September 15, 2007
The Canberra Times

Disarming Gillard gives Handbag Hockey the Freudian slip

Joe Hockey and Team Howard appear to have an unhealthy fascination with Julia Gillard. They’ve got a big, fat manila folder with her name scrawled on the front. It’s the dirt file, bursting with clippings and transcripts. But their real fascination is with Gillard’s anatomy. And as the election draws near that fascination is hardening into a fixation, bordering on unhealthy obsession.

Were Sigmund Freud alive today he’d no doubt be slapping Hockey on the back, barracking him on.

Gillard has been well dissected by Team Howard’s attacks on her various body bits. Even her empty kitchen was used as some sort of biological metaphor. But finally, this week, Hockey went for a dig into Gillard’s nether regions – her handbag. Freud would love it.

Not only did Hockey root around in that handbag, but he discovered its hidden secrets – a set of ”knives”. Freud would be ecstatic. And Hockey should be blushing. After all, a woman’s handbag, according to the long dead psychoanalyst, is symbolic of her vagina. The clasp, the zip, the clutch all meaningful clues to the truth about a woman’s hidden sexuality, and a guide as to how to unlock her modesty. What was Hockey thinking? Why the ”handbag” metaphor?

First, Team Howard became transfixed by Gillard’s hair. It was too red, too flicked, too untamed and well, too feminine.

Next, Howard’s little helper, Senator Bill Heffernan, fixated on Gillard’s womb. He deemed it too empty and too inactive.

Gillard, he declared, was not just a childless woman, but a most unnatural one: a ”deliberately barren” broad. Which, according to the Heffernan school of law, makes her akin to a modern day witch. After all, out where Huffing Heff comes from, women are solid sexual creatures. They breed on cue and dutifully relieve the likes of Heff from those manly pre-dawn stirrings of which he so proudly boasts.

Not long after, Hockey set about whinging that Gillard was ”too pretty”. Aw shucks, it’s not fair he told Kerri Anne Kennerley on her morning television show, with a quivering snivel and dropped bottom lip. ”People know her better than they know me,” he muttered. Then quickly added, ”I’m not threatened by that.” Clearly a fat fib. Twisting and squirming in his seat, he continued to bemoan the fact that Gillard gets to go on the cover of Women’s Weekly and lots of other magazines, while he doesn’t.

But this week he was at it again, providing modern day psychoanalysts with a field day. It was meant to be a dig at Gillard’s leadership ambitions. During an interview on the ABC’s AM program, Hockey insisted that everyone ”across Australia knows” that Julia Gillard has a ”handbag full of knives waiting for Kevin Rudd to stumble”.

While there are numerous stereotypical assumptions embedded in the comment that swipe at women with ambition, and suggest a Lady Macbeth-type

treachery is inherent in all powerful women, it was nevertheless the ”handbag” reference that offended most. And the offence wasn’t due to the possible Freudian reference.

The ABC’s Morning Show phones ran hot with furious women who objected to the blatant sexism in Hockey’s throw-away line. ”Why couldn’t he say ‘briefcase’,” shouted one caller. ”He’s just saying ‘handbag’ as a put down,” argued another. Others insisted the derogatory use of the ”handbag” was a 1970s sexist throwback.

Indeed, if the Hockey interview had been about the real leadership struggle between John Howard and Peter Costello, there would be no mention of handbags. Nor would there be mention of hairstyles; prettiness; children or the state of either man’s fertility.

Freud may have regarded a woman’s handbag as symbolic of her sexuality. And more than a century later, Team Howard’s Hockey obviously still does. But it’s a sexuality to be scorned, because that ”handbag” represents gender. And that gender is womanhood. So why not swipe a female politician with her own handbag, to remind her that, after all, she’s just a girl.

Apart from the inherent sexism in Hockey’s silly comment, there is also a factual flaw that has got up many women’s noses. Julia Gillard is almost never seen carrying a ”handbag”. I’ve witnessed her come and go from numerous events and I’ve never seen her sporting anything that vaguely looks like a handbag.

I guess, like Condoleezza Rice, Helen Clark and Hillary Clinton, Gillard just uses her pockets. (Surely Joe, you’ve heard of pocket knives?)

There is no doubting Hockey’s frustration with Gillard’s increasing public popularity and her political success. But his clumsy and blokey attack on her this week reinforced two old truisms. Men like Hockey are terrified of powerful women like Gillard. Like an infuriating jack in the box, she just keeps bobbing up and he can’t keep a lid on her. He can’t work her out, can’t find her Achilles, and can’t even embarrass her.

And the second old truism is the golden rule of handbags. Men are fascinated by a woman’s handbag; what’s in it, where it’s been and why a woman clutches it so close. No wonder Freud alluded to a woman’s handbag as the repository of her greatest treasures. Not surprisingly Hockey fears that means her sharpest weapons.

Virginia Haussegger is a Canberra journalist and director of the 50/50 by 2030 Foundation at the University of Canberra.

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