Howard Sattler's question to Prime Minister Julia Gillard, asking if her former hairdressing partner Tim Mathieson might be gay is recognisably mindless to most experienced audiences and those of us who have paid attention to the differential way in which a woman prime minister's private life and body have been treated in public discourse.
Sattler's comments, which resulted in his sacking from Fairfax's 6PR in Perth were later reinforced by Piers Ackerman on ABC Insiders as he argued the Canberra Press Gallery had been aware of such rumours for several years.
Most audiences are very aware of the inane nature of this commentary and debate, recognising that male hairdressers are not all gay, that the Prime Minister is not in a relationship with a closeted gay man, and that the line of questioning is insulting to the Prime Minister, to Mathieson and to the audience.
Both the comments and many of the responses that denounced the rumour-mongering open up several issues for how we think about and frame questions of gender, sexuality and bodies.
However, outrage and responses are part of a 'dance' that is undertaken when, socially, we express outrage at the absurd, the invasive and the ridiculous. It is a dance in which the public sphere engages the issue and, sometimes quite unthinkingly, ignores those who can be most affected by off-hand comments that unwittingly paint a picture of non-heterosexuality as undesirable or non-normal.
Privacy, Bodies and Sexuality
For three years Prime Minister Gillard's body and what she does with it has been the subject of public discourse in a way which most male politicians, except those subject to a scandal, are not. That has included the concerns over whether or not she is 'deliberately barren', using the empty fruit bowl metaphor as a figure in which pregnancy and food converge. It has encompassed dialogue over the shape of her body, including those from Germaine Greer and, more recently, the menu
With Sattler and Ackerman's comments about Tim Mathieson's sexuality, the focus on her body is now on what maybe she does not do with it - have a normative sexual relationship with her stated partner.
Part of this emerges from an ongoing discourse in which the Prime Minister is depicted by those with a political investment in the discussion as the ultimate 'liar', with the suggestion that she is keeping the 'true' nature of her relationship secret and an assumed role as a gay man's beard a secret. It is a gender issue because, as a woman politician, she is depicted simultaneously as hiding information about her corporeal life and hiding the doings of her body. Here, her body, the body of her partner and her embodied private existence are seen as public property.
This is not celebrity culture at play, in which the private happenings of those with self-sought fame are seen as being available for public discussion. Politicians' bodies are rarely the subject of public scrutiny in the same way; instead this is a disproportionate extent of focus on appearance, body and sexual behaviour or a woman politicians.
While the distinction between public information and private lives is blurred in all levels of communication from the everyday to critiques over security agency surveillance, Sattler and Ackerman's comments indicate the way in which Prime Minister Gillard as a woman politician has been accorded a reduced capacity to command respect for the private body that moves about in the private home in the context of a private relationship and private decisions over appearance, child-rearing and sexual behaviour.
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