SYDNEY — When Julia Gillard, Australia’s first female prime minister, arrives in Chicago for the NATO summit on Afghanistan this weekend, she’ll have left behind in Canberra a fragile coalition government hit by scandal and a federal budget under conservative fire for pushing “class warfare.”
Call it the usual stuff of politics for the woman who won the top job in 2010 by ousting PM Kevin Rudd as leader of the Labor Party, and then survived a coup attempt this year.
But as if all that weren’t enough, Gillard, 50, has also been under recent attack as a frump with “a big arse.”
The source of this latest assault from the rear?
None other than Australian-born uber-feminist Germaine Greer, 73, author of “The Female Eunuch,” which in 1970 galvanized women worldwide by bashing marriage as a patriarchal prison created to repress women’s sexuality and tyrannize them via motherhood. Since then, she’s written several more books and been a professor, journalist, TV talking head and all around gadfly.
Which brings us back to the feminine physique and the perennially irritating question: Will women in power ever be given a pass on how they look? In a word, no, as such luminaries as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, sans makeup, and trouser-wearing German Chancellor Angela Merkel can attest.
Greer went after Gillard on the popular Australian TV show “Q and A. “What I want her to do is get rid of those bloody jackets,” opined Greer. “Every time she turns around you’ve got that strange horizontal crease, which means they’re cut too narrow in the hips. You’ve got a big arse, Julia. Just get on with it.”
Her fellow panelists ate it up. But the public pushback was immediate. How could Greer, of all people, attack a sister’s appearance, even if only seconds earlier she’d praised Gillard’s political smarts and “common sense.”
“That one comment, that one cheap shot, that one moment when Greer decided that it was okay to criticize a woman based on her size, saw everything Greer has fought for over the past thirty years unravel like the yarn of an ill-fated scarf,” wrote blogger Rebecca Sparrow, noting Greer “has spent decades pointing out that a woman’s physicality is irrelevant,” but her comment “essentially gave everyone permission to bring ‘arse size’ back into the conversation.”
When I asked a senior Gillard adviser whether the PM expressed public reaction to Greer’s remarks, I was offered a stiff zipped lip: “We did not respond. Nothing worthy to respond to.”
Greer toned things down in a subsequent Melbourne Age column, writing that the suits and ties of male politicians are rarely an issue, while women are subject to all manner of fashion critiques. Well, helloooo, Ms. G!
The phrase “big arse” was conspicuously absent this time around, as was any mention of Greer’s own contribution to the problem, though her main complaint lingered. “There must be decent dressmakers left somewhere in Australia, but Julia’s wardrobe-meisters haven’t found them. A jacket that rides up and creases between the shoulder blades is worse than no jacket at all. If Labour is not to be annihilated in the next election, something has to give. ... I think Australians are big enough to cope with the sight of their female prime minister in shirt-sleeves.”
Two years ago, when career Laborite Gillard broke Australia’s glass ceiling, Greer sang a different tune, noted Herald Sun columnist Miranda Devine, citing the following germane quote from the pioneering feminist: “We like the way she looks, and we like the way she sounds.”
Back then, Greer sneered at other people’s “vilification” of Gillard for her hairstyle and fashion choices, noted Devine, but “all the while Greer was a secret big bottom critic.”
Devine quoted feminist Eva Cox, a fellow septuagenarian, who has known Greer since their youth: “What a lot of people don’t realize about her is that she’s essentially a performer. She was performing, she was trying to be outrageous and she succeeded.'”
Is that succeeding, though? And is it any different from conservative radio yakker Rush Limbaugh, who is no one’s idea of svelte — oops, there I go, engaging in politically incorrect look-ism rather than sticking with Rushbo’s wit and intellect — and has long assailed what he deems Hillary’s chubby ankles, or “cankles.”
This week, Limbaugh also went after “She the People” anchor Melinda Henneberger’s looks, saying she proves the point that feminism was created “to allow unattractive women easier access to the mainstream of society.”
This weekend, as dozens of world leaders converge on Chicago to deal with the mess in Afghanistan, and several of them continue on to Camp David for the G-8 summit, I can only hope no one utters a peep about the hair, makeup and clothing sported by Gillard, Clinton, Merkel and other top-ranking world leaders.
On the other hand, who knows what will be written about slimmed-down French President Francois Hollande? He’s the Socialist candidate who traded his baggy suits for sleek, bespoke tailoring en route to trouncing Nicolas Sarkozy earlier this month.
Annie Groer is a former Washington Post and PoliticsDaily.com writer whose work has appeared in Town & Country, the New York Times, Atlantic.Com, More and Washingtonian. She is at work on a memoir.