What happens when your work is the victim of attempted sabotage by a group of slow-moving middle-aged men? Author and journalist Michelle Duff reveals all.
Initially, it was kind of unclear what I was looking at. The disembodied hand loomed from the shaky first-person footage, flipping the cover of the book around.
I’d been sent the video by another Twitter user, who I didn’t know. The message was kind of cryptic, and I was mostly confused. “It looks like… a bunch of dudes are filming themselves turning my book around?” I said to my husband. We watched it again.
“But… why?” I asked.
The question hung in the kitchen air, as if it wasn’t all that interested in being answered. There it might have stayed, bashing itself against the window pane in occasional half-hearted breaks for freedom, if it weren’t for recent events.
A fortnight later, a friend messaged me. “Oh my god, look at these losers,” she wrote. (Her words.) It was another tweet containing another amateur video of a low-speed hand tutū-ing with a display of the book I’d written. In a truly riveting 31 seconds, the bookstore copy of Jacinda Ardern: The Story Behind An Extraordinary Leader, featuring an image of the prime minister, had been replaced by a children’s book. The perpetrator, whose Twitter handle announced him as @GeorgeRopr, appeared to be reporting his feats back to another crony, @coltheman1.
As the day progressed, the tweets began to flood in. There were more videos; not just of my book, but of magazine covers featuring images of Ardern. It soon became apparent that, while it seemed confusing because, like, what the fuck, there was nothing to be confused about. The story behind this story was that a group of National Party supporters, mostly adult men, were spending their spare time visiting bookstores and turning or hiding copies of books and magazines with Ardern’s face on them, filming it, and posting them on Twitter amid much virtual backslapping.
Then, something magical began to happen. Ardern’s supporters, and ordinary people who don’t have a toddler’s mindset, began to get wind of the “book-turning movement”. They started tweeting their annoyance and disbelief. The National supporters tweeted back. The star-bellied sneetches were yelling at the plain sneetches, and the plain sneetches were up in arms at the star-bellied sneetches, and before long the hashtag #TurnArdern was the number one trending topic on Twitter.
I was having the time of my life. Aside from the fact this was excellent publicity for my book – which seven weeks on the bestseller list suggested #TurnArdern had failed to impact – it utterly validated the fact that a book about women in power is important.
In October, at the same time I was thrown back into the sleep deprivation of second-time-round parenthood, Allen & Unwin published my book Jacinda Ardern. It is the first book about the prime minister. It is the narrative of Ardern’s career and phenomenal rise to power set against the backdrop of everyday misogyny that impacts all of us, especially women. I’ve tried to figure out what Ardern and her politics mean for gender equality, at a moment in history where feminism has growing currency. The result is a tale that’s part-inspirational, part-cautionary, with bits that will make you mad and others that will (hopefully) make you laugh. I’m a journalist, and it’s based on established facts and my interviews, research and critique; neither Ardern or anyone in her team had copy approval, or saw it before publication. She declined to take part.
After the initial flurry of media interest, things quietened down. I soon realised it might be difficult to get an objective response; Mighty Ape was an instant cornucopia of one-star reviews from the fastest readers on earth. It felt weirdly personal. “They haven’t even READ it!” I told my husband, hiffing another milk-soaked swaddle in the washing pile. “How is that fair?”
But as #TurnArdern gathered pace, I began to realise I’d been looking at it all wrong. Of course the knee-jerk response to a book about Ardern wasn’t about me. It wasn’t even really about Ardern.
It was about all women.
Yes, the idea that these men view Ardern is a kind of reverse-Voldemort who can strike awe into the heart of an electorate with one glance is objectively hilarious. I’d call the behaviour infantile, but I feel like that’s insulting to my baby. The action itself is futile.
But when you think about it, the fact that a group of men are so threatened by the image of a powerful woman that they can’t even bear to look at her face is not really all that funny.
Throughout history, attempts have been made to silence women. We’ve been drowned as witches, denied the vote, gaslighted in relationships, had our ideas stolen in meetings, had our voices and views disbelieved and minimised. We’ve been done to, not done by.
Seen in this light, #TurnArdern is just another manifestation of this simmering hatred of women that lies just beneath the surface. It’s the kind most of us don’t even notice or have acclimatised to, until it bursts into the public consciousness in ways that are impossible to ignore, such as our domestic violence statistics, NZ Cricket’s embracing of Scott Kuggeleijn, and the Grace Millane trial.
Make no mistake, turning Ardern’s image over to lie face down is a form of punishment. It is a pathetic attempt by the powerless to take back what’s already lost. Don’t believe me? When he was prime minister, John Key appeared on the front page of a women’s mags too. Once, he was holding a puppy. A PUPPY. Did anyone accuse him of “attention-seeking”, or bother turning him over? No, because he was not a threat to the patriarchy. He did not symbolise feminine power. He was just… John Key.
Look, I could go on, but I’ve got a baby to feed, Christmas shopping to do, a bench full of dishes, washing to fold, a lunch date to attend, bills to pay, and no fucks to give. If you want to read more, you should definitely buy my book. Or, turn it over and tweet about it.
Jacinda Ardern: The story behind an extraordinary leader, by Michelle Duff (Allen & Unwin, $39.99) is available from Unity Books.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.