What Michael Leunig’s Comic and Op-Ed Teach Us About Casual Misogyny

The only thing worse than his cartoon judging mothers is the non-apology he wrote today.

Jennifer Zeven
Nov 1 · 7 min read
Photo by Humphrey Muleba from Pexels

For those of you who don’t call Australia home, this editorial cartoon by Michael Leunig was published by Fairfax press:

Image courtesy of abc.net.au

Criticism came swiftly as judged parents, mothers, in particular, let Leunig know exactly how his cartoon made them feel.

Hurt, was one of the overarching sentiments. Sick of being judged, was another — particularly by someone who has not stepped up to the parental plate to do any of the often inane, repetitive, downright gross tasks mothering includes (changing nappies, cleaning other people’s vomit, and being vomited on by your children spring to mind).

Another emotion the sexist cartoon elicited was that most shameful and unfeminine of feelings. Anger. Anger over being told once again, us mothers are incompetent — at jobs men like Leunig do not do, but feel free to tell us how we’re doing it wrong — spilled into the Twittersphere.

I thought Leunig had rightly received his comeuppance, and the news of the day would move on. Perhaps the Sydney Morning Herald would even reconsider its choice to give Leunig a platform. Then I saw his opinion piece. If there’s anything that makes me angrier than that sexist cartoon did, it’s the opinion piece-cum-supercilious self-defense, with generous helpings of even more criticism of mothers published in Fairfax press today.

If there’s anything that makes me angrier than ‘that’ sexist cartoon did, it’s the opinion piece-cum-supercillious self-defence, with generous helpings of even more criticism of mothers published in Fairfax press today.

Just Stirring The Possum

Now, if you’re offended by Leunig’s cartoon, it’s important you understand this outdated expression. It’s like saying ‘stirring the pot’, ‘just shit-stirring’, and is the first line of defense when (usually) a man says something which causes people (usually women) pain.

Because when women call out sexism, it’s usually because we can’t take a joke: Wicked Campers and fallen free speech-lover David Leyonhjelm have been telling us that for years — but they’re no Robinson Crusoe there. If we don’t find it funny, we should ‘just not read it’, or ‘read it and move on’, as some helpful (male) tweeps said of the cartoon which inspired all the anger.

The next thing you should understand is that Leunig is hurting. It’s even given the poor old fellow “sleepless nights”. Those harridans. Those unhinged, horrid, women. “Some mothers do ‘ave em…” That’s right isn’t it Leunig? Back to the point: the man’s in pain, and he’s just not sure how it all happened.

…[M]ysterious fate had me drawing a cartoon which brought so much hostile public reaction that I began to lie awake at night wondering why I had followed such a troubled, painful and precarious career path.

— Michael Leunig

“Mysterious fate” narratives seem to feature strongly when men do bad things, as I point out in my article on media narratives relating to gendered violence reportage. So it’s no surprise Leunig uses this device to remove his agency completely. I mean, it’s not like he consciously chose to ridicule all mums while judging a mum he might have seen out and about.

Parenting Tips From Afar

One of the other things Leunig wants us to know in his opinion piece is some solid gold parenting tips. Are you ready for this?

You’re meant to give your baby eye contact — if you don’t, they’ll be damaged, damaged, damaged. Now let me just point something out. Leunig bemoans the loss of eye contact between mother and child, accuses women of loving the ‘gram more than their babies, being so absent-minded they’d let their baby fall out of the pram and not notice (they don’t fall out — because safety harnesses).

Leunig’s controversial drawing is of a mother on the phone while pushing a forward-facing stroller. I gotta tell you mate, in that stroller arrangement, there’s no beloved eye contact, phone or no phone. But perhaps you didn’t notice the difference, perched high upon your lofty seat of privilege, pen in hand with judgemental whimsy at the ready. “Heaven only knows what goes on in the home”, says Leunig, blithely forgetting this is exactly the point.

Leunig’s controversial drawing is of a mother on the phone while pushing a forward-facing stroller. I gotta tell you mate, in that stroller arrangement, there’s no beloved eye contact, phone or no phone.

Leunig is following the path well-trodden by many, many men, of blaming mummy for their failings. The research he references in his article, as Jillian Hall commented in a Facebook group I’m in, places mothers front and centre as primary carers and the person who’s done it all wrong when “mysterious fate” happens. It was the lack of eye contact. It was because she was overbearing. It was because she cared too much or too little — down, Oedipus, down! Shouldn’t you be stabbing your eyes out about now? (oops, spoilers).

The Othered Half

As a feminist, I often think ‘role reversal’ scenarios have limited use in pointing out to men what it’s like to experience the world as someone born with lady bits. They just don’t compute. However, when they unfold naturally, they are super fun. He says, of the “hate” he’s received: “Once it becomes collective, the malice becomes its own monster. Then it starts to hurt.”

Ya think? Welcome to the other 52% of the population. Welcome to a small dose of the hatred, judgment, fear, and ingrained misogyny women bear each and every day, broadcasted via the media, like, says the Sydney Morning Herald, who printed your sexist, offensive cartoon, and gave you right of sexist reply.

What a privilege.

Leunig’s actions have caused hurt and anger, he’s having a taste of how that judgment feels, and unsurprisingly finds it bitter as misogyny. Even though he’s not a misogynist, and wasn’t driven by misogyny, you understand.

Once it becomes collective, the malice becomes its own monster. Then it starts to hurt.” Ya think? Welcome to the other 52%.

After SMH published the cartoon, some people pointed out the hour or less mothers (statistically it’s mothers) are glimpsed checking their phones (gasp!) while with their children didn’t reflect the other hours and hours of contact, play, teaching, cleaning, feeding, taking to playgroup, appointments, outings, and night waking/feeding that is part of their day 24/7, usually whether they’re in paid work or not. And that’s not even counting house work, women doing 5–14 hours per week compared to an average 5 hours per week for men.

Well as much as we all hate it when things we say come back to bite us on the arse, the cartoonist thinks it actually is crazy — or in more benevolent terms, it’s at least a new kind of mental illness.

I know what you’re thinking. Taboo emotions like anger, and women criticizing men being pathologized? Now when has that ever happened?

“I am coming to the view that there is an emerging new form of hatred in society which might be more of a mental illness than a passing emotion. Perhaps I would call it ‘free-floating, obsessive compulsive hatred’.”

Michael (I’m-not-misogynist-because-I-love-my-gran) Leunig

Sexism and Misogyny Are Largely Benevolent

The truth is, Leunig can quote (gendered) research which confirms women’s rightful roles as mother, primary carer and general psychological whipping-boy, look down his nose at all of us dissenters, call criticism hatred, and insult our intelligence too. But, the truth is, this is just one of his sexist cartoons. He’s got form, can’t understand where he’s gone wrong — and the worst part is, he’s unapologetic. When being told by a nation he has hurt them, his response is to say, in a nutshell: ‘No I didn’t.’

Leunig excuses himself further:

“I have noticed that people can react to a cartoon as if it is a piece of legislation, an essay, a legal document or a scientific paper — but obviously it is none of these things. A cartoon is a simple allegory, a fable or a parable. It is better understood poetically than literally.”

Au contraire, Mr Leunig. Historians study ancient satires and myths because of their shrewd cultural and political content— while female cartoonists struggle to make a living from their art and visual commentary, let’s not pretend you don’t have that power.

If anything, Leunig’s ridiculous opinion piece, which isn’t even at the Wayne Carey level of apologies (it’s no apology at all), speaks volumes about (white) male privilege, benevolent sexism, and the sense of entitlement misogyny enables; one which is so ingrained, perpetrators don’t even know what it is.

Leunig’s pathetic piece has succeeded in making me incandescent with rage. Leunig, if perchance you do read this, your excuse/explanation for your misogyny is feeble, thin and gross as an old tissue. But, as I did on Twitter not long ago, I’m giving the last word to Paula Kuka. Because this is what it comes down to: you don’t know the half of it.

Image by Paula Kuka via comon_wild

Did you like this blog? Fond of an opinionated woman who writes feminist rants? You might also like Privilege and the Other: Why we need more women in politics, Discipline, Control, Outrage and a Mannequin, or Motherhood Is Not Unemployment

4th Wave Feminism

A publication for the next generation of feminists.

Jennifer Zeven

Written by

Writer|Feminist|Poet|Mother. Writer for 4th Wave Feminism, The Startup & PS I Love You. Facebook/Insta @JenniferZevenAuthor

4th Wave Feminism

A publication for the next generation of feminists.

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