St Ashley of COVIDton
Superhero, saint, sex symbol, saviour—the mild-mannered public servant fronting the COVID-19 response has been the focus of an almost cult-like following, according to new research published by two sociolinguistics scholars.
During lockdowns, much of New Zealand has been glued to the 1 pm news bulletins featuring Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. For Dr Shelley Dawson from Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington and Dr Julia de Bres from Massey University, these briefings took on an extra dimension when they became aware of the growing popularity of Dr Bloomfield on social media during Aotearoa’s first lockdown in 2020.
Their analysis of the social discourse was recently published in research journal Gender and Language.
“During last year’s lockdown, we noticed that the nation was collectively crushing on Dr Ashley Bloomfield, and we saw how his image was being commodified,” says Dr Dawson. “We started to see different products featuring him—tea towels, bags, hot sauce, even a suite of love songs.”
The commercial products included earrings, key rings, t-shirts, tote bags, coasters, mugs, hand towels, face masks, posters and figurines, while artistic products comprised digital, pencil and pen portraits, and window displays.
The researchers could see there were different ways of shaping the image of Dr Bloomfield, and they wanted to look closely at the discourses—how he was being represented visually and verbally. “We couldn’t help but feel there was more going on discursively, especially regarding the ways gender ideologies seemed to play a role in this commodification,” says Dr Dawson.
“So we set out to examine the ‘discourses of Ashley’ that appeared in these products to account for this unprecedented national appeal.”
Visual elements were a key part of this project. “This was part of the intrigue, seeing how these discourses connected across the product range, and how the visual very much tied into the verbal,” says Dr Dawson.
“We identified six key discourses—superhero, love interest and sex symbol, national treasure, saviour, saint, and authority figure. And we noticed that these all connected to wider discourses of gender and sexuality, alongside nation, ethnicity and class—what we would call ‘dominant discourses’—shared ideas that are presented as ‘common sense’ and ‘just the way things are’, but in reality are very sneaky and can exclude groups of people.”
Dr Dawson explained that humour played a huge part in a lot of the products. “This was very much a New Zealand spin on the idea of saviour, saint, and hero. We were really interested in how those ideas connected to the wider ideology of heroic individualistic masculinity, even though it was done with humour and was often very tongue-in-cheek.”
“During times of crisis in many societies, people look to one person as a saviour and for protection. Very often throughout history that one person is a man.”
Dr Dawson points to an image of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern as Wonder Woman alongside Dr Bloomfield as Superman. “Women can be superheroes too, but the whole discourse of the superhero speaks to things that have been very gendered over time. At a deeper ideological level, we are still working within a structure that values strength and brute force and the idea of an ‘exceptional individual’ rather than vulnerability and the collective.
“We don’t often think about why we love the idea of a hero and how this reinforces certain forms of masculinity, but when you take time to peel back layers and look at what’s been gendered and what’s given value in society, it is fascinating to see these things coming through in ostensibly fun products.”
Dr Dawson notes that this comes back to the ‘sneakiness’ of dominant discourses mentioned above, and points to the value in engaging with complexity.
“We also noted what we would call ‘discursive tension’. For instance, the love songs are sung by people of various genders and sexualities so we might say there’s evidence of more progressive ideologies there, but at the same time there is an emphasis on heteronormative ideals and on constructing the ‘right’ kind of thirst for Ashley.’’
The problem with this, the researchers say, is that in celebrating and commodifying an individual to such an extent, who is being erased?
“The reality is that a pandemic cannot be fought by one person. Ashley is part of a large and diverse team, all of whom are backgrounded by the foregrounding of one man. Our analysis suggests that when New Zealanders fear for their lives, they don’t just turn to a specific type of person—a middle-aged, middleclass, Pākehā man, they also turn to a familiar set of dominant discourses—of gender, sexuality, nation, class and ethnicity.”
At the same time, the products served to connect New Zealanders. “There’s also all sorts of positive stuff there,” says Dr Dawson.
“As critical sociolinguists, going deeper into those ideologies, we can critique the deeper level discourses as we find them, but still appreciate Dr Bloomfield’s important real-life role; it’s not one thing or the other. I see his efforts, as he does himself, as part of this big team that he works with.”