“You can’t be what you can’t see” is a familiar saying. Less familiar is the story of the woman who coined it Marian Wright Edelman. Edelman is now recognised as one of America’s most important moral leaders – for her work advocating for disadvantaged women, children and families. A key part of her advocacy was art – using her writing and photography to tell stories, engage audience and convey her vision for a better, more equal future for the next generation.
Documentary occupies a unique place in the storytelling space. It captures and reflects our distant and not so distant history, to understand the moment we live in now. We are living in decisive times. Systems are being disrupted and challenged. And with that, is an opportunity for change.
When I watched Brazen Hussies with my 21-year-old daughter – a documentary which celebrates the women’s liberation movement in Australia – she was astounded to see how restricted women’s lives were.
Many of the freedoms she takes for granted, I remember winning as a teenage feminist of the 70’s. Seeing a period of your life cast as history is an interesting experience. I was struck both by how far we have come and at the same time how little attitudes have changed. Sexism is still a powerful force, as we fight for recognition of women’s rights, humanity, and autonomy. I never imagined my daughter would be facing the same struggles with sexism that I was at her age.
We don’t need to look far for very public contemporary examples of ‘old fashioned’ sexist behaviour. The halls of Parliament are rife with stories of male aggression and allegations of sexual assault – and the reactions to this whistleblowing reveal the reluctance of our leaders to ensure safety and mutual respect for women. This is not only a failure of moral leadership, but another example which illustrates the moral vacuum at the pinnacle of our political culture. Yet, despite the pervasiveness of the “boys club” that dominates our political and corporate culture in Australia, I do believe cultural change is possible – and it is our responsibility to demand it.
Media broadly, and documentary specifically, has a powerful role in holding up a mirror to our culture. News and narratives which we accepted at the time can be reflected upon and questioned. This is the beginning of cultural change.
Strong Female Lead is a new documentary that exposes the extreme sexism and misogyny that was on display during the period of Julia Gillard’s prime ministership. It is an ugly and painful reminder of how gross Australian male culture can be. How can we expect to guide our boys and inspire our girls when such appalling behaviour is modelled by our leaders – with the sexist attitudes which underpin it carelessly promulgated by our media?
Yet the documentary also offers a model of dignity, accomplishment, resilience and humour amongst the women who embraced Julia Gillard as their leader. Although we can’t “unsee” the relentless sexism and disrespectful behaviour that tempts us to conclude that Australian culture is not mature enough to accept women in leadership, we can use these narratives to reflect and commit ourselves to changing behaviour and toxic cultures for the next generation. Documentary storytelling captures the details and assembles the timeline with the offer to present not only how it was, but how it could be.
We know that sexism exists. We hear the facts about the gender pay gap, about sexual harassment in the workplace – and the violence of sexism which harms women. But there is a difference between knowing and understanding. This is where documentary steps in. A powerful story – well told – will engage an audience where facts fail. It will take them from knowing, to understanding, empathising, and acting. Stories travel. They can build movements which, over time, changes culture.
The solidarity of a global sisterhood of women around the world is inspiring. And the culmination of the persistence and determination that we can do better, be better, is strong.
As Kamala Harris joyously declared, at the triumphant inauguration of the Biden administration – “I may be the first woman in this office but I will not be the last”. The same was said by Julia Gillard and, no matter how long it takes, if we keep our foot on the gas, when it happens next time in Australia, it will be different.
Documentary Australia Foundation is hosting a virtual event with the filmmakers of Strong Female Lead on 13 September, following its broadcast on SBS on Sunday 12th September 8.30pm. Get tickets here.