“History is never closed off”: Annabel Crabb on the making of Ms Represented

Ms Represented

• “There are things that people will look back on in the course of this TV show that will make us flinch”

Telling the story of Australian politics from the perspective of the women who led the way, Annabel Crabb’s Ms Represented comes to the ABC one hundred years after Australia elected Edith Cowan – its very first female Parliamentarian.

Told through interviews with a diverse cast of female ‘firsts’, Crabb shines a light on the experience of women in Parliament, from early struggles for the most basic of facilities to the persistent problems of harassment that plague the system today.

Mediaweek spoke to Crabb about how Ms Represented came together, what surprised her while making the series, and what the future may look like.

The show was largely filmed during 2020, which meant that it was impacted by Covid-19 restrictions.

“We had this massive logistical nightmare trying to get to as many women as we could to interview for the program,” says Crabb. “We couldn’t get to every woman who belongs in the story, but we did our best with the restrictions that we had – getting around Australia was particularly difficult.”

However just as the team had wrapped up interviews, a reminder of what life can be like for women in Parliament hit the headlines.

“We’d finished most of the interviews by the end of last year, and then of course in February Brittany Higgins came out and told her story.

“We had some women coming back to us and saying ‘ok, now I want to talk about something else’. The most notable example was Kate Sullivan who we interviewed in November last year. She’s the second longest serving female legislator in the Australian Parliament – she got into Parliament in 1974 when there weren’t even women’s toilets in the senate. When she saw Brittany Higgins speak out, she contacted us and said ‘look, there’s one more story that I want to tell that I didn’t tell you before because I haven’t really ever told the story’.

“The fact that a much younger woman many, many years later would inspire Kate to come out and tell a story that was very personal to her was, I think, a really good demonstration of the fact that history is never closed off.”

Crossing the Divide

“I knew that I was dealing with women from different generations and from across the political divide,” says Crabb. “Women in politics are politicians first, they disagree about lots of things and they are often very A-type personalities.”

There was one thing in particular about the making of Ms Represented that shocked Crabb: how identical the interviewee responses were when asked to describe what it’s like when you’re the only woman in a room full of men. 

“Without any prompting from me, they told the story of what happens when you come up with an idea and you vocalise it and nobody responds. You think ‘oh, that was probably a stupid idea’, and then later on a man says the same thing and all of a sudden everyone’s totally thrilled with what a great idea it is. I was shocked by the extent to which not only did most of our cast tell that story, but they told it in identical terms

“We actually were able to cut together a montage sequence where they just together told this story of what happens. That was shocking to me. I’d certainly heard that said before, but I hadn’t really been prepared for what a widespread experience that was.”

Australia’s First Female Prime Minister

One of the women that Crabb sat down with for a particularly long interview was Julia Gillard, who served as Australia’s first female Prime Minister from 2010 to 2013. 

“She’s thought a lot and written a lot and researched a lot and spoken to a lot of other female world leaders since that crazy couple of years when she was the first female Prime Minister of Australia. I think Julia Gillard has a lot of really interesting perspectives about what happened to her and how much of it was to do with gender and how much of it was to do with politics. 

“She says – and I think she’s right  – Australia is different now to the way it was when she was Prime Minister. I think there are things that people will look back on in the course of this TV show that will make us flinch, or wonder how it was that all came to happen. She says that she has people come out to apologise to her quite a bit these days.”

Ms Represented

Julia Gillard in Ms Represented

Finding The Audience

Crabb says that just because Ms Represented focuses on the experiences of women in Parliament doesn’t mean that the show is only for them.

“This show might be interesting for men to watch, and particularly men in politics, because it’s not a man-bashing exercise. It tells the story of some things about being a politician that women experience, but men don’t.

“Men have a series of in-built advantages in politics that include the unquestioning right to be ambitious and outspoken without people thinking that you’re a bitch or aggressive. You can just pop on a suit in the morning and never again think about what you look like or whether people will start having a go at you for what you look like.”

Looking Ahead

With every woman who comes through Australian Parliament opening doors for women behind her, Crabb says she’s hopeful for the future.

“You can’t really stick a pin in the calendar and say ‘on this day things will be perfect!’. It’s a numbers game, the more women that are in there, the more normal it is for women to be in there. If you look at a room full of people and half of them are women, it tells you that this is a place where women should be

“I worried about putting together a series of women telling horror stories about the Parliament and putting off younger women from getting involved, but I don’t think that is the sense when you watch the series. Certainly we have women who are being very frank about the experiences that they’ve had there, but in the end I don’t think a single one of the women that we interviewed said that it wasn’t worth it.”

Ms Represented: Tuesdays at 8.00pm on ABC TV with all episodes available on iview

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