How power works

By Dr Jane Horan, Social Anthropologist


A pregnant, unmarried Prime Minister is unfortunately all that is needed for New Zealand to believe its own b***shit that just because we gave women the vote first (yawn), we run a system that is fairer to women than other countries. But language is a great indicator of what’s really going on so in case you missed it, last week, our Prime Minister, yes the pregnant one we like to show off about, was called a “stupid little girl” in the House by an as yet unidentified National MP.

The remark was apparently made by a male MP “sitting behind Simon Bridges” but all those in the vicinity have denied culpability. It could have quite easily been a remark made by another female politician though, because to get ahead in a stubborn patriarchal system, most women have had to play by ‘masculinised’ rules.

One thing is clear though : whoever issued the comment was doing so with the intention to demean and negate. Why so? Under the rules of patriarchy, certain types of ‘masculinised people’ (who are often white older men – but not always) are in charge of the game. Keeping power at the top means ensuring people down below are kept in their place. ‘Stupid little girl’ sits alongside pearlers like ‘you’re a pussy,’ ‘man up’ or ‘you’re so gay’ when directed at males who aren’t like those at the top. The rules of the patriarchy serve a very select few in this world we live in, they are not always male but they are always privileged. A case in point is Hillary Rodham Clinton, notable for not only losing the US election to Donald Trump, but for issuing with candid malice and inventive, the term “the Deplorables” to categorise large swathes of the people she needed to vote for her. I went to hear her speak about being ‘Hillary Clinton’ the other night here in Auckland and was inevitably disheartened to see her apparent lack of understanding of the bigger system at play.

I’ll admit I had low expectations about what I was going to see and hear; in the build up to the 2016 election, while I didn’t like Trump, I was pretty ambivalent about Mrs Clinton as well. Bernie Sanders seemed more on my wave length, at least he got that there was serious fallout from the GFC that impacted real people’s normal lives. But I wanted to see a piece of history in the flesh, to witness first-hand a player in the performance of power at the very highest level. On those counts I was not disappointed.

What struck me about hearing Hillary speak in person, was how patriarchy actually defines her very existence. While she may have wanted to be something else, and she certainly does have a sense of how unfair those rules are for women (and many men), what I saw that night was a woman incapable of defining herself, let alone operating outside of the universe delineated by patriarchy.

I wanted Hillary to talk about what she thought she had done wrong , what she had learned about the system and her personal journey around her awareness of this. But what I heard was a woman who was still smarting at the indignation of the blow dealt to her ego; a woman trying to find the words to speak up against a system that she has wittingly always played by the rules of. She seemed incapable of articulating how the system that we live in actually works or posing the parameters of a new paradigm. I’d seen her concession speech flanked by my two sons, then 11 and 13, only to hear her address “all the little girls out there”. But what about boys, including the ones who don’t fit into the alpha male paradigm? It was never going to be enough to say “I’m a woman, pick me”. It is about redefining a system that does not diminish a new type of leadership.

Hence I’m wondering how Jacinda Ardern, a woman from a different generation and perhaps a different way of seeing the world, heard that comment. If she plays by the rules of the patriarchy, she would have likely been offended, hurt even, and she would have needed to muster the courage and the conviction to struggle on against such vitriol. But that comment designed to ‘bring her down to size’ seemed to have had no effect on her at all. So I’d really like to think that it indicates she is not playing by the old rules but beyond them, in a different paradigm all together. This is not about her being a woman, or a pregnant one. This is about being a different kind of leader, and deep within the back benches of the opposition, the old regime is squirming.


Dr Jane Horan is a social anthropologist specialising in economic systems and diversity. She is the principal of research and consultancy organisation Plain Jane, and a key collaborator at Play Colab.





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