Published by the Faculty of Business, Government and Law, University of Canberra


Research and Stories through a Gendered Lens

Review: Strong Female Lead on SBS

Sep 13, 2021 | Gender, Popular Culture, Culture, Politics, Commentary, Policy, Democracy, Leadership, Equality, Review, Feature

Written by Gillian Lewis

From the makers of ‘See What You Made Me Do?’, Strong Female Lead explores the gender politics during Julia Gillard’s term as Australia’s first and still only female Prime Minister. Looking back at Ms Gillard’s time as Prime Minister, the film examines the response and tone from media commentators, the Australian public and within Parliament itself.

Strong Female Lead is a very powerful documentary, depicting the highs and lows of Julia Gillard’s life as our first female Prime Minister.

Julia Gillard became Australia’s first female Prime Minister in 2010, many years after numerous other countries had a female Prime Minister. The first was in 1960 – Sirimavo Bandaranaike of Ceylon/Sri Lanka, and she was re-elected three times.

For many, Julia Gillard’s elevation to PM was a time to celebrate that finally Australia had a woman as Prime Minister, and in the words of Anne Summers ‘there was palpable joy,’  she was very popular, and seeing our first female Governor General, Quentin Bryce, swear in Julia Gillard as Prime Minister was a potent image for little girls – Women can lead!

I have to ask: “Was Australia really ready, were we as a country sophisticated enough to deserve a female Prime Minister?”  

We know that in Australia, women politicians are hyper-scrutinised on their appearance, on what they wear, whether they have or plan to have children in comparison to male politicians. Australian women politicians have recently shared their views of the sexism, harassment and misogynistic behaviour that reigns in parts of Australian Parliaments.

Strong Female Lead Julia Gillard and Quentin Bryce.

Former Prime Minister Julia Gillard, left, with Australia’s twenty-fifth Governor-General, Quentin Bryce. Picture: Supplied/SBS

As Prime Minister, the sexist, often misogynistic media abuse that Julia Gillard experienced was on another level. As shown in this documentary series, this was often rank abuse, disrespect and rudeness which was evidenced everywhere – online, on the radio, television, in comedy sketches and at public rallies. While the media have a lot to answer for, so too had Tony Abbott with his behaviour, continual references to Lady MacBeth and condoning his Party’s gross dinner references to Julia Gillard with his silence. As noted on the video “no one in the party room has taken Tony Abbott to task”.

As stated by Blair Williams (2017):

Gillard was punished for the way she became the Prime Minister … seen to have “stabbed” Rudd, despite him standing down when she openly and legitimately… challenged him. It is important to remember that political coups are quite common and have happened many times in the recent past…However, no previous politician who committed similar acts has faced such public scrutiny and gendered criticism as Gillard.

Remember that Turnbull was seen to have taken the reins in deposing Abbott, but Julia Gillard was disloyal and backstabbing.

When Julia Gillard finally responded to Tony Abbott’s continued disrespectful behaviour and gave what has become known as her ‘misogyny speech’, this was swiftly picked up internationally as inspiring and barnstorming, scoring millions of hits on Youtube, sparking a global feminist response, while being largely ignored by Australian media.. Julia Gillard concluded “This Parliament today should think seriously about the role of women in public life and in Australian society, because we are entitled to a better standard than this”.

I concur that she was right: Australian women did and still do deserve a better standard.

Prior to calling the ballot which led to Kevin Rudd’s return, it was reported that some men were upset by the re-emergence of the gender debate, and Julia Gillard’s support was greatly diminishing. History will undoubtedly recognise Julia Gillard’s extraordinary legislative productiveness of 580 pieces of legislation being passed.

Some in the media admitted that Julia Gillard was treated very differently, and she noted “bemusement about admissions from some media colleagues that she had suffered more pressure as a result of her gender, than other PMs in the past, but then concluded that it had zero effect on her political position…”

It should be noted that it was the Independent, Rob Oakeshott who congratulated Julia for her time as Prime Minister, not Abbott, commenting on the disgusting words and ugly behaviour. He expressed belief in Australia’s future being better, also stating: “But we’ve got to deal with ugly Australia.”

In answer to my earlier question: were we ready or sophisticated enough? – No, but I do hope that we might be more prepared next time.

Combining two of her quotes I conclude:

 “Smashing through a glass ceiling is a dangerous pursuit; it is hard not to get lacerated on the way through … [though] what I am absolutely confident of is it will be easier for the next woman and the woman after that and the woman after that. And I’m proud of that.”

She also added that for any woman who wishes to follow her into politics she urges them to jump right in!

Thank you to Julia Gillard (I Give Credit Where Credit is Due) and to SBS for this powerful, engaging and at times enraging documentary.

Watch it on SBS on Demand here. 

Feature image: Picture supplied by SBS.



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