Bryce Edwards’ Political Roundup: Jacinda Ardern and the “pretty little thing” debate

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Labour Party leader Jacinda Ardern. Image courtesy of Jacinda.org.nz.

Political Roundup by Dr Bryce Edwards.

Dr Bryce Edwards.
Dr Bryce Edwards.
Could Jacinda Ardern lead the Labour Party, and even be NZ’s next female prime minister? Her swift rise in popularity is provoking debate about the political direction of the Labour Party, it’s leadership and sexism in politics.

No one is seriously suggesting that Andrew Little is about to step down or be rolled as the Labour Party leader. But if speculation starts to arise, there is now a prominent name being bandied around as his replacement. Jacinda Ardern is currently grabbing people’s imagination as a potential prime minister – see Audrey Young’s report, Jacinda Ardern’s star still rising. This is reported in the latest Herald DigiPoll which put Ardern as the fourth most popular candidate for prime minister, and showed that she has a similar level of support to Annette King as a potential replacement for Little as leader.

In another article, Young reports that Ardern “would be a popular choice as deputy leader in November when Ms King is due to step down” – see: Labour’s support recovers to 30s.

Such positive coverage for Ardern comes in the wake of the Herald’s Mood of the Boardroom report that showed her to be the favourite Labour MP of CEOs. Others rate her highly too – Simon Wilson of Metro magazine pronounced that she is “practically worshipped among the urban young” in Auckland, and she was rated #35 on Metro’s list of most influential Aucklanders – see: Who really runs this town.

Ardern is also getting plenty of attention in the other parts of the mainstream media. Her recent cover-star role in Next magazine – titled “Why she’s our prime minister in waiting” – caused a stir. For another example of Ardern’s appearances in women’s magazines, see the New Zealand Woman’s Weekly article, Jacinda Ardern’s country childhood.

Despite the hype, some question whether Ardern has enough substance or sufficient track record to be a serious contender for greater leadership roles. Symbolic of this, it has been noted that the Wikipedia entry on Jacinda Ardern has her “Political Beliefs” section left blank.

The “Pretty little thing” debate

Then came the infamous “Pretty little thing” remark, in which Graham Lowe, the well known rugby league figure declared Jacinda Ardern a ‘pretty little thing’, would ‘look good’ as PM on the Paul Henry Show. Lowe also said she came across as “smart” and had a “good television image” like Key – see the original video: Panel: Jimi Hunt and Graham Lowe.

The NBR’s Rob Hosking later pointed out that “anyone expecting enlightened social and political comment from a rugby league coach approaching his 70th birthday is always going to be doomed to at least a degree of disappointment”. Nonetheless Lowe’s comments drew an outpouring of condemnation.

And for another sympathetic reading of Lowe’s comments, see Pete George’s “Pretty little thing”.

Grant Robertson issued a furious defence of Ardern online saying “I am sick to death of the ignorant, sexist bullshit” – see his Facebook post. Or see the NBR’s coverage, Robertson defends Ardern against ‘sexist bulls**t’.

Others have also rallied to Ardern’s defence – see Rachel Smalley’s Not so pretty: Sexism and Jacinda Ardern. She asks “would political commentators ever describe a male MP as “vapid” or “pretty vacant”? That sort of language is only ever applied to women”.

See also Pearl Going’s article, If John Key were a ‘pretty little thing’. She asks “Would we tolerate Key’s hijinks from a female PM?”

Vernon Small couldn’t fathom why we still have to even debate “the appropriateness of male media mouths calling senior politicians – or anyone else for that matter – “a pretty little thing”? – see: Jacinda Ardern: Much more than a ‘pretty little thing’.

Small argued that the fact that Ardern is now ranking so high in the preferred prime minister stakes and is favourite to succeed Annette King as Labour’s deputy leader “makes her a political heavy weight” as of right.

Fellow Labour candidate, Deborah Russell took issue with the notion that Ardern invites comments on her appearance because of her willingness to take part in glamorous photo shoots. She points out that the accompanying articles are generally serious in nature and Ardern uses them “to make a series of points about what she values, what she wants to see happening in New Zealand society, women in the workforce, women in politics, what she hopes to achieve” – see: Pretty little things.

Russell also notes that the prevailing political attitude towards “women’s magazines” is condescending and dismissive. She says that by appearing in these publications Ardern “connects with a whole group of people who may not read the Serious Journals That Men Read Which Are Therefore The Most Important Ways of Communicating… By working with women’s magazines, Jacinda Ardern is making a big effort to connect with a much wider community than just the standard political circles”.

Danyl Mclauchlan echoes this last point when he notes that Ardern’s popularity subsequent to her coverage in women’s magazines “tells us something very interesting about the power of that type of media, which is something that political nerds like me are usually oblivious to” – see: Hang on a second.

But Mclauchlan radically diverges from his left-wing brethren when he asserts that it is undeniable that Ardern is getting a high level of coverage in these publications partly “because she’s really pretty”. Mclauchlan insists “there’s something problematic about insisting politicians shouldn’t be judged on their looks when they do appear to be succeeding specifically because of their appearance”.

For Mclauchlan it’s the reasons for Ardern’s popularity that “complicates” the matter: “She isn’t popular because she’s an effective campaigner, or because she’s been breaking big stories or landing hits on the government in the House. She’s popular because she’s gotten glowing coverage in the women’s magazines over the last few months”.

See also, Mclauchlan’s follow-up blog post, Lost in the forest of Ardern. He says he remains an “Ardern skeptic”.

Matthew Hooton makes the same point: “In any case, Ms Ardern must know the [Mood of the Boardroom] accolade is unearned: she can point to no great achievements in her portfolio work… Much more important to Ms Ardern’s rise, as for Mr Key’s, are her regular appearances in the likes of the Women’s Weekly and Next and on Back Benches and Breakfast. She has well over 35,000 Twitter followers while Mr Little has yet to break 8000, and an army on Facebook and Instagram. We know her first cat was called Norm. It was this activity – not her endorsement by chief executives or any portfolio work – that saw her enter DigiPoll’s preferred prime minister list” – see: Ardern emerges as Key’s natural successor (paywalled).

Hooton says that the DigiPoll result is significant as this poll does not offer prompts, and “polling firms who do provide a menu will now include her in their surveys.” He pointedly mentions that Ardern “has never had a job outside politics” and says that while she may yet achieve her goal of following in her mentor Helen Clark’s footsteps and becoming prime minister, if she does so it will be because she is a politician more in the mold of Key “who has successfully turned the prime ministership into a subset of the entertainment industry”.

You can also listen to the 24-minute discussion about this and other issues in: Politics with Mike Williams and Matthew Hooton.

Modern superficial politics

Hooton’s NBR colleague Rob Hosking finds this picture of modern politics depressing and agrees that Ardern’s “rise is not due to any political achievement. There aren’t any. She has risen largely because she comes over well in the fluffier media”. The title of Hosking’s paywalled column encapsulates his view – see: ‘Vote for me, I’m one of the cool kids’ – the Ardern appeal. Note, also that the digital editor gave the story the controversial URL (derived from the Sex Pistols song): http://www.nbr.co.nz/pretty-vacant
 
On Hooton’s comparison between Ardern and Key, Hosking points out that prior to becoming PM Key did win his electorate and was capable of out-debating Michael Cullen. He contrasts this with Ardern’s failure to win Auckland Central or to score any notable hits on the Government. Hosking concludes that contrary to Clark’s women’s magazine appearances, which made strategic sense in tempering her dour image, Arderns have simply reinforced her lightweight image. Hosking believes this image may not be deserved but Ardern has “provided nothing to show she is a heavyweight. If she is to rise further – and she very much wants to – she will need to do so”.

In a follow up column Hosking concedes that Ardern is routinely subject to comments – including Lowe’s – that are “ugly and dismissive” but he
doubles down on his earlier assessment of Ardern saying the politics she had displayed so far were “vapid” and “substance-free” and “we are entitled to query whether someone so often and frequently touted as a future prime minister has any substance to offer, or whether it is all image” – see: Jacinda Ardern: substance, not sex appeal, is the problem (paywalled).

Chris Trotter is in some agreement with Hosking, saying Ardern is talented but  “One can listen to her speeches, and be impressed by the strength of their delivery, and yet, when they’re over, find it difficult to say with any certainty what they were about” – see: Woman Interrupted: Some thoughts on the Jacinda Ardern controversy.

Trotter attributes this lack of substance to Ardern’s ideological inheritance – “Not one of Savage’s children, like Clark, but a child of Rogernomics and Ruthanasia” and a career thus far guided by “Third Way theorists”. Trotter seems optimistic that Ardern will develop more ideological substance, and believes leadership speculation has simply come too soon for this “work-in-progress”.

Finally, see what social media have been saying about the debate – see my blog post, Top tweets about Jacinda Ardern and the “pretty little thing” debate.

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Dr Bryce Edwards is a political scientist and a lecturer in Politics.

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