Leo D'Angelo Fisher Columnist

Leo covers management and leadership issues, business trends and corporate strategy. He is a former senior business writer at The Bulletin and a former host of The Business Hour on 3AW.

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Gender politics

Published 23 March 2012 14:05, Updated 26 March 2012 07:39

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On ABC1’s Q&A last week, Germaine Greer was being Germaine Greer: loud, hostile, knowingly controversial. Famous as a pioneering feminist firebrand of the 1960s and 70s, these days Greer is famous for being famous. She is a professional celebrity.

As such, her schtick is to be controversial and it is no longer clear whether she really believes in anything any more.

Perhaps she should consider a career in Australian politics. Although to do that she would have to live among us, a prospect she would find distasteful. She confines her sporadic visits to the land of her birth to remind us that we are unworthy of her permanent presence.

Greer has become a caricature of the activist and intellectual she once was. As such she rarely has an opinion of any consequence. Why would anyone bother to take seriously the observations of a former Celebrity Big Brother contestant? Talk about sell-out.

Appearing on Q&A is much more becoming but one suspects that for Greer one television program is much like any other: it’s an opportunity to let forth at full throttle and be the centre of attention.

On this occasion, the subject that occupied Greer was Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s bottom. Although most of what Greer says these days should go straight through to the keeper, it’s hardly surprising that we might pause for a moment’s consideration when the prime ministerial fundament is the topic of discussion.

“What I want her to do is get rid of those bloody jackets,” she thundered to the delight of the studio audience. “They don’t fit. Every time she turns around you’ve got that strange horizontal crease which means they’re cut too narrow in the hips.” And then, the coup de grace: “You’ve got a big arse, Julia, just get on with it.”

Now, let’s not be coy about this; this was not an original thought. To suggest otherwise would be like saying that nobody noticed that Billy McMahon had big ears (not to mention his current successor). However, while plain speaking is to be admired, a little decorum would not have gone astray.

As it happens, I agree with Greer. I have commented on Gillard’s attire previously (but not her physical appearance), most recently in this forum on February 17, before Kevin Rudd’s failed leadership challenge, in which I presented a nine-point plan for saving her prime ministership. Number 7 on the list was: “Get a makeover”. Anticipating objections to this advice (in fact, there were none) I wrote:

“Before you go on about this being sexist, it simply isn’t true. The appearance of our leaders is not the defining characteristic by which they will or should be judged, but of course it matters. And of course it’s something we talk about – and it has nothing to do with gender. Recall our fascination with Paul Keating’s Italian suits and his sense of personal style and how he single-handedly improved the sartorial standards of almost the entire parliament in the 1980s and 90s. Remember John Howard and those daggy track suits? And let us not pretend that Kim Beazley’s weight was not a political issue. Julia, appearance matters. At the moment you look as if you are dressed by Krusty the Clown’s tailor. As … Deputy Prime Minister you looked every inch the Prime Minister you were about to become. Make it so again.”

It was not the substance of Greer’s comments that offended me but her hypocrisy and the absolute certainty that had a man uttered the same comments he would have been excoriated as an unreconstructed sexist pig. (Greer obviously doesn’t read my columns.) With her “feminist icon” hardhat on, Greer would no doubt argue that whatever the context – e.g., such as my argument above – comments about a woman’s appearance are demeaning, objectifying and based on double standards.

And “double standards” is the operative phrase here.

Perhaps Greer observes the convenient custom that allows Jewish comedians to indulge in “observational humour” that from anyone else would be branded anti-Semitic and likewise comedians of Greek and Italian backgrounds who make comfortable livings plying “wog” humour that is out of bounds for anyone else, not to mention the latest crop of comedians of “Muslim appearance” who bandy about stereotypes with impunity.

It’s precisely these double standards that have made workplaces and society generally so full of needless angst and confusion.

Occasionally, walking around the city or sitting in public transport I will observe young women who clearly work in an office environment who are dressed as if they are on the way to a Lady Gaga convention. They are entitled to their overflowing attributes and new-aged men know that they are not to look a second time. But why is it such a sensitive issue to query the appropriateness of their attire for the office?

A female executive with a large organisation once told me about a curvaceous female colleague, a fellow manager, who routinely wore revealing, tight-fitting, low-cut attire. The colleagues often attended the same meetings and my friend told me that she tried to avoid sitting immediately opposite her colleague. “She has sensational breasts,” she explained. “Even I have to stare.”

There’s a television commercial playing at the moment for a gym that features sweaty, scantily clad, supermodel-like women doing a lot of provocative prancing about to thumping music. The ad is aimed at women who want to “get foxy”. One might dismiss the soft-porn ad as typical of an ad written by ogling men for ogling men. But the ad is for a women’s gym chain.

The commercial wouldn’t cause me a second’s distraction if not for the obvious double standard. Only a women’s gym could run it.

I disagree with News Ltd columnist Miranda Divine, a writer I admire, when she criticises Greer for her “big arse” comment on the ground that it will give free license to others. “Because of her status as a feminist icon, Greer has legitimised every misogynist to attack Gillard’s appearance. As if they need any encouragement,” she wrote. The issue is not the risk of copy cat criticisms. As Divine suggests, those who are likely to make gratuitous and offensive attacks about the PM’s appearance are going to do so anyway. In fact, Greer’s attack was just the kind of garbage that we would expect to read on anything-goes social media sites.

Gillard’s appearance, if discussed in a reasoned, respectful and intelligent way, should not be out of bounds. I am not a misogynist. I am entitled to have and express the view that we expect our leaders, corporate or political, to look the part. What is offensive is that so much discussion around “gender” – oh, for the day when we never have to hear that word again – is based on arrant hypocrisy and convenient double standards.

Do you agree? Write and tell me your views.

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