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Catharine Lumby

Further information

About the author

Catharine Lumby is a lecturer in Media Studies at Macquarie University, Sydney, and a columnist for the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age newspapers. She is the author of Bad Girls: The Media, Sex and Feminism in the 90s (1997).

Publication details

Volume 3, November 1998

The President's Penis: Politics and Power in the Postmodern Public Sphere

This paper was originally given as one of the keynote addresses at the Australian Women's Studies Associaton Conference, held in Adelaide, South Australia, April 16-18, 1998. It is reproduced with Catharine Lumby's kind permission. It forms the basis for one of the chapters in Catharine Lumby's next book, to be published in 1999.

The President's Penis

In an elegant essay titled "My Father's Penis", feminist author Nancy Miller recalls watching her father pottering around the kitchen when she was a child, his drawstring pyjamas slightly agape. She writes:

this almost gap never failed to catch my eye. It seemed to me as I watched him cheerfully rescue the burning toast and pass from room to room in a slow motion of characteristic aimlessness ... that behind the flap lay something important: dark, maybe varying on purple, probably soft and floppy (Miller, 143)

Forty years after the scene of these memories, Miller finds herself once again confronted by the fact of her father's penis. Her father, now stricken with Parkinson's disease, requires her help to bathe and urinate, a situation which leads her to reflect on the relationship between the phallus and the organ it represents. At first, she concludes that touching her father's penis has destroyed its mystique, writing that, while the phallus symbolises male power ("the way my father could terrify me when I was growing up"), the penis is simply a biological accident: "It made problems for me, but they were finally prosaic, unmediated by concepts and the symbolic order" (Miller, 145). Months later, as her father lies dying, Miller is no longer so sure it’s easy to separate the two:

Had my father still been able to read, I would never have written about "the penis". By going public with the details of domestic arrangements on Riverside Drive, I was flying in the face of the parental injunction not to "tell" that had haunted my adolescence and continued well into my adult years; the panic my parents felt that they would be exposed by us; the shame over family secrets (Miller 1991, p. 147)

Miller's essay points to the complicated relationship between symbolic power (or the way power is represented) and the way individuals embody it. In Miller's essay, her father's penis is simultaneously a source of mystery, difference, sexuality, awe, physical illness and frustration. There is, she suggests, an undeniable connection between masculine or patriarchal power and the penis, but it's equally a relationship which often causes men as well as women confusion and even despair.

Over the past two years, Americans have also been getting uncomfortably close to their President's penis. Of course, everyone knows the President has a penis - it's an essential criterion for the job, after all - but no-one wants to think about it. The Presidency is a highly symbolic office. The incumbent is expected to display superhuman levels of self-control, reliability and good judgement, none of them traits normally associated with the male organ. Americans like their Presidents to have balls, but a penis is different. A penis can only get in the way of the national interest.

Separating the President from his penis is a lot like trying to separate the President from the man who inhabits the office. Voters are aware there’s a distinction, yet, in the flesh, the President is treated as if the two were one. The ongoing controversy over the current President's alleged sexual indiscretions has brought the complex relationship between the symbols of power and the people who assume them to the fore. And it's done so in a way which equally focuses attention on the media’s role in bringing information about public figures' private lives into the public arena.

Here, I want to focus on the media and its reconfiguration of our public sphere - and to argue that this reconfiguration has important consequences for feminism. In particular, I want to look at the current confusion about where 'real politics' starts and the invasion of politicians' private lives begins, with a view to asking what relevance this might have to the fundamental feminist project of politicising the private sphere itself. As my introduction suggests, it's an inquiry which needs to take account of the way the relationship between power, gender and representation interacts with the contemporary media. We can't begin by assuming that these terms are fixed or that the public sphere is a stable configuration of institutions or concepts which exist untouched by the means of representing them.

To start, I'll look briefly at how the mass media may have influenced both the practice and meaning of politics itself. In his book, The Politics of Pictures, John Hartley argues that the mass media is now at the heart of "representative" democracy. He writes:

In classical Greece and Rome, assuming you were a free man - rather than a woman, slave or foreigner - you could walk into the agora or forum and participate in public life directly, as a voter, a jurist, a consumer, or as an audience of oratory in the service of public affairs. ... But nowadays there is no physical public domain, and politics is not "of the populace". Contemporary politics is "representative" in both senses of the term; citizens are represented by a chosen few, and politics is represented to the public via the various media of communication. Representative political space is literally made up of pictures - they constitute the public domain (Hartley, 35)

In such an era, attempting to separate politicans from their images is arguably futile. Political campaigns are now structured entirely around media events and key debates are inevitably broadcast on television, ensuring that appearance, tone of voice, demeanour and the ability to speak in short, witty grabs are at least as important as the substance of what is said or argued.

This process, of course, hasn't happened overnight and was already well underway in the USA in the Kennedy era. Media analysts Donovan and Scherer argue that the real dividing line lies between "what politics was before 1948 when US television was born" and "what politics has been since". They write that:

the day after his dramatic victory over Dewey in 1948, Truman articulated the esssence of the old "politics" when he said "Labor did it". A mere twelve years later, after defeating Nixon in 1960, Kennedy's comment went to the heart of the new politics. "It was TV more than anything else" he said, "that turned the tide". While not the only determinacy of a candidate's popularity, television has become an unavoidable threshold to political power (Donovan and Scherer 1992, p. 239).

But if politicians have become increasingly skilful at using the media to convey their political ends, they've also become increasingly enmeshed in its web. In recent years, the blurring of the lines between information and entertainment genres in news and current affairs has meant that new kinds of stories about politicians are given mainstream airing, particularly in the US. Such stories are harder to control or spin-doctor; stories like Gary Hart's affair with Donna Rice and Gennifer Flowers' account of her relationship with Bill Clinton. These stories usually germinate in tabloid magazines like The National Enquirer or The Globe, and once they would have died there too. But the advent of tabloid prime time current affairs shows and the proliferation of news programs has ensured that stories about politicians' private lives are now routinely picked up and investigated by the US mainstream media.

The "bimbo eruptions" which have plagued Bill Clinton’s political career have all been partly fuelled by media sources which would once have been dismissed as marginal or trashy. The first months of 1998 were dominated by detailed international media coverage of Bill Clinton's alleged relationship with young White House intern Monica Lewinsky which originated in allegations published in The Drudge Report, a gossipy internet site run by a 30 year old out of his Los Angeles home. As editor of the on-line journal, Slate, Michael Kinsley commented, "The Internet made this story. And the story made the Internet. Clinterngate, or whatever we are going to call it, is to the Internet what the Kennedy assassination was to TV news: its coming of age as a media force" (Kinsley, 1998).

Once the Lewinsky scandal broke mainstream media outlets, such as CNN and Time magazine, devoted intense coverage to the allegations, including speculation about whether Clinton defines oral sex as infidelity, whether the President's penis had strange, identifying characteristics and whether Lewinsky owned a dress stained with the President's semen. There was certainly something weird (if not entertaining) about watching senior media commentators trying to look dignified while they speculated about the Presidential genitals. On one Larry King Live episode, Marlin Fitzwater, a former White House Press Secretary, came over all metaphysical when asked to ponder whether the President makes a distinction between "sex" and "oral sex".

Perhaps the strangest thing about the mainstream media coverage of the Lewinsky scandal is that the revelations appear to have no adverse impact on the President's approval rating. Quite the reverse, in fact. Clinton's approval rating actually increased at the height of the crisis from 56 per cent in December, 1997 to 59 per cent on January 25, 1998, according to a CNN/USA Today Gallup poll. This was despite the fact that Clinton's credibility appeared to suffer. Only 35 per cent of those polled in 1998 answered yes to the question "Is Clinton honest and trustworthy?" compared with 49 per cent in 1997.

One plausible reason is that Americans are reluctant to convict their President until all the evidence is in. But another is that Clinton is simply an expert political performer who knows that tommorow's television image is far more important than yesterday's news print. Political ratings, in this sense, may have something in common with television ratings. People can hate what a program depicts but still enjoy watching it for its entertainment or shock value. As American journalist Kurt Andersen speculates:

For modern Americans, politics happens on television. And the titillating new story line that gooses the ratings of an old hit show (Paul and Jamie having a baby on Mad About You, say) is now an established TV gimmick. Before the Monica Lewinsky subplot, the audience was beginning to get bored with the Clinton administration. Now they’re interested again (Andersen, 1998).

Sex scandals undoubtedly rate well, but they also heighten the growing confusion over where the private begins and the public stops. The story about President Clinton's alleged dalliance with Monica Lewinsky was legitimated by allegations that Clinton had lied about the affair in sworn testimony presented to prosecutor Kenneth Starr. But much of the speculation surrounding the affair, and related incidents allegedly involving other women, had little to do with the question of perjury.

A paradox is apparent here: we live in a society which demands that politicians adhere to increasingly high standards of public accountability, but the process of investigating them frequently entails 'lowering' the standards of what passes for political reporting in the media. So what does any of this have to do with feminism? To answer that question, I'd like to turn briefly to a homegrown 'sex scandal' involving a politician - in this case, Cheryl Kernot.

The Senators' 'Past'

In 1997, Cheryl Kernot found herself at the centre of a 'sex scandal' following the release of a story in the media detailing an affair she'd had with a former high school student. The issue attracted significant media attention and a number of male politicians argued that Kernot's private life was fair public game in this instance. Liberal MP Tony Smith argued that Labor had made an issue of his own visit to a prostitute and therefore Ms Kernot's affair deserved equal scrutiny. Liberal Party Queensland director Greg Goebel also argued that "The public expects politicians to have high personal standards and to abide by them. Cheryl Kernot cannot expect to escape the scrutiny applied to other MPs" (Dasey, 1997).

When she left the Democrats to join the Labor Party in 1997, Kernot told Brisbane's Courier Mail newspaper that: "Old politics is about the politics of personality, sexuality, colour and gender. New politics does not judge on gender, sexuality and race" (McGeough, 7). It's a worthy sentiment, but one which Kernot must realise doesn't accurately reflect the way contemporary politics connects with the media and the public. As journalists Pilita Clark and Margo Kingston point out in their analysis of Kernot's image, female politicians reap rewards as well as disadvantages from their gender. "Voters think they are more trustworthy, more reliable, more caring". The challenge, they argue, is to "maximise those strengths and minimise the perceived weaknesses" (Clark and Kingston, 13). The key question raised by the attempt to smear Kernot by revealing her relationship with a former student isn't whether female politicians are overly vilified or let off lightly when it comes to their private lives; it’s a more complex question of how gender, sexuality and power interrelate.

There's no doubt that male politicians have often been attacked and even unseated by information about their private sexual behaviour. The difference, however, lies in the symbolic weight attached to unconventional sexual behaviour by men. The key to this difference lies in the way gender symbolically mediates our understanding of sex and power. Cheryl Kernot is a powerful maternal figure in the Australian political landscape. She's frequently been pictured as the dispenser of common sense - someone strong enough to keep the unruly boys of parliament in order, but who is capable of dispensing compassion to the electorate. At the heart of this maternal symbolism is clearly a deep ambivalence about the relationship between female sexuality and female power. The notion that Cheryl Kernot might have a sexual dimension was certainly news to many commentators, whatever the electorate thought. Australian Financial Review columnist Christopher Pearson summed up the difficulty some had in reconciling the two "aspects’"to Kernot when he attacked Kernot for being "the most sanctimonious woman on Capital Hill", yet behaving otherwise in private. He went on to claim that many parents "understand how destabilising and potentially disastrous for adolescent boys and their families such affairs with manipulative older women can be" (Henderson, 17).

The notion that there is something inherently manipulative or strange about older women who strike up relationships with younger men reflects an unwillingness to believe that older women have a sexuality and can be attractive to younger men. The operative assumption seems to be that the older woman has somehow tricked or otherwise manipulated her partner. But when men in their fifties or sixties turn up with a twenty year old girl on their arm, it's often assumed that it's natural for younger women to be attracted to male power and wealth. The relationship between sex, gender, age and power is, of course, always more diverse and complex than these simple stereotypes allow. And it's precisely this complexity which has given rise to so much confusion about what kinds of sexual behaviours are worthy of public scrutiny and regulation and which are entirely private matters.

Sexual harassment is one of the most vexed territories in contemporary public debate. It's also a prominent, if unacknowledged, point of intersection between the media and feminism. Sexual harassment legislation, like a number of feminist public policy initiatives, is an attempt to recognise and regulate behaviours once seen as purely "private" or "personal" matters. This politicisation of behaviours formerly dismissed as personal has fed into, and often legitimated, the growing media interest in the private lives and behaviours of public figures. Of course, most advocates of sexual harassment laws will argue that regulating the unwanted sexual advances of colleagues in the workplace is an entirely separate matter to voyeuristic tabloid intrusions into properly personal matters. Yet, the very public debate about what information is and isn't of public interest in Bill Clinton's treatment of female employees and acquaintances highlights the confusion which still reigns in this area. Even those trained in the laws of sexual harassment often disagree strongly about where to draw the line between public issues and private affairs.

In early 1998, Gloria Steinem published a strong defence of Clinton on The New York Times opinion page. According to Steinem, the guide to divining what is and what isn't sexual harassment is simple. You've just got to remember that "no means no; yes means yes". Paula Jones was a Government employee who claims Clinton invited her to a hotel room when he was Governor and asked her for oral sex. Kathleen Willey was asking Clinton for a job when she claims he touched her breast and placed her hand on his erect penis. Clinton was in an employer relationship to both these women when he made his advances. But Steinem argues that this is irrelevant. What matters is that he accepted rejection and didn't press his suit. In Monica Lewinsky's case, Steinem argues that "Welcome sexual behaviour is about as relevant to sexual harassment as borrowing a car is to stealing one". For Steinem, there's a clear line between behaviour which is purely personal and sexual and behaviour which constitutes harassment and deserves public scrutiny (Steinem, 1998). But there are plenty of jurists and feminists who disagree with her. Steinem wants to neatly separate abuse of public power from private sexual intentions. Yet it was the recognition that you can't separate the two which gave birth to sexual harassment laws in the first place. Whenever a person has financial or professional power over someone he or she is attracted to, an ambiguity enters the relationship. Sexual harassment laws are an attempt to transcend this indeterminacy and identify and regulate particular scenarios in which gender and sexuality intersect with power in detrimental ways.

In the Australian context, 1995 saw a bitter and divisive debate about the meaning and use of sexual harassment laws following the publication of Helen Garner's The First Stone, a book which was based in the events surrounding charges of harassment and assault levelled at a man in charge of university students. The issues raised in The First Stone, and debated in the wake of its publication, are too complex to discuss here. What's relevant though, is to recognise the extent to which the media coverage of the fracas was, in fact, relevant to the way sexual harassment is understood by the public. In an important collection of essays edited by Jenna Mead and titled Bodyjamming, which responded to The First Stone, a number of authors make passing and derisive reference to media distortions of the issues at stake. Jenny Morgan, for instance, refers to "the media circus" which left her with a random sample of clippings portraying "victim feminists, vindictive feminists, women victimised by feminists, men victimised by feminists, vitriolic feminists, vilified feminists" (Morgan, 101).

There's no question that much of the media coverage of the debate which followed The First Stone did little justice to either its author or its critics. But Morgan's characterisation of the media coverage fails to account for the intersection between the new public sphere which is now defined by the mass media and the old public sphere in which questions of law and public interest were largely determined by the courts, parliament and an elite group of public intellectuals. This split between the way an issue is played out in the public court of media analysis and its resolution in sanctioned institutions like our courts is no longer viable. The feminist project of politicising the private sphere and its attendant issues, such as sexual harassment, domestic violence and child care, was not simply an attempt to readjust the public sphere - it inherently assailed the basis on which we separate the private and the public. "Bad" media assaults on the same divide, in other words, cannot be readily distinguished from "good" politics which attempt to define the public interest value of formerly private matters.

In March 1998, Time magazine ran a cover story on the Paula Jones sexual harassment suit which claimed the US law is terminally confused about what is and isn't sexual harassment (Cloud, 1998). What the article didn't countenance is the extent to which the media coverage of the various Clinton scandals has become inseparable from legal debates in the area. Juries, who have returned well over five hundred decisions on the issue in the US since 1991, are obviously influenced by public debate on the issue, while judges are also not immune from public perceptions. The result has been a schizophrenic pattern of rulings and settlements and a genuine lack of clarity about what is and isn't acceptable behaviour in the workplace or public sphere.

Cheryl Kernot has been an outspoken critic of media intrusions into her private life. But while her frustration is understandable her anger at the media hides a paradox: it is female politicians such as herself who have lobbied to put the private domain on the public agenda. From the availability of childcare to working women to the regulation of pornography and sexual harassment, feminism has been responsible for politicising issues, attitudes and impulses once considered domestic or personal. A growing number of contemporary feminists, however, have become increasingly wary of just how far the state has begun to penetrate the private sphere and what its real consequences are for women. US feminist writer Wendy Brown sums up these concerns when she writes that: "the state does not simply address private needs or issues but configures, administers and produces them" (Brown, 195). Laws and public policies, in other words, don’t simply regulate behaviours, they change the fundamental meaning we attach to those behaviours and they produce effects. Recent attempts to codify and regulate sexual behaviours in the workplace and public sphere have had some unintended consequences, one of which is to reconfigure a whole range of behaviours as matters of public interest. Separating the public interest from what interests the public is no longer as simple as many feminists might wish.

Andersen, K. (1998), "Entertainer-In-Chief", The New Yorker, February 16, 34

Brown, W. (1995) States Of Injury. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Clark. P and Kingston, M. (1998), "Dress Sense", The Sydney Morning Herald, March 25, 13

Cloud, J. (1998), "Sex And The Law", Time, March 23, 28-34

Dasey, D., Hannan, L. and Cumming, F. (1997), "Kernot Secret Past", The Sun Herald, December 14, 3

Donovan, R. J. and R. Scherer (1992) Unsilent Revolution: Television News And American Public Life. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Hartley, J. (1992) The Politics Of Pictures: The Creation Of The Public In The Age Of Popular Media. London: Routledge.

Henderson, G. (1997), "Case Of Humbug And Hypocrisy", The Sydney Morning Herald, December 16, 17

Kinsley, M. (1998), "In Defense Of Matt Drudge", Time, February 2, 39

McGeough, S. (1997), 'The Other Side Of Saint Cheryl', The Sydney Morning Herald, December 13, Spectrum 1-7

Miller, N. (1991) Getting Personal. London and New York: Routledge.

Morgan, J. (1997), "Sexual Harassment: Where Did It Go In 1995?" in J. Mead, Bodyjamming. Sydney: Vintage, 101-115.

Steinem, G. (1998), "America's Sexual Obsessions", The Sydney Morning Herald, March 24, 19.

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