No, Jacinda Ardern won’t save us so stop the feminist fangirling

By Amy Gray

“I just think she’s so inspiring…holding her baby with her like that, I just think it’s going to change things” – this was how a friend recently described her admiration for New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.

It’s easy to see why Ardern has attracted so much praise given she bucks the political standard: she’s not a man for a start, speaks with passion instead of talking points, appeals to progressive leftists and had a baby in office. She has achieved a hell of a lot in her career and cuts through the artifice of modern politics, giving it an acceptable, youthful face.

These are all reasons to feel excited but will New Zealand’s Prime Minister be the savior of feminism? I’m doubtful and the constant fangirling for Ardern gives me pause because so much of it feels superficial and unconsidered. While there is ample reason for feminist excitement, enthusiasm for Ardern requires some analysis to break through our own prejudices and desires.

A politician with a baby on the hip, while novel, is not the game changer people claim. The first political leader to give birth while in office was Pakistan’s Benazir Bhutto, which often gets lost in the discussion. That a white person’s accomplishments are celebrated while a pioneering person of colour’s is forgotten is so common it’s clichéd, this is a particular issue within feminism.

Even then, the use of babies in politics is a trope that is often messily applied. Plenty of babies are wheeled out for kisses on the campaign trail or posed for promotional photos. But it’s not always evenly received. While Ardern has received praise for holding her child and answering media questions, plenty of other politicians who’ve done the same have been accused of using their children as deflectors (Andrew Bartlett comes to mind here).

The shock and delight of a political leader status as a new mother doesn’t mean we should herald it as a game changer – it means we need to unpack what we think mothers are capable of in the face of continuing discrimination and professional penalty. Think about it: a woman never escapes the label of mother, whereas father is very rarely applied to men, especially when it comes to public or political life. Women are defined as being mothers, men are defined by what they do.

Motherhood is not just about the ability to create a child – it’s about the work that goes into raising that child or children as well as all the other work mothers do. It’s almost a shadow realm or doing two full time jobs at once.

Plus, that mothering work literally lasts a lifetime and not just the photogenic first few years of baby and toddlerhood, a fact many seem to forget and which shows just how little critical thought is given to motherhood. While it’s agreed the early years of childrearing is physically intensive and immediate, our community still doesn’t discuss the unique, and often unsupported, complexity of raising older children and teenagers.

So yes, it’s novel and different that Jacinda Ardern has a baby and that New Zealand’s first family generated so much praise while appearing at the UN. But if you think a woman dealing with a baby and work at once is going to change the world, you haven’t been paying attention to the world, the state of motherhood or your politics.

Much of this is the twin impulses of celebrity and easy saviours. Feminism (and everything else) has a need to “stan” any person with mildly agreeable politics or sassy soundbites, elevating them to golden goddess standards without any burden of actual work or achievement. Emma Watson, Jennifer Lawrence, Lena Dunham, Kim Kardashian, Hilary Clinton, Julia Gillard, even Julie Bishop at one point – all of these people have been celebrated for their feminism with little to no unpacking of what form that feminism takes.

You may have noticed some of these people are no longer considered feminist champions given persistent mistakes. Once installed as a feminist celebrity, we keep lauding them as the one who will “change things” and be the answer to everything.

But of course this cannot be sustained. Some of the women mentioned have been car crashes of calamity, others contradictory, some merely forgotten in pursuit of the new inspiration while others use it as a marketing campaign. Some people will unpack their feminist credentials, which can help balance the adulation. However, there comes a point in almost every celebrity cycle based on simplistic personas where they lose their easy adulation. Suddenly, they are figures of outrage, falling out of favour from a height they may have never sought and decried for not maintaining a perfection they never claimed.

When we categorise women into invisible, cancelled or worshipped as feminist icons, we are denying ourselves and the elevated women of nuance and complexity. No woman emerges from the clamshell in a state of perfection, her actions and history unblemished with failure.

Instead, we are placing yet another burden on women they must perform perfectly to achieve acceptance. Not only that, but we deny them the benefit of failure; where they can devote themselves to meaningful improvement for themselves and others.

Our problem is that we keep looking for someone else to save the world. We think they can do it, it will be quick and we’ll be here on the sidelines retweeting it all. It’s understandable, the constant fatigue of living and fighting leads many to want that superhero to fix everything for us.

But that’s not how it happens. Change comes from work – dismantling the systems around us and our internal politics. It’s hard work, often unseen and unacknowledged, takes forever and there are days where you feel like you’re not making much progress at all.

The Jacinda Arderns, Justin Trudeaus and all the other photogenic progressives previously adored and memed won’t save the world. The world has to save the world. That means us. That means you.

When my friend told me how Ardern’s motherhood was going to change things, I disagreed. Yes, it’s novel that a woman political leader has given birth but that isn’t the change to mark. Instead of seeing a younger woman make it through the political ranks childless and able to give birth after taking office, show me the older woman – show me the woman who has dealt with the deals and machinations of politics, fought off sexism and discrimination to take office and has a teenager on the side, and a partner who was there to give long term equal labour in the home. And then? Let’s celebrate her while she gets on with the fraught work of being a complex person doing a complex job.

That’s what I call change.



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Amy Gray is a Melbourne writer whose work focuses on feminism, culture and parenting. She tweets via @_amygray_

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