Who Cares About the “First Bloke”?

The sexist media coverage of Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard as she campaigns for re-election.

Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard 

In late June of this year, Julia Gillard ousted Australian Labor Party leader and Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to become the nation’s first woman PM. The impressive Gillard had a quick rise to power. She entered government in 1998, serving as the member of Parliament for a district in western Melbourne. By the time the Labor Party regained power in 2007, she had been made deputy leader, and just three years later replaced Rudd, who had lost the support of his own party. A few weeks after Gillard became PM, she announced that Australians will go to the polls to vote in this year’s federal elections on Aug. 21. Federal campaigns Down Under are mercifully short—the party in power calls an election just six weeks in advance, sparing the Australian public the years-long campaigns we’ve come to expect in the United States.

But even with a truncated season for punditry, the Australian media have hit all the same sexist notes about Gillard that the American media played in their coverage of women in politics like Hillary Clinton, Elena Kagan, and Sarah Palin. Since she has become prime minister, the national conversation about this trailblazing woman has focused not just on Gillard’s policies, but on her ring-less left hand, what on earth the function of a “first bloke” might be, and her childlessness. Most appallingly, critics have even implied that the relationship between Gillard and Rudd has sexual undertones.

This tired line of discussion about Gillard is compounded by Australians’ traditional contempt toward high achievers—a national inferiority complex dubbed “tall poppy syndrome” (a reference to cutting the tallest poppy, or the most openly ambitious and successful person, down to size). As in the United States, there is a special level of censure reserved for ambitious and high-achieving women, who are perceived as having stepped outside the bounds, however subconsciously we might define them, of acceptable behavior for their gender.

At 48, Gillard is not married but in a long-term de facto relationship. Tim Mathieson, her partner, is a hairdresser; the pair met when he worked at her regular salon. Cue the pearl clutching: Mere days after the ouster of Rudd, cultural critic Bettina Arndt wondered, in the pages of the Sydney Morning Herald, whether Gillard living in sin was setting a bad example for the young women of Australia. Arndt observed that Australian women would rightly view Gillard as a role model and argued that Gillard should seriously consider getting hitched, as though rearranging her private life would somehow serve the public good. In response to such claims, Gillard noted that any decision to get married was not hers alone and said that “decisions in [her] personal life, [she]’ll make for personal reasons.”

Once the question of Gillard’s marital status was picked over, the media started wondering what would the partner of the PM—the “first bloke,” as Gillard termed it—even do? Todd Palin experienced similar scrutiny when Sarah Palin was the vice presidential candidate, with writers chuckling about how Todd “was part of the First Wives Club.” American pundits didn’t know quite what to make of the “first dude,” and their Australian counterparts are similarly confused. Gillard level-headedly set them straight, telling the Australianthat Mathieson “will do the kind of things that political partners have done,” and referring to his particular interest in men’s health.

As was the case with Elena Kagan’s, Gillard’s childlessness has attracted vitriol, though perhaps with Mathieson as tangible proof of her heterosexuality, Gillard was spared the rumors of lesbianism that dogged Kagan. Members of the conservative opposition party have said that Gillard’s decision not to have children rendered her incapable of understanding how parents think. Bettina Arndt also weighed in on the issue of Gillard’s childlessness, again accusing Gillard of setting a bad example that could endanger the reproductive prospects of women all over. “Most women want to have children—Gillard is an exception—and some miss out after wasting their primary reproductive years in a succession of live-in relationships that look hopeful but go nowhere, leaving them childless and partnerless as they hit 40,” Arndt opined.

Finally, and perhaps most bizarrely, there’s the fraught, pseudo-romantic relationship that must—must, because they’re members of the opposite sex!—exist between Gillard and Rudd. Even though the pair ran the country together for nearly three years, once Gillard replaced Rudd, the narrative of a working relationship broke down and was replaced by one of a romantic relationship. Apparently, the story of a grown man and woman dissolving a partnership can only be told one way: As a “bitter divorce.” Similarly, when it seemed likely a few weeks before the election that Rudd would go out to stump for Gillard, the papers simply couldn’t help themselves, with the Sydney Morning Herald asking, “Gillard to get in bed with Rudd?”

Luckily, there are voices of reason; some influential commentators, including Germaine Greer and popular columnist Mia Friedman, have come to Gillard’s defense, praising the graciousness with which she has handled the additional pressures that women leaders experience and the coolness she has shown in the face of particularly vile attacks. What’s more, in some corners the sexist critiques of Gillard have spurred a fruitful conversation about the compatibility of motherhood and the highest level of political and corporate leadership—not unlike the conversation that sprung up around Kagan and previous women SCOTUS nominees Sonia Sotomayor and Harriet Miers, all three of whom are childless. Such conversations, which center on the question of whether motherhood and top-tier leadership positions are mutually exclusive, are essential on both sides of the Pacific.

The latest polls suggest that this fiery redhead might well, as the Australian media might put it, fail to seduce the Australian people; a Gillard win is far from guaranteed. But no matter how Australians vote on Saturday, and regardless of whether Australia is “ready” for a woman PM, one thing is certain: The Australian media are not ready to give up their gendered double standards or their dreadful double entendres.

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