Unequal em­pow­er­ment

De­stroy­ing the Joint: Why Women Have to Change the World Women & Power, Grif­fith Re­view 40

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Louis Nowra Louis Nowra

Edited by Jane Caro UQP, 295pp, $29.95 Edited by Ju­lianne Schultz Grif­fith Re­view, 286pp, $27.99

THE idea ra­dio shock jock Alan Jones should be taken se­ri­ously be­wil­ders me. I’ve al­ways thought of him as hav­ing a nar­cis­sis­tic per­son­al­ity fu­elled by a sec­ond-rate mind, ap­peal­ing mostly to an au­di­ence with one foot in the grave and de­liv­er­ing his je­re­mi­ads with the camp pom­pos­ity of a cho­leric vicar in an English sex farce.

It’s sur­pris­ing, then, that those who do not lis­ten to him or dis­like him re­act badly to what he says. But last year Jones de­clared women lead­ers, headed by Ju­lia Gil­lard, were ‘‘ de­stroy­ing the joint’’. Author Jane Caro sent a tweet con­demn­ing Jones’s com­ments. This hit a nerve with many women and a De­stroy the Joint page on Face­book de­vel­oped an on­line fol­low­ing of more than 20,000 peo­ple.

The idea was to get Jones off the air and scare his ad­ver­tis­ers away. The cyber lynch­ing didn’t work and the troglodyte re­turned to the air­waves with an in­creased au­di­ence.

But as Caro makes clear in De­stroy­ing the Joint, the is­sue be­came larger than Jones. Women were protest­ing against sex­ist at­ti­tudes and be­hav­iour in our cul­ture. Given the con­stant male put-downs in pub­lic and the re­volt­ing and vile com­ments women have to en­dure from anony­mous men on­line, it’s no won­der the women were furious.

Like all an­tholo­gies, Caro’s is an un­sta­ble mix of the good and ba­nal. There are un­suc­cess­ful at­tempts at hu­mour and dull es­says by politi­cians, which only con­firm that most of our elected rep­re­sen­ta­tives have lit­tle nat­u­ral abil­ity for writ­ing. Most of the con­trib­u­tors are from the pro­gres­sive side of pol­i­tics and are avid con­sumers of the ABC’s The Drum, Crikey and The Con­ver­sa­tion, so there is a same­ness to their views that can be­come mo­not­o­nous.

But there are pieces that stand out. Lily Edel­stein, 17, makes a pas­sion­ate plea for teenage girls to be taken se­ri­ously as they nav­i­gate the per­ils of youth and is­sues such as self-es­teem. She ar­gues on­line sites such as Tum­blr are cru­cial to girls talk­ing to each other about th­ese things.

Stella Young’s es­say The Pol­i­tics of Ex­clu­sion is il­lu­mi­nat­ing about how even fem­i­nists over­look dis­abled women and the prob­lems they face: poverty, men­tal ill­ness, home­less­ness. Emily Maguire’s con­cise and ex­cel­lent sur­vey of the dif­fi­cul­ties women face in coun­tries such as Burma, Libya and Afghanistan is a shock­ing il­lus­tra­tion of the vi­cious misog­yny th­ese women en­dure daily.

The lat­est Grif­fith Re­view is an an­thol­ogy ti­tled Women & Power. This too is an un­even col­lec­tion. The most in­ter­est­ing pieces are es­says and mem­oirs. Jane Goodall’s piece is a sly and hu­mor­ous look at the im­por­tance of clothes as vis­ual man­i­fes­ta­tions of power. Jo Chan­dler’s re­port on the des­per­ate strug­gle Pa­pua New Guinean women face in deal­ing with men’s vi­o­lence and women’s ex­clu­sion from pol­i­tics is ex­cel­lent jour­nal­ism.

But the piece that en­thralled me was by Yass­min Ab­del-Magied. Here’s a Mus­lim woman of Su­danese back­ground work­ing as an en­gi­neer in that most blokey of worlds, the oil rig. Her de­scrip­tions of work­ing in a sti­fling male en­vi­ron­ment, with all its sex­ism and vul­gar­ity, is an eye-opener. She con­stantly has to be aware of her be­hav­iour and the way she in­ter­acts with the men.

What comes through is the strength of her char­ac­ter and her aware­ness of how the job has re­shaped her at­ti­tudes: ‘‘ It made me re­alise that it is ac­tu­ally OK to be a woman, and be­ing ‘ strong’ doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily mean be­ing ‘ mas­cu­line’. It’s ironic that it has taken a world renowned for its tough­ness to make me ap­pre­ci­ate my fem­i­nin­ity.’’

The prob­lem with both th­ese an­tholo­gies is that Kristi Mans­field’s re­port on pover­tys­tricken women in Syd­ney’s west and Maguire and Chan­dler’s pieces about women in the Third World make the mid­dle-class con­cerns of some con­trib­u­tors seem triv­ial. It’s hard to get in­dig­nant about the tribu­la­tions of fe­male box­ers or surfers, the lack of women in talk­back ra­dio, whether more women should be on cor­po­rate boards or the dif­fi­culty of be­ing a boarder at the ex­clu­sive Gee­long Gram­mar.

But the most frus­trat­ing thing about Women & Power is that most of the pieces are about women’s pow­er­less­ness. Even the cover shows a woman with her mouth taped up. There seems to be a re­luc­tance to ad­dress the is­sue of women and power head-on. We have a fe­male prime min­is­ter, fe­male chief ex­ec­u­tives and the na­tion’s wealth­i­est per­son is a woman. This raises some in­trigu­ing ques­tions: Do women use power dif­fer­ently from men? Do they get off on it like men? What do they want from it and how does it shape their moral­ity and sense of self? The ques­tions are end­less and the an­swers po­ten­tially fas­ci­nat­ing but it seems fem­i­nists are re­luc­tant to map this un­charted ter­ri­tory.

Alan Jones’s claim that women such as Ju­lia Gil­lard, pic­tured with Gover­nor-Gen­eral Quentin Bryce, were de­stroy­ing the joint’ pro­voked a back­lash

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