He’s “Taken Back the Reins” and She’s “a Backstabbing Murderer”

in Research , Tagged Women in media, media, Politics.
  • Blair Williams

    Blair Williams

    Blair Williams has recently finished her PhD in the School of Politics and International Relations at the Australian National University. Her doctoral thesis focused on the gendered print mediation of women prime ministers from English-speaking Westminster democracies.


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Julia Gillard and Malcolm Turnbull have one obvious thing in common– they both ‘stabbed’ a sitting Prime Minister. Despite this, the print media portrayals of these two acts were strikingly different. Blair Williams suggests this difference emphasises the double standard that women in Australia – especially in politics – are forced to endure.

In a recent study I analysed over 380 articles (roughly 190 articles each for both Gillard and Turnbull) from three prominent Australian newspapers, written around the time of each political coup. Whilst Gillard received an unprecedented amount of misogyny and vitriol and was accused of disloyalty and portrayed as a “backstabbing murderer”, Turnbull was, for the most part, praised for “tak[ing] back the reins” and apparently saving Australia from the ‘clutches’ of Tony Abbott.

Both Gillard and Turnbull experienced positive and negative media representation of their respective political coups. Unlike Turnbull, however, Gillard’s gender and femininity was critiqued and she was repeatedly accused of having murderous tendencies against Rudd. Gillard was punished for the way she became the Prime Minister as she was seen to have “stabbed” Rudd, despite him standing down when she openly and legitimately, according to party rules, challenged him.

It is important to remember that political coups are quite common and have happened many times in the recent past, with Labor politician Bob Hawke ousting then-leader Bill Hayden and Labor’s Paul Keating later ousting Hawke.

However, no previous politician who committed similar acts has faced such public scrutiny and gendered criticism as Gillard.

Unlike the men before her (and after her), she was forced to endure accusations of “knifing”, “decapitating”, “executing” and ruthlessly] assassinating Rudd. Her actions had her likened to the power-hungry Shakespearian villain Lady Macbeth.

Though Gillard did also experience positive media representations, the authors of these articles always found a way to link their account back to her gender. Instead of focusing on her skills or competence, they chose to examine her “flawless skin”; discussed her having had “many boyfriends”; alluded to her having ‘sexual friction’; and even suggested she was able to flirt with then opposition leader, Tony Abbott.

Out of the 190 articles I analysed, 58 per cent discussed her femininity or supposed ‘feminine’ ways, and 47 per cent either mentioned or focused on her female body, gender identity or feminine appearance. Nearly half of the articles portrayed Gillard’s femininity as something that was seen in contrast to the role of Prime Minister. As the first woman Prime Minister of Australia, her gender was ridiculed and seen as a sign of difference.

These journalists purposefully punished Gillard for being ’unfeminine‘, but also scolded her for being a woman in a role that has always been filled by men. They repeatedly mentioned her appearance, personal life and gender – something which male political leaders, including Turnbull, rarely endure.

Turnbull also experienced both positive and negative print media representations, but not on the same scale as Gillard. It is interesting to note that negative portrayals of him were largely written by conservative and seemingly ‘pro-Abbott’ journalists. Turnbull’s negative portrayal can be summarised by a few reoccurring themes, such as critiquing his ego, calling him arrogant and insulting him for an apparent self-interest and perceived selfishness.

In the articles I analysed, I found only one mention of his gender whilst nearly every article that focused on Gillard’s coup mentioned hers. While Gillard endured copious amounts of misogynistic and gendered critiques, Turnbull’s critics focused on his personality and his politics, but not his sartorial style, personal life or gender – a field of criticism largely reserved for women politicians.

Gillard’s coup overwhelmingly experienced negative media coverage while many articles that focused on Turnbull’s coup were positive or at least positive-neutral. Journalists frequently used terms such as “rejuvenate”, “innovation”, “exciting”, “welcomed”, “triumph”, “fantastic businessman”, “only alternative”, “irresistible” and “inspirational” to describe Turnbull and his actions.

It was common for journalists to list his professional achievements, such as being a “brilliant” barrister, republican movement leader, internet millionaire and Rhodes scholar, in addition to being referred to as “one of federal Parliament’s richest MPs and a man whom colleagues describe as a “force of nature”’.

Multiple articles stated that it was Turnbull’s “destiny” to “seize” or “claim” the role of Prime Minister as he’s “a force of nature”, who possesses “star quality” and was fulfilling a “date with destiny” as he “shoots for the sky”.

Further, these journalists stated that he not only challenged Abbott but that he also “takes” or “claims highest office” and is “victorious”, a “crowned King”. The overall general consensus, was that Turnbull made the right decision to depose the sitting Prime Minister and take his rightful place in that role, whilst Gillard was seen as conniving and disloyal. She was framed as the woman who stole the job from Rudd. Such repetition of this kind of frame serves to highlight the clear double standards that are in play.

Though both Julia Gillard and Malcolm Turnbull ‘stabbed’ the sitting Prime Minister through a political coup, the subsequent media representations of these acts were in stark contrast to each other. Whilst Gillard was punished and subjected to gendered criticism, Turnbull was praised and told that he had done the right thing. Men are seen as the norm when they hold leadership positions in the political office and women are seen as abnormal. Their gender is either questioned, ridiculed or used as a tool to punish them. These double standard means that male leaders are allowed to act in an aggressive and adversarial manner – it is simply called ‘playing the Canberran game’ – however when women do it, they are seen as unwomanly, disloyal and ‘a backstabbing murderer’.


This blog post is based on a research article 'A gendered media analysis of the prime ministerial ascension of Gillard and Turnbull: he’s ‘taken back the reins’ and she’s ‘a backstabbing’ murderer', published in the Australian Journal of Political Science.

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  • Spencer Passmore 14/01/2020 3:50am (7 months ago)

    Awesome analysis. It's great to see how such statistics can reveal biased language. There's also obviously another big part to this, which is that sources could be biased against Gillard due to her party or policy (and our media tends to be anti-Labor) , and hence be more likely to being out ad hominems (which we don't tend to do for individuals we are favourable towards).

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