The Mirabella story is about how we expect women to act

And that makes it about feminism.

Lauren Rosewarne has a great piece in The Conversation about the sledging of Sophie Mirabella after Monday night’s QandA: Sophie Mirabella shouldn’t be attacked for failing to emote:

Of the very many gendered burdens heaped on the shoulders of women is that of natural emotional sensitivity. Apparently, as women, we’re supposed to be able to read people, read situations, and respond accordingly. Intuitively. All in under one minute. Apparently Sophie Mirabella should have known, instinctively, that Simon Sheikh was sick rather than merely dabbling in a little bit of silly bugger youthful petulance. Not doing so and judgment, contempt and vitriol got hurled at her in spades.

The comments are almost all from men saying Rosewarne is wrong – when did The Conversation become The Punch? – that Mirabella’s not being criticised because she didn’t act like a woman, but because she didn’t act like a human. It’s a little over the top. Not helping someone who faints is hardly inhuman. I think we should probably save that word for things that are actually inhuman, you know, like killing lots of people because you think it’ll make a political point, or threatening to tow boats of terrified asylum seekers back to sea. Or zombies. I mean, shit, if we’re going to say it’s inhuman to not help someone who faints, then what do we call the zombie apocalypse? Inhuman for realz?

The thing is, who knows how you’ll react when something unexpected happens? ManFriend fainted at a gig once (Spod, at the Hoey), and the man he fell on caught him on the way down, had him on his side in the safety position in a second and immediately asked me what he’d taken. (Nothing. It was incredibly hot and stuffy and he keeled over as we tried to get out.) I can’t say for sure that if a stranger fell on me that my reaction would be the same. Considering the number of times I’ve been groped in public, my instinct would probably be to shove him off me. And then I’d look like a big jerk.

Sure, Mirabella’s response wasn’t warm or caring, but so what? Let’s crack a joke about how we hope she’s not the person closest to us when we faint, and move on. But if you think this isn’t about policing women’s behaviour, when’s the last time a male politician was criticised for not being warm or caring? As much as I disagree with all of Mirabella’s views, my feminism does not allow me to say “this woman is worthy of defence from sexist attacks but that woman is not”. Because that stance says that some sexism is ok.

Which brings me to the mainstream media, where public behaviour is policed. This story was BIG all day. As though Mirabella’s response was of national importance. Journos love “scandal” stories about something that happened on tv. They’re easy to write – no research required and AAP usually files copy as it happens – plus, most of the quotes come from twitter. This is where my head disappears up my own arse, because I’m going to quote my article for The King’s Tribune, on Lara Bingle and the female celebrity redemption game:

Communication researcher Zohar Kampf suggests that journalists love these “social dramas of apology” because it legitimises what they do. It allows them to perform their role as “norm enforcers” by exposing the transgression, demanding accountability and, once they get the apology, score points with the public for making sure no one gets away with acting outside mainstream standards (2011, p. 74).

(Psst, I think The King’s Tribune is a great publication and if you want to read good, interesting writing on a range of topics, you should support it. There are print and online subscriptions.)

Now, before you say “you’re just defending Mirabella because she’s a woman and you’re a feminist and blah blah blah sisterhood”, let me make two points:

1. Tony Jones, sitting on the other side of Mirabella, had exactly the same response, yet he’s not being criticised. It’s his show so it’s reasonable to expect that he’d demonstrate leadership, but he just sat there. And then quickly moved on like nothing had happened.

2. Of all the things to criticise Mirabella for – and there are many, such as standing in front of this poster and calling MP Belinda Neal a “man hater” and insulting Gillard about not having kids, and everything she writes for The Punch, plus, her politics – how she reacts when someone faints is pretty minor.


Kampf, Z., 2011, ‘Journalists as actors in social dramas of apology’, Journalism, vol. 12, no. 1, pp. 71-87.

70 responses to “The Mirabella story is about how we expect women to act

  1. Yeah, I am quite happy to criticise Mirabella on her ridiculous attempt to try and make out like the Great Big New Levy on business for the paid parental leave scheme was A Good Thing, whereas almost exactly the same thing Was A Bad Thing, with many, many stretches of dodgy logic…
    And I am quite happy to praise Combet for his quick and caring actions in helping SImon Sheikh…
    But they are two different issues.

    • I think it’s fair to start from the assumption that most people will be useless in an unexpected situation, and so praise those who react well, but just politely ignore someone who panics.

  2. I didn’t see Q & A, but I can assure you that if someone fainted next to me, my initial reaction would almost certainly be “Shit, what do I do?” And frankly, I’d probably look around helplessly for someone else to do something. Not because I’m a woman; just because I am particularly crap at reacting to a crisis.

    Also, when I was in my 20s I had low blood pressure and used to faint every time I got a cold or a stomach virus. I can assure you that most people had no fucking clue what to do if I fainted in front of them.

  3. Yes, Loath as I am to defend Mirabella, if something like that happened to someone sitting next to me, I don’t know that I wouldn’t react to the situation with the same sort of frozen shock. And I do wonder how many of her critics could honestly say they wouldn’t freak out under the same circumstances.

    • The criticism far outweighs her action (or lack of action), and most of that is being driven by the MSM because it’s such an easy story for them. No legislation to understand, no executive summaries to read, no phone calls to make, no experts to interview about whether one tax is better than another tax… oh wait. They don’t do that.

  4. Without meaning to sound sycophantic, of course you’re exactly right. I got pretty testy on twitter yesterday seeing how people who spinning this to make fairly awful comments about her.

    Very unpleasant.

  5. I accept my attitude is wrong but here goes. The person would not have received the rubbishing they did had their previous behaviour and reputation not been what it is. We have come to expect the worse from this person and so we do.
    Anyone of good character and who was admired or respected would have been excused their inaction as lack of knowledge on what to do for a collapsed person, I don’t think I would be first to react with the little I know about first aid.
    I doubt the reactions of most people to this persons action has anything to do with gender but rather that most see a damn near complete arsehole when they look at her.

    • Perhaps. But what if it was, say, Bill Heffernan? Wouldn’t the reaction be to shrug and say, ‘what did you expect?’.

      • If Heffernan, or Abbott, or a whole bunch of other male politicians had looked like they were trying their hardest not to touch the sick person, my response would have been exactly the same. Sure, a lot of the stuff that’s being said about Mirabella has been stupid, and gender based. But I don’t think that it’s inherently dependent on her gender. For me it’s based on her showing more concern for herself than someone who could have been seriously ill, and that being demonstrative of a general heartlessness and selfishness that pervades a massive slab of her party, including the men.

        • Chris, if something is gender based, then it’s necessarily dependent on her gender. Sure, not all the criticism from everyone is gender based, but we do need to unpack it, because the host of the show isn’t being criticised. If we’re going to criticise her for not doing anything to help, then we should also be criticising Tony Jones. And Lenore Taylor. And Grahame Morris. Because none of them moved. Although Morris stood up to get a better look. But we’re not. We’re just criticising Sophie Mirabella. And I’m sure a big part of that is because of her past actions and words (as outlined above and in the comments by others), but the level of criticism far outweighs what she did.

          • I meant that I didn’t think all criticism of her for this was dependent on gender. Obviously the gender-based stuff is. But she didn’t just do nothing. If she’d stared blankly like the others, sure, whatever. She didn’t do nothing, she actively recoiled.

            Yes, the level of criticism outweighs what she did. My point was that that doesn’t mean that all the criticism is inherently invalid, merely because some/a lot of it is ridiculous.

      • outragedofmarrickville

        Yes cos he’s a known git, hes got form ad a douche canoe. I don’t think this is a gender issue. I think people underestimated that Sophie M is also a sizable git too. Being a git is non gendered although seems to favour the Libs. Tony jones’ reaction was crap too and I don’t think he escaped criticism. Certainly not in my office anyway. I tell you who is a git, tony Abbott, but for some reason I can’t help thinking his reaction would have been better (god knows why I think that)

  6. I was astonished* that Simon Sheik’s fainting spell was worthy of news coverage in the first place. FAINTING MAN TELLS: “I’M OK!”
    Stop the furken presses …

    * Not really, sadly.

    • I know. Because the story is FAINTING MAN TELLS: “I’M OK!”, then BYSTANDER DIDN’T HELP. It’s like the Craig Emerson story – all the political coverage of the day was about his song, rather than anything that was important. That video should have been the funny bit at the end, not the story that lead the news.

  7. Yes, probably but had it been the other female on the panel would not the public reaction be more sympathetic.
    This is why I say my attitude is wrong. I enjoy seeing a person of low character laughed at or ridiculed, with the hope the bastards do have some conscience and they feel some unease at how others react to them.
    The host of the program did bugger all and told staff to take the ill chap out back and has received little criticism. I think the public reaction arises from the general dislike of the person, not so much the inaction but as an opportunity to heap scorn on a deserving nasty.

    • I think you’re right about people wanting to criticise her because they don’t like her. But my spidey sense tells me that it’s more than just that. That there is a gender dimension to it.

  8. Do you remember the episode in the final series of Angel when the Host had his sleep removed and put in storage? I think Tony Jones did that with his soul a couple of years back.

  9. Off-topic, but… “when did The Conversation become The Punch?” For at least as long as I’ve read it. I’m only there for the odd fat acceptance article and OH MAN do Conversationers hate anything fat positive. They’re a painful mix of bile and intellectual arrogance.

    • I must admit, I don’t tend to read the comments. Why is it so hard for larger sites to have respectful conversations? I moderate the comments here, but there are only a few a year that don’t get published. Clearly I attract a better quality reader – more intelligent, more emotionally intelligent, and hot, fucking hot!

  10. It is a good point that Tony Jones’s similar muted reaction is all but ignored. Mirabella comes across as a really really awful person; I think that is the sticking point. From past record we know she would have no such reservations being a complete asshole about it if someone else from another political party was in the frame instead.

    The Conversation had become yet another citadel of white male voices & privilege. Such a pity – it had the opportunity to be a good place to represent ALL Australians (instead of the 1950s.)

    I did ask the editors a number of times to try to stop the entirely predicable decline of female participation – by at least limiting the MRA trolling and derailing of every discussion regarding gender and women. They clearly don’t get it, or don’t care enough to do a bit of work in making women feel welcome in that space. (And I don’t mean setting up a pink ghetto.)

    2012 and it still needs explaining. Sigh.

    • I think the problem is valuing the quantity of comments over the quality. There’s an attitude (particularly in online newsrooms) that you have to publish every comment as long as it’s not illegal. The evidence (from US sites) is that if you only publish the comments that contribute to quality discussion, it raises the quality of the comments being submitted.

      • Why would they value noxious quantity over quality on a site like that?
        News sites are after ad revenue & “outraged click bait”.

        I don’t get it with The Conversation, especially since they represent some of our major universities & institutions. Maybe their “charter & the community standards” is just institutional fluff not meant to be taken seriously.

  11. I think she looked shocked and just didn’t know what the hell was going on, it’s the last thing you would expect to have happen. Three other people did nothing also, so why isn’t twitter going bonkers on them?

  12. Someone asked me what I thought of Sophie Mirabella on Q and A and I said she did not do any favours for the Liberal Party … but I say that any other week she is on Q and A and asks me what I think of her.

    Like Scott Morrison, Christopher Pyne and the pre-leadership Tony Abbott, she strikes me as a little too harsh in her views and strident in expressing them.

    I suspect the criticism of her reaction has more to do with her past history of pitilessness than the actual event, but I take your point in that I don’t perceive that Morrison or Pyne would have received the same critique by the media by virtue of their sex.

    As an aside, I feel disproportionately annoyed that Sophie Mirabella prefaces almost everything she says with ‘The reality is …’. But I digress. 🙂

    • I think anyone who starts a sentence with “The reality is…” is just warning the listener that they’re not stating facts, just their opinion. (Shit, I hope I don’t do this…)

  13. I should have read the other discussion before adding my comment – I think I largely went over old ground.

  14. Michael Boswell

    Frankly, I think the attacks on Sophie Mirabella has nothing to do with her gender. It has to do with the desire to attack right wing thugs like the inappropriately named ‘Sophie’. Any chance to bag her, Andrew Bolt, Allan Jones or any of their ilk would taken up by many.

    I feel this is the wrong issue. Mirabella was looking the other way when he collasp. She was wondering if this was a stunt and realise later it wasn’t.

  15. So I tweeted you this afternoon and said I disagreed, and you wanted reasons. As twitter is not the place for detailed conversation I thought I would add this comment to your post.

    While understanding your critique of the attacks on SM as being over the top, and much of it based on the idea that a woman has to be caring and nurturing, I do feel I have to respectfully disagree.

    However my politics are squarely working class. I come from a long line of industrial proletariats, mine workers, auto workers, and the like. I have spent long hours and days on process lines, working in horrid conditions, half the time off my head to combat the boredom and the physical pain of the work. I have seen work mates killed on the job, and others seriously injured when the remedy would have been an inexpensive adjustment to the process. I have been beaten on the street by police, been charged by mounted police (a truly terrifying experience) and spent time in jail. I have been fired from jobs and have lost, or cut loose many friends over the years.

    In this turbulent career I have had I thought it necessary to do the St John’s course, as it would allow me to easily slot into OH&S roles in workplaces. These roles are very important in workplaces and they have allowed me to work with my peers, to move around the workplace and talk to union members, and to recruit new members. From my narrow point of view I would have had no hesitation to check on Sheikh, and I fail to see how anyone could do anything else.

    So my politics are based on these experiences. I do not see SM as a feminist in any way, I see her as someone who has risen to power on the hard work and sacrifice of many noble and powerful women. Someone who takes advantage of the space that working class struggles have created. In many ways I am quite an old fashioned commie, and do not think so much about identity politics and gender roles, or other sort of post modern buzzwords. I want equality for all. One can not get to the classless society without having men and women fighting side by side, without black and white fighting side by side. Equally one can not achieve the classless society by giving succour to people who can only be described as fascists, those who deny the idea of the stolen generations, who label PM Gillard as akin to Gaddafi , or who call Fraser a frothing at the moth leftist, who oppose not only abortion but also the RU486 drug, who seek to cut working peoples conditions, who seek to destroy the political organisations of working people.

    SM was one of only 5 MPs who refused to show up to House of Reps to support the motion apologising to the stolen generation. She explained her decision by asserting that there had never been a formal policy in Victoria of removing children from their families and that there is no evidence for any “truly stolen” children. Is there any section of our society more oppressed and degraded, are there any members of our society more mocked and abused in daily life?

    SM has, as you alluded to, proved herself to be inhuman, to be no friend at all to feminism or progressive politics. Not wanting to sound cruel, but she deserves to be mocked in public forums, not because she is a woman, but because she is a hateful fascist who has no place in a future country based on equality. These horrid fascist, racist, sexist, future eaters should be opposed at every turn, and should not be allowed to, even tangentially, use feminism as a defence. We should be critical of TJ and the other panellists as well. But in the end I am happy for her to bear the greater burden of public mockery as she was right next to the man, and she not only failed to do nothing, she was actively repelled. While some in the media glommed on to an easy thoughtless story the Murdoch press jumped into the breach to defend her.

    I would have to disagree with you final comment that “how she reacts when someone faints is pretty minor.” Aristotle once wrote we should judge people as they habitually act in this case we can see SM is vile in words as well as vile in actions.

    • Ah, but the problem is that Mirabella isn’t going to see this response and think, “Oh, it’s because of what I’ve done and said in the past”. She’s going to see the response and think, “people are arseholes”. The response needs to fit the “crime” and in this situation it doesn’t and so anyone on the receiving end of this criticism wouldn’t put the two together.

  16. I think people are laying into Mirabella because
    a) She’s a woman and
    b) She’s widely perceived to be an arsehole
    in that order.

    Well, that certainly lowered the tone of the discussion.

  17. Yeah, this whole thing really caused a massive eye roll attack for me. For people who are rushing to deny that it has anything at all to do with gender (and they’re everywhere), let’s think about it.

    We have a male-dominated society, governed by a male-dominated political system, which maintains said dominance of males over females in various ways, but one being through informal social controls prescribing and enforcing the required traits of the subordinate female group. One of those required traits is that of being caring and nurturing (particularly towards the dominant group).

    Given the current misogynist context here in Australia, and the two years of sexist bile directed at out first ever female Prime Minister, is it really such a stretch of the imagination to assume that the backlash directed toward Mirabella just might have something to do with gender??

    Please! Why do people, usually men, fall all over themselves to deny gender-specific discrimination? It’s almost as though there was something to be gained from it.

  18. I don’t care the gender, I don’t want someone who reacts like that in a crisis leading the country. Yes, I agree that some may be attacking because of gender, but I know that if Tony Abbot had been in the same position and had the same response I would be just as disgusted. Also, I think that any woman who consistently attacks women’s rights the way SM should not be defended by the sisterhood. She has forfeited that protection. One of the big things that lefties do to their detriment is hold themselves to a higher moral standard than their opponents – and because our opponents don’t have the same ethics, they see this as a weakness and exploit it. I don’t think anyone should be expected to protect their oppressor.

    • I don’t think Mirabella has forfeited the right for feminists to defend her, because my feminism isn’t just about supporting other feminists. It’s for all women. I can’t claim any moral high ground by saying that I’ll only defend certain women from sexist attacks. And rubbing my hands with glee would make me a giant hypocrite.

  19. What’s the bet Mirabella has been ruthlessly crushing any instinct towards womanly kindness in herself for years, because she’s been told she has to be tough to get by in politics? Deafult position of women in public: doing it wrong.
    I’d be amused by the persistent “it’s not because of her gender” comments but there’s just too much of that shit going on in the comments sections everywhere. We are not just making this stuff up, kids, or imagining it.

  20. I don’t think it’s possible to comment on this incident unless you actually saw it, but have you really been groped in public on countless occasions? That’s a pretty shocking revelation, unless the same man was stalking you, or you’ve got a particularly attractive rump. Female gorillas (who invented feminism) would return the grope with interest.

  21. Dino not to be confused with

    During my Shaman training in a hidden and unnamed equatorial region of Asia, I was shown the proper behaviour and response to precisely the circumstances SM found herself in.
    The training was being televised live throught the jungles of SE Asia and one of the ‘Senior Shamans’ immediately pointed the finger at the person in SM’s position. Of course all the crowd followed suit. It tooks weeks and weeks for the effects of the spell to subside. Here endeth my training in mass market Shamanism.

  22. Sorry, but if your feminism is about supporting all women no matter what, you may as well be supporting WAF ( – I’m sorry, I know it burns to be reading that – like reading proletarians for capitalism!), where does it stop? Not all women are working for the interest of other women. I refuse to have any sympathy or understanding for the likes of SM or JB in the same way I have no sympathy or understanding fro the likes of TA or MT. If one is a woman in politics, one has many other choices other than to join a party that consistantly smashes the vunerable in our society – opposing same sex relationships, undermining single parent support, access to non-biais abortion and contraception councelling/services, public health care and education, opposing parental leave and childcare support, opposing minimum wage increases, denying the genocide of the aboriginal nations, income management, denial of global warming – the list goes on. Given your logic, if you support all women, you are supporting any woman that supports genocide which is at best an outdated and dangerous notion that I for one do not wish to pass on to my daughters.

    • Bolshi mum, that’s not what I meant. I don’t support Mirabella. Her personal and professional politics are the opposite of mine. But, how can I call myself a feminist if I say that sexism and misogyny are ok if they’re directed at women I don’t like? That’s just ridiculous.

    • bolshi mum, did you really mean to say that “genocide” is “at best an outdated and dangerous notion”? Surely, genocide is “at best” mass murder. And surely the term “outdated” should be applied to things that go in and out of fashion, rather than to methods of killing people?
      The only explanation I can think of is that you meant to type “eugenics” and typed “genocide” instead. I suppose it’s reasonable to claim that eugenics is an unfashionable as well as dangerous notion.

  23. Nicely put, eilish.

  24. outragedofmarrickville

    I think SM got more stick than others cos she was closest (arguably coukd respond quicker) and it wasn’t JUST that she did nowt, but that she visibly ‘recoiled in horror’. It shows her total selfishness and lack of compassion. Her first thought was for herself to move away from the bad thing. You could blame fight or flight response i suppose but I think that is giving her too much credit.

    • Your logic doesn’t quite work. If it was her first response, then it was instinct – fight or flight.

      I’m not defending Mirabella’s response. I’m just saying that there’s a gender aspect to the criticism that followed. We rarely criticise men for showing a lack of compassion. Mirabella copped the MSM grief, but Jones didn’t. As the host of the show, Jones should have been all over that shit, making sure Sheikh was ok, directing people, keeping everyone informed, but he just sat there and then pretended it didn’t happen.

      • outragedofmarrickville

        I think it just shows how removed from real life the lot of them are. If its not scripted they can’t cope. I still dont think it’s about gender I think it was cos her reaction was particularly crap, women or no. My point about fight or flight is that her natural instinct was was for herself and showed no compassion (something not reserverved just for women although i grant that there is an incorrect expectation that women automatically possess it and failure to show it makes us failed women) and that speaks to her character not her gender in my opinion.

        • I think we need to remember that a) someone fainting is hardly a crisis, and b) this post is about the reaction that played out in the MSM – not how we may have thought about it at home.

  25. Pingback: discoverouterspace

  26. Pingback: Presenting the 51st Down Under Feminists’ Carnival | The Conversationalist

Go on, you know you have something to say...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s