Following the New Zealand herald’s gradual decline into a tabloid consisting of weird and grisly death stories and b-list celebrity gossip, I’ve relied mainly on the Guardian for my news needs, and tend to only drop in a couple times a week to the herald.co.nz unless something particularly interesting is going on. Last week, however, NZ managed to make it into the Guardian headlines (a fairly rare event). Unfortunately the headline in question pertained to PM John Key’s half-assed apology for repeatedly pulling a waitress’s hair after being told to stop. Later in the week the Guardian also covered the accusations against the NZ Herald of deceiving and manipulating the woman at the center of the story in order to get the statements published in their coverage of the affair, against her explicit wishes, so embarrassment all round.
And who can blame her for not wanting to be identified with this story? Since the Herald lost no time in publishing her full name and photo, New Zealanders have called her attention-seeking and petty and have disputed her version of the events (which you can read here) and her right to be upset over them. Key has also been subject to global mockery: media the world over have called his behavior childish and weird, many referencing other instances of hair-pulling and various other embarrassing moments during Key’s stint as PM. Key made things yet worse by trying to blow off the hair-pulling as a ‘bit of banter’/an innocent practical joke, to which the response of the media at large has been ‘right… that’s a bit funny, if you’re nine years old.’
But apart from a couple of speculative articles suggesting the fallout might see Key fighting official sexual harassment charges in court, there’s been little serious media commentary on how this may influence Key’s reputation nationally and abroad. A handful of Tumblr users have dutifully drudged up other clips and photos of him touching girls’/women’s hair and seem to have convinced a large part of the internet that he has a not-so-latent hair fetish. Within the New Zealand public a few distinct camps have arisen: there are those who think the whole incident is trivial and blown out of proportion, and has no serious bearing on Key’s leadership position; others who were already somewhat embarrassed of the prime minister and bemoan that he is the single most significant representative of our country, a number of voices criticizing the Key’s sexism and his unwillingness to take responsibility for his actions, and at least as many people approvingly echoing Key’s own characterization of himself as ‘probably the most casual prime minister New Zealand’s ever had’.
Nobody’s denying that. Over the past few days the country has been reminded of all the weirdly facetious and borderline-unprofessional moments in Key’s career, ranging from his awkward but harmless planking photo to his decidedly inappropriate jokes about a Maori tribe ‘having him for dinner’ and a radio host’s ‘gay red shirt’, reminding us all (as if we needed it) that John Key has always been a jokester. You know, like the awkward, over-confident, mildly racist uncle you try to avoid at family barbeques. Moreover, New Zealand has always implicitly celebrated him for this quality: after all, New Zealanders like to think of their country as egalitarian and classless, and nothing better supports that notion than a prime minister who can make fun of himself.
On a superficial level, I rather like the idea of a prime minister who’s just your average kiwi guy. I like that a radio talk-show host can ask John Key his opinion on the new flag submissions and then tell him his choice is ‘bloody horrible’. It feels like that absence of stiff ideals of leaderly prestige can only contribute to a more open and honest dialogue between the PM and his people. But the other side of this is that Key isn’t taken as seriously as other world leaders, in New Zealand or elsewhere. As the woman Key harassed points out on her blog, he ‘seemed to think that his job demanded less professionalism than that of a waitress’, despite being charged with running the country.
However, although Key has become something of an international laughing stock over his hair pulling, it seems the world considers it more as fodder for satire than as a serious indication of Key’s sexism and disrespect for women and girls, much less an issue of harassment or sexual assault. Within New Zealand’s political scene the focus has been on Key’s responsibility as a role model and representation of the country, rather than as a human being interacting with other human beings. Apart from a few women’s organizations who have labeled Key’s behavior as sexist bullying, a majority of politicians and authority figures have responded by making fun of Key, denying the significance of his actions, or blankly echoing his apologies and suggesting we all accept them and move on. The most disappointing of these came from our Minister for Women, Louise Upston, who implicitly legitimized Key’s behavior by calling it ‘light-hearted’ and refusing to comment on how it relates to women’s rights in the workplace.
What seems to have gone largely unrecognized throughout this affair is the extent to which Key’s everyday kiwi bloke persona normalizes and legitimizes problematic behavior. The fact is that the ‘kiwi bloke’ Key represents belongs to a generation that still thinks it’s funny to joke about Maori being cannibals, doesn’t realize the harmfulness of using the word ‘gay’ as an insult, and touches women’s bodies as if they are public property, without thinking (or maybe just without caring) about how degraded and humiliated that makes them feel. And every time a New Zealander – politician or not – says something like ‘well, that’s just him joking around, he’s allowed to have a sense of humor, he’s just an ordinary guy’, we give the world more reason to associate New Zealanders with the set of outdated, sexist, racist and homophobic worldviews that John Key continually embodies.
Unfortunately, it seems unlikely that this will really mar Key’s position in New Zealand: the most recent polls showed no significant change in Key’s perception amongst the New Zealand public. The sexual harassment complaint launched against Key came from a private prosecutor without any connection to the woman concerned, making it unlikely that anything will come of it. If Key’s other embarrassing actions are any indication, it seems unlikely that anyone will be talking about it a month’s time. I hope that the woman at the center of the drama feels that the discussion that has come out of her statements outweighs the personal criticism she has faced as a result of it, but my gut feeling is that she will probably suffer at least as much fall-out from this as John Key does.