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Sarah Hanson-Young's Zoo suit righteous


'Gilt cage' by Chris Johnston. Woman in professional attire bursts through a barbed wire fence leaving 'pretty' party clothes behindAll media eyes are on Sarah Hanson-Young's defamation suit against Zoo magazine over a 2012 article that included an image of the Greens senator's face photoshopped onto the body of a lingerie model.

Crikey asks what implications the case could have for The Daily Telegraph, which has recently depicted former speaker Peter Slipper as a rat and Kevin Rudd and Anthony Albanese as bumbling characters from Hogan's Heroes. Similarly, Fairfax's The Vine compares Zoo's Hanson-Young image to the Telegraph's depiction of then communications minister, Stephen Conroy, as Joseph Stalin. 

While the Murdoch press' ludicrous comparisons of centrist Australian politicians to genocidal, authoritarian tyrants needs addressing (if for no other reason than they are an insult both to the intelligence of the public and the actual victims of genocide), Zoo's treatment of Hanson-Young is an altogether different beast.

The Telegraph's attacks on Labor politicians, while clearly designed to undermine Labor's chance at the polls, were ostensibly criticisms of the said politicians' policies. The Zoo image, on the other hand, was an explicitly gendered attack that had nothing to say about Hanson-Young's actual stance on asylum seeker policy. It is a classic case of sexualising a woman in order to deflect any danger of taking her seriously.

While NSW supreme court justice Lucy McCallum agreed that Zoo's image was capable of holding Hanson-Young up to public ridicule, she also struck out two of Hanson-Young's key arguments, that the image made the senator appear 'immature' and 'incompetent'. On the latter claim, at least, McCallum is wrong.

There is a quote by the 18th century writer Mary Wollstonecraft that I am fond of repeating because, more than 200 years later, it remains a truism. 'Taught from infancy that beauty is woman's sceptre,' Wollstonecraft laments, 'the mind shapes itself to the body and roaming around its gilt cage only seeks to adorn its prison.'

Throughout history, the emphasis place on women's looks has been a key factor in their exclusion from intellectual participation. It was the job of men to think, speak and act while women were merely required to look ornamental.

Clearly this is not a thing of the past, as attested by the spectacle of Tony Abbott parading his adult daughters on the campaign trail and boasting that the best reason to vote for him was his 'not bad looking daughters'. 

Haven't we all heard them — those 'compliments' that imply women are to be seen and not heard? 'Don't you worry your pretty little head about that' 'What's a pretty girl like you doing in a place like this?' 'You're too pretty to run for office.' Women, it still seems, don't need to think, they only need to be pleasing to the male gaze. The mind shapes itself to the body.

Zoo's hatchet job on Hanson-Young is a not so subtle reminder that, for all the talk of 'the end of men', ours is still a culture that does not take the arguments and perspectives of women seriously.

Putting aside the outrageousness of 'jokingly' offering sanctuary to asylum seekers in exchange for an Australian senator posing for a lad's magazine, Zoo's actions simply tell us that mouthy women with an opinion can be dealt with by reducing them to sexual objects. And that objectification directly affects how women are perceived. It's hard to be both a sex object and a fully-fledged human being with thoughts and opinions.

Two studies by Name It. Change It, an initiative aimed at getting more women to run for public office in the US, found that focusing on a female politician's appearance leads people to take her less seriously: 'After voters hear language about the woman candidate's appearance, they are less likely to think she is experienced, strong, effective, qualified and confident.' This effect is the same whether the attention was positive, negative or neutral.

Hanson-Young is not the first female politician to be subjected to sexist ridicule. In the 2008 US election, as much undue attention was paid to Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin's 'attractiveness' as it was to Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton's alleged lack of it. As if the size of Clinton's ankles would somehow be an impediment to her leadership.

And I will up bring up the appalling treatment of our first female prime minister only to say it was effective at fostering an environment in which Julia Gillard was widely regarded as incompetent and unsuccessful, even as she was busy being the most productive prime minister, in terms of legislative output, Australia has yet seen. 

Beauty and sex appeal, for women at least, is a double-edged sword. Very few of us would not want to be regarded as attractive at least some of the time and to certain people, but the obsession with female beauty is not without historical context.

Photoshopping Hanson-Young's head onto the body of a lingerie model was the cheapest of cheap shots that went beyond holding an individual politician to ridicule. It is a quintessentially gendered attack and stark reminder of what the likes of Zoo magazine think about women.

Ruby Hamad headshotRuby Hamad is a Sydney writer and associate editor of progressive feminist website The Scavenger. She blogs, and tweets as @rubyhamad

Topic tags: Ruby Hamad, Sarah Hanson-Young, Zoo Magazine, Mary Wollstonecraft



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Existing comments

We are all guilty. When introduced to children we invariably comment on a girls looks but more likely to ask boys about their interests or achievements. Make a personal commitment to engage young children ( and others) by specifically questioning their ideas, achievements, what book they are reading, and refuse to engage into shallow comments about looks. Believe it or not, children respond positively and change their behaviour to you.

Dave Hume | 15 September 2013  

Thank you Ruby. Excellent and helpful paper. If you want to discuss a feminist reading of The Koran, talk to Susan Carland. Every blessing, P

The Reverend Patricia Bouma | 16 September 2013  

Anyone interested in this subject would do well to read Les Murray's 'A Deployment of Fashion'. Some excerpts: "In Australia, a lone woman/is being crucified by the Press/at any given moment./With no unedited right/of reply, she is cast out/into Aboriginal space./It's always for a defect in weeping:/she hasn't wept on cue/or she won't weep correctly./ ........Then she goes down, overwhelmed/in the feasting grins of pressmen,/and Press women who've moved/from being owned by men/to being owned by fashion,/these are more deeply merciless.

Pam | 16 September 2013  

A timely article Ruby. Would they print it in a Muslim country?

Dennis | 16 September 2013  

Thanks Ruby for your helpful treatment of this vexed topic of gender and skewed cultural attitudes. I was not aware of the Zoo "assault on the Senator but need to say that there is a tragic emphasis on appearance by some women in politics. Media events such as "Q and A" have presented contrasting examples. Some use "asttractiveness" as a short cut to gain attention but in the long run it only feeds the male-comforting stereotype and female credibility is weakened.

Mike Foale | 16 September 2013  

What about the poor lingerie models. Surely they have a collective case to counter sue.

john frawley | 16 September 2013  

Thank you for a great article. I have been both surprised and devastated by the unfair sexual discrimination and abuse women in public office have had to endure in recent times. It can be exhausting being a voice for equality for women in Australia and it seems we still have a long way to go.

Cate | 16 September 2013  

I hope Sarah Hansen-Young gets back into the Senate. Her voice and vote on human rights issues is needed there.

tony kevin | 16 September 2013  

Ruby, thank you for your concerns. I strongly support them. I too have been very worried about the recent treatment of women, especially Julia Gillard when she was Prime Minister. The things that were said about her, by the gutter press and certain shock jocks was nothing short of appalling and completely unwarranted. I am so pleased to see you Ruby as a woman standing up for her. My big regret is that more women in prominent positions did not do the same. This includes women politicians from the then opposition. The one saving grace is that with her strength and demeanour under pressure she has demonstrated a quality that history will look to with respect whenever our first woman prime minister is remembered and discussed. Once again thank you Ruby.

Ron Hill | 16 September 2013  

Thank you Ruby for putting the issue so clearly and saying it as it is - sexism used as a put-down.

heather weedon | 16 September 2013  

What Tony Abbott stands for in regards to the global refugee crisis, is a lie. What Sarah Hanson-Young stands for in regards to the global refugee crisis, is the Truth. That same Truth for which Pope Francis and other people from different beliefs around the globe stand for. For this reason, *Sarah needn't be ashamed of anything at all. If anything she should stand proud, as people in Australia and around the globe agree with her. Photo-shop shots have no relevance when it comes to the Truth. Unlike asking the 'one' right question and ‘doors’. There are two doors. One door leads to heaven, and the other door leads to hell. There are two politicians, one by each door. One politician always tells the Truth, and the other always lies. The ‘one’ right question is: What 'one' question can we ask a politician to find out which door leads to heaven? Answer: "If we ask the other politician which door leads to heaven, what would he tell us?" The door that the politician points to will be the one that leads to hell, so we know the other one leads to heaven. This is because if we ask the politician who tells the Truth this question, she will tell the Truth in that the other politician will lie, and point to the door that leads to hell. If we ask the politician that always lies, he will lie by pointing towards the door to hell, because he knows the other politician would tell us the Truth by pointing towards the door that leads to heaven. So which door do we choose to walk through? The one opposite the one pointed to, as it will lead us to heaven. Equally, unless we ask our politicians the 'one' right question in regards to the global refugee crisis and unless the answer is YES, "Australia must open it’s door to refugees as the rest of the world is doing." In return, we may never get an answer to the 'one' desperate question (as desperate as the questions, more than 45 million refugees around the globe are asking) Australia may need to ask world politicians one day.* Look at the stars...so will your descendents be. Shalom.

peter bohm | 17 September 2013  

...again...why are there only men in the Liberal Cabinet?

Annoying Orange | 17 September 2013  

Hanson-Young is fortunate that "Zoo" isn't an arm of the taxpayer-funded ABC. Because any complaints of hers to that organization would have received this reply : "While strong in nature, the item was consistent with the humour from comparable male titillation magazines, and in line with the target audience of Zoo magazine." How do we know this? Because cet. par. that's the word-for-word snooty non-response the ABC Head of Entertainment, Jennifer Collins, gave to complaints about the far more egregious bestiality slander of journalist Chris Kenny last week in "The Hamster Decides" - something which I would feel sick if I had to describe in detail. Tony Abbott, the ABC has "lost its way". Fix it or abolish it.

HH | 17 September 2013  

I was interstate on the day of the recent Federal Election. I visited four booths searching for a place which would facilitate my vote, as it happens, for Sarah Hanson-Young. Your fine article has confirmed for me that my search was well worth the effort. Thank you.

Brian Sayner | 20 September 2013  

The article is spot on. Men have to, at some stage, stop and think about where women stand in their concept of humans. Having been spoilt by our mothers we develop the attitude that women are there only for our pleasure so they are not to be taken seriously in other aspects of life. This requires a "road to Damascus" moment a deep look into our concept of what " God gave Man a helpmate really means. It does not mean "God gave Man a slave"

Bede Hickey | 24 September 2013