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I Am Woman, Redux

Feminism on Television in 2015


Just a few years ago, feminist writers and activists were despairing that most women were rejecting the label ‘feminist’.1 Yet today, it seems that feminism – and feminists – are everywhere. Some feminists – like Germaine Greer and Anne Summers – never went away. Others – like Julia Gillard – rediscovered their feminism in the face of unrelenting sexist vilification. Many more (including Annabel Crabb and Clementine Ford) have found receptive media spaces for their feminist analyses of contemporary Australia. Indeed, today feminism is largely understood not as a movement of activists whose activities are occasionally reported on by the media, but as a movement that happens in, and speaks through, the media.

Of course, this is not entirely unproblematic. The recent proliferation of ‘women’s’ websites like Daily Life, Mamamia and Women’s Agenda, which proclaim a broadly feminist orientation, are characterised by their emphasis on ‘choice’ feminism. As Clem Bastow noted, choice feminism is premised on “the idea that any choice a feminist makes is inherently a feminist act, any opinion they hold a feminist one”.2 The quest for web traffic to these sites tends to push their writing towards the confessional; the immediacy of the first person narrative forges a connection between writer and reader, but it doesn’t necessarily become part of a push for feminist change.

While the feminist movement has long had an uneasy relationship with spokespeople and leaders, there is also a considerable history of feminist celebrities like Gloria Steinem, Anne Summers and Germaine Greer, women who proclaimed feminism in the media and became known as public faces of feminism.3 Today, arguably our best-known feminists are making feminist television, even if they might not label it as such.

Yet the deployment of celebrity can be a double-edged sword. In July 2015 the Sun-Herald ran a story on the ABC’s high-profile female journalists in their Sunday Life magazine. Entitled ‘Screen Queens’ and featuring a very heavily made-up Virginia Trioli, Leigh Sales and Emma Alberici on the cover, the story celebrated the ways that the “ABC’s female journalists are changing the newsroom”.4 Arguing that women were driving the ABC’s news agenda both on and off-screen, the story painted the ABC as an egalitarian haven for working mothers, with Sales recounting how the network’s first female news director, Kate Torney, brought meals to her home when she was on maternity leave. Coming as it did on the back of the ABC’s so-called ‘hunger games’ in late 2014, where dozens of journalists, many of them working mothers, had lost their jobs, this anecdote was spectacularly insensitive. A former ABC employee pointed out that such fantastically flexible working conditions were reserved only for the network’s “stars”; none of these stars acknowledged their enormous privilege in the ensuing controversy.5 This incident revealed the limits of the personal narrative and celebrity as a way to raise feminist issues. It also encapsulated the insularity of much of what passes for feminist commentary in the media, with its focus on individual advancement at the expense of a more sustained, structural analysis.

Yet despite the dominance of an often-superficial media feminism, we might remember 2015 as a watershed year for feminism on television. Not because of our TV dramas: Australia still has a long way to go before we can hope to match the diversity and depth of American television’s depiction of women (although many would argue it still has a long way to go as well).6 But in 2015 the ABC broadcast programs that took gender inequality seriously and addressed it as an urgent social problem. In doing so, these programs have again affirmed the importance of public broadcasting as a national public space to discuss urgent social issues. These programs have also showcased television’s unique power as a domestic medium to tell intimate stories. At their best, these programs reanimate an old second wave feminist idea – the personal is political.

The sharing of intimate stories has been a potent strategy of social movements since at least the 1970s. But how should women share such stories in a way that goes beyond the merely confessional? Of course, many feminists have been doing this online, but the fragmented audiences for social media means that these stories often resonate in an echo chamber of likes and shares, without having the national impact they require. Even as the audience for television splinters and timeshifts, television remains the most effective way to start a national conversation about important social and cultural issues. But can television produce change? In this essay I will focus on three programs from 2015 that broadcast feminist perspectives: Sarah Ferguson’s two part series about domestic violence, Hitting Home, several episodes of the panel program Q&A, and the comedy series Judith Lucy is all Woman.

Judith Lucy is All Woman

Following the success of Judith Lucy’s Spiritual Journey in 2011, in 2015 stand-up comedian Lucy utilised a similar formula of stunts, comedy, experiences and interviews to explore contemporary womanhood in Judith Lucy is All Woman.7 In six half-hour episodes, Lucy examined gender, work, relationships, sex, parenthood, mid-life and ageing, from the perspective of a white, forty-something, self-described feminist.

Throughout the series Lucy positioned herself as a feminist of the second wave variety, deeply sceptical of the raunch culture she sees as characteristic of contemporary young women. In an interview with musician Amanda Palmer, Lucy expresses surprise that singer Miley Cyrus would describe herself as a feminist, and in an interview to promote the series commented: “I guess I just didn’t see Germaine Greer do a lot of twerking”.

While Germaine may not have twerked, she did pose topless in Oz magazine in the late 1960s and her feminist politics of the 1970s were decidedly pro-sex.8 Lucy’s series was notable for the lack of space it gave to young women (though it did feature a couple of delightful group interviews with teenagers) and women of colour: indeed, the series ended with Lucy’s advice to young women (rather than, say, giving young women space to offer advice to each other). The focus on the experiences of older women, however, was welcome, as was her conversation with two trans men, Buck Angel and Jez Pez, who offered their reflections on life on both sides of the gender divide: women say sorry a lot more than men, they suggested, and men are happy to take up more space.

As ever in Lucy’s comedy, she exposed herself to ridicule: across the series she appeared in her underwear, had a G-spot enhancement (interviewing the surgeon while he performed the procedure), and disguised herself as both a man and an elderly woman. Perhaps the series’ most affecting moment was the touching rendition of Helen Reddy’s feminist anthem ‘I am Woman’ by a group of Australian female singers: renewed in this way, the song proved that it still resonates.

While Lucy remained an appealing, deeply funny guide, the journey was presented entirely through her own perspectives and experiences. She was happy to own the label ‘feminist’ (as were many of the women she interviewed) but it was a feminism shorn of its radical potential, dispensing advice based on personal experience, rather than any broader social critique.

Hitting Home

‘The personal is political’ was one of the most radical ideologies of women’s liberation. Coined by American feminist Carol Hanisch, the idea at its heart was simple: if you were a woman oppressed and disadvantaged, it wasn’t just your problem to solve alone. Rather, the problems facing women – violence, harassment, self-image – were structural, products of a patriarchal society. Sharing such problems was the first step in trying to solve them.9 From the late 1960s on wards, women met in groups to discuss their experiences of education, sex, relationships, motherhood, and violence. Sometimes, these groups spilled over into larger gatherings that were part consciousness-raising, part demonstration. On International Women’s Day 1973, Sydney Women’s Liberation and the Women’s Electoral Lobby organised the Sydney Women’s Commission, where numerous women spoke to the crowd about their experiences of violence at the hands of their husbands and partners.10 Anne Summers was one of the women there that day. She and some of her friends were so angered by what they heard that within months, they broke into two vacant houses owned by the Uniting Church in Glebe, squatted, and in 1974, established Elsie, Australia’s first women’s refuge. Elsie was soon overwhelmed with desperate women fleeing violent partners, and the refuge movement was born in Australia. Our response to domestic violence was, from the outset, one driven by feminists.

That the personal can still be political was clear when Rosie Batty became the 2015 Australian of the Year. Batty rose to national prominence in the most horrific way: her ex-partner, Greg Anderson, brutally murdered their eleven year old son Luke, in February 2013. By speaking publicly about her experience of family violence just days after Luke’s death, Batty gave victims of such acts a rare public voice. She built momentum for a public conversation and has continued to do so since the award gave her a national profile. By speaking out, she refused the stigma and shame that typically attached itself to women in abusive relationships. Her public role was premised not on policy expertise, but her ability to speak from inside a violent relationship. “I am not a politician” she said. “What I have is personal experience”.11

2015 saw unprecedented public attention paid to domestic and family violence in Australia. Rosie Batty’s activism and the work of feminist activists over decades finally produced a conversation Australia had long avoided. The Counting Dead Women Project, undertaken by the feminist group Destroy the Joint, documented the deaths of more than 78 women due to domestic violence in 2015.12 Journalist Jess Hill was nominated for a Human Rights Media Award for her clear-eyed, compelling reporting on domestic violence.13 Former Governor-General Quentin Bryce convened a special taskforce into Domestic and Family Violence, and Victoria opened a Royal Commission into Family Violence on 22 February 2015.14 Of course, this did not reverse the Federal and New South Wales governments’ funding cuts to legal aid services, women’s refuges and other services crucial to helping women escape violent relationships.15 Neither has it stopped facile provocateurs like Mark Latham or Miranda Devine from suggesting that Rosie Batty was turning her story into “entertainment” or from arguing that the “the root causes of domestic violence are socio-economic”, and “demonising men” is not the answer.16 However, when Malcolm Turnbull announced a $100m funding injection for domestic violence services in September 2015 (a boost that nonetheless failed, according to the group Fair Agenda, to plug the system’s significant funding gaps), he framed it in terms of gender inequality: “disrespecting women does not always result in violence against women. But all violence against women begins with disrespecting women”.17

Hitting Home provided ample evidence of Turnbull’s assertion. Produced by IN Films and broadcast by ABC1 on 24–25 November to strong ratings, Hitting Home was presented by journalist Sarah Ferguson.18 Four Corners reporter Ferguson had gained heightened prominence when filling in as host of 7.30 while Leigh Sales was on maternity leave in 2013–14, crisply demolishing the carefully crafted media facades of various members of the Abbott government.19 She applied this forensic precision to the mortifying soap opera that was the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd government in the series The KillingSeason, capturing the candid confessions of otherwise forgettable backbenchers as they boasted of their plotting prowess.

In Hitting Home, Ferguson cast her unflinching gaze on the victims and perpetrators of domestic violence, and on those who work in the systems that deal with this devastating problem. While women’s stories of domestic violence are finding space in the public eye, we (understandably) hear little from the perpetrators of such crimes. Hitting Home not only revealed something of what it is like to live in an abusive relationship, it offered insights into male violence. Much of the series’ power and authenticity stemmed from the access the producers gained to women’s refuges, police officers, courts and prisons. As Ferguson noted in her introduction, while domestic violence has grown in public prominence more recently, “it’s always been with us, hidden away like a dirty secret, and now we’re finally paying attention”. Ferguson went on:

Like you I’ve watched those terrible stories but I’ve never really known what domestic violence really is. How does it start? How does it escalate from control to violence to death? Why do men do it – because it is largely men – and why do women stay with them?

These questions – especially “why doesn’t she leave?” have long coloured public discussion of domestic violence, leaving a pall of shame and stigma on victims. It was Hitting Home’s significant achievement that it went some way to answering this question in a way that viewers could understand emotionally. To do this, the series foregrounded personal narratives, rather than expert talking heads. Statistics and information buttressed the arguments, but it was the intimate stories that were truly transformative, because they allow us to comprehend the emotional and social structures that perpetuate this kind of violence.

Ferguson noted that for those experiencing it, domestic violence is a deeply private trauma, and that “the private nature of it means people have been coy about it. It’s part of a taboo … about what happens at home”.20 One of the aims of the series was to venture behind closed doors and speak to people living through these situations, rather than hearing from people reflecting on their experiences of some years earlier. Ferguson lived in a women’s refuge for a time during production, which not only gave her a chance to meet and earn the trust of her vulnerable interviewees, but that she could take “people much closer to the events themselves, where the trauma of the event is present and alive”.21

While several women’s stories are told in episode one, two are told at length: those of Isabella and Wendy. Ferguson and her crew avoid the formal set-ups typical of current affairs reporting; instead, she talks to the women standing at kitchen benches, sitting on beds, whispering quietly over the bodies of the women’s sleeping children. This lends the conversations a heartbreaking, quotidian intimacy. It also hands the women some agency in how they narrate their stories. Isabella recalls how she took responsibility for her partner’s violence, recalling that she felt that she “had to do something better to make him happier”, and that she was “embarrassed that I’d gotten into a relationship like this”. It was only when her small son saw his father hit her that she felt she had to take action to protect her child. Ferguson talks to Isabella while security cameras are being installed at her house, there to record any attempts her husband might make to enter the family home, in breach of an Apprehended Violence Order (AVO: at the time the series was made, he was on bail awaiting trial for a violent assault on Isabella; we follow their case into the courts later in the episode). Perhaps the biggest revelation of these encounters is hearing the women explain why they persisted with relationships with violent men: Isabella says “I guess you’re addicted to the hope that it’s going to get better. And you don’t want to be lonely … and it’s hard if you have a child together”. Later she realised if she didn’t leave, she could be “one of those statistics”. Watching Isabella testify in court against her unrepentant husband made for horrifying, gripping television.

Wendy’s story of escape from a violent relationship into the safety of a women’s refuge might have the biggest impact of all. Wendy marvels at how when she arrived at the refuge, everything was provided for her: toothpaste, shampoo, food and bed linen, the necessities of everyday life. Later she comments, “If I’d known how good it was I would have left the first time he yelled at me”. However, as Silke Meyer pointed out, many women in desperate need are unable to access refuges: the program depicted ‘ideal’, rather than typical, frontline responses to domestic violence.22 Wendy, like Isabella, remained in the relationship with her abusive partner because she wanted her children to have their father around, in spite of his violence. The series offered us chilling insights into the experience of family violence: we hear one of Wendy’s triple 0 calls to police and it takes us into her terror: we hear the fury in her ex-partner’s voice as he calls her a “fucking bitch”. In these scenes, Hitting Home takes us to places many if not most will never see for themselves, building broader empathy and understanding. The series confronts the ways that violence impacts on children. Amidst snapshots of ordinary intimacies between mums and their children, we see Ferguson interview a shy, quiet boy about the “night mum’s jaw was broken”. He tells her that he wanted to do something but “I was only a ten year old kid”. Afraid that his Dad “might come back and break my jaw”, the boy tells Ferguson that “I want to go right up to his face and tell him “you’re a very bad father”’. As Ferguson comments, women and children live in refuges because their homes are too dangerous, “and that’s a situation we tolerate in Australia”.

Episode two began with the problem facing victims of domestic violence: when do you decide to leave? How do you know when your life might be in danger? What makes a relationship turn violent? The series approaches these questions from a number of perspectives. First we meet the police working on the frontline of the domestic violence response. Police, we are told, are placing a greater emphasis on the risks posed to women once their partners turn violent. Second, we meet a group of perpetrators serving prison sentences, participating in a rehabilitation program. While the woman facilitating the group says that she sees “hope” when she looks around at the men in the group, it’s hard to feel anything but deep unease when we see the ways these men refuse to take responsibility for the violence they perpetuate. What was most striking was the ways that they could not see (or acknowledge) the fear they provoked in their victims. Ferguson asks one perpetrator, Logan, “Are you frightening when you’re angry?” “I don’t think so”, he replies.

Finally, the program seemed to negate any possible criticism that it was overly focused on violence in low socio-economic communities (the focus on Blacktown, for example) with the chilling story of Kate Malonyay, a successful young woman who lived in Mosman and who was brutally murdered by her ex-boyfriend, Elliott Coulson, in 2013. Kate’s mother and close friends tell her story: she didn’t think she was at risk, reassured her loved ones that Coulson would not hurt her. But he broke into her flat, killed her, and stayed there for two days before using her credit card to book a flight to Queensland. He committed suicide by jumping from the balcony of his hotel room when police arrived to arrest him. One of Kate’s friends tells Ferguson that she didn’t think that these kinds of horrors happened to “people like us”. Hitting Home was such powerful television because it affirmed that domestic violence is overwhelmingly a gender ed problem whose roots lay in the ways that men and women are conditioned to relate to each other. The final shot of the series was Ferguson holding a tiny baby boy in her arms, her description of this crisis as a “national emergency” ringing in her viewer’s ears. The program captured the national conversation for a few short days and saw a spike in reporting of domestic violence: hopefully it will resonate in the national imagination for much longer.23

Performing the National Conversation: Q&A

In 2015, Q&A became a totem in the ongoing culture wars over public broadcasting in Australia. The ABC clearly prizes the pro gram for the ways it performs participatory democracy: as Tony Jones says, it is “the show where you ask the questions”, however carefully moderated and stage-managed this process might be.24 The Abbott government thundered that “heads should roll” and ordered an inquiry into the program after former terrorism suspect Zaky Mallah was allowed to ask frontbencher Steve Ciobo about changes to citizenship laws (the infamous ‘AbbottlovesAnal’ twitter handle appearing on-screen just two months later didn’t help matters either).25 In a neoliberal political climate where the very existence of public broadcasting is increasingly under question, Q&A demonstrates the ways that television can enact a virtual public sphere in which decision-makers can, theoretically, be held to account. The program’s famed twitter feed often carries on a counter-conversation that disrupts or undercuts the conversation on the program, providing a background noise of humour, rage and cynicism.26 More often than not, however, it is infuriating or deeply boring television, or both at the same time. The best political performers on Q&A (Malcolm Turnbull, Tanya Plibersek) are those who depart from their party-approved talking points to reveal something of themselves. Similarly, the best Q&A panels are usually those that move away from the typical focus on the week’s news to stage a focused debate on a particular issue. The ABC broadcast its first all-female Q&A to commemorate International Women’s Day in March, but the discussion was tired, or, in the case of Germaine Greer, even a little wacky (asking Julie Bishop if she would bare her nipples to free Andrew Chan and Muyran Sukumaran for example). As Gemma Munro wearily noted on Women’s Agenda, “we just keep having the same conversations [about gender equality], over and over again. We seem to be banging our heads against the ultimate brick wall”.27 At its worst, Q&A simply rehashes debates already staged elsewhere. At its best it can marshal expertise, rather than just opinions, to move that debate forward.

In 2015 Q&A ran two episodes on domestic violence: one featuring Rosie Batty in February, and another immediately after Hitting Home in November. The first episode was made just weeks after Batty was named Australian of the year and she remained at the centre of the discussion throughout. The gendered (rather than socio-economic) framing of domestic violence has provoked controversy throughout the year and these tensions were apparent in both programs. Controversially, the first program included only two women (the other was Natasha Stott Despoja, Australia’s Ambassador for Women and Girls), alongside two men who work on male behaviour change programs and the (male) Acting Victorian Police Commissioner. While Tony Jones defended the gender (im) balance by pointing out that men are a “key part of the problem”, it didn’t take long for the “not all men are violent” tweets to begin appearing on-screen as part of the broader Q&A conversation. While Stott-Despoja pointed out that domestic violence was still over whelmingly perpetuated by men, the (false) statistic that one in three domestic violence victims are male was still circulating later in the year, when a young woman asked the panel to comment on it. By featuring experts with command of the data, the statistic was publicly debunked.28 Similarly, Batty’s willingness to be the ‘face’ of domestic violence, as an educated middle-class woman who “lived in a nice house”, undermined the stereotype that violence is confined to the underclass in Australia. When her panel was asked “Why don’t women leave?”, she stopped the audience in its tracks with her direct but disarming response: “They don’t want to leave – they just want … the violence to stop. Why would you want to leave your home, your family, the dreams that you’ve built?” It was perhaps evidence of some change that this question was not asked of the post-Hitting Home Q&A.

Together, Hitting Home and Q&A attempted to provide audiences with both an emotional understanding of the horrors of intimate partner violence, and a broader sense of the policy and structural problems associated with responding to it. Hitting Home captured public attention for an entrenched social problem, one which feminists have campaigned about for decades. By investigating the experiences of those living within violent relationships, rather than high-lighting service shortfalls, the series was able to suggest what drives this problem, and in doing so, it raised some profoundly disturbing questions about gender inequality in twenty-first century Australia. It was a powerful piece of feminist television.


1‘Girl Power’, The Australian, August 30, 2008,, accessed November 16, 2015.

2Clem Bastow, ‘I’m alright, Jill’ The Saturday Paper, 4–10 April 2015, p.7.

3Anthea Taylor, ‘Germaine Greer’s Adaptable Celebrity’, Feminist Media Studies Vol. 14, No. 5, 2014, pp.759–774.

4Erin O’Dwyer, ‘How the ABC’s female journalists are changing the newsroom’, Sunday Life, 19 July 2015,

5Whitney Fitzsimmons ‘The ABC a utopia for working mums? Sure, if you’re one of the stars’, Crikey 21 July 2015,

6Zeba Blay, ‘How Feminist TV became the new normal’, 19 June 2015,

7Judith Lucy is All Woman (2015), a Bearded Lady/Pigeon Fancier Production, Presented by ABC and Film Victoria.

8Lisa Featherstone and Haylee Ward, ‘Pleasure, Pain, Power and Politics: Australian Feminist Responses to Pornography 1970–1989’, in R. Reynolds, L. Featherstone and R. Jennings, eds, Acts of Love and Lust: Sexuality in Australia from 1945–2010, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2014, p.51.

9Carol Hanisch, ‘The Personal Is Political: The Women’s Liberation Classic with a new explanatory introduction’, 2006,

10Nola Cooper, ‘Sydney Women’s Liberation Movement 1970-1975’, Women’s Health NSW,, accessed 25 November 2015.

11Rosie Batty, ‘Why passion must lead to change’, The Saturday Paper, 7–13 February 2015.

12The Counting Dead Women project totaled 78 for 2015 at the time of writing. See Moo Baulch, ‘We’ve finally admitted we have a problem – now what?’ Daily Life, 25 November 2015,

13Jess Hill, ‘Home Truths: the costs and causes of domestic violence’, The Monthly, March 2015,

14Not Now, Not Ever: Putting an end to Domestic and Family Violence in Queensland, Report of the Special Taskforce on Domestic and Family Violence in Queensland, 2015,; Royal Commission into Family Violence (Victoria),

15The Senate, Finance and Public Administration References Committee, Domestic Violence in Australia Interim Report, March 2015,; Jess Hill and Hagar Cohen, ‘How funding changes in NSW locked women out of domestic violence refuges’, The Guardian, 9 March 2015,; Jenna Price, ‘Australian of the Year Rosie Batty calls on PM Tony Abbott to reinstate community services’, Sydney Morning Herald, February 1, 2015,

16Mark Latham, ‘Mark Latham argues we are putting women in danger’, Australian Financial Review, 27 June 2015,; Miranda Devine, ‘Demonising Men Won’t Stop Domestic Violence’, Daily Telegraph, September 27, 2015,

17Judith Ireland, ‘Malcolm Turnbull’s scathing attack on men who commit domestic violence’, Sydney Morning Herald, September 24, 2015,

18Nial Fulton and Ivan O’Mahoney (excecutive producers), Hitting Home, IN Films, ABC Television and Screen NSW, 2015.

19Craig Matheson, ‘Why Sarah Ferguson won’t be easily forgotten as ABC’s 7.30 presenter’, Sydney Morning Herald, 30 May 2014,

20Paul Kalina, ‘Sarah Ferguson tackles the domestic violence epidemic in Hitting Home’, Sydney Morning Herald, 19 November 2015,


22Silke Meyer, ‘ABC’s Hitting home portrays ideal frontline responses to domestic violence’, The Conversation, 24 November, 2015

23Bridget Brennan, ’Domestic violence support services record spike after ABC Documentary Hitting Home airs’, December 3, 2015,

24Terry Flew and Adam Swift, ‘Engaging, Persuading and Entertaining Citizens: Mediatization and the Australian Political Public Sphere’, The International Journal of Press/Politics, Vol. 20, No. 1, 2015, pp.119–120.

25Latika Bourke and Matthew Knott, ‘Q&A: Tony Abbott says “heads should roll” over Zaky Mallah episode, orders inquiry’, Sydney Morning Herald, 25 June 2015,; Neil McMahon, ‘Q&A recap: Lewd Tony Abbott Twitter handle could put the show back in hot water’, Sydney Morning Herald, 25 August 2015,

26Gay Hawkins, ‘Enacting Public Value on the ABC’s Q&A: From Normative to Performative Approaches’, Media International Australia, No. 146, February 2013, p.90.

27Gemma Munro, ‘Why the first all-female Q&A missed the mark’, Women’s Agenda, 12 March 2015,

28Jenny Noyes, ‘One-in-three myth unanimously busted on “hitting Home” finale of Q&A’, Daily Life, 26 November 2015,

Small Screens

   by Michelle Arrow, Jeannine Baker and Clare Monagle