THE REAL CHERYL.
When JFK was working at bedding a significant number of American women he was unconcerned with the political ramifications; while he was alive the press couldn't touch him and once he was dead -- well who cares? How Bill Clinton must envy the old public/private divide as it existed for Kennedy. Closer to home Cheryl Kernot must be suffering a similar envy at present.
The balance of power that once existed between the media and public figures has shifted so that not even the US President is untouchable these days. The task of managing a public image has become complex enough to require a whole slew of specialists to cope with the high-speed process of making and maintaining an image, and more than ever this is centred around the public desire to know the `person' behind the public figure. This new intimate public space, brought about through the hunger of TV, is a space in which `character' comes to the fore. In the US presidential primaries this has thrown up a number of politicians without substance but with a marketable schtick that passes as `character'. In Australia, particularly in the Australian Labor Party, it has seen a move toward drafting high-profile candidates drawn from the media/celebrity strata.
So far Cheryl Kernot has been the highest profile draftee to the ALP. What Kernot had on her side when she defected to the ALP was her profile. Cheryl Kernot was the story and her popularity was based to a large extent on the way she presented as a `real person', both incorruptible and one of us. In the Australian context, where very few politicians are also celebrities, Kernot was popular enough to lift the stocks of the ALP with her mere presence. At the time of her defection Kim Beasley described walking through a Queensland market with Kernot as akin to feeling like Charles in the shadow of Princess Diana. As the red dress on the cover of Women's Weekly proved, Kernot's strength wasn't celebrity glamour, but a more prosaic sense of just being easy to relate to. In many ways that sense of being like us is what built the public and media expectation that we are entitled to explore beyond the facade for the image of an everyday life that looks something like our own. Yet the same expectation has heightened the disappointment at her failure to fulfill expectations.
The `real person' image has been stripped back and replaced with that of a prima donna cracking under the strain. Perhaps she had over estimated the value of her own celebrity and assumed that she could command more public empathy than she really could. Undoubtedly she has been handling her image badly since joining the ALP, but what is interesting is that what needs to be managed is the private Kernot. Instead of the comforting image of mother/school teacher, she has begun to represent not comfort, but horror. The image of the red-wigged Kernot scurrying away from the camera in a Gold Coast cinema slotted nicely into the story that the Australian media was already pursuing; Cheryl Kernot is cracking up. Kernot herself is still the story, a character in the unfolding soap opera of national life.
The process of building a public profile isn't one of simply exposing essential and pre-existing character; it is an ongoing and unstable process in which both the spin-doctors and the media are actively engaged in constructing the persona. When Kernot was still leader of the Democrats, the Australian media loved her and hardly pursued the prima donna stories that abounded in the party. This didn't fit with the Saint Cheryl narrative favoured at the time, but it sure fits the `last chance Cheryl' that the media love now. Had she taken ill at the height of her popularity, the story would have more likely taken a `bravery in adversity' theme.
In a period when politics has developed a distance from everyday life, it has come to be populated by professionals working more on product differentiation than on policy, and television is the closest most people come to participating in the process. To many it's another TV show and that fits neatly into the Who Weekly celebrity culture; a kind of supermarket queue version of stalking where we seek meanings in the lives of those whose images we know. Yet it is a pretty fleeting kind of association and one that can turn around very quickly. As with all stalkers, when love isn't returned things can get pretty hostile.
Kernot's behaviour is as much like that of a woman being stalked as it is like a woman cracking under the strain. Last year she moved house and kept the location secret; she has refused to speak to most of the media; and then there's the wig. Splashed across the front pages of Australian newspapers the implication was that she was somehow paranoid and unstable, drawing the columnists' criticism for behaving like a movie star. (But then it's hardly paranoid if a photographer really is waiting to snap your image.) The celebrity politician walks a much finer line than anyone else who might grace the cover of Woman's Weekly, and the red wig was a step over the line. As a clear attempt to conceal identity, it threw into question the person we `know', it suggested that her identity as the real person politician may have been in part a performance all along.
When what you have to sell the electorate is yourself, then the fraught politics of image management become essential and, in the end, the excessive focus on Kernot the person has been politically costly. She may have drawn some lessons from the film she was going to see that night at the Gold Coast cinema. In Arena Magazine No. 45 Matthew Ryan described Being John Malkovich as a film about the desire to expand the self and the anxiety it provokes. While in pop culture we are looking for, and excited by, the constant transformation of identity, in politics of late we have sought the kind of quiet stability represented by the almost fossilised image John Howard deploys even while he enacts a disruptive neo-liberal agenda. When so many people feel as if they themselves are fractured, overworked and not coping, they'd prefer not to see our fate in the hands of someone who provokes our anxieties about an unstable sense of self. But even more than that we need a politics that is grounded in something more than a simulation of `real person' authenticity, where the connection of people to politics is not always mediated by the screen and the image.
Bill Bainbridge is a Canberra writer.
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|Date:||Apr 1, 2000|
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