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.