The Gillard Myth: Searching for the ‘She-ro’

22 / 08 / 2013

It’s less than two months since Julia Gillard lost the Labor leadership and Prime Ministership to Kevin Rudd, unhealthy and following a subsequent honeymoon poll turnaround (which has since declined to some extent), viagra we have been thrown into election mode. No doubt any number of intense writings and publications focusing on the Gillard government will surface in the months and years to come.

In this piece written for Sheilas, viagra Lawyer and Emily’s List National Co-Convenor Tanja Kovac asks us to start thinking about the way various narratives shape our perceptions of leaders. The fact that we are so unused to women in powerful political roles suggests a broader cultural incapacity to characterise women in leadership positions in anything other than limiting stereotypes. Tanja unpacks these traditional female archetypes, examining pros and cons of adopting them in a political capacity, and the potential peril of abandoning them all together.

By Tanja Kovac

Even as the solidarity of the ALP caucus slipped away, Julia Gillard’s strength did not. Her final speech as PM showed thoughtfulness, guts and a touch of whimsy.  Tenacity was on display again, a source of great consternation and grudging respect amongst her detractors, usurpers and friends alike. But while a similar trait in John Howard was explained to the public through the empathetic story of Lazarus, a biblical hero who died and lived again, there was no analogous tale to explain Gillard’s toughness.

In the end, it appears that toughness was not enough of a leadership narrative. Something more was required to communicate her story to the electorate.

Managing leadership narrative is an increasingly important political skill. Thanks to social media and the 24/7 news cycle, command over a personal narrative is demanded from a leader from the moment they set out on their journey towards the top echelons of power. It is even required after the long way to the top comes to an end. Shaping, communicating and protecting leadership narrative is important political business, particularly for women.  After all, history is written by victors.

The immediate poll turnaround for Labor with Kevin Rudd’s return to the leadership has given Gillard’s critics within the press and her own party ammunition to recast her entire period in office as a ‘failed experiment’ – despite the fact that there is a considerable and high level of respect for her capacity and significant achievements in leading the last three years of minority government. To rescue the Gillard mythology from those that would discredit her success, it is important to understand why there was such a painful, public search for the “real Julia”.

One fascinating explanation clearly lies in the cultural understanding of hero-leadership. From a young age, boys and girls are taught to revere the process of male individuation at the centre of the hero-leader yarn. This is a story arc shared by all men who seek and gain power, whether they are real, like Barack Obama, or make-believe, like Harry Potter. Joseph Campbell, in The Hero with a Thousand Faces argued that stories of hero-leadership crossed cultural, racial and religious barriers. Our telling of the leadership story in literature, history, politics and art has conspired for millennia to make hero-leadership a male experience.

So when a woman comes along, it’s understandable that we still don’t know how to read or react to her.

The central character in a leadership story – the hero-leader – is an archetype. It was psychologist Carl Jung who first developed the theory of archetypes. Tapping into folklore, Jung theorised human consciousness as a universal storybook, with personal attributes and foibles derived from a mythic pantheon. Successful narrative – whether in a novel, political discourse or someone’s private psychological drama – depended on an understanding of the deep unconscious characters (and characteristics) competing for dominance in the human passion play.

Unfortunately for Gillard, in the meta-narrative of human existence, there are few sheros to draw inspiration from. No longer just a problem for the women writer and reader, the lack of female leadership narrative is now working to inhibit our understanding of women in power. A collective unconsciousness that confines female archetypes to bit-parts rather than lead protagonists, inevitably shapes the way the electorate responds to women politicians. Voters are thrown into confusion when a woman hero appears before them in real life, because women heroes were absent in their childhood stories.

Gillard, as the first female Prime Minister, posed challenges to the general public – more to some than others – because her leadership story was unrecognisable to the traditional narrative roles assigned to women – the bit-parts of virgin, mother and wise woman. And her alienation from the acceptable Triple Goddess of the Western Canon caused her to become alienated from parts of the electorate, too.

The leader as maiden

Gillard did not fit the maiden archetype. At no time during her parliamentary career did she seek to cultivate an image of the ingénue.

While Kate Ellis, Sarah Hansen-Young (and their Doc-wearing predecessor, Natasha Stott-Despoja), seem to have harnessed political images around the motif of the virginal girl-next-door, Gillard entered parliament, not as a bright young thing, but a fully formed professional woman. Her flaming hair and feminist past distanced her further from the image of an innocent, instead casting her more, in various people’s eyes, as an over-educated shrew.

There was no “Dorothy of Oz” in Gillard, no good (looking) girl who the electorate could slowly watch grow up and into her power. And so the natural empathy of the mythic maiden archetype proved elusive..

The leader as mother

Gillard did not fit the mother archetype, either. Oh, how her leadership would have been so much easier for many in the public realm to understand, if she had been able to cultivate the power of the maternal. Mother leadership runs deep in the cognitive and linguistic psyche of most voters, who understand a woman’s sacrifice at birth and the importance of a household carer and organiser.

Women don’t need to have children of their own to adopt mother qualities or to frame their political leadership through the prism of labour, birth, care and self- sacrifice. Indeed, Elizabeth I, ruling in the 1500s, fully harnessed the image of the Mother (of England itself), while simultaneously promoting herself as the Maiden (Virgin Queen).

Gillard came under the fiercest attack from the left and the right because of her barrenness. Heffernan described it as a character flaw, Latham as an inability to connect. These deeply stereotypical descriptions of her, while upsetting, require analysis. Understanding why Australian men see the loci of feminine power in terms of the birth-rite is a lesson emerging women leaders should consider from Gillard’s time in power.

Australian literature provides a rich source of inspiration for tapping into the benefits of this archetype. Mary Poppins, written by PL Travers, gives two complimentary choices of mother leadership – the activist suffragette providing inspiration and political access for her progeny or the other-worldly nanny, transforming the world around her through meta-domesticity. Both women teach the children (and the male protagonist, Mr Banks) a lesson in the importance of caring – for kids or a cause.

In Henry Lawson’s classic short story, The Drover’s Wife, the central character is a highly capable mother, living life on an isolated farm with an absent male breadwinner. The Drover’s Wife is an enduring image of the stalwart, tough sheila; a mother-woman-leader who can battle the disaster of bushfire, blight and flood, outwit a snake that terrorises her home protecting both her children and the family dog from harm all the while enjoying the Young Ladies’ Journal. She’s a useful legend for Australian women leaders, a character cut, no doubt, from the cloth of Lawson’s own suffragette mother, feminist publisher and poet, Louisa.

The leader as wise woman

Wise women occupy a special place in folklore as transformational figures. Everyone recognises a wise woman when they see her; she’s the fairy godmother who gives Cinderella her glass slippers and the ancient sisters who tell Perseus how to slay Medusa.

A wise woman is mentor to the nation; a weaver of a patchwork quilt of politics; a woman with an eye to the future who can transform the journey of the nation with a simple wave of her legislative wand. Angela Merkel cultivates this image. Clinton and her Democrat predecessor, Madeline Albright, did too. Past their sexualised prime, these women acted forcefully without the fear of losing their femininity (because they were past it) and thus earned a different kind of woman’s grace.

At 50, Gillard didn’t quite have the physical stature of an aging sage. There were no tell-tale signs of grey in her hair, no wrinkled or spotted flesh to give her the costume of the wise.

Although Gillard never enjoyed the benefits of being seen as a wise woman leader, she certainly experienced the archetype’s dark side – every woman of wile and wit knows that a wise woman risks being mistaken for a witch.

The witch

From the moment Gillard took on the top job, Tony Abbott and parts of the conservative press cleverly overlaid this sinister narrative onto her leadership. Sharing a stage with Ditch the Witch signs was no accidental event for Abbott or Alan Jones. They could have insisted that the signs came down before they took the microphone. It all helped to frame her as an evil and untrustworthy queen. While Gillard and her team floundered with metaphoric allusions to describe her, conservatives delved deep into dark places of the public’s collective unconscious. Gillard became the witch, a woman lacing Australia’s mineral wealth with a poison tax, who had mixed her government from the cauldron of a hung parliament.

Gillard, while conscious of the history of this typecasting of strong women, was able to name it during the Misogyny Speech, but didn’t capitalize on reframing an image for her own benefit.

Witches, in recent years, have undergone something of a post-modern transformation. The Wicked Witch – that green and ghastly creature of Oz – has been transformed by Gregory Maguire’s thoughtful reimagining of The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West into an essentially good but misunderstood woman of great scientific skill. In Wicked, the musical adaptation of his novel, the witch is not wicked at all, but a victim of disfigurement at birth and a martyr to a cause.

There are good, powerful witches everywhere in popular culture now – Willow from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Hermione in the Harry Potter series, not to mention Sabrina and Samantha. A little imagination, some brave and clever speech writing and a feminist political framing device could have possibly recast Gillard’s “witchy wickedness”.

Being the first woman Prime Minister, the trailblazer and heroine ahead of the curve, meant Gillard was surrounded by speechwriters and communications consultants steeped in the masculine traditions of the Western Canon. Men for whom leadership is exemplified by the tales of Frodo, Jesus or Keating; their stories.

It is one thing for a woman to get elected to a position of power, quite another to frame the past, present and future story of her leadership so that she has longevity as an image of inspiration for voters of both genders.

There were stories beyond gender limitations of the maiden, mother and wise woman that could have helped Gillard shape her leadership and time in power.

But an Australian culture, steeped in traditional folklore of the fellas, squeezed out any possibility of associating her with Artemis the hunter or Athena the warrior woman. Why didn’t we call on popular culture’s obsession with Ripley, the beloved heroine of the Alien saga? And why didn’t anyone seek to explain her choice of career over kids through the uniquely Australian yarn of Sybylla Melvyn, that enduring comic heroine of Miles Franklin’s My Brilliant Career?

Without harnessing the power of stories, the public was left with a narrative vacuum, filled instead with violent, sexualised abuse, cartoon ridicule and outright sexism.

Gillard blazed a trail, making it easier for women who come after her to thwart and displace gendered stereotypes. But she and her minders were unable to reframe and revision her as a feminine protagonist and a woman leader. And huge slabs of the electorate, both men and women, were unable to deal with the first female ‘usurper’ of a century-long tradition of male leadership and male prime ministership.

Future women leaders will need to ponder the conundrum of how to simultaneously subvert and employ gendered stereotypes – to work behind the scenes in developing and shaping leadership narratives, shaping political discourse away from its inherent maleness, redefining leadership and influencing the cultural assumptions that shape public opinion.


*Featured image courtesy of Mattinbgn from Wikimedia Commons