A tweet doing the rounds last weekend noted its almost fifty years since a touring Frank Sinatra touched off an international storm when he called Australian women journalists, “buck-and-a-half-hookers”.
Insulting, or mildly endearing? It seemed politicians back then were unsure.
No Australian politician now would be fool enough to utter such sexisms. These days there are other ways to keep women in their place, to hold them to the margins. What’s needed is a lexicon on power which offers good results but leaves far less of a vapour trail – sexism with plausible deniability.
Welcome to the world of gaslighting.
There is a gripping moment in the 1944 film Gaslight when Ingrid Bergman, playing newlywed Paula, contorts with the realisation, then horror, that she may in fact be going insane. Her eyes dart and grow wild. She heaves.
As she buckles, Paula’s tormenting husband, played by the dashing Charles Boyer, grows in stature: a portrait of calm control and unrivalled authority.
He has slowly strangled her sanity, convincing her to trust his judgment over hers. Those dimming gaslights around the house, it’s all in her mind. Proof she has lost her grip on reality.
Paula’s efforts to alert others are shut down. She is not allowed to speak. Her manipulative husband tells the outside world his wife is unwell. She is suffering emotional exhaustion, which has affected her mind and she needs to rest.
You’ve heard the one about life imitating art?
Spool forward almost 75 years to a 2018 press conference held by the newly minted prime minister, Scott Morrison, talking about the member for Chisholm, Julia Banks.
Fed up with intimidation and bullying within the Liberal party, Banks had just released a statement saying she would not recontest the next election.
While Morrison may have been a gaslighter from way back, it’s here we first see some eerie Charles Boyer-like parallels in public.
“What is important right now is Julia’s welfare,” he says with furrowed brow, looking every bit the concerned gent from central casting, worried about a woman who has lost her way.
“My first concern is for her welfare and wellbeing, and she is taking the time to ensure that that is taken care of.”
Clever words, thick with morse code about mental health. Like most people listening, I assumed Banks had suffered some kind of breakdown. But, with particular talent for the performance of empathy, Morrison didn’t stop there. He went on to polish the pity stakes.
“So what am I doing right now? I’m supporting Julia and reaching out to Julia and giving her every comfort and support for what has been a pretty torrid ordeal for her.”
The “ordeal” to which he is referring is the leadership coup that ousted Malcolm Turnbull and installed Morrison, supposedly as an innocent recruit. It was, in fact, his “ordeal” not hers.
But we now know, thanks to Banks’s revelations in her book Power Play that he hounded her to stay silent, while he got busy oiling the spin around her departure. Morrison is masterful at this.
For Julia Banks, at that moment, watching Morrison go on TV and publicly gaslight her flicked a switch – to anger. It was “just this whole entrenched, anti-woman culture”, she said.
Ironically, Banks’ rage over Morrison back then was prescient: there was much worse to come. That was back in 2018, when the government’s “scourge of cultural and gender bias, bullying and intimidation of women in parliament” was attracting international headlines.
Liberal women were beginning to wail. Morrison had to shut them down. And he did.
Ingrid Bergman’s panicked eyes in Gaslight were nothing compared to the look of terror on Senator Linda Reynolds face as she rolled backed her bullying complaints, saying it was in fact an issue for the party to deal with behind closed doors. Senator Lucy Gichuhi also promised to ‘name names’, then suddenly she too went silent.
The following International Women’s Day, at a Chamber of Minerals and Energy event in WA, Morrison reminded the men in the room where he stood: “We want to see women rise, but we don’t want to see women rise only on the basis of other’s doing worse.”
More morse code: a dog whistle to the patriarchy – I’ve got your back boys.
This is where Morrison’s deeply embedded sexism is way more covert and rat cunning than the sloppy sexism of former PM Tony Abbott. Where Abbott really did want the women of Australia to be apron clad and ironing board proud, Morrison wouldn’t dare mention the laundry. He’s too smart. He sticks with code. Or when he feels a feminist rumble, he flicks on the gas.
Morrison’s repetition of the name ‘Brittany’, without any curtesy reference to a title, Ms Higgins, or even Miss, ensures the former government staffer remains framed as a mere girl. Someone’s daughter. Drunk and out of place. An aberration in this grown-up place of politics. So much so that he needs his wife Jen to “clarify” why he should pay her story any attention.
To suggest Scott Morrison’s handling of Brittany Higgins and the cultural grime her powerful case has exposed, was simply ‘patronising’ is seriously underplaying his talent for misogynist signalling.
In a rare lapse Morrison dropped the ball during a press conference about government staffers, who fancied themselves as pornstars, performing sex acts on female MP’s desks. Rather than respond with leadership, he slipped into a gutter exchange hurling faintly veiled taunts at a journalist over sexual harassment allegations within News Crop. All of which was incorrect and he later apologised.
But given it was just a week or so after the huge March4Justice rallies that blew open a minefield of anguished grievances about Australia’s treatment of women, Morrison was clearly signally that he didn’t buy it. He was ready to punch back. His refusal to address the Canberra rally, telling parliament that those who attended were lucky they were not shot, wasn’t just dim-witted fumbling. It was Morrison drawing a line in the sand.
Little wonder then that he thought the best way to respond to seething civil anger over government inaction over gender inequality, and soaring rates of violence against women, is to gather a kitchen cabinet of all women, and dub the most senior the “PM for Women”.
In tasking the Ladies to sort it all out, he’s doing what Morrison does with sly stealth – abdicating responsibility and removing himself from any accountability. Worse, he’s applying a 1950 model to a complex, whole of government, 21 century problem.
Now, out of politics and with the safety of distance and reflection, Julia Banks says she has worked Scott Morrison out.
“I think he is a visceral sexist”, she says. “It’s a form of workplace coercive control over women. He is a man who uses his power over a woman,” she adds, acknowledging how she too fell for it. “The gaslighting approach is part of his toolkit.”
Banks says she’s thought long and hard about Morrison’s method of manipulation and finally landed on the notion of “menacing wallpaper”: the art is in its unassuming, creeping stealth. You don’t really notice it until it’s got the place covered, then find it won’t peel off.
So, how did Morrison get Banks to hold off announcing her resignation for 24 hours, while he “lined up his ducks” of attack? Quite simply, he used the voice of unrivalled authority: “Julia, I am the prime minister!”
Women in federal government exist on the margins. Not only are they a visual and vocal minority, but they carry minimal influence or clout. No Liberal woman has ever been a serious leadership contender, with the publicly popular Julie Bishop scrounging just 10 votes in the 2018 leadership contest (and only one of those from another woman – Banks!).
Coming from so far behind and accustomed to being on the outer, to being the “exception”, women fall easy prey to gaslighting.
Given that all women have internalised some level of sexism and misogyny, we tend to nurture our own powerlessness like a personal pet. When reminded of one’s inferior status, by a prime minister speaking in capital letters, is it any wonder that in a moment of siege Banks backed off – albeit for 24 hours – and gave him what he wanted.
But, like Bergman’s Paula, in Gaslight’s happy ending, Banks is basking in her truth finally being shared, now that the dimmer switch has been discovered.
The bigger task for Australian women is to find collective breath to blow out the gas.
Virginia Haussegger AM is a Canberra journalist and founding Director of the 50/50 by 2030 Foundation. Twitter: @Virginia_Hauss