It’s not about the knitting

June 8 was Worldwide Knit In Public Day. I only know that because I follow the Prime Minister on Twitter, and she was tweeting about the cardigan she was knitting for her niece.

After the media’s republication of the Women’s Weekly cover of Gillard surrounded by balls of yarn, apparently knitting a toy kangaroo for the royal baby, a weird backlash started appearing in my social media feeds. ‘So what if the PM knits! What’s so bad about that? I know heaps of feminists who knit!’

And so on.

Well, I still have a problem with these images. And you know what: it’s not actually about the knitting. The problem is not that the PM knits. Knitting ­– does this really need to be spelled out? – is not, in and of itself, a conservative practice.

The problem centres on the decision to feature the PM in a mainstream women’s publication and to pose her for photographs designed to appeal to conservative stereotypes about women. See: the stay-at-home wife. The maternal grandmother who thinks of nothing but doting on her grandchildren and fawning on the royals. The spinster aunt who has more time on her hands than she knows what to do with. These stereotypes – broad generalisations that have long since developed a life apart from whatever material conditions produced them – do women no favours.

The most important question for feminists, I think, is how should we respond?

Assuming the images arose from a communications strategy decision from the PM’s office, it was a bad one. To be clear: a consistent image in the media shouldn’t be the thing that wins a politician an election. That should be, you know, policy. But given the swirling vortex where policy ought to be, the relentless pursuit of ‘personality’ and individual ‘authenticity’, and Gillard’s new appeal to pro-choice feminist sensibilities, it’s hard to see this as anything but badly misjudged, deeply contradictory PR.

There is also the possibility that, actually, the PM’s Press Office had less input into the Women’s Weekly’s presentation of the article than one might think. For what it’s worth, I don’t think it’s wise to underestimate the capabilities of the tabloid media. When I worked in commercial television, we used to see this in news production every day: the consistent manipulation of images and quotes to fit a predetermined narrative. It’s surprisingly easy to do, a scarily regular feature of every single commercial news bulletin and current affairs slot.

Working on that side of the fence, it doesn’t take long to develop a profound resentment towards the priorities and practices of commercial media: the stock footage of Indigenous kids playing on their front porch at night kept on file for the monthly ‘neglectful, alcoholic Aboriginal parents’ story; that same damning quote by the left-wing politician recycled every other week; the ability to manufacture drama out of the tiniest sliver of on-camera tension. It’s much less about conspiracy than it is about a lack of media ethics, opportunistic journalism, the primacy of advertising, and a complete and utter disregard for truth or accurate representation.

Far from being a conspiracy, what’s much more likely is that WW decided to go with the photographs they had and completely rework the feature content to their own specifications, ignoring any PR directives from the PM’s Press Office.

But in a way that’s beside the point. The point is: feminists should reject such blatant appeals to conservative stereotypes about women, whether they are constructed by the media about women, or a deliberate PR strategy from the Prime Minister’s office. Such characterisations are reductive and reactionary. If it were anyone else, we’d be furious – and rightly so.

Stephanie Convery

Stephanie Convery is the deputy culture editor of Guardian Australia and the former deputy editor of Overland. On Twitter, she is @gingerandhoney.

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Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. I don’t think I entirely agree with this. I think she displays a remarkable sense of humor in knitting a (probably) woollen kangaroo – two great Aussie icons hand-made in Australia, instead of some ultra-expensive conservative piece of silverware that the kid would never enjoy, unless it can play frisbees in the palace halls with it.
    As for conservative PR, I’d much rather see Gillard with her fluffy balls than Abbott with his!

      1. I pray for you Stephanie. This is what I pray, ‘Dear God, please give Stephanie the wisdom to shut her mouth until she knows what she’s talking about’.

  2. Am I the only one who thinks that the decision to facilitate/allow this approach was taken by the PMs office because it keeps the media-cycle focus on gender, and talking about gender and sexism is the one area where Gillard is picking up strong support?

  3. While I agree the intention behind this stunt appears badly muddled to the point that it portrays the PM’s office as experiencing a manic disorientation, I thought the images jarring because they represent exactly what the PM is not and contradict the image most have of her as a eminently business like and calculating politician. I hazard a guess that’s how most of the electorate see her as well, both those for and against. I can’t really see how this PR stunt will undermine that image.

    1. Well, that’s just it: assuming it is strategy, it’s bad strategy because it’s not going to work; it’s bad strategy because it presents as hypocritical; and it’s bad strategy because it attempts to gain currency through a bunch of stereotypes about women, which are themselves objectionable.

  4. I thought the pictures were whimsical (like Mme Defarge she knits at the guillotine – but whose head will roll?). Or she can still knit, even in a gale (whatever else is happening JG is the calm before the storm). Or the picture is a statement, poking fun at the media and commentators (us with our endless cries of what does it all mean?). She looks really lovely actually, and I thought how much fun she must be having with all the sturm und drang swirling around her. You can join my next dinner party any time Jules.

  5. Women can be feminists, knitters, sewers what ever they want to be in the 21stC. Julia Gillard is sending a message to all women, “be proud of who you are, what you do, what you can and have achieved” – Knitting is a skill, a craft that many women practice. In the past, “domestic” occupations have been undermined as trivial pursuits. But oh, today, thanks to the many women who died in prison the early “suffragettes/ women liberationists” who struggled under patriarchal oppression and constraints, who worked and gave women the vote, who gave us the confidence to stand up, to be assertive, to stand up for our rights and not be browbeated into submission, all this to get us where we are today. Julia Gillard is a maverick, she is now setting a precedence in all that she does. Helen

    1. “Julia Gillard is sending a message to all women, “be proud of who you are, what you do, what you can and have achieved”

      That’s absurdly naive.

  6. I think it’s fine – knitting is a better look than semi reclining in a red dress and feather boa – and I’m a fan of both PMJG and Cheryl Kernot. I’m a feminist too – a realistic one.

  7. No matter what our first woman Prime Minister does or says it is used against her. And why should women’s activities be the butt of jokes in this so called robust democracy? I am ashamed of the women and far too many have turned against her for acting like a politician which is what men do every day. It goes to show how ignorant most of the Australian population still are and what she did try to do more than anything was to promote education which as she knows is in an appalling state in comparison with the rest of the world. And I still believe there is an underlying snobbism as well as sexism in this country that will take decades if not centuries to shift. That she is a woman working class an atheist and shares her life with a hairdresser is unforgiveable in so many Aussies eyes. Shame on all those who have vilified her. And by the way there are men who knit particularly in the northern climes.It is a beautiful craft as well as practical as so many of women’s enterprises are.

  8. Go Fay, you said it all for me. I would go further though and call it an underlying caste system rather than just a snobbism embedded within this country’s culture. This ship of fools we call Australia is an embarrassment and a huge let-down for so many women I know and quite understandably some are now seriously looking at emigrating, and that’s before we even know for sure if the Liberals/Nationals will be in power for the next 3 to 9 years, as some journo’s are already telling the masses to expect. Radical move I think, but understandable – why should these young women live any longer within such a patriarchal and increasingly mean-spirited society. Misogyny, accompanied by bullying (commonly seen as an acceptable and common practice in today’s aggressive power broking processes), whether by Murdoch’s press minions or politicians themselves, together with an increasingly manipulated and dumbed-down population; what a debacle, what a sad and sorry day. My heart-felt thanks to Julia, the sacrificial lamb, who helped raise all of these festering sores into the light of day where, hopefully, they can firstly be recognised as real and then finally lanced and remedied. Another woman has to be broken down and discarded though you notice before change can happen.

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