Wednesday, 14 August 2013

What's wrong with 'sex appeal'

Wednesday 14 August 2013

Opposition Leader Tony Abbott instigated a Twitterstorm yesterday when he listed 'sex appeal' as one of the assets shared by Fiona Scott and Jackie Kelly, the current and former Liberal candidates for the seat of Lindsay. Predictably, commenters and commentators of the Right, such as my own personal bête noir Miranda Devine, have since responded to the criticisms with lamentations about 'political correctness gone mad'* and 'confected outrage' and, of course, the usual deluge of abhorrent eructations from Andrew Bolt fans:

Comments from Bolt's readers, as tweeted by the good people at @BoltComments.

*I've previously discussed (and mounted a small defense of) political correctness here.

The point of this post isn't to condemn Tony Abbott, as condemnable as I think he is. Aside from his history of misogyny and his lack of expressed compunction I actually don't believe what he said is that personally reprehensible, just inappropriate and symptomatic of a larger issue. What I want to try and do is explain to those people inclined to agree with Devine, Bolt and company, why the Left finds the comment so objectionable. 

But first I want to address what's not wrong with the remark. Firstly, no one's claiming there was any malice in it. I think there's a common misconception that the lack of intention to offend excuses someone from having done so, as indicated by Opposition assistant treasury spokesman Mathias Corman's explanation that '[i]t was just a light-hearted comment, which I'm sure was not meant with any offence' ( But this is an oversimplification. What this kind of thing reveals is not the speaker's unkindness or immorality, but rather their ignorance, often of how words, acts and omissions can reinforce cultural attitudes that privilege some and disadvantage others. 

Think of that disgusting 'Trayvoning' trend that's taken off recently, to much obloquy. Realistically, I'm sure most of the boys posing in those pictures are otherwise reasonably good people, who'd probably respond to criticism by saying it was all just a joke and they didn't mean any offence. Their wrongdoing is not a deliberate intent to mock a murder victim, but rather an unthinking insensitivity to a tragic and politicised issue and a grieving family, a selfish, immature transformation of a tragedy into a source of entertainment, posted thoughtlessly online.

To return to my personal holy text, David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas (or rather, the Twyker–Wachowski film adaptation), it puts me in mind of the casual, unintentional sexism spouted by smarmy would-be architect of a nuclear disaster Lloyd Hooks, as portrayed by Hugh Grant, to Halle Berry's Luisa Rey:

This kind of talk belongs in the '70s.

Secondly, I don't have an issue with the fact that Tony Abbott or anyone else has appraised Fiona Scott as possessing 'sex appeal', that anybody finds her attractive. Human beings are always going to find other human beings attractive, but there's a difference between thinking someone is attractive and saying it, and that distinction takes us to the heart of the issue.

As I said above, I find Abbott's comment inappropriate. Not deplorable, not opprobrious, not disgraceful, just inappropriate. Whatever Abbott thinks of Scott's and Kelly's physical appearances, it should not have been brought into the discussion of their merits as candidates. What business does anybody's attractiveness have in a list of their qualifications to represent an electorate? 

Abbott's comment doesn't show us that he's a cruel person who consciously believes women are inferior to men. What it does give us is a direct window into his worldview, a worldview he may not necessarily have that much control over (how much do any of us really decide our worldview?), but one that he nevertheless holds and must be judged by if he wants to be the leader of the country. It shows, unsurprisingly for a conservative of his generation, that at a fundamental and unconscious level, Abbott cannot see women in the same way he sees men. This attitude I am able to overlook in people of a certain age who grew up in a different era, the way we forgive our 'racist grandparents', but not in the leader of our country.

If you still disagree, just think about what it means that, when called upon to list some of the similarities of his female colleagues, which he must necessarily accept as an opportunity to list their assets, the first things that come to mind are their youth, 'feistiness' and sexual appeal. He's struggling in that video. As we all know from his comments about scripted and unscripted commitments, his conspicuous absence from interviews and television programs like Q&A (despite an open invitation) over the past few months, the 'suppository of wisdom' contretemps, and that 'bizarre 28 seconds of silence', Abbott isn't the best with impromptu speaking. You can tell he's grasping for positive adjectives in that video, buying time with a string of ums and ahs, and in the top three he comes out with is 'sex appeal', something that would never occur to him had he been speaking of men. Abbott himself knows this, as you can tell if you listen to him stressing the words 'smart' and 'hardworking' (proper qualities) when he's asked about it later, after he's had some time to think.

'Sex appeal' is the descriptor getting all the attention, but I'd argue the others weren't that flattering, either. 'Young', I'm sure, is supposed to connote enthusiasm and energy, but it's a dubious distinction if that's the primary positive similarity you share with your predecessor.

Then there's 'feisty', the suspect implications of which Elizabeth Reid Boyd has already discussed (I agree the word is condescending, with the suggestion that women have to be feisty in the big, rough boy's game of politics, but I completely reject the notion that its long-forgotten etymology has any impact on its meaning today).

Then comes 'sex appeal'. It's as though what Abbott wanted to say when the interviewer asked about the comparability of the two candidates was, 'Well, the similarity is obvious: they're both women ...' Would you ever say 'They're both men' in that situation? No, because maleness is the standard state of being, while muliebrity is a distinguishing condition to be remarked upon.

Even Abbott's final and most relevant compliment, that the two women are 'connected to the local area' reflects very little agency grammatically. They aren't active, agentive leaders in the community, prepared to make the tough calls and fight on behalf of the electorate. They're just passively 'connected' to the local area ...

I've seen Bolt commenters and others saying they've heard male politicians being referred to as sexy without any such backlash, but we rightfully hold our leaders to higher standards. Was it by a private citizen or media personality, or was it by someone holding high public office? Can you imagine Julia Gillard endorsing a local candidate in comparison to a predecessor by saying, 'They're both young, scrappy, and strappingly handsome'? I can't see it. What about Rebecca Shaw's example:

'It is unequivocally true that if Abbott had been asked a similar question about a male candidate, he would never say: “Well, um, well, Andrew Laming is young, feisty, has great hair and a very nice jawline”. If you are saying something about a female candidate that you would never say about a male candidate, you are treading on dangerous ground in the scary swamp of sexism.' (Shaw 2013)

We live in a society that consistently judges women by different standards to men (speaking of Julia Gillard), especially in terms of their appearance, a fact the Right fights against remedying at the worst of times and seems blind to at the best. The very fact that large segments of our society are held in the grip of an ideology that teaches them it is normal and natural to behave this way prevents their being able to see it. What the Left objects to about this incident is that it violates the principle that women in this day and age should be able to be enter the political sphere subject only to the same amount of attention to their physical appearance, whether positive or negative, as men are (i.e near none). The rules shouldn't suddenly change when it's a woman politician, so that it becomes a matter of public importance how she dresses, what she looks like, whether she's married or anything else. It's not so much what Abbott said, it's what his comment shows about him: that he is incapable of seeing the world in this way.

Thanks for reading

L Phillip Lucas (Facebook page)
@LPhillipLucas (Twitter profile)


Screenshot of Bolt Comments' (@BoltComments) twitter feed.

Amalgalmation of Simon Chillingworth's image and Warner Bros. Pictures' image.'s 5:38pm AEST 14 August 2013 article 'Abbott cites exuberance in latest gaffe'.

Rebecca Shaw's 9:49am AEST 14 August 2013 The Guardian article 'Sexygate: how Tony Abbott should have complimented Fiona Scott'.

Tom Twyker, Andy Wachowski and Lana Wachowski's 2012 film Cloud Atlas.


  1. Very well written; and an excellent case in point!

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

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