Susanne Gannon is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Education at the University of Western Sydney, Australia. With Marnina Gonick (MSVU, Canada) and Jo Lampert (QUT, Australia) she holds a 2010 International Research Linkage grant from the Association of Canadian Studies in Australia and New Zealand (ACSANZ) on Diversity, youth and neoliberalism in Canada and Australia.
She has co-authored chapters on feminist poststructuralism for the Handbook of Feminist Research: Theory and Praxis (2006, forthcoming 2nd edn 2011) and Theory and Methods in Social Research (forthcoming 2011, 2nd edn of 2005, Research Methods in the Social Sciences).
She remains interested in issues of gender equity and opportunity in education and beyond and in the representations of girls and women in all sorts of texts..
Volume 23, November 2010
Australia acquired its first female Prime Minister on June 24th 2010 when Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard confronted PM Kevin Rudd whose reputation had been in freefall. She quickly called an election for August 21st which resulted in a hung parliament. After 17 excruciating days of vote counting and deal-making, on 7th September, a Gillard Labor government was delivered to power with the support of a posse of independents. These weeks of waiting, first for the election, and then for the election result, provided ample opportunity for reflection for feminist educators like me, who surprised ourselves with our ambivalent responses. Surely, I thought, more than a century after suffrage, decades of International Women’s Day school assemblies and thousands of stickers proclaiming that “Girls can do anything”, and despite my poststructural theoretical leanings, this would be an event worth celebrating. Women friends and colleagues reported similar responses. Accordingly, and with a particular interest in exploring traces of ambivalence and contradiction, I began to map some of these celebratory responses to Gillard as our first female PM through the media, particularly in the “women’s interest” segment of the market.
Gillard’s unapologetic childlessness, atheism, feminism, her relative youth in political terms and her de facto relationship make her an unusual female figure of power following so soon after the conservative family friendly government of John Howard. Surely – if any one woman could – she would be a positive role model for girls and young women. This was the sort of discourse that circulated widely through my social networks in the days following her initial ascension. At the same time as it seemed a little old-fashioned, it also seemed absolutely necessary. The event of interest in this paper was not the final election, but the initial moment when Gillard surprised us as PM, in late June. Although she had been considered a very capable Deputy Prime Minister, with potential perhaps for the highest office, the swiftness of her ascent seemed remarkable. In this paper I explore some of the print media texts that appeared immediately after the event of Gillard’s ascension, in order to consider problematic aspects of female role models as a feminist strategy, particularly in a purportedly postfeminist media milieu. Elements of postfeminist theory are explored in relation to several texts and I examine affinities between postfeminist and neoliberal subjectivities and the sorts of biographical narratives that become possible, and impossible, within them. The paper does not claim to be comprehensive in its scope in terms of the media generally, nor in terms of the print media in particular. Rather I’m interested in close analysis of how a smaller sample of texts dealt with the discursive conundrums and celebrations circulating around the figure of Gillard as a potential role model in the immediate aftermath of her rise to power. Magazines targeting women and girls, in this instance the Australian Women’s Weekly and Dolly magazine, are the focus of the latter sections of the paper.
The phrase ‘hottie’ that my title references was used by Wil Anderson, the host of ABC TV’s Gruen Transfer, in his introductory remarks to the first episode of the four part election special, Gruen Nation. His comment draws attention immediately to issues of appearance, as did the ‘budgie-smuggler’ comment that followed referencing the opposition leader’s preference for brief form-fitting swimming costumes. However, more broadly in the media, apart from a few widely derided attacks, for example, on Julia Gillard’s earlobes by columnist Kate Legge in the Murdoch daily The Australian (Legge, 2010, July 26), and the endless repetition of the old “deliberately barren” insult from 2006 from right-wing senator Bill Heffernan, the focus on her appearance seemed relatively muted in much of the daily news media. Policy – or the lack of it – quickly became the key factor for the dissatisfied electorate. However in magazines, with longer timelines and resources extending to wardrobe, makeup, stylists, photographers and touch-up experts, there was considerable interest. They devoted much expense and column space to creating profiles of Gillard as if to introduce her – after 12 years in parliament – to their readership. The August covers of the Australian Women’s Weekly and The Monthly magazine (in Figure 1), for example, demonstrate the necessary effort they have gone to in order to present Gillard as an appealing point of sale covergirl, or in Anderson’s language, as a ‘hottie’, across the spectrum from the ‘Women’s Interest’ magazine to the more serious magazine with the “Australian politics, society and culture’’ tagline. Too late for the cover of the July issue, which was already at the printers at the time of the coup, Gillard became the focus of a special souvenir issue that was slipped by hand inside each of the July issues of the Australian Women’s Weekly in the weekend prior to distribution (Jackson, 2010). The weekly Woman’s Day also issued a special souvenir edition as well as their regular July issue. The profiles that appeared in these media sites in the immediate aftermath of her rise to power are unashamedly celebratory and take up role model discourses as they construct narrative trajectories that explain Gillard’s success to their readers. In contrast, the popular girls’ magazines remained silent on the event and on the figure of Gillard. In other strands of the mainstream print media responses from girls (or directed towards girls) were scarce and, where they could be found, were indicative of what might be called a postfeminist response.
Before turning to what accounts are available of the views of girls, it is necessary to sketch the contours of postfeminism in more detail, and to consider how it might be useful in a reading of the figure of Gillard as PM. This conflicted terrain might be understood as part of generational debates such as those that have been touched upon in previous issues of Outskirts by Taylor (2006), Radekker (2006) and Maddison (2002), each of whom found serious limitations with intergenerational difference as an explanatory frame for contemporary Australian feminism. The trope of “waves” has at times been useful though it feeds a “linear narrative of generationally-led progress” that McRobbie claims can hinder understanding of the complexities of present circumstances (2009: 156). Affinities exist between descriptions of “third wave feminism” and “postfeminism”, with McRobbie claiming that both are anti-feminist in their effects and inadequate in their theoretical and political force. Other feminist scholars have recently turned, with some discomfort, towards postfeminism as a more useful concept. However, as Genz notes, critics remain widely divergent in their views on “what a ‘post-ing’ of feminism might involve” (2009a: 298). Feminist media scholars have, thus far, provided the most nuanced explorations of postfeminism and its discursive operations. Typically it entails the mutually dependent entanglement of feminist and anti-feminist discourses. McRobbie is scathing in her critique of postfeminism which she sees as definitive of contemporary social and cultural landscapes. Aspects of feminism have been “absolutely incorporated into political and institutional life” creating a sort of “faux-feminism” (McRobbie, 2009: 1). A process of “disarticulation” forecloses on any possibilities for recognition of “various expansive intersections and inter-generational feminist transmissions” (McRobbie, 2009: 26). Postfeminism thus operates as a strategy for the dispersal of political energies and is an obstacle to the sorts of feminist imaginaries that provide “a resource, a source of hope, a space that offers vocabularies, concepts, histories, narratives and experiences” (McRobbie, 2009: 49). This leads, she argues, to a “postfeminist masquerade” which, through media and the beauty and fashion industries, provides “highly self-conscious means by which young women are encouraged to collude with the re-stabilisation of gender norms so as to undo the gains of feminism, and dissociate themselves [from it]” (McRobbie, 2009: 64). In contrast, using their analysis of empirical research with girls to mount a counter argument against this “overwhelmingly bleak and melancholic” view, Renold and Ringrose identify moments of subversion within normalising discourses (2008: 315). They argue however that, thus far, postfeminism does not account adequately for “class/race/cultural inflections” and for the practices of “critical consumption” in everyday life (Renold & Ringrose, 2008: 315). Genz and Brabon argue against any notions of postfeminism as either a “substitute for” or as “the (illegitimate) offspring” of feminism, suggesting that its origins and its effects are more varied and incongruous as a consequence of the mainstreaming of feminist issues in contemporary culture and their politically contradictory impacts (2009: 6-7). Nevertheless, despite the disquiet of scholars, postfeminism can be taken up as a useful critical lens for examining the uneasy compromises evident more generally in contemporary cultural spheres, and particularly in print media responses to the figure of Gillard as PM.
The simultaneous adoption and disavowal, cannibalism and abjection of feminism mark what Gill sees as the new “postfeminist media sensibility” (2007a, 2007b, 2008, 2009). Although characterised by contradictions, Gill identifies several relatively stable features: “femininity [as] bodily property; the shift from objectification to subjectification; the emphasis on self-surveillance, monitoring and discipline; a focus on individualism, choice and empowerment; ... a makeover paradigm; a resurgence in ideas of natural sexual difference; a marked sexualization of culture; and an emphasis upon consumerism and the commodification of difference” (Gill, 2007a: 149). In contrast to McRobbie’s more psychoanalytically inflected definition, Gill suggests that postfeminism can be approached not so much as an analytical stance, nor as an epistemological position, but that postfeminist media culture should be the critical object of inquiry (Gill, 2007a: 148). Items of postfeminist media culture – magazines, films, advertisements, social networking sites – are infused by particular themes and features characteristic of a postfeminism sensibility. The magazine profiles of Gillard that features in the latter part of this paper provide opportunities to unravel some of the discursive contradictions inherent to postfeminism and to see how they work alongside and against other rhetorics. Although role model rhetorics, for example, might seem decidedly old school, their workings might complement the feminist imaginaries, the necessary narratives, vocabularies and sources of hope that McRobbie sees, from her psychosocial perspective, to be crucial.(2009: 49). The critical objects approach that Gill advocates provides a framework for analysis and recognises that many of the narratives that serve as resources, including those that can be mobilised as sources of hope for girls and young women, might also be found in popular media. However, it is important to note that postfeminist sensibilities are not limited to youth audiences, rather elements of postfeminism play out across the entire mediascape and, to varying degrees, impact on the lives and desires of women of all ages and locations in contemporary western cultures. Postfeminism might be understood as the flavour of the times, much as neoliberalism has come to be recognised as entailing new modes of governmentality and subjectivity in the most intimate ways (Rose, 1999).
Many feminist scholars, including Gill and McRobbie, have noted the collusion of neoliberal and postfeminist discourses, in their orientations on the human subject as a market-driven consumer with an individualised and entrepreneurial subjectivity, who has somehow evaded grammars of identity such as race, class, gender and sexuality (e.g. Gill, 2007a, 2007b, 2008, 2009; Genz, 2009b; Genz & Brabon, 2009; McRobbie, 2009; Tasker & Negra, 2007; Walkerdine & Ringrose, 2006). The neoliberal subject values personal choice and individual freedom to choose and thus to create her own future, over any contributing social factors. Gill identifies three points of commonality: the “current of individualism” that precludes understandings of the individual as subject to external constraint or influence; secondly, the parallel between “the autonomous, calculating, self-regulating subject of neoliberalism” and “the active, freely choosing, self-reinventing subject of postfeminism”, and thirdly, the gendered effect of neoliberalism as it is overwhelmingly women who are compelled towards perpetual self-management, discipline and transformation, who must “regulate every aspect of their conduct” and “present all their actions as freely chosen” (Gill, 2008: 443). The increasing intensity, extensiveness and psychological focus of these pressures on the neoliberal female subject are of concern to Gill (2008: 441). For McRobbie, neoliberal political agendas under New Labour in the UK, including overt disdain and dismissal of feminist and left voices, led directly to the demise of collective social responsibility and community that she sees as crucial to minoritarian and socially just politics (2005: 37). The particular articulations and effects of neoliberalism vary across different sites. Likewise there are likely to be all sorts of nuances and variations in postfeminist discourses in response to local contexts, events, textual forms and the other discursive architectures of everyday life.
Much of the work articulating neoliberalism and postfeminism is directed at the study of girls (e.g. Aapola, Gonick & Harris, 2004; Gonick, 2003, 2006, 2007; Harris, 2004, 2008; Projansky, 2007; Ringrose 2007, 2010; Ringrose & Renold, 2008). The “future girl” is the “vanguard of new subjectivity...the late modern subject who is self-making, resilient and flexible” (Harris, 2004: 6). The “new girl” of “girl power” is now “ubiquitous, entering mainstream cultural arenas through an incredible range of products and services” (Aapola, Gonick & Harris, 2004: 25) .The “figure of the girl” is the “key trope through which postfeminism and attendant anxieties are signified” (Taylor, 2010: 428). Indeed “postfeminism depends on girlness”, is even “defined by it” (Projansky, 2007: 43). Therefore, in the context of this paper, it is necessary to turn to girls to consider their views on the impacts and effects of the first female Prime Minister.
The popular girls’ magazines immediately following her ascent paid no attention at all to Gillard’s ascent. The July edition of Girlfriend hit the stands after the ‘coup’ with an editorial focusing on ‘firsts’ and stories focusing on first kisses and first jobs. It contained no mention of firsts in the PM department, though there was plenty of ‘good news’ about the Australian tour of the teen stars of the newest Twilight movie. In the same ACP publishing stable as the Australian Women’s Weekly, the highest circulation girls’ magazine – Dolly – pitched at girls from 14- 17, many of whom are likely be vote in the next election, also missed the news entirely in their next edition.. Postfeminist concerns with self-monitoring, self empowerment, makeovers and consumption are evident in both the August Dolly, special “All about you” issue, and September’s “Formal fever” themed issue. Neither noted that we had, in the meantime, acquired a female Prime Minister. However there were several news stories reporting responses from girls immediately after Gillard’s initial ascent. The Sydney Morning Herald article, “You go, girls: Gillard’s rise to top hailed as inspiration”, collated accounts by three girls from secondary schools in Sydney that demonstrate the collapse of neoliberal and postfeminist discourses into one another. One of the girls notes that politics had become a topic on Facebook for the first time, on the day after the event, although commentary is limited to status updates and membership of the group “My Prime Minister is a ranga [redhead]”. The reporter asks whether Gillard is a role model or inspiration for these girls. Their responses are both yes and no: simultaneously she is seen to be both a powerful role model (particularly for other girls) and to have limited effect as a role model. The foregrounding of the individual and rhetoric of choice and of freedom to choose are apparent here. The focus on the individual allows for the mobilisation of a discourse of equality that simultaneously celebrates and disavows the significance of any single woman’s achievement. Matilda (18), School Captain at an inner west state secondary school, says that although it’s particularly important for “young females who now see that it is realistic to aspire to this high position”, for her it’s different: “as an 18-year old female today, I have always believed that I can do anything my male counterparts can” (my italics). An example of those young females to whom she refers might be Lauren (13), a student at a north shore private school, who says that “Julia Gillard being appointed Prime Minister hasn't inspired me or allowed me to see the world in a new perspective. I suppose I felt like women were already equal to men here in the Western world... I already knew that a woman could be the prime minister of Australia. Aren't you being sexist if you're shocked or surprised that a woman has made it to that position?” (my italics). Feminism is invoked and revealed as anachronistic in the same discursive move. The sort of feminism that might want to celebrate such an achievement, or that might position such a woman as a role model, is at least old-fashioned and at worst unjust, in this depoliticised ‘girl power’ postfeminism. This focus on what Gonick calls “processes of individualization” – in the girls’ words: “I always believed...I already knew...I felt ... I can do anything” – serves to draws attention away “from structural explanations for inequality toward explanations of personal circumstances and personality traits” (2006: 2). Success too, must then be ascribed to particular personal circumstances and personality traits, and any structural arrangements that might be directed towards equity outcomes become invisible, unnecessary or unjust. The individual is also extracted from more intimate relational networks. Another feature of the girls’ comments is their sense of “presentism”, another important characteristic of neoliberalism. There is minimal sense of history, particularly in a broader social sense where individuals are located within temporal, spatial, relational and political networks. The feminist imaginaries to which McRobbie (2009) refers are impoverished by such a position. No narratives can explain just how the once “absurd dream” to be PM might really become “a possibility” as Matilda suggests is now the case. Postfeminism constructs “feminism as a phenomenon of the past, traces of which can be found (and sometimes even valued) in the present...it is the very success of feminism that produces its irrelevance for contemporary culture” (Tasker & Negra, 2007: 8). Feminism obliterates itself by sowing the seeds of its own redundancy. As Lauren (13) notes, it is sexist now to even notice the gender of the new PM.
In this context the very notion of role models that in some hypodermic sense (Gill, 2008) might inoculate girls against a sense of limited possibilities, or infect them with soaring ambition and robust career plans seems naive, foolish or misguided. Nevertheless – like many of the contradictory discursive resources we have to hand and use everyday – the idea and a certain faith in the usefulness of gendered role models for girls circulate widely. The very language of “our first” that is taken up in this short article implies potential successors, who might be emboldened by Gillard’s move into the top job. The two girls already mentioned both evoke role models in their responses – Matilda describes her as a “great role model...strong, intelligent, very human” and Lauren adds her to her haphazard list of “incredible women...Hilary Clinton, Beyonce, Miley Cyrus, Jane Austen, Anne Frank”. The ubiquity of postfeminist discourses is evident in these accounts as they simultaneously celebrate and disavow feminist success.Tasker and Negra are concerned about the poplar adoption and circulation of a “middle of the road, middle-class” postfeminism, that removes nuanced analyses of class, ethnicity and age (2007: 19). In this context, and with regard to similar concerns from McRobbie (2009) and Renold and Ringrose (2008), the third girl in this article, Rayan (17), introduces a new reading of the figure of Gillard as PM. Rayan situates herself as an Australian born, Arabic and English speaking girl of Syrian and Lebanese background. She is the Vice Captain of a comprehensive state secondary school in Sydney’s western suburbs. For Rayan, their common immigrant origin is as important as their gender. At her school “many students...migrated to Australia, like Ms Gillard, with 85 per cent of our students from a non-English-speaking background.” Despite Gillard’s immigration from an English speaking country with a continuing colonial relationship to Australia, she is a strong role model on both counts: “inspiring for young females from migrant backgrounds...whether you are a student, graduate or a mother then you can be a leader... No matter where you come from, where your parents grew up, no matter the obstacles, we can get somewhere in life.” The “we” in her account, Julia and Rayan and others like them, are the bright hard-working daughters of immigrant working class families. These are girls who go to “local primary and secondary schools” rather than to elite or otherwise selective schools. Rayan makes explicit and repeated reference throughout her response, unlike either of the other girls, to family, friends and social location. Rayan notes that she celebrated Gaillard’s elevation with her father: “I told my father...about how great it is to have the first female prime minister and how this is going to change how women see themselves. He agreed with me as well. We were both excited.” Rayan also takes up role model discourses in a slightly different way to the other girls. Although she too now believes that anything is possible for girls and for immigrants, she also acknowledges the necessary labour involved in any trajectory to future success. Gillard inspires her to “do well in my studies...strive for excellence... to focus on my studies and make it to university”. Gillard also inspires her to be influential for others: “so that I can some day act as a positive role model for society”. This suggests a social contract that predates and exceeds the individualistic focus of neoliberalism and postfeminism.
The July souvenir edition of the Australian Women’s Weekly demonstrates the discursive double-take that is characteristic of a postfeminist media sensibility. However it also constructs the sorts of “narratives, histories and experiences” that might serve as “sources of hope” (McRobbie, 2009: 49). The souvenir 32 page supplement “Our first female Prime Minister” was inserted into the July issue just in time for distribution in the week following Gillard’s ousting of Rudd, giving the Weekly a scoop ahead of their competitors. It was compiled from already in stock in-house images, and several new ones, and stories by Gillard insiders, her biographer Jacqueline Kent, and ‘veteran press gallery journalist’ for The Australian Samantha Maiden, and AWW senior staffers (Baker, Courtney & Sheather). Like women’s magazines analysed elsewhere, this supplement displays – through the prism of Gillard – “a dazzling kaleidoscopic array of different kinds of femininity”, with contradictions between and across the “spatial separations” of different components of the special issue (Gill, 2009: 348). The editorial by Helen McCabe, Editor-in-chief, begins: “Julia Gillard is not Australia’s first female PM because she is a woman. The decision to elevate her has nothing to do with her gender....Yet, after more than 20 years watching and writing about politics, I feel proud that, finally, a woman has been elevated to the top job” (McCabe, 2010: 2). The first two sentences operate to erase female identity as a relevant factor in this event. The sentence, that follows, beginning with “Yet...” has that trace of feminism as a figure of the past, as Tasker and Negra suggest, with its “after more than 20 years”. We congratulate ourselves as much as her, and the nation, for being ready for this. The Souvenir edition concludes with short responses by prominent women under the headline “Dream come true” (2010: 30). It’s valid to ask at this point, whose dream it was: Julia’s? Ours? The nation’s? The “absurd dream” that Matilda suggests is now feasible for individual girls who might aspire to leadership, is taken up by these important Australian women in terms of the nation as well as the individual: TV host Jennifer Byrne comments “Well done Australia”; Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick says “historic... sends a clear message that no area of public life is beyond reach for women”; politician Natasha Stott Despoja describes it as “herstoric...a strong message – especially to the next generation...of great significance as well as overdue”; TV host Tracy Grimshaw notes that the “symbolism sends a powerful message to aspirational young woman. Hallelujah!”; Indigenous Youth spokeswomen Tania Major calls it “a breakthrough”; Professor Fiona Stanley describes it as “fabulous...a coming of age for our nation” (2010: 30). There is no ambiguity here on the importance of the appointment of a female PM for the nation as a whole and its female citizens. No ambiguity either about her responsibilities to others now she has attained the zenith of power. These women are careful to draw attention to contexts where equity of outcomes and access have not yet been achieved. We’re in this together, says the other politician in the group, Natasha Stott Despoja, who lets Gillard (and the readers) know that her challenges “will include ensuring that she values and supports other women in positions of power”.
In contrast to the presentism and me-me-me consumption discourses of Dolly, the Australian Women’s Weekly souvenir issue has several stories specifically focused on Gillard's background, her childhood and her current relationship. Each of them locate her in supportive and enabling social networks, including old-fashioned leftwing feminist affirmative action networks. In this version of events, things don’t just happen because you want them to. In these stories, she is not constructed as the ambitious individual heroine of neoliberal success, nor as a disconnected heroic individual sort of female role model, although she has certain qualities that are variously ascribed to psychology, personality, or desire. The stories in the magazine create a relational Julia situated discursively in images and text in the middle of a close knit working class immigrant family. “My family album” (Baker, 2010a: 16-21) repackages earlier interviews on television and in the Weekly where Gillard detailed the sacrifices and opportunities entailed in the family migration and the particular influences that her most intimate role models, her parents, had on shaping her value and aspirations. Gillard says her mother instilled a “culture of hard work” and the importance of education, including practical skills such as reading and touch typing. Her mother’s “modern views about girls” convinced Gillard that the “future would be full of whatever possibilities I wanted to make of it” (Baker, 2010a: 18). Immediately following, “A modest love story” (Sheather, 2010: 22-25), describes the “thoroughly modern relationship” of unmarried middle aged partners with no intention to marry or have children together. These two stories enable the Weekly to insert Gillard into two of their favoured genres: the warm hearted family story and the romance narrative. Being a thoroughly modern romance, with a thoroughly modern female subject, there is no prurience as, alongside the romance with Tim Mathieson, the story also details several of her previous relationships. As is befitting a “modest love story” the relevant qualities are not passion but rapport, humour and a ready ease with one another that provides relief far from political life. They are photographed in front of a white picket gate and both wearing blue jeans erecting a tent together by the side of an unspecified waterway. Through the words of Mathieson, this story conjures a “nice, soft Julia” with “an even temperament” who “never raises her voice” (Sheather, 2010: 24). These stories operate to feminise her and situate her within the intimacies of conventional domestic institutions. Other stories detail her political ascendance, including “A Day in History” (Corbett, 2010: 4) which has a sidebar timeline of “Key moments for women in Australian politics”, “The Inside story” (Maiden, 2010: 10) with a sidebar of images of international women leaders and a photo essay “The making of a leader” (12-14). The family and romance stories following these serve to soften her image for readers. Yes, she is a strong politician but she is also a daughter, a lover, a woman in a “settled, committed relationship” (Sheather, 2010: 24) and the photographs of Mathieson with his arm draped across her shoulders or his hands around her waist (22,23,25) reinforce the normality of their intimacy. Image is of course central throughout the special issue with much more of the layout given to photographs than to written text. In the solo images Gillard is styled, buffed and airbrushed to perfection. One explicit makeover story, “Leadership style” (Baker, 2010b: 26-29) documents her steady acquisition of fashion sense as after “a few false starts” Gillard gradually learned what clothing, jewellery and haircut best suit her, enabling her, as an expert image consultant notes, “to cement her own personal brand” (Baker, 2010b: 26, 29). The “spatial separations” between stories and images throughout the special issue hold together a number of contradictions (Gill, 2009). Purportedly postfeminist qualities of self-monitoring, self-discipline, choice, individual responsibility and a makeover paradigm appear alongside other sorts of discourses. As in McCabe’s introduction, this discursive jostling is evident within single stories as well as across stories.
“The magic of Julia” profile written by her official biographer Jacqueline Kent purports, in its tagline, to tell how “a determined little girl became Australia’s first female prime minister” (2010: 6-9) . This is the sort of story that could map a trajectory from girlhood to adult success, that might fill in the gap between the sense of entitlement that 18 yr old Matilda and 13 yr old Lauren have that they can be potential Prime Ministers and the possibility that they might. Gillard’s narrative is described by Kent as “a long journey of twists and turns and a certain inevitability” (Kent, 2010: 6). The tagline draws attention to the sort of individualised qualities most relevant to a neoliberal reading of girlhood – even though she was “little” this girl was “determined”. “Even at the age of 16” she had spoken another surprising possible future into existence when she told her mother “she did not see herself as a wife or mother” (Kent, 2010: 8). However the main thrust of this article is not the wilful independent girl who created her own future but a storyline of a deeply connected person with a backstory of the institutions and social policies that influenced her trajectory on macro and micro levels. Mid century white Australian immigration policies provided financial incentives for UK labourers at a time when Welsh coal mining was in decline. As Gillard is quoted as saying ''The Australian taxpayer kindly paid the 120 pounds to get me here" (Kent, 2010: 9). The intimate institution of the family provides another thread of the storyline – a child with pneumonia and chronic bronchitis who would benefit from a warmer climate. In response to bright but poor parents who couldn’t access education, Gillard pursues it. Kent notes Gillard’s claim that “the main difference between her and her parents is not that she is smarter or worked harder, but that she had the chance for a good education and they did not” (2010: 6). In alignment with her family legacy, Gillard grows up Labor with “progressive, socially responsible politics as her birthright” and cites as a formative event her shock at 14 at what she considered to be the unlawful dismissal of Whitlam’s reformist Labor Government (2010: 6). She was a direct recipient of the higher education reforms of the Whitlam government that democratised universities and removed tuition fees for a generation of bright working class children. The story chronicles how her parliamentary skills were developed through high school debating, student activism throughout her Arts/ Law degree, membership of the University Labor Club and the Australian Labor Party. She campaigned for student representation on the University Union, and became as Kent says, “Adelaide University's first student president of the council” (2010: 6). Transferring to Law at Melbourne University her student activism continued. Gillard notes: “I wasn't studying politics or reading about it, but I was meeting people who were intrigued by ideas” (Kent, 2010: 6). In this version of the story the key to her trajectory towards The Lodge was not personal will or ambition, but social and relational –it was “meeting people”. Kent describes how Gillard left university to work as an industrial lawyer where she continued to meet people – her legal colleagues, immigrant women working in the clothing industry and union officials trying to improve their working conditions. She became the first female full partner in her law firm in her early 30s. The qualities of “persistence”, “toughness”, “caring”, “high work ethic” and “ethical standards” that Kent identifies in this profile are not so much coded into her personality but developed over time in very particular socio-historical and institutional contexts (2010: 8). This continued into her parliamentary career. She ran for parliament first in 1993 and was successfully elected on her third attempt, in 1998. She worked for the Victorian Labor Premier John Brumby who became another influential mentor. The article signals a crucial aspect of Gillard’s trajectory that has barely been mentioned elsewhere, her involvement in establishing the Australian version of Emily’s List in 1996 – an organisation to support progressive women candidates in the Labor Party towards preselection and election. Gillard drafted the Emily’s List constitution and is still actively involved in mentoring progressive women into politics. She was instrumental in developing of affirmative action targets in the mid 1990s for the ALP that aimed for 35% of women candidates by 2002. In an interview podcast from Emily’s List, she describes the previous Victorian premier and Emily’s List initiator Joan Kirner, mother of her student housemate in Melbourne, as a significant figure in her own development (Emily’s List, 2010). The “magic” of Julia is not so much that she was a “determined little girl” with a particularly fortunate configuration of individualised personality traits, but that she developed professional skills and ethical commitments to social reform through complex and highly supportive mentoring networks and relationships.
Upward mobility, according to Walkerdine and Ringrose, is a key outcome of neoliberal postfeminist and post-class discourses where “narratives of unambiguous female success” are used as “proof that meritocratic principles for attaining bourgeois success have worked... girls and women [have]become the new ‘poster boy’ for neoliberal dreams of upward mobility” (2006: 33). We might read Gillard’s profile – the working class sickly child from the black hills and coal pits of Wales who becomes Australian PM in an era when gender no longer matters – as one of these “poster boy” sorts of postfeminist narratives. This would fit with the views expressed by Matilda and Lauren. However these tales of neoliberal heroes “draw attention [away] from structural explanations” (Gonick, 2006: 2), even those that are supportive such as feminist and other networks, role models and mentors, and policy contexts which assisted the neophyte politician Gillard to develop skills, confidence and connections that led to her success.
Kenway has suggested that role model strategies became increasingly untenable when the identity politics of liberal feminism and simplistic notions of sex role socialisation were problematised by feminist poststructuralism (2005: 42-43). When gender came to be understood as constructed, relational, interdependent, contingent and performative it became more difficult to construct credible meta-narratives, to generate “political slogans and sound bites” (Kenway, 2005: 44), and perhaps most recently more difficult to critique and understand the ambivalent gendered impacts of neoliberalism and our investments in them. This is reflected in the responses to Gillard’s election, the simultaneous celebration and disavowal of gender, the “I always knew a woman could be PM” that seems at once surprising and obvious. Kenway suggests a need to broaden the discursive space in which to speak about gender and girls. Neoliberal narratives of success foreground “reinvention, adaptation, flexibility, malleability” (Ringrose, 2007), qualities that are already feminised and seductive in a postfeminist neoliberal milieu. Narratives of female success need to also incorporate detail about the continuities and support structures that enable women to be successful, about the elaborate temporal, spatial and relational axes along which women like Gillard construct their lives. The package delivered to readers of the special souvenir issue of the Australian Women’s Weekly include these sorts of narratives alongside many of the elements that might be recognisable as encoding a postfeminist sensibility (Gill, 2007a). As she says herself in an oft-repeated and idiosyncratically Gillard-style sound bite from 2006, written again across a glamour shot in the middle of the Australian Women's Weekly souvenir issue, hers is not a neoliberal story of individualised desire and success. She’s not some new “Doris Day”, and she “didn’t just somehow parachute into Canberra”.
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