by Robyn Annear
“Do you want to know how God turns a man into a feminist?” asked Margie Abbott, addressing a business gathering in Penrith (the God-struck man in question being her husband, the federal Opposition leader). “He gives him three daughters.”
I don’t believe it. My father dismissed women as sluts, nags, idiots and upstarts – all except me, whom he loved to the stars. How can it be that a man feels no contradiction between the rancour he bears women in general (and uppity women in particular) and a wish for his own daughter to have every opportunity? All I know is that the siring of daughters is no inoculation against misogyny.
Misogyny exerts a force on all our lives: girls to women, boys to men. Whether we mark it or not, it marks us. Yet unlike its vassal, sexism, only rarely is misogyny called out. Before Julia Gillard’s spray in parliament last October, the word itself had long been relegated to the language of extremism: only a tabloid “man-hater” would talk of woman-hating. Since Gillard spoke its name, misogyny – the word and its meaning – has been drawn from the shadow into the light, from the margin to the mainstream.
Politics, like talkback radio, brings out the worst in people. The context of Gillard’s misogyny speech – she was opposing a motion to sack the speaker, Peter Slipper, for vile, sexist utterances – gave credence to those who would dismiss it as a diversion, if not outright hypocrisy. Her recent chumminess with shock-jock Kyle Sandilands, as brazen a misogynist as ever donned a rabbit suit, deepened the impression that Gillard’s reproach of Tony Abbott had more to do with expediency than conviction. Angela Shanahan crowed in the Australian that, with an election in the offing, Gillard was showing her true colours, spurning “the sort of people who tweet to the ABC’s Q&A” in favour of the crucial young, blue-collar demographic that tunes in to Kyle and Jackie O on Sydney radio. Shanahan wrote:
Even though they loom large in their own estimation, the support of bloggers and trolls and twits and other assorted virtual viragos is not enough. Real people are really not online 24/7 … Nobody in the real world thought misogyny was important. And no one thought it was real.
Chief among the “virtual viragos” whose realness Shanahan called into question are the women (“a handful of tens of thousands”) behind Destroy the Joint, an online movement targeting misogyny and sexism. The movement began as a Twitter hashtag on the last day of August 2012 in response to an incendiary remark lobbed by Alan Jones on his radio show that morning: “Women are destroying the joint …”
Some context. Jones was talking on air with Nationals Senator Barnaby Joyce, their ostensible topic the threatened sale of Cubbie Station, a massive irrigation property in Joyce’s south-west Queensland electorate, to a majority Chinese-owned buyer. Joyce proposed instead that the government buy Cubbie Station, “split it up into small places, sell the farms back to Australian farmers and keep a bit of water for the environment and everyone’s happy”. At which point Jones pointed to an initiative announced a couple of days earlier by Prime Minister Gillard at the Pacific Islands Forum. “She’s promised $320 million to promote ‘gender equality’ in the Pacific region.” The two men shared a laugh, and Jones went on:
Fair dinkum, mate. This is borrowed money – $320 million to increase the number of Pacific women in leadership and decision-making roles, to increase women’s access to financial services and markets, to improve the safety of women through better violence prevention. She [the prime minister] said, “We know that societies only reach their full potential if women are politically participating.” Women are destroying the joint – Christine Nixon in Melbourne, Clover Moore here. Honestly.
Getting wind of Jones’s remark later that day, writer and commentator Jane Caro tweeted:
Got time on my hands tonight so thought I’d spend it coming up with new ways of “destroying the joint” being a woman & all. Ideas welcome.
Caro’s tweet sparked the #destroythejoint Twitter conversation and, two days later, a Destroy the Joint Facebook page. Thousands enlarged the conversation by tweeting and retweeting, “like”-ing, sharing and commenting. But the movement really took off a month later, after Jones told a gathering of Young Liberals that Gillard’s recently deceased father had died of shame. In protest, Destroy the Joint supporters (along with the Sack Alan Jones movement) mobilised to put pressure on Jones’s advertisers to withdraw their sponsorship of his program. And it worked. Mercedes even took his car away.
Months later, Destroy the Joint is still going strong, with tens of thousands of followers and a broader reach across social media (“Friends of Fans”) amounting to millions. Every day it carries posts calling out, and calling for action against, sexism and misogyny worldwide – from John Laws’s despicable questioning of a 14-year-old rape victim, to the gang rape and killing of Indian student Jyoti Singh Pandey, to Telstra’s insistence on payment for providing a silent phone number to a woman taking refuge from a violent partner.
Now Jane Caro has edited Destroying the Joint: Why women have to change the world (UQP; $29.95), a collection of writing by Australian women, which brings the spirit of #destroythejoint into what Angela Shanahan might call the real world. Contributor Jennifer Mills writes that “social media is us, in all our multiplicity of concerns, perspectives, agendas, obsessions and flaws”, which also serves as a fair description of the book that has grown out of the online movement.
The 27 contributions that make up Destroying the Joint range across essays, analysis and commentary to memoir, fiction, humour and invective. The collection has its share of flakiness, cheap shots, box-ticking and score-settling, for assembling a collection of this kind is always a dicey undertaking. The compilers approach potential contributors and, faced with short lead-times, have pretty much to be content with what they get. The fiction contributions to Destroying the Joint are especially ham-fisted. But among the rest there are standouts.
Leslie Cannold explains the significance of what feminist Dale Spender calls the “one-third rule”: “Thirty per cent is the point of critical minority and therefore critical change.” When women’s participation – in the workplace, media, parliament, wherever – hits 30%, they become visible. In many fields of Australian society, that’s where we are now. At the same time as women’s visibility makes them count in ways they haven’t up till now – as role models, mentors, and agents of influence and change – it also makes them targets in a way they haven’t been before. The 30% mark is not in itself a destination, writes Cannold, but “can serve as an effective staging post from which equality-minded citizens can consolidate and gather forces for the final assault on the male citadel and a true and total sharing of power” – for joint-destroying, in other words.
Carmen Lawrence broadens the brief to point out that we are all destroying the joint, our planet. She reminds us about prescient women like Rachel Carson and Judith Wright who sounded the alarm about humankind’s despoliation and exploitation of the natural environment. But she over-elaborates, so that the reader’s solidarity wears thin long before the essay ends. (Although it’s not the longest in the book, it feels like it.)
Emily Maguire also brings a welcome wider perspective to the joint-destroying enterprise by presenting examples of women’s leadership and activism in the developing world, in illustration of the point made by the prime minister (and quoted by Alan Jones) “that societies only reach their full potential if women are politically participating”.
The most thoughtful and wise piece in the collection is Senator Penny Wong’s. Reflecting on reactions to Gillard’s misogyny speech, she quotes Susie O’Brien of Melbourne’s Herald Sun: “While men wondered what all the fuss was about, many women around the nation cheered.” Wong goes on:
Perhaps the men, and some women, who made it clear that they didn’t understand “what the fuss was about” had not experienced or observed the sort of behaviour the prime minister’s speech spoke to. Or, if they had witnessed sexism and misogyny, it did not carry the same emotional weight for them. This serves as a reminder of the divergent realities that co-exist within our community, that we still often cannot see how different things are for others.
Wong’s acknowledgement of “divergent realities” stands out as the only bridge this collection offers between the Destroy the Joint ethosphere and other points of view.
And here’s the thing: until I picked up this book I’d never heard of the Destroy the Joint movement. Yet the assumption of this collection, reiterated throughout, is that Destroy the Joint has really shaken things up and that everyone is talking about it. Well, in the world I inhabit (not the same “real world” as Angela Shanahan’s; a different one) nobody’s talking about it. Mention of Destroy the Joint rouses, at most, a vague pulse of recognition: “Does it have something to do with Alan Jones?”
Many of the contributions to this book highlight, for me, the insularity of hashtag activism: social media as echo chamber. Jennifer Mills recalls how she learnt of Jones’s “Women are destroying the joint” remark:
Like most of my news these days, it came filtered through Twitter, and I guessed what had happened, triangulating it from the various reactions of people and organisations to whom I choose to listen …
“To whom I choose to listen.” What’s new in that? A listener to Alan Jones’s breakfast program might use the same words to describe how she finds out what’s happening in the world. As might a person who relies on a chat at the greengrocer’s to glean the local goings-on. But as, increasingly, we submit to being profiled, to having our online experience refined and “tailored”, our exposure to what the illusory worldwide web – to what the world, in fact – has to offer grows ever narrower. Even at the greengrocer’s there’s a chance of exposure to views different from your own; but the more time you spend online, the more you see only views you agree with.
Except for the abuse. In staging an online campaign against sexism and misogyny, Destroy the Joint activists have found themselves swimming in shark-infested waters. Daily they are subjected to forcible reminders of their mission: “smears, threats of violence and online flaming attacks”. These days, any woman who takes a stance or expresses a strong opinion knows about the “nut jobs” (Julia Gillard’s term for them) online, the internet’s anonymity allowing for – encouraging? – the unchecked venting of misogyny, along with all the other lurking hatreds.
So, as an online campaigner, the risk is that your world will be peopled by those who agree with you and those who hate you. Us and them. That doesn’t amount to a multiplicity of viewpoints or make for a nuanced consideration of “divergent realities”. What it does amount to, for the likes of Alan Jones, is a recipe for success.
When Destroy the Joint went after him, Jones lost a few advertisers for a while, but he kept his program – and his audience of roughly half a million listeners each week. Players like Jones, Laws and Sandilands know that it’s just as important to have people hate them as love them. What is poison to their brand is indifference. So they’re always pushing the edges of taste and behaviour, sometimes overstepping the bounds. Then comes the outcry, the slap on the wrist, the half-apology – and the fans love it. According to brand expert Dan Bradley, writing in Radio Today, the only reason Alan Jones will ever be sacked is if his ratings become uncompetitive.
[T]he paradox of orchestrated social media campaigns, driven by people who are generally not listeners to either show, is that when they attack Jones or Sandilands, they are reinforcing the passion that the core fans feel for the show and for the personality.
So, another echo chamber: one in which, following Prime Minister Gillard’s misogyny speech, it would have been perfectly possible to wonder “what the fuss was about”. Is this – Jonesworld – the “real world” of which the Australian’s Angela Shanahan writes, in which nobody thinks misogyny is important, or even real? Could it be Jones’s western Sydney heartland that Shanahan is picturing when she writes of feminism’s irrelevance to “women living in the rich, comfortable West in perfect equality with men”?
Perfect equality. Perfect. Equality. I could stare at those words all day and still fail to see how they fit together in the context of women and men. But they remind me of something. When Alan Jones prefaced his “destroying the joint” remark with a quote from Julia Gillard’s Rarotonga speech (or, more likely, from the Australian’s report of it), he omitted two key words. What Gillard said was: “We know that societies only reach their full potential if women are politically participating as equals.” Two words too many for Mr Jones.
The birth of the Destroy the Joint movement pre-dated by about seven weeks the prime minister’s misogyny speech. It’s not outlandish to imagine that the movement’s existence, the conversation it had started, may have strengthened her hand. Whatever you think of Gillard’s speech – of its motives and sincerity – it will stand as a landmark: the breaking of a taboo, a marker of change.
“Progressives,” writes Penny Wong in Destroying the Joint, “are always on the lookout for signs of change … The hashtag destroyingthejoint signalled enough … an underlying frustration with our society’s dominant voice that erupted in an online roar of ‘You don’t speak for me!’”
Robyn Annear is a writer and historian based in Castlemaine, Victoria. Her books include A City Lost and Found: Whelan the Wrecker’s Melbourne and Fly a Rebel Flag: The Eureka Stockad
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