Vexed & Vacuous

Article by Sally Piracha /
Only the Depth Varies /
July 03, 2012 /
Click here to view original /

It is a truth universally acknowledged that there are ways to behave in society. I’m not talking about Jane Austen-esque manners, the bonneted verbal bouts of pride, prejudice, sense and stupidity of 200 years ago. This is 2012, and there are standards, albeit somewhat more flexible.

Last night on QandA, GetUp! Director Simon Sheikh passed out on television.

Immediately after the initial wave of shock and sympathy, viewers re-examined the footage and saw Shadow Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research Sophie Mirrabella, who was seated beside Mr Sheikh, lean away from the slumped man beside her. In contrast, Climate Change Minister Greg Combet, who was seated one seat further away, went to Mr Sheikh’s aid.

Twitter went wild with accusations that Ms Mirrabella’s failure to act is an indication of her true character, and proof that she is an unfit representative. Certainly the vision is damning, made worse by Mr Combet’s actions.

But several heartbeats later, the second wave of tweets commenced. How dare anyone criticise Ms Mirrabella for her underwhelming reaction? She was shocked. No-one knows how they’d react in a similar situation. Even GetUp! asked, via Twitter, that critics hold their fire.

In Austen’s time, Ms Mirrabella’s shocked reaction would have been perfectly acceptable. I can see  Miss Jane Bennet, the very model of all that is good and decent, reacting in a very similar way. Still, some critics are determined to attack Ms Mirrabella for not being more like the steady, useful (if entirely without accomplishment) Mary Bennet or the pragmatic Charlotte Lucas.

Lecturer and writer Lauren Rosewarne suggested that criticism of Ms Mirrabella is because her reaction didn’t include visible signs of feminine emotion. Ms Rosewarne wrote:

While I’ve not yet stumbled upon it myself, apparently there’s a handbook out there for women with some very precise shoulds when it comes to conveying emotions.

There’s no book and this isn’t 1815. We talk about these issues, laugh with friends, discuss over reheated leftovers at lunch, debate in one sentence bursts on Twitter. Should we wear ugg boots to Westfield? Pyjamas to the corner shop after 9pm? Ask guests to pay their own way at parties held at restaurants? Display tattoos at work? Slap other people’s kids? Wear tights as pants? Drink Shandies? Lie about your age? Talk down the economy? Sing badly on tellie? Make fat jokes?

Different people have different interpretations of what is appropriate behaviour in different situations, and gender is not always an issue. Yes, double standards do exist, yet I simply don’t accept that this issue is one of double standards. There’s no gender bias, just failure to align with Ms Rosewarne’s expectation of how the Twittersphere should react to a surprising response to someone else’s misfortune.

Convoluted, isn’t it?

Put simply, Ms Rosewarne is defending Ms Mirrabella against criticism aimed at her failure to emote in an identifiably feminine way. My recollection of the Twitter stream is that the criticism was generated by the failure to act, the hostile body language and expression. I don’t recall a single tweet suggesting that weeping or wailing would help. No hand-wringing displays were requested.

But I’m giving Ms Mirrabella a pass, despite her apparent impotence in last night’s QandA emergency, if only because her very presence was largely as irrelevant as her gender during Mr Sheikh’s collapse.

If anything, Ms Rosewarne’s story in The Conversation seems to suggest that she might be the one with unrealistic expectations of humanbehaviour. We expected everyone on the panel to have the same reaction, the same desire to help, regardless of gender.

Because double standards are far less common than they were in 1815, and women are capable of being useful as well as decorative.

With apologies to those not familiar with Austen’s P&P