Young women like Grace Tame weren’t socialised to shut up when authority figures speak – and it feels like progress

I can’t imagine you aren’t across it, but in case you missed what the outgoing Australian of the Year Grace Tame did on Tuesday, let me run you through it.

Tame went to the Lodge as part of the annual pre-Australia Day festivities. Naturally, her arrival was captured by waiting cameras. The prime minister extended his hand and congratulated the sexual assault survivor on her recent engagement to partner Max. Tame shook Scott Morrison’s hand without meeting his gaze.

Tame was stony-faced, and seemed to take a very close interest in a spot on the ground away from Morrison. The prime minister piled more wattage into his smile, correcting for the lack of warmth adjacent to him, rendering the tableau even more unbalanced. Jenny Morrison, always gracious, also smiled at Tame, seeking to hold her gaze momentarily, and the young woman smiled back. Having traversed the grip and grin pleasantries in memorable and didactic fashion, a short session of steely side-eye ensued.

In an era when everything is recorded, and everything is polarised, Tame’s decision to eviscerate Morrison with her body language was always going to be #AMoment™.

And so it was. Social media exploded with feelings. Grace Tame is my spirit animal. That Grace Tame is a very rude young woman.

James McGrath (a Liberal senator very few people will have ever heard of outside his home state of Queensland) took to Facebook to characterise Tame’s behaviour as “partisan, political and childish”. Striking a fresh blow in the outrage economy, and bringing more eyeballs to his page, McGrath declared: “If she didn’t like being Australian of the Year she should hand back the honour.”

Hmm, sì. It is tempting at this juncture to observe that men can be so emotional. If you are an admirer of Tame, McGrath’s critique sounds very much like a tantrum. The Liberal senator’s rebuke was the sound of a door slamming as an irate teenager returned to his room.

Ma depending on your point of view is the operative observation in that sentence. If Tame’s Lodge entrance was pointedly didactic, McGrath’s rebuke was performative. McGrath knows precisely who he’s offending with his Facebook #FU to #GT, and who in the community will tut-tut along sympathetically with his sentiments.

That’s the problem with young people today. No manners.

Peter van Onselen, political editor at Network 10, was also sufficiently moved to bash out a quick column for the Australian. Very enterprising of him – carving out an unexpected side hustle as the national broadsheet’s Lodge etiquette editor.

Van Onselen felt Tame was “ungracious, rude and childish … refusing to smile for the cameras, barely acknowledging [Morrison’s] existence when standing next to him”.

Brave, this righteous parsing of Tame’s manners, when you consider van Onselen is a journalist who believes he’s entitled to be rude to the prime minister any time he believes rudeness is warranted. Political commentators like van Onselen, like myself, like many of our peers, routinely deploy rudeness in order to nail a point that needs nailing. Rude is in fact part of the arsenal when you seek to serve truth.

So I’m not sure why one Australian of the Year, nearing time on her tenure and determined not to waste her public platform, has different rules of engagement. That all seems pretty arbitrary. This point of view begs a lot of questions: who decides who can be rude and the circumstances in which rudeness is permissible? Who appointed the rude police? Can we appeal their rulings?

In ogni caso, I’ll keep my closing observations simple lest I irritate blokes who continue to lose their minds when women won’t stop talking.

Tame’s finale, her Australian of the Year coda, was entirely as you’d expect. This recipient has shown absolutely no interest, at any point, in being transactional about her honour. She doesn’t seem to want a shiny badge in return for a head pat. Having been silenced in the most harrowing of circumstances, this woman wants to speak, on her own terms, and if she gets that opportunity, she will not waste it.

I don’t know Grace Tame. I imagine she’s just as complex and flawed and difficult as the rest of us. But this much can be safely observed: the woman I’ve watched over the past year has zero interest in co-option, no people pleasing compulsion to be grateful, no instinct to genuflect before smug, self-satisfied systems or conventions.

She exhibits some of the defining qualities of her generation. I know a lot of young women like Grace Tame – women who have not been socialised to shut up when an authority figure (generally a man) is talking. She is very recognisable to me. She resonates, because she feels like progress.

This ornery quality Tame has, the absence of forelock tugging, the element of kinetic unpredictability, can make other people uncomfortable, not because she is wrong, or her cause unjust, but because Australians love rules.

Rules keep everything comfortable and nice. Rules minimise the element of surprise.

Australians like to think of ourselves as rebels – plain speakers, never standing on ceremony, devoid of stiffness. Culturally we are informal, but actually we love rules, and we aren’t always kind to rule breakers. Convention is our refuge.

So what we learned on Tuesday was Grace Tame has managed to end her tenure as Australian of the Year continuing to teach us about ourselves.

What an achievement that is.

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