First published on Wednesday the 20th of May, 2015, this piece comes in at number 3 in the top 30 Villainesse stories of 2015.
What is going ON with gender politics in 2015 New Zealand? The first country in the world to give women the vote (in 1893. Kate Sheppard, take a bow), New Zealand recently seems to have faceplanted back into the smoky gentlemen’s chambers of the 1950s.
First there was Eleanor Catton, the youngest author to ever win the Man Booker Prize. In January, Catton dared to disagree with the actions of the New Zealand government, opining that the country was run by “neo-liberal, profit-obsessed, very shallow, very money-hungry politicians who do not care about culture.”
These remarks would be a bitter pill to swallow for any government, but the mass furore that followed told a darker tale. Prime Minister John Key responded swiftly, suggesting she showed a lack of “respect” and “no special political insight” and that it was “a bit sad that [she] is mixing politics with some of the things she’s good at.” Let’s just take a breath to let that last statement sink in.
Media pundits were quick to join the fray, with radio personality Sean Plunket infamously calling Catton an “ungrateful hua” (an extremely offensive Maori insult), Dirty Politics subject Cameron Slater branding her a “whinging tart” and the twittersphere launching into furious debate about Catton’s right, or lack thereof, to comment.
In summary, female intellectual dares to voice an opinion, the Prime Minister patronisingly advises her not to ‘mix’ with politics, much name-calling ensues and the resulting debate is about Catton’s right to say the things she said, rather than about the actual things she said. If that doesn’t reflect a lack of value in women’s opinions, I don’t know what does.
And then there was New Zealand Pork. Oh boy, where to begin with this one… The industry group decided to run a NZ$1M campaign encouraging New Zealand men to “give [their wives] a night of unforgettable pleasure” by cooking dinner for them, ranking recipes from easy (“burping after a beer”) to difficult (“remembering your missus birthday” [sic]).
Let’s unpack this. Firstly, the language is completely heteronormative and based around an assumption of the nuclear family. Secondly, the idea that men can give their partners a night of unforgettable pleasure just by cooking for them reinforces the lack of importance placed on female sexual satisfaction. Thirdly, recipes given names like ‘get away with anything pork scallopini’ and ‘skip stupid Saturday jobs pulled pork’ conjure up the tired trope of women as nagging shrews. And finally (for the sake of brevity), their website has segregated ‘modes’ for the genders; a ‘bloke’s mode’ and a ‘mum’s mode’. Because motherhood is clearly the only thing that defines being a woman… If you’re a woman without children who wants to use NZ Pork’s website, tough. No mode for you.
What is truly mind-boggling is that 1) an advertising agency thought that this was a good idea and 2) New Zealand Pork went along with it. As much as these dated gender stereotypes hurt women, they also hurt men. If you’re targeting men through advertising I’d have thought it foolish at best to portray them as incompetent, beer-soaked Neanderthals. But then what would I know? I’m just a woman.
Then TVNZ decided to join the sexist fray, posting a picture of Toni Street, Ali Pugh and Pippa Wetzell on their facebook page captioned with “Who’s the sexiest of them all?” All three were nominated for the (1950’s throwback) ‘Sexiest Woman’ category in the Best On The Box awards, an award based purely on the physical attributes of its nominees. Nevermind Wetzell’s 15 plus years of journalistic experience, Street’s steady rise to prime time or Pugh’s important work covering the Pike River tragedy, TVNZ would rather pit them against each other in a battle of looks.
Perhaps they realised just how tired the beauty pageant catfight trope really is, as when the inevitable backlash arose they swiftly removed the picture and issued an apology. But for a national broadcaster to make such a faux-pas in 2015 in the first place, one has to question what is going on.
But wait… there’s more. The newest reality import to reach NZ’s shores brought with it a tide of gender tropes. The handsome Prince Charming searching for his bride, the girl-on-girl catfights, the heteronormative fairytale… The Bachelor was the reality TV straw that broke the camel’s back. You likely know the deal; one man, the lauded ‘bachelor’ and twelve pretty young women, all fighting for the ‘prize’ of being chosen by him. If the tackiness of the rose-giving ceremonies wasn’t enough to make you gag, let’s just think about what they were reinforcing. A man is a prize, The Bachelor tells us. One that we must fight other women for. Our value lies in being selected by him. If a man doesn’t choose us, we are losers. I just. There are no words.
I know what you’re thinking. Surely that’s it? But no, I’ve saved the best (read: worst) for last. #PonytailGate swept the world by storm, becoming the most-read story on several international news sites. For the uninitiated: the Prime Minister of New Zealand pulled the ponytail of a waitress in her place of work repeatedly over a number of months. She went public with her story, noting her immense discomfort, the media hit peak frenzy-mode, and the NZ Herald ran a problematic front page story proclaiming to have the ‘exclusive’ interview.
The brilliant Alison Mau thankfully tackled this one head-on in an op-ed for RadioLive. But I mean, a man pulling a woman’s ponytail? Could it be any more blatant? As much as the Prime Minister would have us believe ponytail gate had nothing to do with gender, can you really imagine a man pulling another man’s ponytail? It’s an invasion of personal boundaries, generally used in the playground to bully girls. The implication for often short-haired boys being “I can do this to you, but you can’t do it to me.” The fact that we’re even discussing playground behaviour surely tells us something is gravely wrong.
So… Eleanor Catton, NZ Pork, TVNZ, The Bachelor and #PonytailGate. All in less than six months. New Zealand, the 1950s called. They want their backward sexist attitudes back.Support Villainesse