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The 'Max Factor'

By Liz Conor - posted Wednesday, 4 July 2007

Recently the challenge to John Howard's Federal seat of Bennelong became high stakes indeed as ex-ABC journalist Maxine McKew for the first time outpolled the Prime Minister.

Should McKew succeed Howard will go down in history as only the second Prime Minister to suffer the indignity of losing his seat. His predessor, Stanley Melbourne Bruce casts a ghostly aura of historical deja-vu around John Howard.

Bruce used the surprisingly resonant catchphrase “Men, Money and Markets” as the basis for his economic strategy and pursued radical reform of the arbitration system that would have imposed penalties for industrial action, and new awards to drive down wages and increase hours. His proposed IR policies were central to the 1929 federal election in which Bruce was ousted from his seat of Flinders by the Secretary of the Victorian Trades Hall Council, E. J. Holloway.


Working under political shadows with such reach, along with the Galaxy poll results, McKew will surely become the most watched candidate in the coming election. How will her being a woman determine the nature of that appraisal?

In her characteristically unassuming manner Maxine McKew dismissed her description as the “sexiest woman in politics”. As an experienced journalist she knows that “two guys made that up in some office”.

McKew is right. Such appointments and rankings, from “pop divas” to “gangster fashionistas” to “celebrity intellectuals” to “media tarts”, are very often made by journalists and very often they are men.

As journalists they are alive to the lenses through which the public appraises the persona. As men they know the conventions for viewing women in public: the persistent and pervasive judgment of their visual and sexual appeal. Celebrity itself ads the veneer of glamour and sex to public women whether they welcome it or not.

When McKew dismisses the significance of these cultural habits, she herself draws on an unstated edict that applies to all women who are publicly visible. If she were to respond, “It’s true that I’m a looker and of course it’s part of my political capital,” it would spell the end of her Bennelong aspirations as surely as if she had driven a stake through the heart of Rupert Murdoch.

It is strictly verboten, an absolute taboo, for a woman to betray any self-awareness of her visual appeal - even women like Kylie Minogue who trade on their physical attractions in the absence of much else.


When Andrew Denton asked the exquisite Natalie Imbruglia if she thought of herself as beautiful, she was stumped. She knew she’d been positioned on a perilous threshold. Own up to her looks and she risked capsizing her popular appeal. For a beautiful woman can never, ever state the bleeding obvious, “well, I’ve got eyes too”.

A woman who trades on her visual appeal can never, ever admit to being calculating about it.

On her acceptance of a golden globe for her work in Monster Charlize Theron put a pretty hand to her lovely brow and declared, “This is insane. I grew up on a farm in South Africa”.

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About the Author

Liz Conor is a research fellow in the Department of Culture and Communications at the University of Melbourne. Read her blog Liz Conor: Comment and Critique here.

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