When a person is aware that their photo is being taken, posing invariably ensues. It might be duck lips or a jutted hip or the V-sign, but rarely does the observed camera capture something completely natural. The photo that was released following the PM’s signing of Prince Philip’s condolence book was staged. This wasn’t a paparazzi photo taken through a window or some surreptitious, staffer-taken snapshot. This image—that had his wife posed behind him, her hands clasped solemnly behind her back—was the image selected to tell the tale of Australia’s commiserations.
Instead of focusing on why so many of us found the image egregious, mainstream media has focused on Magda Szubanski. Magda’s surprise that this photo was real and not the meme that it was always going to be—and perhaps was even deliberately designed to be—is now a perfect piece of Dr Seussian, culture-war subterfuge. Instead of us having a conversation about the crafty creep of Christianity into Australian politics, nah, let’s just talk about what a bitch one of Australia’s most-loved talents is. Let’s just package this as a story of one woman being cruel to another. About women’s inherent addiction to tearing each other down and pulling at each other’s hair, rather than raising each other up.
As though this is a story of Magda’s hypocrisy.
Let’s take a moment to autopsy that ridiculous red herring.
Objectification is the process of turning a person into a thing. It’s about valuing someone for their function and not for their personhood.
Instead of shining a light on how the PM has been objectifying his wife—turning her into a prop, positioning her by his side while he performs civility, invoking her name as a get-out-of-the-doghouse password—instead, the story gets presented as being about Magda objectifying Jen and supposedly betraying the sisterhood.
Shockingly enough, progressives don’t care what Jen wears. To construe this as a story of women being their own worst enemies is a transparent catfight frame of which has long been catnip for mainstream media.
The link between the photo and The Handmaid’s Tale is not a tale of appearance-shaming or calls to cancel a dowdy dress. To pretend that widespread shock and repulsion towards that photo is in anyway akin to the ruthless way women are appraised in our culture is deflection. Not ineffective deflection—after all, the Christian Right have a very well-practiced routine of framing themselves as victims, alleging persecution, and then, curiously, denouncing everyone else as snowflakes and cry-babies—but deflection nonetheless.
The photo looks like a scene from a TV show that many of us have sobbed through three seasons of. We watched, we wept, because to us none of it felt like a sci-fi speculative-fiction dystopia, but rather like the devastating consequences of what happens when men—more specifically men who answer to a supernatural authority instead of to the public they were employed to serve—get their mitts on power. This show has never been escapist television for us. And the fact that in that photo Jen looked so much like one of the wives in the show felt chilling.
Inserting Magda into this story—as though she is some kind of metonym for the hypocritical and judgmental woke—plays into the hands of a PM who wouldn’t be in power without his party’s persistent stoking of the culture wars.
To allege that women somehow owe it to Jen to not call out her husband’s objectification of her is completely missing the point of the analogy. The wives in The Handmaid’s Tale are both victims and complicit. They’ve had their wings clipped by men and they profit from oppressing other women. We can commiserate with these women and also see them as players in a sexist regime. We can—and absolutely should—acknowledge their agency while also observing that it is playing out within the constraints of institutions built to actively oppress them. That the Right would somehow think that Jen should get a pass from the sisterhood because she has a vagina is laughable. The Christian Right—notoriously hostile to feminism and to the equality of women within the home and public life—can’t claim its ladyfolk are somehow owed gender-based fealty when their stock in trade is gender-based subordination. It doesn’t work that way.
This is not a story of women being bitchy. This is a tale of a wife who has been strategically used as a prop by a conservative, evangelical man who harbours severely problematic views about women and who has taken those views to Canberra and who will absolutely be held accountable for them.
Lauren Rosewarne is an Associate Professor at the University of Melbourne. Her latest book—Why We Remake: The Politics, Economics and Emotions of Film and TV Remakes—was released in 2020.