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You can't call out abuse of Julia Gillard but ignore what's being said about Sophie Mirabella.

Sophie Mirabella

 
By SHEENAL SINGH

Fairytales are rare creatures in Australian politics but the electorate of Indi in Victoria is not far from delivering a story deliciously close to it.

Today, celebrated Independent candidate Cathy McGowan is expected to vanquish the apparent enemy of north-east Victoria – the Liberal Party’s Sophie Mirabella. Only 500 votes remain uncounted and McGowan is several hundred ahead at the time of writing.

People of various political persuasions have watched McGowan’s grassroots campaign with awe. Finally, here was a real and continuing challenge to the major party machine.

A one woman powerhouse generated at least a 9 per cent swing away from the Liberals in an election where the conservatives were storming to victory. Impressive.

And good on McGowan. She deserves congratulations. But the accompanying abuse of Sophie Mirabella, the personal venom, the hatred, the cruel and vicious attacks, has not been okay.

It seems that this contest stopped being about celebrating one woman’s victory and descended into a hate-fest where the world was simply relishing in another’s defeat. And the relish was incredibly gendered, and dare I say it, a little bit sexist.

While many succumbed to the #Indivotes fever on social media, my mind has turned to Sophie.

Cathy McGowan is set to unseat Sophie Mirabella today.

I feel for her. Because: it seems people don’t like her so much. As in, at all.

Time and again I have encountered a stunning depth of dislike for her on social media channels. Twitter users have begun to bid her adieu in a variety of, er, interesting ways. There’s a “Sophie Mirabella is a disgrace” page on Facebook, complete with the same ditch the witch and shame-on-you-woman sentiments we witnessed and bemoaned during the Gillard era.

Long derided for her abrasive political style, I have an uncomfortable feeling that part of the aversion towards Sophie Mirabella is borne purely from a distaste for aggressive traits in female politicians and a parallel inclination to judge them based on values such as compassion and decorum.

It’s unfair but unfortunately true. Academic ink has been spilled to make that very point.

People don’t like seeing aggression from women in the public eye. The public reacts badly to it. Behaviour that we consider okay for blokes, isn’t acceptable for women.

We all remember the misogyny speech, right?

As little sympathy as I have for Sophie Mirabella’s policy positions and politicking – I can’t help but compare the robust debates we had about the way the media and public treated former Prime Minister, Julia Gillard to the relatively uncritical response to the portrayal of Mirabella in the past few weeks.

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It’s absolutely fair to call our political representatives out for insincerity or bad faith campaigning but it’s amazing how easily some media articles leveraged this pre-existing character bias against Mirabella into hateful and mean reporting around the Indi campaign.

Editors are under pressure to sell us compelling stories and it’s clear they recognise the universal lure of a good vs. evil narrative.

Take this example: images of a relaxed, happy McGowan appear alongside an unflattering image of Sophie, red-lipped and mouth gaping. In another, she is steely eyed and confrontational.

Here’s another unflattering snap. And another. And another.

These pictures rely on and revive readings of a brusque, loud, impolite woman ingrained in public memory.

Outside the intense battle for Indi, tumblr offers a tiny glimpse into public perceptions of this divisive political character, Sophie Mirabella. Then there are sentiments like this one on Facebook that should be called out for what they are – abusive:

And who could forget these memes after the whole Simon-Sheikh-collapses-on-Q&A-and-Mirabella-does-nothing-to-help episode:


Good character is clearly fundamental in the political game but surely we should not be so comfortable and complacent about the gendered nature of the so-called ‘Mirabella factor’? If it was unfair and wrong to subject Gillard to sexist assumptions and talk, it is equally unfair and wrong to perpetuate the same for Mirabella.

Just as we almost spontaneously self-combusted in trying to decide whether Gillard was treated the way she was for her behaviour or gender or both; on a smaller scale that is what is happening to Mirabella, as she hovers on the cusp of bowing out of Canberra.

It is deeply unfair to continue to use Mirabella’s lack of conformity to the feminine ideal of a genteel, caring, compassionate parliamentarian as a reason to bash her to pieces on social media. We rationalise our anger by saying that our criticism is a response to her politics and her policies. But it’s not.

We need to be upfront: nobody deserves to be treated the way Mirabella has been. And we should extend at least this much courtesy Sophie, in spite of her being guilty of the same crime on many previous occasions.

Editor’s note: At the time of publication, Sophie Mirabella’s seat of Indi was still undeclared.

UPDATE, 11:30am: Sophie Mirabella has conceded the seat of Indi to independent Cathy McGowan.

Sheenal is fresh out of the University of Sydney with a media and communications degree, and technically still there attempting to survive law school. You can find her on Twitter here.

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