On the gendered readings of Gillard’s crying

You may have heard about the introduction of the NDIS bill to parliament yesterday. You may have also heard that Prime Minister Gillard wept at the bill’s introduction. Andi f you were on Twitter, you may have even seen this Tweet from News.com.au.


It was a historic day and a historic bill, but we want to consider that Tweet, whether considered or off the cuff, because it raises a number of questions about how we respond to the still relatively rare event (in Australia, anyway) of politicians crying.

The first (and slightly more mundane question) is whether it’s reasonable to report on the internal state of someone without their personal input. Given that such a thing is basically unknowable, it’s probably a bit of a stretch to do so. It’s fine to muse about such things (we all do it), but considering this Tweet was not phrased as a question and comes from a news outlet, it’s seems fair to call “reporting” and thus maybe a slight overreach?

The second question, though, is whether such a reading was fair and what it says about gendered politics.

It was a Tweet, so it arguably represents more of a reflex than a considered opinion. But that reflex itself is revealing.

There are two potential readings of crying: one of empathy and compassion, and one of weakness and fragility. Both of these are, for better and worse (respectively), considered female traits.

The reporter could have gone for either, but he/she instinctively went for the negative one.

Some studies (such as those mentioned in this paper) suggest that men are judged more harshly when the crying is seen as coming from a place of weakness or stress, while women are judged more harshly when the crying is seen as coming from compassion. This isn’t actually surprising. To the extent that our judgement is a function of expectations and that our expectations are a function of stereotypes, seeing the traditionally stronger males cry from weakness will obviously lead to a harsher judgement. That women are judged more harshly when it comes from compassion may be less a fact that women are judges harshly (since it doesn’t so much invert expectations), but simply that men are judged less harshly (or perhaps even rewarded) for doing so.

In that sense, it seems like it was potentially lose lose for Gillard.

Compared to our American counterparts, there aren’t many instances of politicians crying in Australia. Over there, we see Barrack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner well up at public events. It’s actually been a reasonably optimal move since the ’92 election campaign. Bill Clinton received such a positive response to his tears that four years later, his opponent Bob Dole would try the same trick on the trail after decades of dry eyes in congress.

Even Hilary Clinton has shed a tear and gotten away with in, perhaps in part because it’s been so normalised by male predecessors, and perhaps also because she’s by far the most popular politician in the country.

But back home, it’s still something of a rarity. And perhaps it’s that scarceness of tears that has kept it within traditional gender boundaries.

While Gillard may be judged less harshly than a male counterpart for breaking down under stress, the fact is that we’re probably much less likely to label it as such.

Ultimately, what we had was our first female Prime Minister welling up at the introduction of the NDIS bill, and what could have been a potentially positive female trait was instead cast as a negative one. We may never know whether it was, in fact, stress that brought it on, but it’s doubtful. And reporting, or even simple Tweeting, that casts it as such continues to make it all the more likely that the next instance of a female politician crying will be read in a similar way.

It’s unfortunately probably the case that it’s up to males to normalise this behaviour, and it’s equally unfortunate that the chances of that occurring anytime soon under either government are reasonably slim. To the extent that our leaders reflect back what we want of them – composure, strength – then we’re partly at fault. But those expectations we have for our leaders are influences by earlier expectations, and they can change. Until Clinton’s demonstrations during the ’92 campaign, it was considered a bad move as well. (Some even blamed Muskie’s crying on the trail in ’72 for his loss to Nixon).

While a politicised theatre of compassion isn’t exactly optimal either, greater tolerance of emotion would at least pave the way for more genuine displays of compassion, and would break down the expectations of masculinity in leaders that makes Gillard’s display – and indeed, Gillard herself – something of an aberration.