics today. Let’s get started!

All the times we focused on Jacinda Ardern’s looks

Despite how often bleating men on the internet insist IT HAPPENS TO MALE POLITICIANS TOO, women in politics have their looks scrutinised and mocked to a unique degree; a worldwide trend that harks back at least to the days of the suffragettes. And Jacinda Ardern has suffered especially badly in this regard this election.

Amidst a constant media buzz about her smile and hair, a (now-deleted) Facebook page with more than 10,000 “likes” was set up to lampoon her teeth, and an attendee at a Morrinsville farmers’ protest carried a sign referring to Ardern that read “PRETTY COMMUNIST”. Ardern herself laughed off the jab in her trademark Chill Girl fashion, and admittedly it was one of those insults that end up sounding like an unwitting compliment. It’s no laughing matter, though: research shows that comments about female politicians’ appearances, even when they are positive rather than negative, do real harm to their chances of winning.

Women can be sexist too!

There was also plenty of infantilising, dog-whistling about experience, and probing about career versus motherhood, all of which you can read about here.

Every second phrase that fell out of Gareth Morgan’s mouth

Worthy of a little section of his own, Gareth Morgan had a cringeworthy election campaign, attracting attention less for his policies – allegedly his overarching focus – than his deliberately inflammatory and sexist remarks. In between calling everyone he disagrees with “whores” on social media, Morgan infamously labelled Ardern “lipstick on a pig” – a dig that played into the existing sexist narrative surrounding Ardern’s looks – and tripled down when he was called out for it; first by re-using the phrase on a billboard featuring his own face and then by calling his critics “femo-fascists”.

“I say it and all the femo-fascists come out and say, ‘You can’t say it Gareth,’ because you’re a guy. That’s crap,” he scrambled to suggest as Lisa Owen desperately tried to wrap him up at The Nation’s minor parties’ debate. He was mischaracterising the nature of the criticism as being about his gender rather than the gendered nature of the phrase and traipsing out a variation of the old “feminazi” slur American conservatives have been using to malign women’s rights activists for decades. Digging in until the bitter end, he made a smug quip about how much publicity the line had afforded him on The Spinoff’s leaders’ debate, yet again making himself almost impossible for women with whom he otherwise shares common ground to root for. This is the guy that called himself New Zealand’s Trump, after all.

Numerous men telling Marama Fox to ‘be quiet’ and ‘calm down’

Whether it was Shane Jones quipping that his ears were sore from sitting next to Fox in The Spinoff leaders’ debate or Willie Jackson patronisingly telling her to “calm down” on Marae (starts at 40:48), men couldn’t resist the ‘emotional woman’ microaggression this election. Telling any woman to “relax” or “be quiet” plays into an existing narrative that women are overly emotional and easily carried away, even if they are being no more forthright and passionate than men are, but there’s an additional layer of ickiness to shutting down a Māori woman in this way, given this country’s history.

It’s worth remembering that research consistently shows that men speak significantly more than women in meetings; women are interrupted more than men; and women are perceived as talking more than men even when they actually talk less.

Winston Peters mansplaining dairy farming to a female journalist

Bonus sexism from the Morrinsville farmers’ protest! Amidst booing from the crowd and a general failure to win them over, Winnie presumed to know more about dairying than a female journalist asking him probing questions, dismissing her as “ignorant about dairying”. Except, whoops, she grew up on a dairy farm. Men, please stop presuming you’re axiomatically more informed on every topic than women are: every time you do, Rebecca Solnit stubs her toe.

NZ comedian Jeremy Elwood making a sexual violence-themed ‘joke’

I hadn’t heard of Jeremy Elwood until I witnessed the above tweet doing the rounds, and then I remembered he drunkenly hosted a quiz night I used to attend out in West Auckland during my uni days, I think?? Anyway, who cares. He’s gross, and he thinks graphic sexual violence is a clever and novel way to illustrate a “point”. Has anyone explained MMP to him yet?

TOP Comms guy Sean Plunket’s weird, obsessive hounding of a prominent feminist writer

U OK, Sean?

Metiria Turei’s forced resignation

The thing about sexism is that it operates on different levels. The most overt and familiar forms – use of slurs like “bitch” and “whore”, say, and arguments that women belong in the kitchen – are becoming rarer and less acceptable, so people with negative attitudes towards women need to oppose female advancement in less objectionable terms. One way to achieve this is through continued support for policies that harm women and the silencing of those who advocate for systemic change.

Enter Metiria Turei. We’re all familiar with the story of her ousting from Parliament for a forgivable, decades-old mistake that shed light on the glaring deficiencies of our welfare system, but perhaps it’s not immediately apparent that her treatment related to her gender. It’s simply a matter of honesty and trust, we’ve been told, and charges of a racist, sexist double standard have been dismissed using fine-tooth comb analysis. It was her attitude, they said, and any MP who broke a law would be expected to pay with her otherwise flawless career in public service.

Let me try to convince you, then, that Metiria Turei being a woman – a certain kind of woman – actually had a lot to do with how she was treated.

Particular types of women always bear the brunt of sexist stereotyping more than others, and Māori beneficiaries are hit the hardest in New Zealand. The local version of Reagan’s “welfare queen” looms large in our public imagination and regularly triggers hand-wringing about abuse of the DPB and “breeding for business”; working class brown women are expected to raise children without complaining about the myriad economic and institutional barriers to doing so – the median income for Māori women is $19,900 – and certainly without demanding more from the state. Misogyny operates in tandem with its preferred coalition partners, racism and beneficiary bashing, to stifle and silence women like Turei who have the nerve to point out the injustices of a system they’ve personally experienced while advocating for its overhaul. Turei’s critics apparently believe a system that keeps vulnerable mothers and daughters poor, desperate and powerless is more tolerable than an “entitled” brown woman with a human past remaining in parliament. So long as you care about all women, that’s what misogyny looks like. Use any narrower a definition and your feminism ends up doing little more than protecting middle class Pākehā women from “make me a sandwich” jokes.

So, Metiria’s treatment was sexist, too. Her resignation will be a permanent blight on our social and political landscape, and poet Hera Lindsay Bird diagnosed the shame of it better than anyone else on the day, with a sentiment as fitting a conclusion to this list as any I can think of:

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