Quarterly Essay 50 Unfinished Business: Sex, Freedom and Misogyny

Anna Goldsworthy

Quarterly Essay 50 Unfinished Business: Sex, Freedom and Misogyny
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Quarterly Essay 50 Unfinished Business: Sex, Freedom and Misogyny

Anna Goldsworthy

On the surface, it seems the best time ever to be a woman in Australia. The prime minister, governor-general and the richest person are all female; women are at the forefront of almost every area of public life. Yet when Julia Gillard’s misogyny speech ricocheted around the world, it clearly touched a nerve. Why?

In the fiftieth Quarterly Essay, Anna Goldsworthy examines life for women after the gains made by feminism. From Facebook to 50 Shades of Grey, from Girls to gonzo porn, what are young women being told about work and equality, about sex and their bodies? Why do many reject the feminist label? And why does pop culture wink at us with storylines featuring submissive women?

Unfinished Business is an original look at role models and available options in the age of social media and sexual frankness. Goldsworthy finds that progress for women has provoked a backlash from some men, who wield misogyny as a weapon, whether in parliament, on talkback radio or as internet trolls. With piercing insight and sharp humour, she lays bare the dilemmas of being female today and asks how women can truly become free subjects.

“There is a charmed zone for a girl, shortly before she is ambushed by puberty. At eleven or twelve, she is usually taller than her male peers; more articulate; and more confident than she will be for years. She probably spends a lot of time in front of a screen, words and images flickering in her eyes. Facebook, Slutwalks, Lady Gaga, Girls, Mad Men, gonzo porn, Twilight, Fifty Shades of Grey. What messages are being broadcast to her, and what messages is she hearing? Are they going to make her bigger, or smaller?” Anna Goldsworthy, Unfinished Business


In the introduction to her Quarterly Essay Unfinished Business: Sex, Freedom and Misogyny, Anna Goldsworthy opines that it’s never been a better time to be a woman in this country ‘on the surface’. Surface is the key word here. Despite the ascendency of women to key positions in government, big business and higher education, women are still held to impossible standards in what Goldsworthy labels an ‘image-centric culture’.

This superficial barometer, argues Goldsworthy, limits the power and achievements of women who dare to break through the ever-present glass ceiling. It’s what allows the Prime Minister to be ridiculed on national television for having a ‘fat arse’, or physically threatened on commercial radio, or called a ‘witch’ and other unprintable, gender-specific slurs.

Women, of course, have long been held to oppressive physical standards and Goldsworthy is well aware of this. She sees the internet, particularly social media, as a double-edged sword for female empowerment. While the web facilitates the spread of important footage such as Julia Gillard’s historic misogyny speech, it also creates unsafe spaces rife with trolls and exploitative avenues. Goldsworthy then segues into the ideology underpinning the pornography industry and what lies behind the success of pop-cultural phenomena such as Girls and Fifty Shades of Grey, showing how sexism is all-pervasive.

One refreshing but sure-to-be-controversial point she raises is that ‘feminists are very good at telling other feminists what they should think – almost as good as men’. Thankfully, Goldsworthy has no such intentions. Effortlessly researched, Goldsworthy’s essay is a clever conversation starter to mark this election year and QE’s fiftieth issue.

Emily Laidlaw is a freelance reviewer.

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