It’s a twenty-four hour service, guaranteed to make you tell… On Gillard and Satire

Julia Gillard was subjected to extreme forms of abuse as Prime Minister.  Day in, day out, the vitriol burst forth into the public arena from both the media and the political engines.  At times, it felt like people weren’t just out to destroy her politically, but also personally.  As if people felt she needed to be punished for something.

I read her comments in The Guardian this week with some interest:

Gillard applauds comedy and the “larrikinism” that allows Australians to laugh at themselves, but questions whether constant ridicule invites voters not to take politicians seriously and asks why some types of ridicule appeared reserved for her – like the ABC comedy series At Home with Julia in which actors playing her and her partner, Tim Mathieson, were portrayed having sex under an Australian flag.

“I’ve said I think the ABC crossed the line with that comedy series about me. I tried to take that as one that should be laughed through, but I thought where it got itself to was gratuitous and disrespectful and interestingly there has been no suggestion that the ABC would be producing such a comedy about the current prime minister so people might want to muse on that, why it was a Labor prime minister and the first woman and why it’s not the current prime minister.”

I’m extremely critical of contemporary ‘satire’, but these comments sit uneasily with me and I’m struggling to work out why.

One part of her critique is undoubtedly true: the ABC isn’t in a position to run a ‘satirical’ programme like At Home With Julia about Tony Abbott.  This is in part due to the ABC’s audience.  Your typical ABC watcher saw Gillard and Rudd as clownish figures who were easy to mock.  We’ve seen this again with The Ex-PM which seems to draw rather heavily on Rudd’s public persona (without naming him).

Outside of the extreme left, Abbott has not been a clownish figure.  He’s been embarrassing and incompetent, but not the subject of ridicule.  Similarly, Turnbull has been nothing but competent in the public imagination.

We shouldn’t take any of that at face value.  Turnbull being seen as competent has a lot to do with class, race, gender, and education.  Gillard being seen as incompetent no doubt had a lot to do with her gender and her voice.

Another part to why the ABC hasn’t run a programme like At Home With Julia about Turnbull or Abbott is no doubt the political climate.  The Liberal Party and its cloud of Yes-Men would eviscerate the ABC if it mocked one of their leaders in the same way it mocked the ALP’s.  It’s happy to tolerate harmless, soggy quips from The Weekly, but it’s not going to stand for sustained ridicule.

But this gets me neatly into where I get uneasy about Gillard’s commentary.  Satirising political leaders should be fair game, but Gillard’s comments suggests that she thinks she shouldn’t have been targeted for satire.  And this is where things get murky.

Gillard could have stated outright that At Home With Julia was just poorly executed.  In a sense, it wasn’t even satirical because it was just lazy and bad (like The Weekly).  Gillard could have then affirmed the importance of satire to a healthy democracy: satire helps us to deconstruct public arguments and reveal the absurdity of power.  Instead, she claimed that satire could go ‘too far’: satire should be ‘safe’.

Jester liberalism — like At Home With Julia and The Weekly — is all about pandering to particular audiences and protecting the status quo.  You at home are intelligent and edgy.  Your cynicism is a badge of your keen insight.  You watch this show so that you can laugh at people who know more than you, about issues that you don’t understand.  Sometimes the ringmaster-clown will pull a serious face and then regurgitate a bunch of empty platitudes that seem compassionate or heartfelt, but really they’re just there to make the audience feel like they’re watching something intellectually serious.  Also, it plays well on social media for free advertising.

We also live in a world where good satire is objectively more difficult than it has ever been before.  Society has become more sophisticated in its understanding of power dynamics and how the media reinforces particular attitudes.  Rob Stitch in blackface mocking Desmond Tutu just won’t fly anymore.  But if the audience is more sophisticated, how will an industry that is overwhelmingly dominated by mediocre white males possibly cope?

The answer: easy targets.  And easy targets include Julia Gillard and, by and large, exclude Tony Abbott.  It used to include Chris Kenny but then we found out a lot of right wingers were super litigious.  So if you’re only going to lampoon those who are unable to fight back, you’re going to see a lot more comedy along the lines of At Home With Julia.

Public discourse is terrible.  The public, the media, and the political players are trapped in a system which doesn’t promote good discourse.  Everything that Gillard says there is fine — even if more than a bit self-exculpatory — but when she frames a conversation about satire ‘going too far’ because it promotes disrespect, we end up solidly in uncomfortable territory of politicians wanting to narrow the arena of acceptable criticism.

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