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Q&A fails smart women


I am often enthusiastic. This is seen as unladylike. Like Germaine Greer, a woman who isn’t ladylike either, my feelings inhabit my features. I accept there are consequences of wearing one’s heart upon one’s sleeve. I don’t accept that they are fairly slapped on. 

I am also pleased to call myself a feminist. That is why I noticed that it was International Women’s Day on the 8th March, and why I sat down to watch the ABC’s special, somewhat patronisingly advertised all-women-panelled Q&A on Monday.

I usually find Q&A more boring than enlightening. Tony Jones allows too many chaps to dominate. Too many politicians too. And when there’s a smart women on board, he visibly forces himself to divert attention their way. He’s had lessons, good on him for trying: it still shows. 

The best – for me – before last night’s was when Simon Sheikh, Founder of GetUp! and soon-to-be-unsuccessful Greens parliamentary candidate, fainted unbecomingly onto his speaking notes, right next to Sophie Mirabella. Her fastidious shrinking from what he presented as something contagious, said rather a lot about her quantum of solace. It wasn’t a good night for a powerful Liberal MP then, or the 2013 election night either. 

Sophie never claimed to be ‘feminist’. Nor does Julie Bishop, Foreign Minister and, on the 9th March, one of Q&A’s stars. She said everything right about the entrenched cultural and economic obstacles to women’s rights to equal social and economic status with men. 

Annabel Crabb chaired it all really well, but the next day I realised that not only our Foreign Minister, but not one panelist, got one question about their extraordinary achievements. Bishop was managing partner of a big law firm. She has unique experiences and must have views on the world’s problems and their impact on Australia. But nobody asked. One wanted to know whether she could do the job if she’d had children, and what she thought about women on boards and domestic violence. She spoke Feminist right back. As did the rest of the panel, which included a magnificently chequered Bad Feminist author Roxane Gay, a very coolly be-spectacled and articulate Best & Less chief executive Holly Kramer, and engineer and young Australian of the Year, Yassmin Abdel-Magied. And, of course, Germaine Greer.

I am very fond of Greer, not just Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex and her remarkable book, The Female Eunuch made me realise that there was injustice all around me. It also helped my being a woman in a male-dominated and then very sexist legal profession in a tribal country town. Eventually I came to understand the dynamics of domestic violence, and the laws and money that nailed their feet to the floor of a dangerous home. The rights of women became an explicit part of my advocacy for universal human rights, civil liberties, and equal opportunity for justice and the rule of law, without discrimination. 

Greer was heavily criticised on Twitter that night and social media the next morning, for a number of things she said on Q&A. She wasn’t asked much either, and then only about feminism. She was generous. She shared her personal feelings about being ‘noticed’ by men in her work as something positive; her subtle way of dealing with sexual harassment, and then wickedly suggested to Bishop that she might be prepared to ‘free her nipples’ if it would cause release of the Bali Nine on death row (Bishop declined to play). A few of my social media friends said that she was a parody of herself and should shut up.

Another thing I have experienced, as Greer has, is copping a public bashing for being who I am. 

This has to be parochial in her case. Australian mainstream media report Greer’s public remarks as the ravings of a hag. Yet when I lived in London and observed her frequent appearances on TV, her public addresses, and read her essays and her smashing gardening column – she came across and was reported as just a respected and authoritative public intellectual. 

Australia was once genuinely proud of its larrikin heart. It was part of the Gallipoli spirit, of C.J. Dennis’s Sentimental Bloke. Yet Greer the female larrikin is a lightning rod for wrath. Is passion so uncomfortable? Is a joke about tits such a crime? 

There is a subtle similarity between this kind of Greer-bashing for levity and the assault on the integrity of Human Rights Commission President Gillian Triggs.  When the Australian Government’s counsel accused Gillian Triggs in public hearings into the detention of asylum-seeking children, of being ‘emotional’, he was challenging her legitimacy as a voice of authority, because she is a woman.

I enjoyed that Q&A because every panellist was smart, and so was the audience. I wasn’t bored. What I didn’t like was the subject matter. Would Tony Jones think it proper to task an all-male Q&A panel to describe their lived experience of white male privilege? 

Next time, ABC, I expect you to source and use women commentators who are experts on economics, fiscal policy, penal policy, good governance, education, futurists, entrepreneurs with a brain, scientists and other researches, experts on dentistry, string theory, philosophy, literature, the environment, the universe, and God. Because they are there. Give them their voice. 

Moira RaynerMoira Rayner is a barrister and writer. 



Topic tags: Moira Rayner, qanda, Julie Bishop, Germaine Greer, women's liberation



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Existing comments

Re- Moira Rayner's final paragraph. I agree they (high achieving women in diverse fields) are there. But in this bizarre world of media personality assessment - they are not 'sexy'.

Uncle Pat | 11 March 2015  

As usual QnA was its usual ,shallow , pot stirring self. Who are they trying to fool.? When they can present and listen in depth (does ABC know meaning of the word.?)to the real creative thinkers and doers, people who could tell it honestly how it is, and give a vehicle to their responses the better the program will be. Germaine Greer 's larriken outbursts , remind of a kid who just wants to be sensational ,shows no respect at all to others , women in particular and seems to be truly struggling with issues of aging and relevance.

Celia | 11 March 2015  

Great article - cuts to the chase.

Thank you!

Christine Judith Nicholls | 11 March 2015  

Annabel Crabb treats politics as entertainment so I expected no less.

andreP | 11 March 2015  

Totally agree with you Moira about speaking to women simply as the multifarious experts they are, not filtered through some necessary gender commentary - unless of course men were subjected to the same silly preoccupation with their 'gendered experience.' Give us all a break please!

Rachael Kohn | 11 March 2015  

I knew something was bothering me as I watched Q&A on Monday night. Now I know what it was. Well said, Moira!

Paul Power | 11 March 2015  

The all female Q&A panellists were friendly and respectful towards one another, on the whole displaying an empathetic sisterhood that embraced one another and the female questioners in the audience. Annabel Crabb brought her usual warm fuzzy approach which leaves me agreeing with AndreP that she views politics as entertainment. It was a light entertainment and hopefully a one off. I agree wholeheartedly with Moira Rayner concluding paragraph.

Anna | 11 March 2015  

Yes Paul Power. I agree that Moira has nailed what was missing, Concerning the topic I thought that "feminism = equality" was the topic to be addressed. Did I miss something?

Ann Long | 11 March 2015  

Moira, you should not be surprised that Q&A fails smart women. This ABC show is nothing more than celebrity nonsense where people indulge their opinions without robust discussion. Annabel Crabb is a very poor interviewer. The Australian media's treatment of Germaine Greer is patronising and she generally responds with a sensationalist comment. Most of the ABC current affairs programs have been 'dumbed down' to be meaningless. The exception is 'Late Night LIve' on radio national presented by Phillip Adams.

Mark Doyle | 11 March 2015  

In general I agree with Moira Rayner’s critique of Q&A. Not only in this programme but in others there is a serious lack of attention to the wisdom and expertise of women.

However, I liked Germaine’s quip to Julie Bishop. Julie Bishop did her earnest foreign minister speech about the men on death row. I thought Germaine’s wicked question to her was apt. Julie has shown herself quite capable of flirtatious behaviour in public settings, and Germaine was merely calling her bluff.

Janet | 11 March 2015  

Of course we don't accept Germaine Greer as a larrikin! Sheilas aren't larrikins, or mates, or...average Australians? Only blokes are. Sheilas must be ladies, or mums, or aunties, or all of the above. Moira, I'm glad I didn't watch that Q&A - your last paragraph says it all.

Joan Seymour | 11 March 2015  

@Joan Seymour: Do you really think that men can be larrikins and aren't held by the strictures of civility? Imagine what reaction would have greeted a male making the comment about Julie Bishop showing her nipples. Especially had it come from conservative. The moral outrage would have been heard in heaven. But because it's a woman, Germaine Greer to boot, we excuse it. Even welcome it. The fact that it was an inappropriate and crass trivialisation of two men's lives shows how badly Greer has lost her moral gauge.

Marg | 11 March 2015  

Moira, I wish they'd ask you on. Better still, I wish they'd ask you to chair.

mary ellen | 11 March 2015  

You are right. I found myself checking my watch half way through the program. I had a vague feeling of unfulfillment but did not realise why. It was not as unfulfilling as listening to Tony Abbott or Joe Hockey for an hour but lacking something nevertheless. Maybe it needed better prepared questions from the audience. I do like Annabel Crabb though.

Joe Logan | 11 March 2015  

One of the best Q & A programs I have ever seen, chaired by Tony Jones, was on 1 September 2014 entitled 100% Women 100% Dangerous. (Obviously the title referred to the panellists). Two panellists, Lydia Cacho, a Mexican journalist, author and feminist and Kaja Ekis Ekman a Swedish author and journalist were absolutely outstanding. They were both what I would call second generation feminists. They were both absolutely passionate about women and women's rights without any dated theatricality or "unladylikeness". For many people who did not grow up in her era I suspect Germaine Greer is a bit of a blast from the past whose persona gets in the way of and is often confused with the message she is attempting to present. International Women's Day and its message are vitally important. I think last Monday's Q & A was off target but then it was a first and deserved some leeway. Scandinavians seem to accept women as the equal of men without having to "prove" anything. A Scandinavian female PM attracts no special attention. It's taken as natural, as it should be. We are terribly outdated here. Things need to change in practice.

Edward Fido | 12 March 2015  

I noticed nobody thought to question the Best & Less CEO about the discount clothing company's ethical policy RE: souring products in places like Bangladesh. Are women's issues separate to this?

AURELIUS | 12 March 2015  

Where was the indigenous woman? Thanks Moira, all well stated.

Bernadette Mary | 13 March 2015  

Great piece, Moira, many thanks.
I didn't watch it, not only because I couldn't deal with watching Mz Bishop for a whole hour but also because women are, as you hint in your final sentence, never brought on to speak about anything else other than women and women's issues. As if men cannot be included in that same discussion and as if women cannot be able to talk about any other issues.
Q&A has become a spectacle, a piece of theatre and not a discussion board and from perhaps even its very first program it was more aggravating then plunging forks into one's eyes... or into Jones'!

I have toyed with the idea of checking it out on iview only because of Greer, my very first heart throb, in both, sexual as well as platonic way. I have read many of her books and articles and every syllable of hers is a glowing torch that lights up cancerous myths about human values and about men-women dynamics.

On occasions like this I wonder if ever we would have left the fifties behind had she not turned up when she did and had she not, not only withstood the poisoned arrows barbaric men shot at her but she repelled them and made them shoot their shooters.

And the similarity of Greer bashing to Triggs bashing is not at all "subtle" as you say, Moira. It's blunt and blatant and unambiguous. Women who say such things as some men do nasty things, cop it and cop it from phalanxes of men and with all the weapons -the long distance weapons used by cowards- at their disposal. Nothing subtle about those attacks.

george theodoridis | 13 March 2015  

Why not just say what the solution is instead of bagging the panel members?

AURELIUS | 14 March 2015  

Q&A has become very 'clubby'. I gave up watching it ages ago because has become no more than an opportunity for middle class posturing and clever quips. Time we grew up.

Genevieve O'Reilly | 15 March 2015  

Wow. Life is real, life is earnest for you lot, isn't it. You want woman commentators who are experts on everything, and a chair who isn't entertaining? And I thought that we'd escaped the times when feminists were accused of having no sense of humour. I love Germaine Greer. Brilliant and incisive (and terrifying to many) in early feminism, she is now warm, sly and ironic. Hasn't anyone else among you felt an irresistible temptation to puncture the shiny façade of the prim Ms Bishop?

Anna Summerfield (feminist) | 16 March 2015  

Thank you Moira for articulating what I was bothered about when trying to watch that Q&A. I almost never watch the regular show for the reasons you stated but the all women one didn't work either and I turned off. You are absolutley right about our recent cowardice about larrikins

Eleanor | 18 March 2015  

An old piece but excellent. I too find myself defending GG for being unashamedly herself with all the flaws and occasional inconsistencies of the human condition. At a Festival of Ideas in Adelaide once she gave an ex tempore passionate and articulate, lyrical and beautifully constructed argument for the importance of poetry in our culture. We should all be proud of her not look for opportunities to pounce on her; as we sadly have done with too many fine and gifted and decent women.

Diana Dibden | 16 December 2015  

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