When you look back on politicians over the past 20 years or more they seem to framed in a particular way, Natasha Stott Despoja was seen as a pretty young thing who wore Doc Martins, Florence Bjelke-Petersen was the pumpkin scone queen of Australia, Meg Lees and Amanda Vanstone were the matrons.
As Julia Baird argues early in her book, ‘we watched prominent female politicians topple like ten pins under a barrage of media criticism. One after the other, with careers destroyed, credibility damaged, prospects of leadership slim or non-existent: hyped as heroines, the cast as villains or fools, or just made invisible. …. In many cases, the women were partly to blame or complicit in their demise, yet the bias that frequently emerged in the media made their transgressions grotesque, their mistakes almost sinister – a hall of mirrors that exaggerated their flaws that made them lethal’ (2004,4). Her message seems to be that women interested in politics have to be very, very careful about how they work with the media. If they want to play the political game they have to know the rules and play every move with caution while understanding that thriving in such an environment you have to be ultra media savvy, well prepared and be in the game for the right reasons.
Some of the examples Baird looked at were images that were carefully scripted and actually worked but the public image of others were epic failures, not because they weren’t prepared but often lacked the policy substance to be taken seriously.
Other of these images came down to the perpetuation of long held stereotypes that never seemed to go away. But Julia Baird’s astute analysis really did look at the portrayal of women in the media in great detail and it highlighted the need for more study to be done in this area to get a more accurate picture of how women are actually portrayed.
While she raises many great points, Baird gives a warning about playing the gender card. For whatever short term gains you might think it gives you, in the long term it has no value. As she says, ‘playing the victim is one thing; being treated unfairly is another’ (200, 247). Just because someone is analysing you and/or work in ways that you perceive as being overly harsh, it doesn’t always mean that they are doing it because you’re a woman.
Baird gives nine tips for women in public live and needing to work well with the media. They are so good that anyone with a high profile and even a rising one could benefit from remembering them. They are:
1) Establish a serious profile, as someone who is policy-oriented and has the respect of your colleagues
2) Avoid the celebrity shots, posing in ball gowns or bikinis
3) Steer attention away from your personal life
4) Avoid a personality cult
5) Cop criticism
6) Understand that Journalists are not your enemies. Nor are they your friends
7) Do not assume that female journalists will be more sympathetic because you’re a woman
8) Try, in the midst of it all, to be yourself. Talk directly; answer honestly.
9) Beware the gender card
Media Tarts, how the Australian press frames female politicians should be required reading for anyone who is thinking about running for any kind of public office. It would make interesting reading for those who work in reporting on those who