Senator Michaelia Cash

Liberal Senator Michaella Cash in full flow during her lengthy tirade against Penny Wong, in which she accused the Labor Senator of betraying Julia Gillard and ‘the sisterhood’. Source: The Courier-Mail


IT’S futile to pretend we’ve ever been a “civil” society, but there’s strong evidence to suggest we’re fast becoming an uncivil one, where rudeness, abuse, bitchy catch-phrases, vitriolic tirades and meanness flourish and are rewarded.

Whether it’s horrid reality television contestants attracting ratings, trolls and haters posting anonymous commentary on websites, cyber-bullying, people wearing T-shirts sporting offensive slogans and slurs, kids throwing sandwiches at a PM, or politicians using parliamentary privilege to abuse each other, there’s something rotten in this state of unpleasantness.

In an article on the ousting of Julia Gillard, academic and feminist Anne Summers claimed: “Bullying and treachery are clearly the new normal.”

And not only in politics.

What we’re bearing witness to is a kind of cultural shift, described by Professor Jim McKay as “venomism”.

Venomism, refers to the poisonous and malicious kinds of discourse and behaviours that have flourished in culture and mainstream media, and the way in which they’ve become normalised as a default response in certain situations.

Men and women are equally capable of venomism and while it’s unpopular for a woman to point out women behaving badly (or perhaps, only other women can), there’s no doubt the “fairer” sex have been employing not only unfair but downright dirty and toxic tactics. McKay refers to this as “veminism”.

The ugly step-sister of feminism, veminism has, for the past few years, been rearing its head and snapping, biting and clawing its way into the public arena.

Whereas feminism enabled women to step up and flex their financial, emotional and cultural muscles and express their talents in a specifically female way, there has been a backlash against what’s perceived as unattractive, hostile (to men mostly) and unlikely to help either sex succeed further.

Feminism was always about creating equal opportunities and a level playing field for both sexes to be appreciated and respected on their own merits, not because of sex or gender. It invited a team approach, a collective emotional intelligence to make it work.

And it did.

Veminism on the other hand, operates differently. It’s where women work selfishly to shore up their own position within patriarchal structures regardless of the cost to others.

Veminism invites a particular kind of engagement and attitude that encourages women to align with power at all costs, to strike down an opponent using personal attacks.

The primary arena for this has been politics – but social media also features.

Writing in The Guardian, Paula Matthewson observed the “aggressive female parliamentarians” and used terms such as “tirade”, “vitriolic” and “spiteful abuse” to describe their way of dealing with each other.

She asks: “When high-octave abuse and the parliamentary equivalent of girl-on-girl jelly wrestling becomes the accepted way of making a political point, what hope does the average Australian ever have of again respecting our democratic institutions?”

We hear about women still having a long way to go to achieve equality. Statistics indicate that in the boardroom, domestic front and economically there’s still a wide gap between the sexes. There’s no doubt inequality exists.

What isn’t spoken about – and I’m not sure why except that it’s a difficult subject that sheds light into a dark, uncomfortable corner – is the area where women do have equality: in their capacity to cause a great deal of damage, not only to the opposite sex but their own as well.

They may not have access to the kind of weapons or power men have, but they have a deadly arsenal nonetheless.

They’re mostly adept at using emotional and psychological tools, words and ploys to include and exclude, abuse and use, for better or worse, men and each other.

In “The Library” episode of Seinfeld, George tells Elaine about being bullied at high school, how he received “wedgies” and “atomic wedgies”. Elaine says, “Boys are sick.” He asks her what girls do. She replies, “Oh, we just tease someone until they develop an eating disorder.”

If you’re in a woman’s sights, she can be focused, relentless, cruel and unjust.

It’s not surprising an individual would look out for numero uno, after all, that’s the message being received from all quarters.

Call me old-fashioned, out of touch or just deeply concerned, but it’s disturbing that some women have chosen to embrace a barely restrained emotional and psychological violence and in doing so become complicit in upholding the (im)moral structures that most often hold them back.

They may achieve a professional and personal goal (or a headline), but it’s often at the cost of dignity and self-respect.

What message are we sending to younger generations?

Likewise, the tired idea that women should unconditionally support each other, revealed in phrases such as “the sisterhood” or “women are their own worst enemy”, is patronising and assumes a “natural” alliance.

Based on what? Ovaries?

Notions like this sweep veminism, in all its guises, under the rug and mean it’s not properly addressed or it’s misunderstood.

It’s time to open that can of poisonous worms.

There will always be decent, generous and kind people as well as nasty, self-serving ones. The important thing to remember is these traits and qualities are not specific to one sex. We’re all – men and women – equally capable of being civilised or a bunch of boorish bogans.

Dr Karen Brooks is an associate professor at the UQ Centre for Critical and Cultural Studies.