Dead Man Walking versus Dead Woman Walking

If, as women, we accept the use of “Dead Man Walking” to describe male politicians we can hardly complain if “Dead Woman Walking” is used to describe a female politician. I don’t consider that sexist per se (although I have other concerns), I consider it the current rough and tumble of politics. Granted, in Julia Gillard’s case it was one in a string of death related insults which in and of itself was highly inappropriate. But sexist? “Dead Man Walking” had been used in describing John Hewson, John Howard and Simon Crean. I found all of those in one quick date with Google. Michael Duffy used the phrase in a headline in March 2009 speaking of several male politicians.

I was certainly one of the people not at all impressed over the red box quail. So not impressed I wrote “A little spotted dick, anyone?“. However, male politicians get called a “dickhead”. I have seen a meme of a modified Abbott head doing the rounds and John Howard was said to be not looking like a dickhead in an article on The Drum.

Remarkably, however, this has not left John Howard looking like some dickhead who wanted a free trip to Europe. The media seem to be taking Howard’s side – talking about how the pressure is now on Kevin Rudd, who has been thoroughly ‘wrong-footed’. Howard has been both greedy and brilliant. Or so it seems. Source: ABC Unleashed.

Given women don’t have a penis, it is a little hard to call us dickheads. I DO NOT condone the red box menu at all, but then I don’t condone calling a Prime Minister a dickhead either. I see the two as equally unnecessary insults.

I have concerns about the use of language in society. I have concerns that vile and nasty language is becoming far too accepted. I ended up in a Twitter debate on this topic when Ben Cubby, Deputy Editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, asked the following question on Twitter.

I’ve written about language in society more than once.  I’ve looked at the anti-female language of rap music, I’ve looked at political discourse and behaviour. Politicians poking our their tongues like naughty schoolboys is not acceptable when they are elected to run the country as adults.

There is categorically no doubt there are many sexist attitudes and behaviours in society and we certainly need to eradicate them.

I also believe we need to be careful and not claim something is sexist just because it is directed at a woman IF it is in the same way that same something has been directed at men in the past (or currently).

The question for me in this specific case is the quality of political discourse and commentary, not sexism. In using “Dead Woman Walking” to describe Julia Gillard the media were seen to add to the ever growing list of death related threats thrown at her, therefore it was not seen as “normal” political commentary. The long list of “kicking her to death” and other similar comments which I suggest have not been in the past directed at a male Prime Minister made this sexist and vile for many observers. To people who were horrified at the personal attacks aimed at Julia, this was just another death barb, rather than a twist on a movie title that had been used many times in the past. The Sydney Morning Herald should have been more cognisant of the prevailing environment before going to print.

Like many women around the world, I applauded Julia’s misogyny speech. I have never doubted Abbott is sexist. While we can certainly campaign for a more polite and dignified society, including more polite and dignified “normal political commentary” AND we certainly need to eradicate sexism in all forms, we need to be careful not to confuse the two. We need to fight against each appropriately.

I do see a deeper issue. We have a huge problem with violence against women. While no-one bats an eyelid over the media using “Dead Man Walking”, a movie title, to describe a male politician, when used to describe a female politician there are social implications that cannot be ignored. Betty, whose Tweet I shared at the top of this article, is a tireless campaigner for the protection of women from violence. Betty can see how some members of the population would read that headline: as confirmation that violence against women is OK. Such an implication would never flow from “Dead Man Walking” slapped over a picture of John Howard on the front page. That is the fact of our society.

So while I agree with Ben Cubby that using that headline was simply applying the standard of political commentary we have as a society come to accept, I also see very clearly other social problems attached to such commentary. Problems that aren’t being solved and don’t need to be supported, even if inadvertently, by political commentary.

Edited to add Betty’s great article written at the time of the “Dead Woman Walking” headline: War on Women: The Reality.

9 comments on “Dead Man Walking versus Dead Woman Walking

  1. It is a violent analogy of a violent act – state sanctioned murder. Whether they say “Dead Man Walking” or “Dead Woman Walking” as the condemned take their last walk to their execution in American prisons sexism is the last thing on their fellows’ minds. They are just stating a fact and say it in recognition of that fact in homage to the condemned. Where it can become sexist is in the use of the phrase as an analogy.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Last year was such a unique situation. I can’t say I like the phrase at all, I don’t know why we have to be so harsh in our discourse.

      I’m concerned this year could see a lot of vitiolic commentary. Not very helpful as the issues get buried behind the vitriol.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Wonderfully insightful words in to a troubling part of society today Robyn.


  3. Well said Robyn. I did write about the SMH “Dead Woman Walking” image when it first appeared. http://bettsie.wordpress.com/2013/06/18/war-on-women-the-reality/.

    As you say, my concern was how that imagine when viewed in context with all other threats and abuse directed at Julia Gillard could be seen as a pattern of sexist abuse of appalling proportions directed at the first women to hold the office of Prime Minister.

    Some of the comments I made include..”The violent language used in reference to Julia Gillard included drowning, stabbing, throat slitting, hitting with a baseball bat, being fed to the sharks, putting a target on her, wishing she would lay down & die, its the killing season, strangulation, shot by the Taliban and finally cremated. Any wonder our attempts to end violence against women are a continued struggle. Ask abused women how often they would hear all of this and worse”

    The attacks on Julia Gillard were very personal and sustained over several years. None of the attacks were about policy…it was all about her gender…When we have one in 4 women in Australia experiencing violence and abuse, it was an inappropriate and insensitive image.


    • No, Betty, thank you. I am so glad you have shared your article link. You write about the abuse of women so well I hope readers visit your article.

      One day, maybe, such things will be no longer, but for now we need to be careful.


  4. Thoughtful and insightful as usual, Robyn.
    I wish you’d linked in the image I referred to, because my remark was sarcastic (it was pictures of a large number of insulting and derogatory front pages), and not suggesting that the image and treatment of Julia Gillard constituted “polite” discourse as could be inferred.
    As a participant in that brief exchange, though, I also said (agreeing with Ben Cubby) that the image and language were unexceptional in the context of media political rhetoric.
    Reading now your longer explanation, and Betty’s reasoning, I have to agree that despite identical language, the context in which it occurred together with the difference in gender make it tasteless and objectionable.
    We’re desensitized to this language, and it’s good you’re not letting it pass unremarked.


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