Pretty little things

Jacinda Ardern

Jacinda Ardern

Jacinda Ardern MP is a smart, able, accomplished adult woman.  She’s been an MP since November 2008, and she’s very, very highly regarded, as shown by this poll rating her as a potential leader of the opposition and/or prime minister, along with parliamentary heavy weights such as Annette King, Grant Robertson and Winston Peters.

On national TV, she was described as a “pretty little thing”.

There are so very many things wrong with that. I discussed some of them on Radio NZ’s The Panel yesterday afternoon.

Discussion on The Panel about “pretty little thing” – 2’53”

The biggest problem to me is that it is such a dismissive phrase. It treats an adult woman as a mere decoration, and as a child.

Jacinda Ardern on the cover of Next magazine

Jacinda Ardern on the cover of Next magazine

But, some people say, surely Ms Ardern invites this type of comment. After all, she appears all frocked up in women’s magazines. She’s putting herself out there, so what does she expect?

No, she hasn’t invited comments like this. If you bother to read the articles behind the pictures, then you will see that Ardern uses the articles to make a series of points about what she values, what she wants to see happening in New Zealand society, women in the workforce, women in politics, what she hopes to achieve. And by appearing in women’s magazines, she connects with a whole group of people who may not read the Serious Journals That Men Read Which Are Therefore The Most Important Ways of Communicating.

Even that phrase, “women’s magazines” is dismissive. It says that women are a special interest group, and that the default public person is either male, or a best disembodied and genderless.

Those “women’s magazines” are in fact very important avenues for discussion and discourse. They are gossip in the best sense of the word, passing on information and ideas, exchanging views, connecting with a community. Women connect with each other through them, get and pass on information, in an environment of equals. By working with women’s magazines, Jacinda Ardern is making a big effort to connect with a much wider community than just the standard political circles.

But even if Jacinda invites comment on her appearance, the phrase used to describe Ardern is wrong. Not because it focuses on appearance, but because it treats her as a child. And that’s an age old strategy for making sure that women are treated as not important in public discourse.

One final point: I’m deeply uncomfortable with the phrase, “isn’t she inviting it?” The resonances should be very, very disturbing to anyone who is commenting on this issue.

Les Chuchoteuses

Les Chuchoteuses. Source: Wikimedia Commons


10 comments on “Pretty little things

  1. thaliakr says:

    Yes, yes and YES!

    And I’d like to add, having tuned in to hear you on The Panel, that Jim Mora’s comment: ‘but ALL politicians are judged on their appearance!’ is total bullshit. The idea that men and women in Parliament experience the same level of scrutiny and inappropriate comment about physical appearance is nonsense.

  2. danylmc says:

    Thanks Deborah. I think your point about the positive role of ‘women’s magazines’ is interesting and something for me to think about. Also, I didn’t say Ardern was inviting anything, so you shouldn’t feel uncomfortable about that or put the phrase in quotes to indicate that I did. What I did say is that Ardern’s deliberate use of her appearance to maximise her media coverage complicates the standard argument that we shouldn’t make judgments based on appearance.

  3. giovanni says:

    “Ardern’s deliberate use of her appearance to maximise her media coverage…”

    Did she “use her appearance”, though? John Key and Helen Clark have been on those covers too. By virtue of appearing on them one uses their appearance I suppose, but you wouldn’t say that attractiveness is necessarily at play.

  4. danylmc says:

    Yeah, but Key and Clark were Prime Ministers. Ardern isn’t even a party leader.Why do you think that out of all the MPs in Parliament she’s the one showing up in these magazines?

    • giovanni says:

      Whatever it is, it’s double-edged – remember the “battle of the babes” billing of the contest between her and Kaye? I doubt it was one that either of them chose. But so long as the media insists on being sexist, I’m not sure we can turn around and critique the fact that a young politician’s image becomes part of the package.

      Plus I could see men like Stuart Nash or Kelvin Davis succeeding at this game too, and I doubt they’d be called “pretty little things”.

  5. danylmc says:

    remember the “battle of the babes” billing of the contest between her and Kaye?

    One of the reasons I’m sceptical about Ardern is because I think Kaye is a really effective politician, what with winning a safe seat and holding it and performing well in the House and getting promoted into Cabinet and all, and I really wish the left had more politicians of that calibre, instead of celebrating Ardern who has been repeatedly beaten by Kaye.

    But Matthew Hooton reckons I’m wrong, and that the path to victory for ‘post-MSM’ politicians isn’t through traditional qualities that Kaye reckons, but rather Key and Ardern’s path of puppy photos and Facebook likes and magazine covers.

    • giovanni says:

      Ardern’s actual accomplishments are a mystery to me too, and I think it’s legitimate to ask the question. But we can’t both complain that the left can’t speak to people outside its activist base and then chide them when they do, nor complain the media will not make an effort to explain the work that politicians do outside of the spotlight (or under it, for that matter), then turn our nose up when one of them manages to get articles written about the issues she cares about. Deborah’s point is well-made: “women’s magazines” are very popular, and actually run articles of decent length.

      More broadly, the fact that Ardern managed to get into the preferred Prime Minister polling doing so little is not her fault or the fault of those articles or down to how pretty she is: it’s a measure of how little success anyone other than Key is having at being personally popular.

    • MeToo says:

      Kaye is in Government and Adern is in opposition. The ‘effectiveness’ of the two cannot be directly compared. I have no idea if Adern would make a good PM (I haven’t seen anything that suggests she will) but I expect she will make a very fine cabinet Minister in time.

      Remember Kaye won that seat during a big swing to National and boundary and demographic changes have made it more National than it was previously. She’s a good local MP and campaign hard but Auckland Central residents know Adern will also make it into Parliament.

      I do wish commentators would stop defining ‘effectiveness’ as a politician as head banging in Parliament or scoring in the MSM.

  6. Dale says:

    “Out of all the MPs in Parliament she’s the one showing up in these magazines…”

    Nope, Danyl.

    with his-and-hers sweaters and a Tahitian black pearl necklace on,too. And if the resulting effect is more ham than glam, that’s just Nature being cruel, as per.

    25 years ago I managed to get the NZ Woman’s Weekly to run a double-page spread on the Resource Management Law Reform implications. How our media values have changed since then…

  7. thaliakr says:

    Surely ‘using one’s appearance’ has to consist of more than *having* an appearance and, like all politicians, seeking publicity. If she were entering modelling competitions to raise her profile, that would be different, but just doing a cover story, and being photographed – that’s just being a human being with a body, right?

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