Graham Adams: Misogyny, the media and the martyrdom of Jacinda Ardern

A statue of a semi-naked Nick Smith puts the misogyny debate into perspective.  GRAHAM ADAMS writes … 

In the wake of Ardern’s abrupt resignation, the mainstream media are determined to convince us she was hounded from office mainly because she is a woman and had to fall on her sword to escape unrelenting “gendered abuse”.

The fact Ardern has overseen a bonfire of what was a vast store of political capital just two years ago and was facing a resounding defeat at this year’s election has mostly gone unremarked among the flood of columns defending her as the unfortunate victim of trolls and misogynists.

Massey University school of management senior lecturer Suze Wilson even praised Ardern’s bravery in resigning:

“Any woman who finds herself subject to abuse is entitled to do what she needs to do to get on with her life, and we should unequivocally respect and support that. Good on her.”

Journalists generally have bent over backwards to accommodate and excuse Ardern abandoning the “team of five million” at the beginning of an election year — despite the fact that, unlike John Key in 2016, she provided no obvious succession plan or even left her party in a good position to win in October.

A day after she announced her resignation, I received a message from a female journalist in Europe who was perplexed by the reaction of New Zealand media:

“I am surprised to see that many people seem to think Jacinda Ardern resigned in a beautiful manner. Aren’t people angry?”

Well, journalists and commentators are angry — but not at her. The object of their ire is mainly the allegedly mean-spirited, stupid and ungrateful public, who apparently refused to sufficiently acknowledge and respect her virtues as Prime Minister.

Feminist writer Sandra Coney wrote on Facebook:

“New Zealanders… don’t know a good thing when it’s standing in front of them, and happily employ misogynist insults and threats against a young woman admired by the rest of the world.”

Usually, a captain abandoning a sinking ship ahead of the officers, crew and passengers in the first lifeboat available is regarded as an unforgivable act of cowardice. The fact he or she might be tired, or stressed, or overworked never trumps their duty to those in their care.

Astonishingly, in New Zealand, most journalists have preferred to blame the passengers for losing faith in their captain despite the fact she has recklessly steered the ship of state, and her party, onto the rocks. The media appears to believe the passengers are at fault for objecting to the fact Ardern was taking them on a voyage they mostly hadn’t agreed to be on.

Not least, Ardern fronted a pervasive and stealthy push to insert co-governance with Maori into many areas of New Zealand life — from Three Waters and health to education and local government — without having campaigned on it or having a mandate for it.

The increasingly visceral reaction to her steady undermining of democracy, and her government’s general incompetence, seems to be interpreted by many commentators as a case of voters failing her rather than the reverse.

Against reason, we are effectively asked to believe that a nation that gave Ardern an unprecedented majority in 2020 — alongside personal popularity ratings in the 70s that outshone anything John Key achieved — has become a deeply misogynistic nation in just two years.

And this despite the fact Ardern herself has denied that misogynistic abuse played any part in her resignation. As she told Newshub when asked whether misogyny influenced her decision :

”It did not, and my strong message to women in leadership and girls who may be considering leadership in future, this is a place where the foundation was laid long before me to make it possible for us to be in these roles.”

It is evident from many reports that women in politics do receive more personal abuse than men but there is nevertheless a glaring imbalance in the type of abuse each sex gets and how they are expected to deal with it. Male politicians are personally abused in ways that would be unthinkable if directed at females.

In the weekend, Stuff journalist Michelle Duff complained about “gendered abuse” in the case of a bar in Auckland that displayed “a crudely drawn sign announcing a ‘Red Witch Leaving Party’” to celebrate Ardern’s resignation.

Stuff journalists also highlighted a social media ad for discounted drinks at a Nelson bar that featured a graphic of her being fed into a wood chipper being towed by a hearse.

When the reporter asked if the general manager would “consider making posts that uplifted women”, he responded:

“Would you be giving me the same phone call and asking the same question if it was the National Party in power and Mr Luxon was going through the chipper?”

And there’s the rub. Men — and particularly those on the right — are considered fair game.

The left erupted in cheers on social media when Ardern was outed for having called David Seymour an “arrogant prick” in Parliament at year’s end, but it would be impossible for Seymour to call Ardern an “arrogant bitch” and not be swamped by a tsunami of condemnation.

The glaring double standard in what abuse is tolerated for men and women is perhaps best exemplified by the reaction in 2017 to a five-metre-high statue of then Environment Minister Nick Smith showing him defecating as he crouched over a glass with his genitals exposed.

Artist Sam Mahon made the statue as a protest over Smith allegedly allowing the pollution of our waterways. Not only did Mahon parade the statue outside Environment Canterbury’s offices in central Christchurch, it received widespread coverage both locally and overseas, including by the BBC.

Mahon defended his statue to the NZ  Herald:

“As far as displaying Nick’s genitals to the world, perhaps the [Ecan] CEO Bill Bayfield has never entered a gallery or visited the Vatican City and cast his gaze on the multitudinous penises in bronze and marble that swarm around the square, much to the delight of children, the Pope and one or two extraordinary cardinals,” he said.

Imagine the uproar if an artist made a similar statue of Ardern — naked from the waist down squatting over a glass — and then dismissed critics as prudes.

RNZ interviewed a woman in the crowd of 50 supporters who watched the statue being positioned. The reporter identified her as Donna Miles-Mojab, who voiced her approval of the statue.

“This speaks to an important issue of our time,” she said. “People are really concerned about the state of our water. It speaks truth to power — which is exactly what art should do.

“It’s very difficult to look at Nick Smith again and not think about the degradation of water at his hands.”

Not long before Mahon’s protest, Smith said he had rat poison rubbed in his hair and clothes at a Nelson market as a protest against his advocacy of 1080 drops. A woman was later found guilty of offensive behaviour.

In stark contrast, Michelle Duff’s weekend column included examples of the sexism Ardern faced that included Paula Bennett telling Ardern to “Zip it, sweetie” and the placard a farmer had held at a protest in Morrinsville that declared Ardern to be a “pretty communist”.

At the time, Ardern sensibly laughed when she was asked about the sign, and quipped:

“I’m a pretty communist? Did they intend that to be a compliment or an insult? I’m not entirely sure.”

On Waitangi Day in 2016, a nurse, Josie Butler, threw a dildo at Economic Development Minister Steven Joyce that struck him in the face. The image of the pink dildo looming large over Joyce’s surprised face was lampooned around the world — including on Jon Oliver’s satirical TV show with a worldwide audience in the millions. Oliver included a segment devoted to dancing giant dildos and a clip of Sir Peter Jackson waving a New Zealand flag with an image of a dildo on it.

Yet the uproar if Ardern were to be struck in the face with a dildo, or any other object, hurled at her by a man, would be tumultuous and overwhelmingly condemnatory of the “misogyny” motivating the assault. No one in the media would dream of celebrating such an act.

Certainly, journalists would not be lionising the thrower in the way “dildo girl” Butler was. She told Stuff the moment she did finally throw the dildo felt “fantastic”.

“I recommend it to everybody. It felt really empowered like, ‘You don’t actually own me, you don’t have all the power here, I have some power too.’”

Yet, Joyce — dubbed “Dildo Baggins” — was expected to take the assault and the humiliation with good humour, which he did, referring to it as part of “the privilege of serving”.

There are many other examples where male politicians are expected to take being humiliated publicly about sexual and bodily matters as good sports in ways that no one would dare try with female politicians.

Who would dare ask a senior female politician — let alone the soon-to-be former Prime Minister, who has admitted to dyeing her hair — if the “curtains match the carpet”? Well, Winston Peters did that in 2015 as a jibe in Parliament at John Key apparently dyeing his hair.

When The AM Show host Ryan Bridge asked Ardern in 2020 if she had dyed her hair because it was greying, he received an avalanche of hate mail.

Ardern is hardly alone in receiving threats. Nick Smith said he had faced death threats as Environment minister, and former Labour Cabinet minister Richard Prebble wrote in the NZ Herald last week:

“I received many threats including death threats. The police insisted on prosecuting two — one who physically attacked me outside a public meeting and another who sent a white powder through the post claiming it was anthrax. I had a Doberman and a huge German Shepard for a reason.”

The mainstream media have also conveniently forgotten the song “Kill the PM” in 2014 that announced an intention not only to kill John Key but also to have sex with his daughter.

Max Key told a NetSafe conference in Auckland in 2016 that he received “death threats twice a week”.

The abuse continues. An image of Chris Luxon’s bald head repeated in a stack of folded newspapers that unfortunately resembles a penis has appeared widely on social media and even on reputable blogs. And dismissing him as a “stale, pale male” is so common on social media it seems unremarkable.

The most egregious example of the double standard in recent times, of course, was US porn star Stormy Daniels’ detailed description in her memoirs of Donald Trump’s penis and sexual prowess, or lack of it.

Those details of her intimate relationship with him were widely reported in the world’s media in late 2018 — including in New Zealand. Yet it is unimaginable that a lover who described a senior female politician’s genitalia and sexual performance so graphically in print would receive anything but reactions of pronounced disgust if not revulsion.

They would certainly never be able to find a reputable publisher.

Daniels’ memoir, Full Disclosure, was published by St Martin’s Press, one of the world’s biggest English language publishers. The descriptions of Trump’s penis were widely used as a teaser for interviews and in reviews.

It became a best-seller.

Ironically, Ardern has been complicit herself in an extraordinary legislative move to make misogyny official government policy.

The passing of the Births, Deaths, Marriages, and Relationships Registration Act in 2021 — which introduces a self-identification process for changing the sex shown on a person’s New Zealand birth certificate — effectively makes being a woman a state of mind.

By making the definition of a woman a moveable feast that includes biological men she has helped erase the scientific and common-sense definitions that underpin women’s sex-based rights.

Now that’s misogyny.

    • Graham Adams is a freelance editor, journalist and columnist. His article was first published (HERE) on The Platform.