Women in politics: destroyed by the media or slowly changing the status quo?

Shelly Savage, University of Sydney

Julie Baird, Media Tarts: How the Australian Press Frames Female Politicians, Carlton North, Scribe Publications, 2004 (pp 328). ISBN 1-92076-923-4 (paperback) RRP $32.95.

Avoid being photographed in a ballgown or a bikini, if you want to succeed in politics. Establish a serious profile instead, Julia Baird advises women in Media Tarts. Don’t draw attention to your private life, dodge the personality cult, cop criticism, treat journalists as neither friends nor foe, don’t expect favours from women in the media, talk directly, answer honestly and beware the gender card (pp. 241–246). This is precisely what the new wave woman of politics is doing and partly why she now ‘struggles more with invisibility than with the excessive attention or curiosity shown by the press towards the novel political woman in the 1970s’ (p. 240). But if Baird’s thesis holds, this new dearth of publicity will not hinder these women’s careers, rather it will help deliver them the respect and longevity required to consolidate their political power.

In Media Tarts Baird argues that women in Australian politics have punched above their weight, gaining additional media attention on the strength of their novelty value and because of the hyper-enthusiastic quest for a woman prime minister. But women’s publicity success has not been matched by success in the traditional political sense and this has contributed to an inflated perception of their failure. Further, intense media scrutiny has exposed relative novices to aggressive resistance from their political competitors. Baird argues that many women politicians were ‘pursued by their opponents not because they were women, but because they were potentially serious vote-pullers, electoral drawcards with the kind of popularity party strategists fantasise about’ (p. 271). When these women failed to live up to unrealistic expectations the media set for them, the media’s disappointment was often expressed as emotionally charged criticism, which was exaggerated by the women’s high profiles. Thus, a woman’s fall from grace seemed devastating. Baird observes, ‘the bias that frequently emerged in the media made their transgressions grotesque, their mistakes almost sinister’ (p. 4).

Drawing on a solid body of evidence including interviews with women politicians past and present, and substantially informed by her recent doctoral thesis in the History Department at the University of Sydney, Media Tarts is a very satisfying discussion of the media’s reporting of women in politics during recent Australia history. Baird considers the evolution of attitudes toward women politicians and gives a brief history of how they have been portrayed in the media and how they presented themselves publicly. Media Tarts reflects usefully on social attitudes toward women in public life; on the distance between the opinions of media and political elites and those of the general public; and on the relationship between reporters and politicians. Baird argues that the media is often blamed when a woman fails to succeed in politics when the greater enemy was rivalry in the political ranks. For instance, on the fall of Carmen Lawrence in the wake of the Penny Easton affair, Baird says, ‘While the media pursued Lawrence fiercely over the story, it was her political opponents, in both the Labor and Liberal parties, who did the most damage’ (p. 227). Baird’s unstated implication is that many in the media don’t understand well enough how the representative politics can work to distort the public will. Of one case study she observes ‘The key question about the wax and wane of the Bronwyn Bishop phenomenon, posed by many journalists at the time, is whether her influence was exaggerated by the press’ (p. 38).

Women’s publicity success has not been matched by success in the traditional political sense.

Some readers may find Baird’s advice to political aspirants self evident, others may find it wearisome and acquiescent. Like the wisdom that while a woman may not deserve to be assaulted because of the way she is dressed, a sensible woman will dress conservatively to ensure her safety; Baird argues that women must represent themselves responsibly in the media to ensure their political success. Political culture has developed to admit those who fit the image we traditionally associate with men. Sensible women need to conform to that image at least until women gain the critical mass required to nurture a different culture. To do so women must hide those aspects of themselves that the political culture has traditionally eschewed.

But can this conservative approach achieve wider goals for women than simple participation? Some feminists have criticised the ‘critical mass’ thesis that Baird relies on to bring about change. For these critics, this will not be enough to change things for women. Mary Crooks, Executive Director of the Victorian Women’s Trust, has said ‘we have to elect women who are not the Condoleezza Rices of this world’ (2004), implying here that Rice does not use her political position to improve women’s position. Marian Sawer (2000) has also argued that increasing the number of women in parliament is necessary but not sufficient. However, Sawer also points to evidence that female candidates are more likely to engage with women’s policy issues and raise these in parliament, which gives some support to Baird’s critical mass thesis. In general, Baird is not insensitive to this debate, but she doesn’t examine closely the relationship between how women are represented in the media and their political actions.

Political culture has developed to admit those who fit the image we traditionally associate with men.

More robust is Baird’s treatment of the relationship between media reporting and broader social attitudes to women. She examines how the media has covered several women politicians and argues that its representations of these women have conformed to formulaic accounts which she labels ‘frames’. Baird shows how the frames through which the media has analysed women in politics have mirrored the evolving wider debate about women’s changing role in society. In the 1970s, for instance, ‘Articles on women in politics … often followed a formula of the ‘battle’ between contesting ideologies about women: should they work or stay at home?’ (p. 51). Baird shows how many women politicians at this time publicly rejected feminism while privately acting in accordance with many of its goals. She theorises that this contradictory attitude was both a response, and a further stimulus, to the popular backlash against feminism. Here Baird confirms Sarah Madison’s account of the backlash against the women’s movement, which Madison says has generated ‘unpleasant and erroneous images of feminists, particularly in the mainstream media’ (2004, p. 46). According to Baird, women politicians have been complicit in creating such imagery.

Baird argues that, over time, different frames have informed the media’s representation of women politicians. In Media Tarts she describes three such frames: the ‘Steel Sheilas’, the ‘Superstar Housewives’ and the ‘Cover Girls’. In the Steel Sheilas media frame, stories compared women, including Senators Bronwyn Bishop and Margaret Guilfoyle, with Britain’s first and only woman prime minister, Margaret Thatcher. Articles depict these women, to varying degrees, as possessing Thatcher’s toughness, her supposed stylish good looks, her rejection of feminism, and her seemingly hypocritical reverence for a traditional role for women in the private sphere. The contradiction between the Steel Sheilas’ advocacy of the virtue of housewifery and their personal adoption of a demanding professional career reflected the evolving debate about the nature of women’s contribution to public life. Baird says that ‘While expectations of leadership sprang initially from a belief that a woman was unnaturally steely, or masculine, their difference to men was later considered an asset’ (p. 46). Regardless of their political experience, each was touted as a serious contender to be Australia’s first woman prime minister. Baird argues that the Steel Sheilas typically disappointed the media because they failed to deliver on the unrealistic expectation of their future leadership.

Some women politicians have publicly rejected feminism while privately acting in accordance with its goals.

In the ‘Superstar Housewives’ frame, the media depicted politicians, including MPs Ros Kelly and a reluctant Joan Child, performing housework and as having the qualities traditionally associated with women as well as the strength associated with men. Baird claims that many women politicians used this frame to present themselves as more virtuous than men while being just as capable, and so, by default, superior due to their gender. When the Superstar Housewives failed to clean up the political culture as promised but instead replicated the behaviour of their male colleagues, they were acutely criticised by many journalists. Nevertheless, the social discussion that coincided with the portrayal of women as Steel Sheilas and Superstar Housewives contributed to widening the understanding of women’s possible contribution to politics. For instance, while initially ‘The role of the housewife was generally regarded as a poor qualification for political life’ (p. 49), it was later argued to give women ‘a perspective that men lacked, and was vital to the proper running of the country’ (p. 49).

Baird illustrates how women politicians were also framed in the media as Cover Girls, sometimes dressed in evening or fashion attire, often photographed in social contexts and with a focus on their physical appearance. Younger politicians such as South Australian MP Barbara Wiese and Senator Natasha Stott Despoja were portrayed in this way but so too were Cheryl Kernot and Pauline Hanson. Baird claims the media’s desire to dress politicians up as Cover Girls was matched by these politicians’ hunger for publicity. She reports that Stott Despoja ‘once wrote that women should “manipulate the media” in order to get their voices heard’ (p. 137). This portrayal was important both for differentiating women from the traditional and somewhat negative stereotype of politicians as elite and aloof, and as a way of showing women to be multi-dimensional. This frame reflects a wider discussion about how women can be social and sexual beings as well as mothers, housewives, and serious professional contributors, but the frivolous portrayal of women politicians in the media made it easy for their colleagues to label them vacuous. Although they didn’t necessarily lose the support of the wider public, some lost the support of their colleagues and their self-confidence, and so their careers collapsed. The professional decline that many of these women experienced was sufficiently spectacular to scare the new generation into adopting the neutral media profile that Media Tarts advocates.

The public’s reaction to women in politics differs from the reactions of both the media and political elites.

Contrary to the contention of one hostile review, Media Tarts does not ‘subscribe to the idea of female politicians as victims’ (Walsh 2004, p. 73). Rather Baird argues that women have contributed to their own downfalls; they ‘have exploited the stereotypes and superficiality of press coverage for their own gain, a fact which is now recognised by journalists and politicians, but rarely by feminist academics and commentators’ (p. 8). And she points out much the general public’s reaction to these women differs from the reactions of both the media and political elites. While women in politics have been attacked by their peers and labelled failures by the media, opinion poll data has not shown them to be electoral liabilities (MacKerras 1980); indeed there is some evidence to the contrary (Curtin & Sexton 2004; Whip 2003). Baird concludes that ‘The female meteor syndrome – where women flame then fade to black – has demonstrated a clear gap between the expectations and judgements of the press and the public’ (p. 229). This gap adds weight to her advice that women politicians need not court media publicity in order to achieve success. Indeed, the opposite might be true. Given this, we should examine more closely the extent and nature of media power in the political context? Baird’s case studies demonstrate that disproportionate publicity and a high media profile cannot deliver women real political power, so it will be interesting to see whether keeping a low media profile can.


Curtin, J. & Sexton, K. 2004, Selecting and electing women to the house of representatives: Progress at last?, paper presented to the Australasian Political Studies Association Conference, University of Adelaide, 1 October.

Crooks, M. 2004, ‘Women politicians don’t fight for women’, Media Release, Victorian Women’s Trust, 13 June.

Madison, S. 2004, ‘A part of living feminism: Intergenerational feminism in a working class area’, Journal of Interdisciplinary Gender Studies, vol. 8 nos. 1 & 2, pp. 38–53.

MacKerras, M. 1980, ‘Do women candidates lose votes? Further evidence’, Australian Quarterly, v. 52, Summer, pp. 450–455.

Sawer, M. 2000, ‘Parliamentary representation of women: From discourses of justice to strategies of accountability’, International Political Science Review, vol. 21, no. 4, pp. 361–379.

Walsh, K. A. 2004, ‘Books extra – Media Tarts: how the Australian press frames female politicians’, Sun Herald, 12 September, p. 73.

Whip, R. 2003, ‘The 1996 Australian federal election and its aftermath: A case for equal gender representation’, Australian Feminist Studies, vol. 18, no. 40, pp. 73–97.

Shelly Savage is a doctoral student and lecturer in the Discipline of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney. Her research interests include public policy, Australian politics, media and public relations.

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