All About Women, too much about Julie Bishop and too little about women’s real struggle for equality and justice.

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‘All About Women,’ the ABC’s grandly titled maiden International Women’s Day all-women panel episode on Q&A screened 9 March was a disappointing disservice to women even if it did provoke the chauvinist ire of Minister for Women, Tony Abbott into rebuking women of the panel for not taking the plight of the Bali Nine seriously. Abbott later attacked Greer’s levity in challenging Julie Bishop over whether she would flash for the Bali duo’s freedom. The rest of the show, however, was a fizzer.

Greer’s bare breast jest did make a serious point.  A Minister for Women who is a bloke is bad enough. But when the man who appointed himself Minister for Women rebukes you for being a silly woman, things are crook indeed.

Granted Greer was flippant with her dare to bare, ‘free the nipple’ theme. Her disparagement of the activists posited an inverse relationship between size of breast and revolutionary ardour but she was having fun at their and our expense. Her anecdote about inviting her pursuer home was definitely not something she was seriously advocating. Perhaps suitable cautionary, ‘Don’t try this at home’ or ‘caution, satire’  tweets could run in the twit line for future episodes.

Ultimately Germaine Greer is a notorious provocateur whose penchant for the outrageous should not distract us from the seriousness of her cause nor cause us to deny her right to poke fun at our self-seriousness and national irony bypass. Certainly, her strategy flushed out the chauvinists.

Abbott predictably rose to the bait like a trout leaping to an angler’s cast. So powerful was the allure, to him, of a chance to put a woman in her place, he was caught hook, line and sinker.  Sadly, however, the abortive episode did little to advance the cause of women’s rights and much to set it back. It has ended, moreover, being ‘more about men’ after all.

Television can engage with some complex issues when it tries, but this time, it typically chose to shy away into the outstretched arms of light entertainment and patriarchy. ‘All About Women’ cheated its audience of substance, side-stepping equality and justice to endorse resurgent sexism by indulging Julie Bishop, our token female foreign minister and blokes’ rules apologist to confuse real issues of serving the cause of equality with a form of words.

Our hopes were high, at least, with regard to the top of the bill. Top marks to the producer for securing Germaine Greer; and wonderfully literate and wise Bad Feminist author Roxane Gay, but few if any marks for selecting the other, minor guests who included Best & Less fashion store chief executive Holly Kramer, and engineer and youth advocate Yassmin Abdel-Magied. Bishop was along to get her head on. Greer would have been much better served by a panel of equals. And therein lies a big problem.

So minor was the calibre of these three other panellists, Greer and her audience could be forgiven for concluding that we don’t take her or her cause seriously. Consequently she resorted to being wickedly irreverent and flippant to salvage some integrity from the mundane banality of much of the earnest, competing discourses.  It was painful and it was embarrassing. The least Australia could have provided Greer was a panel of her peers.  As it was, the mismatch got in the way of the show’s progress and appeared to be another calculated insult to Greer and to all women.

Before anyone spoke, this Q&A episode was a slap in the face to those millions watching who understand and know personally the injustices women must suffer; the countless women who every day are relegated to a second-class existence; the millions who know that feminism is not some token label.  Women’s issues are not well-served by some hasty assemblage of talking heads whose chairperson appears to have a brief to keep it light; keep it funny.

It was not the right time or place for lengthy personal anecdotes about working in a male-dominated industry from the representative of Youth without Borders. Name me one that doesn’t have men in control. Perhaps a kind person could take such earnest young speakers aside and counsel them not to generalise from their own limited experience; explain to them that their experiences as qualified professionals working with other professionals who happen to be male does not match the workplace or life experience of the vast majority of women who must contend with being so much less than equal in more ways than a highly educated young female engineer could ever dream of.

Nor was it the right forum for the wittering ignorance of Julie Bishop, who represented not just herself again but the product of repression, the smart woman who will not even use the f-word for fear she frighten the boys and cruel her chances in a male-dominated, patriarchal power structure. She is not self-aware enough to own that status but it shows.

Bishop seized her opportunity once again to peddle the pernicious lie that feminism is an optional extra. She has puzzled and dismayed observers with her ‘self-describe’ disclaimer. She approves of gender equality in theory and even does a bit for women overseas but she is not going to apply the same rules to herself or expect them of others in her life or her workplace. Goodness no. Bishop’s got where she wants only by the historic achievements of past feminists and of course by the advantages conferred by her privileged upbringing but to hear her tell the story it is just about being determined. Bishop’s message was a cue for supporters of the minister for women to prick their cauliflower ears up and another slap in the face for all other women and those who support the cause of equality.

Where was Tony Jones when you needed him? Bishop claimed that she did not self-describe as a feminist. We have heard this before and worry how long it will take before it is accepted that being a feminist is not about what you choose to call yourself, it’s about what you do to further the cause of justice and equality for women. In Bishop’s case this is less than nothing, considering her role in her party’s unconscionable attack on Julia Gillard, but on Monday, she was allowed to get away with the impression that as Foreign Minister she was flying a banner for women’s emancipation or that she was some type of liberationist.  Equally so with her claim that she makes her voice heard in Cabinet.

Bishop has allowed her foreign aid budget to be raided by the boys to such an extent that her budget to do anything useful is pretty well nothing. So much for her voice counting in cabinet. She may well make claims on television about helping the women of the world achieve justice and equality but where was she when the Pacific Islands Forum women needed her support? After giving her word  that Australia would provide funds, Bishop was unable to even face the women after she was forced to renege on her promise when the boys took a hammer to her piggy bank. In the end, her own need to boost her public profile in the leadership stakes came before any other priority. As it did with her participation in the Abbott opposition’s hounding of Gillard and her collusion in the smear campaigns about her probity as a lawyer and about her credibility as a woman whose lifestyle choice included being ‘deliberately barren.’

Perhaps it was a reminder that with an ABC hating government holding the purse strings we must expect to see more and more of the lunatic right. Women’s rights are dangerously left wing territory by definition to the ruling conservative patriarchy even with the help of such grovelling apologists as Julie Bishop whose ‘I do not self-describe as a feminist’ comment put back women’s rights and trivialised feminism whilst signalling her own alarmingly limited grasp of reality.

Annabel Crabb, an accomplished performer in other contexts valiantly struggled to assert her authority as chair permitting Germaine Greer to be talked over, Youth Without Borders founder Yasmin Abdel-Magied to talk too long and Julie Bishop to campaign for Liberal leader whilst a fawning Crabb looked on fondly . The articulate Roxane Guy made a series of stimulating observations and shared shocking details of her own life, such as her rape at the age of twelve, but these appeared to be too much for the rest of the panel to deal with. Guy is worth a show on her own but there was sense that the chair needed to keep it light and sunny. Reality can be so confronting.

In the end, the special International Women’s Day episode may prove useful as a type of warning. It serves as a timely reminder that we live in an age of an ill-informed phobia of feminism, eagerly supported by the vested interests of a patriarchal ruling class, when the gap between male and female equality is increasing and that we are currently governed by a party which takes every opportunity to keep it that way. The question Ms Bishop is not whether you choose to self-describe yourself as a feminist but rather how could you not be?

How in the face of the institutionalised injustice, inequality and suffering in the world today could anyone choose not to be a feminist. How can you maintain you have a choice? To deny the need is to be part of the problem.