Thursday, March 8, 2018

The Madonna crossed with Wonder Woman: how the media portray Jacinda Ardern

(First published in The Dominion Post, February 23.)

Living in a country as small and intimate as New Zealand can sometimes feel like being wrapped in a cuddly warm blanket. These occasions arise whenever the nation is enveloped in a state of feel-goodism and self-congratulation.

It happened when we won the America’s Cup and it happened when Lorde swept the world pop charts. On such occasions it can seem unpatriotic not to share the general mood of elation.

It happened too when the Labour government took a stand against nuclear weapons in the 1980s and prime minister David Lange faced down American critics in a celebrated Oxford Union debate. Even New Zealanders who were uncomfortable with the government’s stance took pride in Lange’s famous killer line (actually pinched from an Australian cartoon, according to Sir Gerald Hensley) that he could smell the uranium on his opponent’s breath.

At times like this there can be a certain amount of subtle pressure not to deviate from the national script, which demands that all New Zealanders’ hearts should swell with pride.

This phenomenon no doubt affects many countries, but it’s magnified in our case because of our isolation and diminutive size. It’s plucky little New Zealand standing up and demanding to be noticed. Whether the rest of the world pays attention or not seems almost immaterial. We do it mainly for our own sense of well-being.

Not falling into line with the national consensus on such occasions is seen as letting the side down. Nothing must be allowed to dampen the mood.

Right now feels like one of those times. If the media are to be taken as an accurate barometer of the national psyche, the country has been in a state of almost preternatural contentment since last year’s election.

Not only do we have a young, likeable, left-of-centre female prime minister, but she’s going to have a baby while in office. Even hard-nosed and normally sensible Wellington press gallery veterans almost swooned with delirium at the announcement of Jacinda Ardern’s pregnancy. What could be more 21st century than giving birth and then going back to work after six weeks, leaving the baby in the care of her partner? 

In the outpouring of gushing media comment, there was much puffing of chests at the idea that New Zealand, the first country to give women the vote, was again showing the world how things could and should be done.
Journalists promptly coined a term for this phenomenon: Jacindamania. They seem to see no irony in the fact that they delight in using the word even when they exhibit symptoms of the affliction themselves.

Some of the most cringe-inducing journalism was prompted by Ardern’s attendance at Waitangi, where her hosts invited her to have the baby’s placenta buried in line with Maori custom. Political reporters cooed their approval.

Much was made too of the fact that she pitched in and helped cooked the steak and sausages on the barbie. This simple but effective PR ploy – the prime minister presenting herself as an ordinary, unpretentious Kiwi, which she genuinely appears to be – was applauded as if it were a latter-day miracle of the loaves and fishes. 

But it’s hardly surprising that journalists are attracted to Ardern. She’s of the same generation as most people working at the front line of the media, and the same sex as a large proportion of them. It’s fair to say that her political views probably mirror those of many, if not most, New Zealand journalists.

Besides, journalism thrives on newness and novelty, and Ardern represents what many journalists see as an exhilarating and overdue generational change in the Beehive.

For nine years we were governed by middle-aged men in suits.  Ardern is still in her 30s. She’s fresh, personable and seems effortlessly in control of things. To use a silly popular expression, what’s not to like?

Her pregnancy is the icing on this cake, although it raises questions that have been delicately sidestepped by the media. What if she experiences complications, or struggles with the combined demands of motherhood and the prime ministership? No one discusses these possibilities because they conflict with the presumption that women can do anything.

Of course the prime minister can’t be blamed if the media portray her as a cross between the Madonna and Wonder Woman. But it may make the eventual reality-check more painful when the long media honeymoon ends, as it eventually must, and the strains of office start to tell on her untested government with its incongruous assortment of political bedfellows.  

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