Auckland Mayor Len Brown’s two year affair with Bevan Chuang has evoked inevitable furore, including media speculations about the future of his political career. But amidst the fallout, I’m beginning to notice some uncomfortable, misogynist threads in how we are thinking and talking about his lover, Bevan Chuang. There has been tabloid-like coverage that has seizeed on her burlesque-style photos and that seems to pathologise her desire for public attention. There’s a satirical open letter by blogger Inside Flat3, calling Bevan Chuang out about her publicity seeking, and criticising her actons for perpetuating sexist and racist stereotypes about Asian women:
Thank you also for representing women of Asian-ness on the Ethic People’s Advisory Panel. We now know that we can count on you for bringing our issues to the fore, particularly the sordid hypersexualisation of our kind.
Hang on. Let’s just stop and unpack some of the misogyny.
Firstly, it’s worth remembering that within neoliberal capitalist conditions and amidst the neverending onslaught of media images, sex sells. Media representations of women are highly sexualised. There is a paradoxical cultural requirement for young women to be sexy, and at the same time act as moral gatekeepers to stop sex deemed inappropriate from happening. The whole Miley Cyrus Sinead vs. Amanda issue seems to me to revolve around how much we see young women’s public sexuality as a site of potential agency and empowerment, or as a site of exploitation and degradation. But I digress. My point is that it’s worth remembering that Len Brown and Bevan Chuang aren’t likely to be equally tarnished by this, and that this is because women are more likely to be held responsible in the public imagination.
Media criticism of Chuang as “publicity-seeking” rests fairly heavily on our delineation of what we deem as significant within the public sphere, and what issues we deem frivolous or lightweight. Seeking public attention as a political candidate is clearly politically-savvy. The difference with Chuang is that she has sought attention for matters deemed “private”; sex and relationship status, and so on. What we find problematic about Chuang’s “publicity-seeking” is that it troubles the distinction between public and private spheres, and is linked to what we consider feminine and therefore not newsworthy.
I’m really uncomfortable with the suggestion that Chuang should somehow be held responsible for how the media is evoking racialised and sexualised representations of Asian women. Certainly, Inside Flat 3 are right on to refer to the dominant, exotified representations of Asian women as seductive, erotic Others. The problem with their analysis is that they blame and shame Chuang for this representation, instead of noticing that Chuang’s representation has been excessively racialised, while Len Brown’s representation has not been racialised at all. I have not seen any media including mention that he is Pakeha, or asking the Pakeha community whether they feel let down by him. That’s called white privilege.
Let’s come back to the issue of agency, because culpability -and whether this is linked to character – is really being evoked in the media coverage. Lots of people on the left are saying that this matter should be left out of news and politics. The idea is that Brown’s affair is a private matter that has nothing to do with his capacity to lead, or his integrity. It’s an understandable position. But on the flipside of this defense of Brown, is the sly suggestion that Chuang has acted inappropriately – that she has spoken to the media to gain publicity. Perhaps what stirs this idea is a sense that she has wielded her intimate relationship with Brown for her own gain.
So let’s talk frankly about power. Media have rather viciously reported that Chuang was attracted to Brown’s power and influence. I am reminded that we live in a culture where men are still routinely given access to power and privilege, and where being a woman (or linked to the feminine) is still routinely linked to a lack of power. And within this context, sexuality is often seen as a site of women’s “power over” men. The heterosexist narrative of attraction typically casts women as alluring and men as active agents with an inability to resist. And yet, feminist commentators have pointed out that if sexuality yields a form of gendered agency for women, it is remarkably limited. So yes, maybe Chuang is a young woman who used her sexuality to gain very marginal public prominence. Maybe that makes sense in a world where migrant women have limited avenues for accessing the public spotlight. What is more obvious to me is that being powerful increased Brown’s sex appeal. And that because of this, Brown used his access to power and influence to gain access to sex.
As feminists, I think we need to be able to think critically about how men use power to gain sex as part of how men “do” masculinity. Chuang was right to point out the obvious parallel to Lewinsky. We need to see the sex scandals of powerful men as part of a broader narrative about heterosexuality and power, and the way powerful masculinities are incredibly salient.