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‘You go, girls’ and female role models in a post gender world? August 15, 2010

Posted by Editor21C in Education Policy and Politics, Social Justice and Equity through Education.
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From Dr Susanne Gannon

Here, Susanne Gannon reflects upon the significance of Australia’s first female Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, for young women, and whether it has made any difference to the roles that our youth-oriented media play in constructing female gender identity.

The sudden ascendance of Julia Gillard as Australian PM in late June took most of us by surprise. Many women like me, who have worked for gender equity in education for some years, have been further surprised by the ambivalence of our feelings and of the complex community reactions to what should be a remarkable historical moment. While Australia was the second country in the world to give (most) women the vote in 1902, it took another 41 years until the middle of the second world war until women were elected at the Federal level in 1943, and 106 years from suffrage until we had our first female Prime Minister. Next weekend’s election will decide whether or not we will have our first elected female PM.

Many would say, particularly since the election was announced and media attention has mostly turned to polls (and even, on occasion, to policies), that gender is now irrelevant. In a post-feminist world, a world where ‘girls can do anything’ as our IWD slogans put it, or of ‘girl power’ as the magazines put it, personal success is shaped by each individual girl making the most of her opportunities. Some academics argue that this ‘individualising’ discourse, characteristic of neoliberalism, makes it more difficult to recognise the impact of social and institutional factors that impede girls’ success (see for example, new work by Jessica Ringrose in the UK). On the other hand, gendered role models – whether they are firemen who read books or women who become politicians, or electricians – are popularly seen as beneficial in their capacity to expand young people’s horizons.

In order to examine this complex context and how it is playing out, I’ve collected popular media texts directed at women and girls particularly in the three weeks between the Gillard ascendancy and the gazetting of the election. My archive includes all the major women’s and girls’ magazines, and some news articles. I’d love to hear directly from girls about their initial responses to the female PM but university research protocols mean that ethics procedures are too time consuming so for the moment I have kept my gaze to materials in the public domain. The article “You go, girls: Gillard’s rise to top hailed as an inspiration” in Sydney Morning Herald (June 28th) is one of few that focused on girls’ responses to Gillard. Whilst the headline, supplied by a subeditor, reinforces the new PM’s gender, the three girls interviewed simultaneously celebrate and dismiss this factor. Though Matilda sees this is a very significant event, she notes that she does not expect Gillard to do anything differently as PM and so “Gender is not an issue in that sense” and she stresses that “As an 18-year old female today, I have always believed that I can do anything my male counterparts can, and now I know that that really is true”. Lauren also notes that this merely reinforces what she already knew: “Julia Gillard being appointed Prime Minister hasn’t inspired me or allowed me to see the world in a new perspective. I suppose I felt like women were already equal to men here in the Western world… I already knew that a woman could be the prime minister of Australia. Aren’t you being sexist if you’re shocked or surprised that a woman has made it to that position?”  Finally, Rayan finds her immigrant origins at least as significant as her gender: “She is inspiring for young females from migrant backgrounds… whether you are a student, graduate or a mother then you can be a leader. It shows you can have lots of disadvantage but still get to the top. No matter where you come from, where your parents grew up, no matter the obstacles, we can get somewhere in life.”

Keen to see what they had to say, I had my newsagent put aside the new editions of Dolly and Girlfriend. The July edition of Girlfriend hit the stands after the ‘coup’ with an editorial focusing on ‘firsts’ and stories focusing on first kisses and first jobs. Nothing about firsts in the PM department, though plenty of ‘good news’ about the Australian tour of the teen stars of the newest Twilight movie. The August issue keeps its focus on who and what matters most in the teen celebrity world. The August Dolly, which landed next after the ascendance of Gillard, firmly ignored the JG factor as well, though in Dollyworld (wearing my truly fabulous free new headphone beanie) I learned a lot more about the hottest new boy stars on TV and readers’ secrets than I ever intended to. Meanwhile some of the women’s magazines were in a frenzy: promising us the “real Julia” (Who and New Idea) several weeks before she did, sending in the stylists (Grazia), and producing souvenir editions (New Idea, Women’s weekly). More on those later, and the contradictions embedded within those stories, as I wade my way through them. For the moment I feel like I’m oscillating between worlds.

The context for my interest in the Julia Gillard factor and in looking at gender and young people is a planned visit to Canada next month to develop a project on neoliberalism and girls with Marnina Gonick in Nova Scotia, an expert in the emerging field of ‘girl studies’, and Jo Lampert of QUT, Brisbane.  Both of these scholars will be visiting UWS in mid 2011 for a one-day seminar on this topic. Please email me directly if you’d like me to let you know the details.

Susanne Gannon is a prolific publisher on issues of gender and social equity, and also coordinates the Master of Education (Leadership) program at the University of Western Sydney, Australia.

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