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Type
Essay
Category
Politics
The media

Form versus content

Watching Michelle Obama’s rejection of Donald Trump’s misogyny during the recent American presidential campaign, then Hillary Clinton’s defeat at the hands of said misogynist, it was hard not to draw parallels with recent experience in Australia: the apparently powerful naming of sexism, which proved not so powerful that it prevented electoral victory.

Julia Gillard’s prime ministership was, in many ways, defined by gender. It was a dominant theme in much of the acclaim for Gillard’s ascension to power, as it was in much of the opposition to her government. As many commentators have noted, Gillard endured derogatory ad hominem attacks much more frequently than Australia’s other – all male – prime ministers, with many of these attacks centring on her clothes, appearance, family life and femininity (or supposed lack thereof).

Gillard was well aware of the gendered discourse surrounding her time as Labor leader. In oft-quoted words from her concession speech after losing the office of prime minister, Gillard said,

The reaction to being the first female prime minister does not explain everything about my prime ministership, nor does it explain nothing about my prime ministership.

There is now a solid body of literature, both journalistic and academic, about Gillard and her public reception, and it is no surprise that the performance of and public prejudices about gender have been leading themes. No surprise, also, that it happens to be a leading theme of the two speeches explored in detail here: ‘Misogyny’ and ‘Men in blue ties’ (MIBT).

So far, critics have focused on performance dynamics, most notably the gendered production of and reception of Gillard’s public speaking voice, since this was an element often cited in public slightings of Gillard’s authenticity. In a 2011 article for The Conversation, Macquarie University linguist Jennifer Peck reported research on people’s impressions of the then prime minister:

Women seem more concerned with the lack of expressions of care and nurturing in Gillard’s communication style, while men seem more concerned with accent.

And while some people approved of a leader who ‘sounds like us’, one 20-year-old male said ‘Bogan chicks don’t sound intelligent’.

To date, none of the commentary has taken poetics – the dialectical relationship between form and content – as its main point of departure. Taking a poetic approach means critically reviewing political professionals’ assumptions about the discourse they see themselves conducting, which they often frame as acutely prosaic. In a sense, then, the principal focus here is on the aesthetic or stylistic questions we might ask about political discourse – in other words, on the poetics of its would-be prose.

 

A poetic focus

Comparing Gillard’s two anti-misogyny speeches illuminates how delivery influences public reception. The two speeches were given by the one politician, produced close together in time, addressing very similar themes, with the second clearly intended to emulate the effects of the first – yet the first is widely remembered as Gillard’s finest moment, while the second is remembered as the moment when her public support melted away.

Linguist VN Voloshinov offers a rather simple approach for exploring these speeches, as well as the traditional and new media responses to them. In Marxism and the Philosophy of Language, Voloshinov argues that language is a manifest form of ideology. He goes on to show how indirect speech (where one person reports the remarks of another) offers an especially clear insight into the quoter’s ideology about language.

In other words, every instance of indirect speech involves conscious and unconscious decisions about how to represent the original remarks – what to retain, what to drop and what to alter. These decisions principally revolve around questions of ideational ‘reference’ and stylistic ‘texture’. Reporting a point of reference (for example, relaying a telephone number accurately) inherently values that unit of information, and reporting a point of texture (for example, including a ‘colour quote’ in a news story) inherently values that affective element of the original.

By comparing and contrasting an original remark with its re-used counterpart, we can observe what the re-user values about her or his own words, in style or in content. Following that logic is inherent to creative practice. Take, for example, the remarkable choral accompaniment to excerpts from the ‘Misogyny’ speech by Rob Davidson, and The Australian Voices, published on YouTube in March 2014. Its genius is to project a deep sympathy with the ostensibly plain-spoken sentences of Gillard’s speech in the various aspects of song – cadence, timing, dynamic range, repetition and recursion, syncopation and choreography. Harnessing this compare-and-contrast logic is a road less travelled in the fields of political strategy and rhetorical criticism, however.

 

‘Misogyny’

On 9 October 2012, Gillard rose to speak against a motion tabled by opposition leader Tony Abbott. He had sought to censure the government over its support for federal parliamentary speaker Peter Slipper, who had authored a number of obscene and misogynistic text messages that his one-time friends in the LNP had leaked into the public domain.

Gillard’s speech was not scripted, nor titled, prior to its delivery. Speaking with journalist Anne Summers, Gillard described how she filled out the available fifteen minutes of speaking time with improvised remarks, aided by loose notes her staff had prepared with facts and quotations from Abbott’s past. These files were on hand in anticipation of a moment when Abbott’s double standards would become so offensive that she would quote his own record back at him.

There is a transcript of the speech available through Hansard, but more commonly people refer to the video recording, which went viral on YouTube and other social media the following day. As the video shows, this is a classic ethos (‘character’ or ‘integrity’) speech, with Gillard rejecting Abbott’s fitness to carry a debate about gender: ‘I will not be lectured on sexism and misogyny by this man.’

That fiercely pointed word – misogyny – became the popular title of the speech, prompting the Macquarie Dictionary to expand its definition to incorporate the more generalised usage of an ‘entrenched prejudice against women’.

Footage of the speech reveals its extremely engaging performance dynamics: for example, the interactions between speaker and audience – marked by both voice and body language – including unsolicited interjections, call-response interplay and attempts at diversion or evasion from across the chamber. Many viewers were struck by Gillard’s unmistakably vehement tone of voice – this gets truer as the speech goes on – which featured a pitch more raised than usual, a conspicuously loud (if fairly even) speaking volume and a high ratio of stressed syllables to unstressed ones.

Less noticed in the commentary was Gillard’s dynamic movement at the parliamentary dispatch box. This manifested most conspicuously as a body’s movement within the space – combative deportment, forceful gesturing (especially pointing), eye contact and tossing of the head to underscore her speech’s defiant tropes of apostrophe: ‘I say to the leader of the opposition … ’

The congruence of body movement and semantics, choreographically speaking, also draws attention to a congruence of rhythm and semantics in her speech, linguistically speaking, especially her uses of pause and acceleration. Both underscore her speech’s rhetorical punchlines (for example, the very drawn out build-up to her line that ‘he needs a mirror’).

Initially, the traditional news media (magazines, newspapers, radio, television news and current affairs) responded conservatively to the speech, moving more or less in lock step. Many commentators presented the speech as a partisan ideological overreach – for example:

Australia’s first female prime minister should have been a flag bearer for women (Sydney Morning Herald)

Gillard’s strangled syllables need translation (Daily Telegraph)

Within forty-eight hours, though, many new media (Twitter, Facebook, YouTube) responses – both nationally and globally – showed enthusiastic support of Gillard. While some acquiesced to the traditional news media’s critique, a large contingent did not:

I’ve never had any time for Julia but she was SPECTACULAR in that speech.

I thought her speech was long overdue and would like to think it was a turning point.

Best Thing You’ll See All Day: Australia’s Female Prime Minister Rips Misogynist a New One in Epic Speech on Sexism

This groundswell of popular support prompted widespread discussion on the traditional media’s approach to political news, as typified by the discrepancies in attitudes to this speech. A salient example was this headline from the Global Mail: ‘Old Media: Lessons in Missing the Point.’

Several journalists appeared uncomfortable with this phase of the discussion. Jacqueline Maley, in the Sydney Morning Herald, defended the traditional media’s reaction to the speech:

It is not the job of the press gallery to laud a speech. It is the job of journalists to place events in context, supply background and nuance, and to make predictions about whether political actions will deliver votes.

This take on the ‘job’ of journalists seems to be valued only in times of public criticism. In reality, journalists’ job appears to be to express values and opinions that will strike a chord with their colleagues. In this instance, the traditional media got caught up in a moment of groupthink and were little inclined to tolerate alternative points of view – even if social media opinion may itself be construed as another form of groupthink.

What we may observe in this case of byplay between traditional and new media is too complex for any one account or approach to cover, yet there are salient elements that a focus on poetics can add to this debate. As we see in the three brief extracts from new media above, people who reacted warmly to the speech were clearly responding on the level of reference and on the level of texture (as a moment of feeling – for example, the emphasis on ‘SPECTACULAR’).

Texture is crucial here. That this speech was so affectively compelling was clearly of strategic importance. That the traditional news media gave no adequate account of that affective power was central to the widespread and deliberate public rejection of their consensus on this speech.

 

‘Men in blue ties’

Gillard did not contest the 2013 election – the Labor Party caucus had lost its nerve over her government’s poor and worsening position in the opinion polls and had returned the prime ministership to Rudd in order to limit its losses. However, as late as mid June of that year – the election took place on 7 September – it looked to most observers as though she would be the captain on the bridge when the boat sank.

Under intense pressure from the pro-Rudd forces within the government, as well as from the surging anti-Labor forces outside it, Gillard’s office sought to harness again the passions unleashed by the ‘Misogyny’ speech. Once again, Gillard and her colleagues perceived a need to transform the government’s weary defences into offensive momentum, and the political conflict around gender seemed a promising frame in which to attempt this. To this end, her office scheduled an event to launch a political fundraising group called Women for Gillard (largely a creature of the party and of Labor-affiliated trade unions).

Given the event was established in Gillard’s name, there was a rather natural assumption that she would give a speech, and so her advisers typed up some speaking notes. An early hint of what they were trying to achieve, and of how different the product was from their intentions, can be found on the coversheet of the script circulated to journalists on a ‘check against delivery’ basis: the speech – titled ‘Prime Minister’s speech at the Women for Gillard Launch’ – was billed as ‘off the cuff’. It was a naked yearning for the spark and crackle of the ‘Misogyny’ speech from the previous October, a clear nod to the prototype’s texture. But the promise of a quasi-improvised presentation went unfulfilled – and the very existence of a ‘check against delivery’ script is the first clue.

Australian political speechwriters are much more confident in the practice of managing reference than of creating texture – and this is even truer for the Labor Party than for its rivals. The script Gillard carried into her tribute event on 11 June 2013 was focused squarely on a quotable sequence of remarks about Tony Abbott and the need for adequate representation of women in Australia’s public life.

Most noticed among those remarks was the epistrophic series of musings that earned this speech its popular title. Gillard dedicated almost a minute to caricaturing a government that would be dominated by ‘a man wearing a blue tie’. It is the one phrase from this speech that has remained conspicuously in circulation through Australian political discourse. For visual evidence, note the way Gillard’s rival Rudd and several of his male supporters started routinely wearing blue ties in parliament for the rest of June, as did the Liberal MP Sophie Mirabella.

If you read the transcripts, ‘MIBT’ seems to have more in common with ‘Misogyny’ than if you watch the video recording. That is a further indication of its strategic miscalculation. The video shows how, lacking the theatrical engine of parliament – its intricate rituals and the extreme weight of adversarial intent that informs all parliamentary actions, great and small – Gillard’s speech to an assembled crowd of dependably supportive young women in a Sydney trade union building exuded remarkably little personal energy.

Gillard’s delivery was indicative of professional training: her voice was marked by a consistency of pitch, volume and speed – all very common traits of the scripted speech in Australia. While an evenness of tone projects a sense of control, an absence of dramatic variation also connotes lack of feeling.

Further underscoring values of professional control, rather than of emotional authenticity, is the low level of body movement that characterised the event’s speaker and audience alike – people in this scene have become fixed elements of the setting, like the lectern and the trade union quilts in the background – instead of expressing agility within it.

Focusing on the language, there was little congruence between rhythm and semantics, with Gillard only weakly registering the speechwriter’s punchlines and sound bites (for example, the references to ‘Labor’s passion’). Likewise, there were several of those classic speechwriter’s oxymorons, terms that put the affective properties of the words at odds with their putative referential meanings. Standout examples in this speech were ‘we are energised’ and ‘I am energised’ – truly energised people are likely to use more energetic words to express their energy.

Once more, mainstream media responded conservatively, painting the speech as tactical partisan manoeuvring, rather than as an authentic declaration of intent:

It was the moment when the public saw the issue had obviously and repeatedly been confected. (The Australian)

This was also Gillard playing the gender card against Rudd. And now we know: feminism has become the last resort of the scoundrel. (Herald Sun)

This time, however, there were fewer new media responses, and more of them aligned with the mainstream media’s analysis. An online poll (published by The Age) suggested broad sentiment against the speech, with only 28 per cent of respondents agreeing that ‘The points [Gillard] made were valid and should be debated’ compared to 72 per cent agreeing that ‘It was a cheap shot from a desperate Prime Minister’.

I’m judging the person not the gender & I don’t think @juliagillard makes the cut. (Twitter response)

Australians love a scrapper. But nobody likes a dobber. Or a whinger. (Mamamia)

With the two spheres of debate – or groupthink, depending on your perspective – so much in alignment this time around, there was little space for a ‘they got it wrong’ critique. The response from journalists, strategically predisposed to be underwhelmed, aligned much more closely with a more authenticity-focused new media appraisal. By pointed contrast, ‘MIBT’ did not afford its target audience so much to love that they would mobilise against the media backlash that both speeches endured. This failure, as shown above, was most conspicuous at the level of affect: MIBT needed to emulate the texture of ‘Misogyny’ at least as much as its reference in order to emulate its success.

This is not an attempt to argue that reference matters more to traditional media than to new media, or that texture matters more to new than traditional. Sure, the traditional news media often value the reference-analysing mode in their reportage and ‘comment’, but the power of texture erupts with importance at every stage: the grammar of headlines; the design values that govern screen, page and sound stories; the celebrity culture that flourishes around well-known journalists, with all its attendant narcissism. Meanwhile, there is no overlooking the referential aspect of new media comments such as those quoted above. However, this article does show the importance of the texture-analysing mode as a factor in public reception. It does point to the value of new media as a source of evidence for understanding how and why public reception may diverge from the position adopted by traditional media. It especially points to public unwillingness to engage with lines of argument that are affectively uncompelling.

 

Consequences

Cultural theorist Michael Warner has stated that ‘a public is poetic world-making’. In that light, these two speeches point to a receiving public that is inclined towards significantly different responses to different poetic clues. Importantly, that is true even when Aristotle’s three modes of persuasion – ethos (‘character’ or personnel), logos (‘word’ or referential meaning) and pathos (‘emotion’ or texture) – are putatively identical, as with these two speeches.

In these speeches by Gillard, I am struck by the contingency of what the feminist theorist Lauren Berlant describes as the ‘intimacy’ of their publics: the first speech activated audience familiarity almost without consciously trying; the other consciously tried but conspicuously failed.

Voloshinov’s dialectic of reference and texture in reported speech enables us to identify clearly how the textural poetics of ‘Misogyny’, especially its rhythm and interpersonal drama, were sufficient to overcome a somewhat coordinated media campaign to eclipse the speech’s criticisms of Tony Abbott’s gender politics. In a sense, this earlier speech – which projected a spontaneous balance of form and content – was able to project Gillard’s charisma beyond hostile media gatekeepers, whose responses to its texture were greatly at odds with their readers’ and audiences’. We can see all of this even more clearly by comparing it with the speech that followed.

 

 

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Tom Clark is a senior lecturer in the College of Arts at Victoria University, Melbourne, and is president of the Australasian Universities Language and Literature Association. He is the author of Stay on Message: Poetry and Truthfulness in Political Speech (Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2012). He has previously worked as a speechwriter for several Labor politicians.

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