Sunday 05 July 2020

Women in politics? Force the change

This article first appeared in Malta Today

I have just finished watching one of my favourite interview style programmes, The Hollywood Reporter roundtable, which each year interviews Emmy nominated actors and actresses who appeared in in TV shows and made-for-TV movies.

This last year has been an especially rich one for deep, insightful female characters, but more significantly, for the women’s issues which year after year never seem to go away. Misogyny, sexism, ageism, body image, psychological abuse, rape and domestic violence are just a few of the issues which have been dealt with.

The women interviewed were Oprah Winfrey (‘The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks’), Jessica Lange (‘Feud: Bette and Joan’), Chrissy Metz (‘This Is Us’), Nicole Kidman (‘Big Little Lies’), Reese Witherspoon (‘Big Little Lies’) and Elisabeth Moss (‘The Handmaid’s Tale’). As they spoke about their characters and the storylines of their shows, they came back time and again to the fact that it has only been due to more women being involved as producers and directors that such great female parts and such fascinating stories are being brought to the small screen.

I found it significant that even such high-powered actresses continue to be offered frankly insulting, one-dimensional roles in films which are basically your standard “wife” or “girlfriend” roles, playing second fiddle to the “hero” who goes to save the world. Good, meaty roles, featuring women who are flawed, complex characters are seriously lacking on the big screen, so basically these women have had to “do it for themselves”, forming their own production companies, and coming together as business partners to scout for good material, buy the rights to good books or screenplays and obtain enough financing to get their TV show or movie made.

So what does all the behind-the-scenes intrigue of Hollywood wheeling and dealing have to do with us, I hear you ask? Well, as I watched I couldn’t help but draw parallels with the need for more female involvement in politics. We are constantly bemoaning the fact that not enough women contest elections and not enough are elected, yet as the decades have rolled by, this approach has got us nowhere.

In contrast, these actresses, not content with just moaning about the fact that there were so few good roles out there, decided to stop complaining and created the good roles for themselves. Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman, for example, used their contacts, their networking and their considerable experience to sell the idea of Big Little Lies to a network, and then roped in actresses they knew to play the parts. Powerful female friendships are not something we often see depicted on screen, because too often we simply see women being pitted against one another in stereotypical cat fights, but this particular short series portrayed real women other women could identify with, and the result was an instant hit.

Oprah Winfrey, the queen of TV talk shows, has used her considerable clout and influence to seek out good material, using TV and film to draw attention to social and political issues, pointing out that the dramatic portrayal of abuse, for example, is more powerful than simply hearing people talking about their experience.

The thing is, as things stand, the dire lack of female participation in politics will not change unless the very way in which politics are done changes. And, much like the actresses above, the only ones who can force these changes are the women themselves. In her article Women in Politics, Natasha Azzopardi-Muscat precisely pin-pointed what these changes need to be, ranging from the macho-dominated clubs where politicians meet with many of their core base, to the lack of media exposure. The latter is particularly striking not only during election time, but all year round, where all prime time TV talks shows dealing with politics and current affairs are anchored by a male presenter, and women only form part of the panel as an afterthought, rather than as a deliberate choice.

Another significant point made by Ms Azzopardi-Muscat was that when she herself was approached to contest, she turned it down because she did not wish to drag her young family into the harsh political arena, especially as her eldest son was about to sit for his ‘O’ levels. So how do men do it, we inevitably ask ourselves? Well, most men have a supportive wife who keeps the family going, seeing to the children and keeping an eye on their schoolwork, while he can pursue his political ambitions, with all the long hours and stretches of time away from the family which that entails. To take the plunge into contesting an election, a woman must not only be sure she herself has the stamina for what is to come, but that she also has the support structure she needs at home to ensure her family does not suffer as a result. (This is not to say that the families of a male politician do not suffer as a result of his long absences, of course they do, but we also know that society is much harsher on a woman who “neglects” her family than a man who does the same thing.)

Interestingly enough, even here the comparison with Hollywood still holds, for despite their wealth and nannies at their disposal, the actresses who are mothers all spoke about cutting back on the amount of work they do and turning down projects in far-flung locations because they do not wish to be away from their children for so long or disrupt their lives. This, whether we like it or not, will always be the main crucial difference between men and women when it comes to choosing a career path, whether it is the glamorous life of celebrity or politics. It has always been thus and no matter what anyone says, it probably always will be.

But when it comes to the other things which can be changed, which will encourage more women to enter politics, then yes, women need to speak up, stick together and force the changes themselves. Reaching out to the grassroots does not have to remain inevitably stuck in the same ‘kazin’ mould which has been around forever, where politicians do the rounds of clubs and village festas to shake hands, have a beer and mingle with supporters. Just because things have always been done that way, does not mean they have to stay that way. Women have to get creative and come up with innovative ways of connecting with the ordinary voter.

And finally, if the political parties are serious about wanting more female participation then they have to ensure that women are given equal representation on TV. But if that does not happen, then women should not sit passively by and let the men hog all the limelight. There are many ways of pushing themselves forward through the Internet, social media, Youtube channels and other media formats.

I think the time for complaining is over. Women, who excel so much at multi-tasking, should not sell themselves short, but need to come together and join forces. Even if a woman does not necessarily want to run for office herself, she can still help another woman campaign, or run her FB page for her, or organize her meetings. Involvement in politics starts with these small steps, but just like Hollywood actresses finally figured out that if they wait around for men to give them good parts they will wait around forever, so too women in Malta need to realise that if they want to see more women in politics, they need to mobilize themselves and just get it done.

Much in the same way they get everything else done when they put their mind to it.

Powered by