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Infant Armour: Jacinda Ardern, Baby Madness and Myth

The Jacinda Ardern phenomenon, clumsily dubbed Jacindamania, shows no signs of abating. Journalists have long given up bothering about policy analysis regarding New Zealand’s prime minister, instead focusing on pregnancy and the newly arrived infant.

The duration of the prime minister’s tenure has been marked by those signs that suggest celebrity rather than political grit, which must, on a certain level, be mistaken. She is hailed as “the world’s youngest female prime minister” in the words of Vogue. Given that magazine’s fashion credentials, we are treated to an image of Ardern as one with the common touch, “a young professional who has just renovated her first home”.

This somewhat inane curiosity has crept over into matters of biology and birth, where the female leader is praised for working whilst carrying a child. While this is hardly unusual in a developed state, this was a point that deserved constant mention in political circus ring. Here was Ardern refusing to cave into patriarchal vengefulness and judgment. “I’m just pregnant,” she announced in January, “not incapacitated.”

Even more to the point was the heavy green envy across the pond: would an Australian female prime minister, given the previous treatment meted out to Julia Gillard, have been given similar leeway if carrying issue? In Gillard’s own words, mentioned in conversation at the Sydney Writers’ Festival in May, “I actually think the political permission, the space that female politicians get is less.”

Ardern has shown that space to be conspicuously vast, a domain she has been mastering with canny enthusiasm. One notable feature of that mastery is communication: manufacturing and controlling images, turning the task of pregnancy into an infant-mother political power show. “Welcome to our village wee one,” came a caption on a photo Ardern, very much the Instagram leader, shared of their infant daughter on Thursday.

Former New Zealand prime minister Helen Clarke conducted the relevant sociological exercise, albeit in mangled Twitter form, seeing the arrival of the child in much the way one survey’s the breeding habits of untouched, nude tribes in tropical wilderness. Only this time, the picture found was hypermodern rather than kitschy primitive. “New life, new hope. Parenting arrangements are #genderequality in action. This is 21st C NZ.”

The media duly poured over the scanty details, and despite there being a “righteous” note about “media vultures at the hospital” circulating on Twitter, it was confirmed that the prime minister’s office had arranged their presence. The offspring’s weight was considered (3.31 kg), and the time of arrival (4.45pm), both released as a loop.

No research was required for such reporting – those were supplied, as if by press dispatch, by the parents. Australia’s own prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, who fancies himself as a social media junkie, sprung on the congratulatory bandwagon. “Congratulations mum!” he posted on the Instagram post. “Lots of love to you and Clarke and your wee daughter.”

New Zealand, and farther afield, had fallen into a twitter frenzy charged by cortex softening nature of #babywatch. Even The Guardian would note that the pregnancy, rather than anything more concrete, had seen her gain “increasing recognition on the world stage.” Blogs packed with dreary details of Victorian proportion inflated by faux attempts at humour sprung up like dandruff desperate to escape a scalp. The quality of hospital food and the standard of coffee was discussed by such figures as Mike Hosking of Newstalk ZB, who still had the temerity to scold his media colleagues for having “lost the terminology of what content is”. “The prime minister having a baby is of note, there’s no question… but its not actually news.”

Some of the vacuously drooling antics over the prime minister cannot be saddled with Ardern herself; the Fourth Estate’s fall into slovenly irrelevance, pockmarked by jabbering speculation rather than investigative heft, has been relentless. But giving interviews to such yellow press outlets as Australia’s 60 Minutes is an open invitation to vulgar speculation and mire treading. It is an effort to make the banal saucy, the ordinary miraculous. Charles Wooley deemed it necessary in the course of that encounter with Ardern and partner Clarke Gayford to wonder when the child was conceived. Was it, for instance, done in the furious heat of the election campaign?

Such is the nature of an imposed phenomenon that eventually turns the political subject into a Rorschach ink blot. Visions can be projected upon the surface; fantasies can be drawn out as to how Ardern is viewed. The substantive details can be put to one side. Ardern, rather than being assessed as a politician, becomes a mother answering the dictates of biology, and a damn fine thing too, according to the NZ Greens (“an exciting time for Jacinda and Clarke and an historic moment for our country” came a hyperbole driven James Shaw).

Such is the nature of myth building. It is not that policy ceases to be done; it merely ceases to be dry in its relevance, or critiqued with appropriate tenacity. As new mother, and still fresh prime minister, the Kennedy-Camelot aura enveloping and propelling Ardern risks becoming all image.

Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com


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