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Women damned if they show emotion, damned if they don't

The Age

Saturday February 12, 2011

GABRIELLA COSLOVICH - Gabriella Coslovich is a senior writer.

IN A week when important local and international news was not exactly lacking (and I'm not referring here to the latest moist instalment of the Hurley-Warne love-in) Julia Gillard's tears made front page news across the country. Front page.Finally, the Prime Minister, who has endured criticism and ridicule for her flat and forced performances, let loose. She "broke down" and cried in Parliament while giving a speech about Queensland's floods. And, in a theatrically patriotic flourish, she heightened the drama by solemnly unfurling a muddied Australian flag.Her tribute to the Queensland flood victims was described in the media as "heartfelt", "genuine" and as the first display of "real emotion". Photos of Gillard looking grim, drawn and pale supported the evaluations.There was more than a hint of triumphalism in some of the media coverage. We had bayed for raw emotion, and finally we'd got it. Gillard is human after all! Although some continued to doubt it, seeing the tears-and-flag double-act as yet another contrived performance, choreographed and coached by spin doctors.But I'm no political expert and it's not my role to appraise Gillard's performance as leader. What concerns me is the fanatical demand for emotion on-cue and the notion that there is a "proper" way to express our feelings.There's a double standard at work here we say we want honest and candid behaviour, but when we see it, we don't necessarily like it, as Tony Abbott discovered to his detriment this week.When it comes to women, the expectation of "appropriate" behaviour is magnified. In the workplace, women risk being seen as "over-emotional". But if they dare to assert themselves they may also be tarnished with the "aggressive" tag.In their social roles, however, women are expected to be nurturing, maternal and emotionally expressive.In our recent legal history, there are two striking examples of women caught in the media spotlight who did not "emote" in an acceptable manner, who didn't, in short, "act" like they were "supposed" to. The most infamous, of course, is the case of Lindy Chamberlain. Accused of killing her infant, Azaria, at Uluru in 1980, Chamberlain remained stoic and defiant in court and in the face of intense media scrutiny, which only heightened suspicions about her.More recently, Joanne Lees, who survived a terrifying ordeal in the outback, and whose boyfriend Peter Falconio was murdered, was also distrusted because of her emotional restraint. In a 2006 interview on Enough Rope, Andrew Denton asked Lees aboutthe criticism she endured because of her controlled public demeanour.Lees said: "I chose to sort of grieve in private, or and I guess all I can say is I was a victim of a violent and serious crime and had no support or guidance. I didn't know there was a rule-book or a manual on how to behave. As far as I'm concerned, I was just being myself, and that's all anyone can do in that situation."She added that it was "the Yorkshire way" to refrain from overt public grieving.Different cultures express emotions differently. There's the oblique and compliant manner of some Asian cultures, the extravagant expressiveness of the Latins and the thoroughly gushing ways of some Americans. Talk-show queen Oprah Winfrey was in Australia recently, and she excelled in whipping crowds into an emotional frenzy were these emotions for real?In the era of reality television, tabloid talk-shows and the internet, trumped-up emotions are pervasive. On social media sites, people present themselves in hyped-up, sexed-up and manufactured ways. It's becoming more complicated to decide what is "sincere".Some people are indeed better than others at being empathetic, and of knowing the most appropriate way to respond in different situations. Psychologists talk about "emotional intelligence", or "EI", and have devised ways of measuring it. Emotionally intelligent people are skilled at understanding and managing their own feelings and those of others Queensland Premier Anna Bligh is a pertinent example. But unlike IQ, emotional intelligence is not static it can be developed. Abbott, in refraining from throttling the TV reporter who had baited him about his "shit happens" comment, was at least trying to manage his emotions.When I saw photos of the lachrymose and ashen-faced Gillard, I couldn't help feeling that she was distressed by more than the floods. I know it's part of the rough and tumble of political life, but it can't be easy being subjected to relentless scrutiny and censure for everything from your house-keeping skills to your ability to "appear" authentic.And I understand that she is partly to blame for the prurient interest in her ability to emote or not. She did, unfortunately, encourage the character dissection when she raised the notion of the "real Julia" versus the primped and staged one.Humans are hard-wired to evaluate, assess and judge others, it's part of our survival mechanism. But perhaps we could step back a little and remember that people are different and that their abilities and ways of dealing with emotions vary, too.

© 2011 The Age

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