Politicians become celebrities for a reason. ‘Jacindamania’ was no different

The real Jacinda Ardern was always going to be stranded somewhere between “Saint Jacinda” and “Cindy” the “woke queen” – terms her devotees and detractors have regularly reduced her to. Her celebrity came rapidly, and inflated her standing from young female prime minister to global liberal icon. And then conservative hate figure.

Politicians usually become celebrities for a reason: because there is a global deficit in what they are offering. In Ardern’s case, her direct speech, empathy, focus on kindness and the collective served as a dramatic foil to some of the more narcissistic, truth-twisting (or denying) male world leaders who have strutted the international stage in recent years.

Jacinda Ardern radiated decency. Credit:Getty Images

It was refreshing to have a woman in her 30s, now 42, be the face of power. She radiated decency. But in watching the response to the resignation of the woman who inspired a fervid movement dubbed “Jacindamania”, three things have become rapidly clear. First, millions still crave her open, compassionate, decisive style of leadership.

Second, her adoration or near deification by the left has blinded some to her perceived shortcomings as a leader, and her inability to make inroads into some of her country’s more intractable problems, especially inequality, housing unaffordability and child poverty.

Third, her vilification by the right has also blinded some to her more significant achievements, and ushered in some of the more savage abuse she has received as a woman making unpopular decisions in political life, the kind of ugly, sexualised vilification Julia Gillard was all too familiar with.

That, and a toddler. No wonder her “tank” has drained.

Actor Sam Neill tweeted that he was unsurprised by Ardern’s decision. “Her treatment, the pile on, in the last few months,” he wrote, “has been disgraceful and embarrassing. All the bullies, the misogynists, the aggrieved. She deserved so much better.”

Former NZ PM Helen Clark, herself once the target of offensive slurs, said that Ardern had: “In this era of social media, clickbait, and 24/7 media cycles … faced a level of hatred and vitriol which in my experience is unprecedented in our country.”

So what was this misogyny? We all saw the lame and offensive questions from journalists roll out. Charles Wooley asked her when she conceived her baby, and called her the most attractive PM he had ever met. When her pregnancy was announced, and she then became the second female PM to give birth while in office (the first was Benazir Bhutto), the nation debated the ability – and right – of mothers to work, and then watched her just … work. She did Facebook live videos during the pandemic next to a whiffy nappy bin, and continued to breastfeed her baby and field a host of stupid questions, including why she was dyeing her hair – was she getting greys?

And let’s not forget, when Ardern met with her Finnish counterpart, Sanna Marin, she was asked at a press conference if the reason they met was because they were the same age and had “a lot of common stuff” (like being ladies?). Ardern responded with asking if the reporter would ask this of Barack Obama and John Key, given they were around the same age?

Martin reminded him: “We are meeting because we are prime ministers.”

These sound, on one level, trivial. After all, idiots abound everywhere, amirite?

But last year, NZ news outlet Stuff reported that “escalating misogynistic abuse” of Ardern was becoming a national security issue. In March, anti-vaccination protestors called for people to “hang the bitch” (again, familiar) and a fake hearse appeared. In April, a man who was threatening to murder Ardern was arrested, and an image appeared on Facebook of her head pasted atop the body of a sex worker in bondage gear. Ancient tropes, new platforms.

By October, someone had come to her electoral office brandishing a sword, as the threats to her life multiplied.

On social media, the most feral trolling festers in comment sections. With Ardern, as it was with Gillard, the “c—” word appeared often, along with depictions of her as a witch or demon. NZ reporter Michelle Duff wrote: “It is open misogyny, visible on every platform and supported and promoted by upvotes on Reddit, laughing emojis on Facebook, comments about “that woman” on LinkedIn, and someone who looks like your Aunty referring to the PM as “Cindy” and calling her a “c…“.

Duff argued: “The amount and tone of gendered disinformation and misogynistic abuse online has exploded since last August, constituting both a national security threat and a human rights issue that authorities are struggling to combat.” Other female government officials felt similarly targeted.

Sociology Professor Paul Spoonley commented on how surprised he was to see how quickly “middle New Zealand and people who just disagreed with government policies” had turned to attack Ardern on the basis of her gender. The anti-government protests, he said, “provided a terminology and a reason for being anti-PM or anti females in senior roles.”

Te Pāti Māori president John Tamihere also said he had never seen the vilification before: “I don’t think we, as a country, have been fair to her.”

Did we see it, those of us in other countries? Christchurch reporter Nadine Roberts believes not: “In the United Kingdom, I was often greeted with genuine surprise when I shared how Ardern was viewed at home by her critics. They could not comprehend the rhetoric I showed them when I opened any social media platform.”

Who’s to say how much of this abuse was responsible for draining Ardern’s tank and convincing her she could not go on another term, or if it was due to pressure over slipping polling and fears for the election ahead?

But the intensity of the drip, drip, drip is far worse than most of us can imagine. Just this week, Fox host Tucker Carlson called her “the lady with the big teeth” and accused her of being a Chinese puppet. I agree with Helen Clark, who said: “Our society could now usefully reflect on whether it wants to continue to tolerate the excessive polarisation which is making politics an increasingly unattractive calling.”

It’s important to remember that while she had slipped in the polls, Ardern was still the preferred prime minister, with considerable local support.

It was refreshing to have a woman in her 30s, now 42, be the face of power.Credit:Bloomberg

Her most impactful moments as a leader were the time of the March 2019 terror attack at two mosques in Christchurch, when 51 people were gunned down. She united a country, supported the Muslim victims and immediately tightened gun control. Her compassion was palpable, powerful and influential here, as it was following 22 deaths in the White Island volcano eruption. She comfortably won two elections, the second in a landslide.

Then, her tight border restrictions and severe lockdowns – at its most extreme, not allowing people to collect a cricket ball from a neighbour’s lawn – saw few COVID deaths in NZ in the first phase, but the economic fallout began to impact the economy. Vaccine mandates spun into conspiracy theories and hostile protests and she became a global totem, caricatured as an authoritarian figure.

She vowed to tackle carbon emissions, but they have remained high. All while concerns have been mounting about inflation (about 7.2 per cent, with ours at 7.3), the cost of living and of housing.

But Ardern is also rarely given credit for her considerable sleeper reforms in housing policy. These include the removal of negative gearing – a smart, necessary policy move no one has dared to do in this country – and the fact her government built more housing than any previous. The fruits of these policies are yet to be seen.

She could possibly still have won the election in October. But the pressures of the past two terms have been immense. So now the search for Ardern’s replacement is under way.

The headline in the BBC – yes, even the BBC – resorted immediately to one of the most stupid questions. “Ardern resigns: Can women really have it all?”

I loathe that question. No one can have it all, especially when navigating torrents of hate. But if the real question is – can mothers work? Or lead a country? – hadn’t Ardern just demonstrated precisely that point? It was a good innings. And now she can return to her family, saying to her daughter Neve – “Mum is looking forward to being there when you start school this year”. And to her husband Clarke – “let’s finally get married”.

Some will say that’s the wrong order. Others will say again, again, again, that’s not the point.

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