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The Scandal Roiling New Zealand: The Prime Minister Is Pulling Ponytails

For Freud, some men’s desire to cut off women’s hair represented symbolic castration. Who knows what it represents for New Zealand Prime Minister John Key (a proud vasectomy recipient), who has been enmeshed in scandal since last week, when a waitress wrote an anonymous blog post claiming that he had harassed her by pulling her hair repeatedly while she was at work.

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For Freud, some men’s desire to cut off women’s hair represented symbolic castration. Who knows what it represents for New Zealand Prime Minister John Key (a proud vasectomy recipient), who has been enmeshed in scandal since last week, when a waitress wrote an anonymous blog post claiming that he had harassed her by pulling her hair repeatedly while she was at work.

Forced to reckon with their prime minister’s unfortunate propensity for tugging on women’s ponytails, Kiwis took to Tumblr over the weekend, posting extensive photographic documentation of Key’s long history of messing with and cutting other people’s hair, with captions such as “so soft,” “nobody is safe,” “I love the smell of hairspray in the morning,” and “another day in trichophilia.”

In last Tuesday’s blog post, the cafe waitress recounted repeated incidences of unwanted touching by Key, a frequent customer. “I would think to myself, even a five-year-old could tell you that if you pull on a girl’s hair she will not like it,” she wrote. “I shouldn’t have to tell THE PRIME MINISTER that I don’t like it when he pulls my hair — talk about stating the obvious!”

After a confrontation — “Please STOP or I will actually hit you soon!” she claims to have told the prime minister — Keys bought her two bottles of wine as an apology. “John seemed to think that his job demanded less professionalism than that of a waitress, yet he’s the one that’s running our entire country,” she wrote. “Unfortunately, when our poor country is left cringing, tormented, cowering in the corner, it can’t be fixed with a bottle of wine, and neither was this.”

On Wednesday, Key apologized, saying that he had not meant to cross any lines. “We have lots of fun and games there, there’s always lots of practical jokes and things,” he said. On Thursday, the New Zealand Herald revealed the waitress’s identity — Amanda Bailey, 26 — a decision the paper has defended, despite Bailey’s protestations that her name was released against her will.

The Herald ran a follow-up story on Thursday with an instant-classic of a headline: “Ponytail pulling: ‘A thing’ John Key does.” The article revealed a pattern of hair tugging, including a video of the PM pulling two schoolgirls’ ponytails during a visit to the national museum.

“He’s more cat than prime minister at this point,” comedian John Oliver said over the weekend, discussing  the man’s apparent inability to resist pawing at dangling hair.

The scandal has come to be known as #tailgate. New Zealand Green Party co-head Metiria Turei said that the hair pulling was “weird.” “New Zealanders know you can’t walk into a cafe and start tugging on someone’s hair,” she said.

Law experts in New Zealand said that Key’s behavior qualified as sexual harassment, would undermine his credibility, and could land him in court. “Up and down this country, day after day, people are touched without giving their consent,” National Council of Women of New Zealand chief executive Sue McCabe wrote in an open letter to Key. “At one end of the scale, it is an unwelcome pull on a pony-tail. At the other end, it’s our shocking levels of violence against women. We need to change our culture so we don’t see touching someone as being our right, unless we know that it’s welcome. We need you to lead from the top.”

Then again, Key’s public persona has long been associated with tone-deaf comments and actions. In 2010, he suggested that a Maori tribe might “have him for dinner,” and he has used the word “gay” as an insult. At the 2011 Rugby World Cup, he minced about on a catwalk and said he was getting in touch with his “metrosexual side.” After news of the hair-pulling first incident broke, he said he was “just horsing around.”

A certain disregard for political correctness can go a long way for a conservative politician like Key, and as a prime minister seven months into his third term, he seems to have let his guard down lower than ever. “It’s a sign of how out of touch John Key has become when he can’t even monitor how inappropriate his personal behavior is, and when people are not comfortable with how he is behaving,” Turei said. Key, it should not be forgotten, once jokingly revealed during a press conference that he had undergone a vasectomy.

Whether tailgate has a lasting impact on Key’s career remains to be seen. Over a 13-year career in New Zealand politics following a successful run as an investment banker, the prime minister has earned the nickname “Teflon John” because his popularity rarely seems to suffer, regardless of what he says or does.

“In the beginning, the first time he pulled on my hair, I remember thinking to myself he’s probably just trying to be playful and jolly, seeing as the general consensus of most who meet him is ‘he’s such a nice guy,’” Bailey wrote in her no-longer anonymous post. It was the subsequent times that got to her. Even Teflon John may only have so many chances.

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Benjamin Soloway is an associate editor at Foreign Policy. @bsoloway

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