Strong Female Lead (2021)

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Image via sff.org.au

I was unprepared for the visceral emotion of watching Tosca Looby’s deft collage of media representation of Australia’s first female Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s time in office.

For any Australian, it’s not news that Julia Gillard was treated differently by the media and the Opposition than any male Prime Minister had been. From the start, the criticism of her focused on her gender, through gendered slurs such as bitch, witch and slag, a relentlessly critical focus on her appearance and scrutiny and censure of her childlessness and de facto relationship. I remember my female boss calling all staff into the tea room when Gillard came to power to celebrate the landmark of a female leader and we felt that perhaps this was the beginning of change. But I also remember watching At Home with Julia, a satirical TV series that brilliantly lambasted Gillard’s distinctive voice as well as politics and the media in general but exacerbated the campaign to undermine respect in her position as leader.

Looby provides very little commentary, letting media footage and audio of the time chart Gillard’s rise and fall and highlighting the key perpetrators in the smear campaign against her. It is shocking to see how swiftly it began and the violent and often smug vehemence of those at the heart. Alan Jones infamously suggested multiple times that she be put in a chaff bag and dumped at sea and that her recently deceased father had “died of shame.” Cartoonist Larry Pickering returned from retirement to wage a nasty campaign against her with cartoons delivered daily to MPs. Opposition leader Tony Abbott passed up no opportunity to harangue and catcall her in Parliament and to side with the increasingly violent and sexist members of the public rallying against the soon-to-be-imposed carbon tax (and boy do they now seem to be on the wrong side of history).

The climax is a speech that no one saw coming but one that continues to resonate around the world. In 2012, responding to a motion for Speaker Peter Slipper to stand down after it was found he sent sleazy texts to a work colleague, Tony Abbott called the Prime Minister sexist. Her emphatic opening lines, “I will not be lectured on sexism and misogyny by this man. I will not!” set the tone for a forceful declaration that resonated with women. For an off-the-cuff speech, it is remarkable how it succinctly encapsulates what women are expected to accept without complaint. She had the clarity, confidence and authority that we all wish we could have in the moment when confronted by sexism and misogyny and it is still satisfying to see such a smug man of power receive a dressing down (you can watch the speech here). There have been songs written using the words of the speech, I have seen it on tea-towels and it went viral on Tik Tok. It even prompted a redefinition of the word misogyny in the Macquarie Dictionary.

It introduces a hopeful note that counters the awful reality of pretty much every other part of Gillard’s time as leader. We are left with inspiring footage of other current female leaders and some hope that, although the situation probably hasn’t changed much for women in politics (Donald Trump showed what is still perpetrated by men in power), we are at least beginning to have a language and context for talking about it.


Have you seen this film? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.

One thought on “Strong Female Lead (2021)

  1. Pingback: Hive (Zgjoi) (2021) | fillums

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