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TOP 30 OF 2015 - 3. When did New Zealand become so sexist?

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.


  • Sexism /
  • New Zealand /
  • Eleanor Catton /
  • John Key /
  • Politics /
  • New Zealand Pork /
  • TVNZ /
  • The Bachelor /
  • #PonytailGate /
  • Alison Mau /
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Comments ( 3 )

  • Keetabear's picture

    Keetabear - Tue, 2015-06-09 22:35

    I don't believe that it'd because the people of new Zealand is sexist I believe it's because our God damn government is a joke. Nothing good has happened since Helen Clark was leader and now is is one of the most powerful woman in the world. New Zealand should have voted her in again maybe our county would have turned out better.
  • Sky_Thordottir's picture

    Sky_Thordottir - Fri, 2015-06-12 19:48

    I have to agree with you there Keetabear. Our government is a joke and nothing good HAS happened since Helen Clark was prime minister. If she was the leader again all of this would go away.
  • Nichols's picture

    Nichols - Sun, 2015-08-30 12:24

    Interesting piece Lizzie, but it’s a shame that given the platform you have, and girl power audience that read your opinion, that you didn’t give a more sound and unbiased (or at least even-handed) approach to the serious topic of sexism. It seemed like you wanted to, and were coming across quite exasperated. Sexism still exists – that, I’m guessing, is what your main point is. And I agree wholeheartedly, and as a male I do my best to not only treat everyone (race, creed, gender, sexual preference, etc) the same way, but I also quietly, or sometimes bluntly, point out to friends and others when their attitudes or comments are sexist (or other). Firstly, regarding the Catton furor. For you to somehow turn this example into a sexist argument both denigrates what Eleanor was actually saying, and also shows either lack of foresight, or knowledge on how politicians and media commentators speak and deliver their diatribe. On ANY given day, a male figure will have exactly the same comments and accusations made about them, yet (and rightly so) it is never seen as sexist. A vast majority of our fair-minded, thinking society does not see it as sexist, because it isn’t. It’s something equally as bad i.e. it is seen for what it is, one person attacking another person’s standpoint. I am more than happy to give you plenty of examples and further rationale to my argument on this, but in a nutshell not all belittling behavior is sexist – key example: why didn’t you include the female commentators who used similar language and comments when they came out against Eleanor’s viewpoint? NZ Pork’s campaign. Yes, absolutely heteronormative practice and hardly of value to the type of society we want to live in, I would have thought. However, to suggest this is somehow dragging us back to the dark ages is a little shortsighted. Granted, up until twenty years ago, the type of advertising we often saw in NZ, leveraged typical stereotypes and was by and large sexist – horribly so. Since then we have seen a sharp decline (there are a number of media (academic) papers that back this up), so to me we have progressed not regressed. I’m keen for you to help me understand how you think advertising has reverted in this sense. BTW there are a number of female product advertisements that take the mickey out of males, so again not so sure you’re being very fair-minded. And of course, there’s maybe a ‘mocking humor’ the advertisers were trying to project (probably failed!) in using satire to get across the point that gender roles shouldn’t exist. TVNZ’s “Who’s the sexiest of them all?” Disgraceful and deservedly warranted the backlash. Enough said, your points were clear and I wholeheartedly agree. The Bachelor. Unfortunately, again, I think you neither demonstrated fairness in your opinion, nor seemed to grasp the irony of using it as a reference. The most glaring omission being the Bachelorette show. Given it has had 11 seasons, and first aired (in the US but also globally) in 2013 it’s a rather large omission. Why not say Bachelorette is just as bad, to at least demonstrate fairness? One sentence would have sufficed. You used words, in The Bachelor example, such as; ‘we’ and ‘our’ and ‘us’, so I’m going to assume you were representing women collectively, not just yourself. What are your thoughts then on the undeniable fact that these shows have a heavily skewed female audience – both viewership and interest? There’s also the more obvious fact that twenty plus women (out of a more likely larger applicant group measured in the hundreds) that willingly appeared on the show? Again, if you had showed fairness by including how women perpetuate the sexist stereotypes I would have been more accepting of your argument. Ponytailgate. In my opinion it was most certainly inappropriate, creepy behavior. And in fairness, given most of your opinion piece has been framing sexism as the belittling of women, then yes, for that reason it can (easily) be argued that pulling a women’s hair is belittling i.e. sexist in conduct. However, and unfortunately, the words ‘sexist’ and ‘sexism’ have become a very loose, catchall term these days. Starting with the rudimentary and unequivocal meanings: ‘Prejudice against a gender.’ (prejudice is to pre-judge another view, without fact). No, ponytailgate was not that. ‘Discriminatory behavior’ (making a distinction, based on group, class, or activity/category rather than individual behavior and using that as a way to restrict that individual). Not, quite fitting ponytailgate. ‘Stereotypical behavior.’ I’m not sure this could be classed as wide-spread and the argument that we somehow include five year olds, as you did, seems a bit of a stretch (I know of plenty of instances that girls, and indeed women, have pulled hair). So, maybe it’s better to call it what it is, rather than trying to pigeonhole it neatly into supporting a sexist argument. It was, in my opinion, physical harassment, personally invasive, mentally traumatising, and possibly abusive. But as a ‘gender issue’ I’m only partly swayed. So … score card (I say good-naturedly as a way of summing up) re being sexist, or something else: Eleanor Catton: 0. NZ Pork: 0.5-1. TVNZ: 1. The Bachelor: 0. #PonytailGate: 0.5-1. Hardly even close to the 1950’s.
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