Have you noticed how the Green Party is using gender to differentiate itself from the other political parties this election season?
Let’s look at what they’re doing.
The party’s satirical election video is a total blast.
It portrays David Cameron, Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage as members of a boy band, singing up the virtues of a coalition as studio fans blow stage smoke through their hair. These four white privileged men harmonise beautifully. They promise to close the door on immigrants and to privatise public services. Cameron sings:
Step into the booth,
Look down and face the truth:
A vote for me’s the same as a vote for any of us guys
The others chime in with: Any of us guys…
The only other person in the video is a spokeswoman for the party: a young black woman who doesn’t sound posh. There’s a clear distinction being made here: the other parties are full of rich white men, but the Green Party is different.
Earlier this year, the party’s leader Natalie Bennett called Miliband, Clegg and Farage the “three amigos” when they clubbed together to ask broadcasters to go ahead with TV election debates without Cameron if he didn’t want to take part.
The stunt was a dig at the impression of mainstream politics as an “old boys’ network”. It is also clearly a way for Bennett and Lucas to say that they’re strong, smart women who can handle a political argument with a man. Lucas has certainly handled many a debate in parliament over the last five years with integrity, charisma and smarts. She’s been the best MP, staying involved in political activism (ahem, getting arrested) and even taking her activism into the Palace of Westminster—she got into trouble for wearing a No More Page 3 T-shirt in parliament.
So what is going on here? Is it OK to use gender in the way they are doing?
I don’t think it’s terrible. I don’t instinctively react against it. In fact, it makes a fair point. The Greens oppose the austerity that the three main parties support—austerity has disproportionately affected women. It is too much of a leap to say that the three parties are therefore sexist or misogynist, but it is definitely worth pointing out that their policies have hurt women more than men. In contrast, by making the very visual reference to the fact that the Green Party is led by women both inside and outside parliament, the party is trying to say that they are different. They are mostly using words to explain their anti-austerity programme, but also clearly using visual winks too.
Clubbing the other four parties together as ‘the guys’ also serves another neat purpose. It argues that they’re all the same. Forget about policies for a moment—talking about ‘those guys over there’ uses gender as a shorthand. It creates the impression that they are all the same, even though they may have policy differences (and they do, for example on EU membership). So there’s a very simple but effective rhetorical device going on here. Using gender lumps the Greens’ opponents together. This is hard for any other party to do. Farage tries to say that his is the anti-establishment party (that’s not true: UKIP is very establishment, Farage is very establishment and in any case, the Greens are the only anti-establishment party). Cameron, Miliband and Clegg cannot easily lump their opponents together in a way that shows how they’re different. This is because, well, they aren’t very different. So by having male leaders and policies that disproportionately affect women, the four other parties give the Greens an easy option of lumping them all together.
All that said, there is something a little bit queasy about the Greens using gender in this way.
The party’s deputy leader, Shahrar Ali, couldn’t make a video mocking the other parties’ whiteness, and implying that a vote for Ali and the Greens was a vote against the dominance of white people in public life. That dominance is a huge problem, of course. White supremacy is real: it underpins our foreign policy and our institutional racism in the police at home. But Ali couldn’t make that video. It would be in awful taste. And he’d be called a racist for drawing attention to difference in that way. Plus it would just be weird.
So how can it be that a party can mock one protected characteristic and not another?
The other drawback to what the Greens are doing is reinforcing the gender binary. Bennett and Lucas are saying, “Those chumps are blokes, and we’re women.” Of course it is true that most people do feel themselves fitting into one or two gender categories, male or female. But some people don’t. Some people don’t feel comfortable in the gender category that they’ve been brought up with. Some people view themselves as being somewhere in between the two conventional genders. So for the Green Party to score points using the gender binary could be a bit naff because it reinforces the dominant idea that there are only women and men. I don’t have much more to say on this point because I’m not a trans person; I’m just raising it because it might be a problem.
Finally it might just be a bit cheap. The Green Party is trying to look smart and serious. It is committed to trying to change the nature of British politics, making it less like a club for the privileged few acting on behalf of privileged people. But what they’re doing is reducing political visions down to far-left (Greens) and centre-right (everybody else), and then using the shorthand of gender to stand for these two sides. And that just feels a bit naff, doesn’t it? It’s funny actually, and I did like the video remember. But I guess reducing the arguments down to a shorthand based on gender isn’t really the change in the quality of political debate the Greens want to see.
Overall I think there’s a net benefit to what they’re doing. I regard satire very highly, and I think it’s perfectly acceptable when politicians use it. So I’d say on balance that it’s OK that the Greens are using gender in the way they are. Those lasses are sure giving the stupid lads a run for their money.