Features Australia

‘Strong Female Lead’ is weak on the truth

A documentary about Julia Gillard peddles fake news

25 September 2021

9:00 AM

25 September 2021

9:00 AM

You’re taking the journalistic mickey when the image you use to promote a show you’ve listed in the ‘factual’ program section of your app never actually happened.

So what were the marketing team at SBS on Demand doing when they decided to promote Strong Female Lead – the documentary on Julia Gillard’s prime ministership – by using a photoshopped Banksy-like image of Gillard nemesis Tony Abbott personally holding up a Ditch the Witch poster like he did at that 2011 Carbon Tax protest, when he actually did no such thing?

Making things up? Or just redefining the narrative to align with audience expectations to ensure a ratings boost, as the in-house marketing PowerPoint presentation to the SBS program executives might put it: ‘If you could please go now to Slide number 5 and our plan for a new children’s cartoon series featuring the sanctification of Gillian Triggs and Bluey…’ This isn’t a trivial glitch. The debate over how much responsibility Abbott had for those nasty, rhetorically lame banners that appeared behind him during his speech outside parliament remains politically contested territory.

Strong Female Lead has a lot of these odd, highly partisan and manipulative moments. This is documentary as feminist wish-fulfilment and if Gillard supporters want to believe that Abbott personally marched around Parliament House holding up nasty banners then its hard to criticise them for only doing what Harry, Meghan and the latest Time magazine cover keep telling us to do and living their own ‘truth’.

It’s that sort of documentary, and a companion piece to the ABC’s equally biased-with-facts Ms Represented, where Annabel Crabb embarks on her own personal journey of seemingly blaming the Liberal party for everything bad that has ever happened to women in politics.

They are part of the feminist polemic genre and should be viewed together to understand a deeper feminist mindset that defines modern Australian politics as possibly Anne Summers sees it; namely, Before or After Julia.

It’s no surprises then that all the pre-PM Gillard footage is in black and white, with selective vox pops of Australian women saying or being told their place is in the home. In contrast a colourful timeline is used to show other nations as they elect their first female leaders.

Even stranger, given this is an already preached to and converted audience, an all-female choir embarrassingly appears throughout the documentary telegraphing the ideological punches by chanting key high and low point phrases from her prime ministership (Julia is PM…. die of shame… big arse… I was offended…). The highlight of this feminist kitsch are the final credits which areoverlayed with the choir – now all in red Julia wigs – reciting the Misogyny Speech to the tune of Seventies disco diva Gloria Gaynor’s hit ‘I will survive’ which probably tells you the generational wave of feminism we are really talking about here.

More problematic than these creative and aesthetically bludgeoning sleights of hand is the selectiveness in what Strong Female Lead does and doesn’t highlight. While the program rightly notes the appalling cartoonist Larry Pickering and the disgraceful remarks Alan Jones made about Gillard’s father, it makes little effort to note the personal abuse all politicians – male and female – receive as part of their job and which is now amplified by social media’s moron classes in particular the brain-dead world of Twitter. While there is outrage at the tasteless reference to Gillard as ‘Bob Brown’s Bitch’, no mention is made of commentators – often from the Labor movement and green Left – describing John Howard as ‘George Bush’s Bitch’ in 2003 before the Iraq war.

It also fails to explore Gillard’s own taste for the cutting personal insult (this usually gets filed under ‘red hair’ and Julia’s ‘feistiness’ or as Gillard herself once put it, the ‘Real Julia’). After all, besides lazily dismissing all male conservative politicians as ‘men in blue ties’ she also cruelly referred to Christopher Pyne as a ‘mincing poodle’ for his manner in parliament, which is freighted with its own gender-specific and homophobic inferences. Gillard still denies making these comments even though the footage and audio is easily available and gets a regular run for laughs in the media.

Other nuances are also missing. While rightly noting an aggressive anti-Gillard Murdoch press, it fails to reflect on the counterbalance of the fawning uncritical support received from the then Fairfax publications, the ABC and our university and cultural sectors for a government which even if you hated the alternative had some fairly massive flaws: Strong Female Lead and Ms Represented being Exhibits A of this mindset.

Why can’t Strong Female Lead tell the truth about the Gillard government and how Gillard gained office? She knifed a generally popular (if odd) prime minister, Kevin Rudd, went into a flawed coalition with the Greens to hang onto power and while constantly claiming the moral high ground ran interference for politicians like Craig Thomson and Peter Slipper. Key policies – like introducing a carbon tax when she promised not to do so – were also unpopular. All of which makes Gillard boringly like every other flawed Australian politician and government ever – which is fine if your supporters aren’t always making documentaries that imply you’re perfect and the victim of a male conspiracy.

In Strong Female Lead, Cheryl Kernot makes the point that men also stab people in the back, so why shouldn’t Gillard be allowed to do the same, but she’s only half-right. Yes, Gillard had every right to play hard and make her political choices, but like every other politician she also has to live with the consequences and some politicians, political parties and governments manage consequences better than others. And this is probably the true moral of the Gillard years.

In the end Strong Female Lead is hoist on its own leftist petard by being that kind of news commentary once referred to by comedian Stephen Colbert as ‘truthiness’ during the George W. years before being rebadged ‘fake news’ during the Trump hyperventilation. Though, of course, all of this analysis is moot. As the Marketing 101s at SBS and Julia-supporters know, give it a year and Strong Female Lead will be another compulsory ‘truthiness’ schools resource alongside Ms Represented, Dark Emu, Fahrenheit 9/11 and that 2006 Al Gore film about the very thing Strong Female Lead seems to want to avoid – Inconvenient Truths.

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