The media often generalizes issues into one popular opinion. Jacinda Ardern’s pregnancy is no exception.
While the news deserves recognition, its domination in the media has been more harmful than progressive. In light of recent Woman’s Day features and Herald headlines, I have noticed that most media channels have advertised Ardern’s pregnancy as ‘another landmark’ for women’s rights and gender equality. The consensus is that pregnancy and motherhood should not be regarded as incapacities in work — or in politics. And that this sends an empowering message to the world about the role of women in the 21st century.
On the flip side, Ardern’s choice to become a Mother is rather ordinary — as is combining family and career. Instead of feminising the demands of this common challenge, we should be extending our tolerance and support.
When Mark Richardson broached this issue on the AM show, it was headlined as a ‘blistering attack’, a ‘sticky wicket’ and as ‘breaking the silence.’ The weighty connotations of these adjectives seem to prove the media’s bias in preserving a sanctimonious aura around the event. Since New Zealand media has presented his non-mainstream view as extreme, hostile and distasteful even – let’s review this portrayal in comparison to Richardson’s actual message.
Richardson opened with: ‘I’m just sick of all this symbolic crap. Yes, she’s a pioneer when it comes to being the Prime Minister of a country and having a pregnancy. But I don’t think she’s a pioneer when it comes to women holding successful roles, having babies and still doing a fine job of it. Jacinda is an affable young lady and going to impress… I’m sick of the sanctimony that’s coming out of our disgraceful written media at the moment.”
Unusually enough, Mark Richardson might have the right position — Ardern’s pregnancy is quite normal and shouldn’t cause so much media drama. He asserts this by addressing the ‘symbolism’ or unfair assumption that the rights of women are inherent to the issue of becoming pregnant while working. While ‘disgraceful’ is a strong word, the media’s surprise that a woman, especially a pregnant woman, can make decisions and lead a country is certainly patronizing. In this regard, Richardson wasn’t attacking Ardern so much as the media’s infatuation with her femininity. Hence raising the question of whether the media, and not Richardson, should be accused of belittling Ardern and her office with their ‘mush.’
We only need to look to current political reportage to realize the harmful effects of such an elevated focus.
Take Jacinda’s recent Europe trip for example. Momentous decisions involving Brexit and Syria were overlooked on a global scale, and especially in New Zealand news, in place of Ardern being ‘pregnant and glowing.’ Clearly, the media’s attention strayed from foreign policy to more pressing issues such as… how fantastic Jacinda looked in her dress! In doing so, the media’s failure to recognize her real achievements effectively reduced her value to aspects of appearance. As political reporter Andrea Vance said, ‘up to now, the prominence her pregnancy has had in the media landscape has been oppressive. It was interesting when it happened…(but) I’m sick of it overshadowing everything she does’.
As evident, publicising the pregnancy has detracted from the real issues at hand and diminished Ardern’s abilities. Frankly, it’s rather cavalier to view motherhood as her most important decision when she’s running a country’s government! Opinions as such belong in the ‘life & style’ sections of tabloids – not fused into political stories. Perhaps this lesson could be learnt from the political coverage of the sexual allegations against Trump. The lesson being that, despite the allegations’ gender implications, the majority of political American news remained relatively objective. New Zealand’s current political matters deserve the same objectivity from the media. This is opposed to the ‘objectification’ attached to what is, first and foremost, a personal matter for Jacinda.
Ironically, the oversimplification and exemplification of Ardern’s pregnancy into a ‘powerful message about what women can achieve in an accepting society’, has impinged the reporting of everything — and the effect on feminism is ultimately regressive. Here’s why.
By inflating, if not exaggerating, Jacinda’s ability to ‘multi-task’ and over-extrapolating symbolic meaning, the New Zealand Media has officially milked the issue beyond what it’s worth. In other words, the media’s skewed emphasis is insidiously undermining the legitimacy of Jacinda’s role as a mother and political leader.
As Kate Kushner rightly pointed out in The Politic: ‘Part of Ardern’s appeal, both to New Zealanders and her international fans, is her candour and appearance as a down-to-earth, relatable figure’. Throughout the election, Ardern upheld the belief that ‘I am not unique’ and has continued to do so after the announcement of her exciting news. Her cheerful determination to be both Mum and Prime Minister is admirable, but even more salient is the fact that Ardern doesn’t want her pregnancy to be a political statement at all. She simply sees it as a part of her life as a woman with the right to decide when and how to start a family. And that idea, that her pregnancy should be perfectly normal, sends an even stronger message.
Because being pregnant and doing your job isn’t such a bold statement as the media suggests. For equality to be in play, it needs to be normalized rather than sensationalized — a feminist would be horrified that her biological changes were more important than her intelligence and job.
To dissolve this, the media needs to settle down and people need to realize the implications of jumping on the pregnancy bandwagon.
While her pregnancy dominates the media landscape, it risks becoming an oppressive embodiment of all that feminism is not. As for now, the pregnancy has outlived its feminist aims — not to say it will not live on, but it’s time for this political story to end — as all good things must.