Dr Odette Kelada is a lecturer in the School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne. She completed her PhD on Australian Women Writers and researches and publishes on race and gender in Australian writing and the arts.
Volume 26, May 2012
The year 2011 saw the igniting of mass protest around the issue of sexual double standards for women with numerous marches worldwide called ‘SlutWalks’. Thousands of women across a range of countries including America, Europe, Britain and Australia took to the streets to defend the right of women to dress and behave freely without stigmatisation and violence. The ‘SlutWalks’ started in reaction to a local policeman in Toronto telling a class of college students to avoid dressing like ‘sluts’ if they did not wish to be victimised (SlutWalk Toronto site). The public protest in response to this incident demonstrates resistance to historically embedded discourses that demean women’s sexuality and blame women for abuse and rape they suffer. Terms such as ‘slut’ perpetuate a virgin/whore dichotomy fundamental to the oppression of female sexual self-expression. These marches are a recent example that follows on from a tradition of mass protests for women’s sexual equality and right to safety such as ‘Reclaim the Night’. Drawing on writing and conversations with poets Dorothy Porter and Gig Ryan, novelists Drusilla Modjeska, Kate Grenville, Carmel Bird and Melissa Lucashenko and playwright, Leah Purcell, this article offers insights into individual creative women’s responses to this theme of women’s sexuality. I argue that the work and ideas of these women are examples of the unique and powerful dialogue that can happen through a focus on creativity and female stories in Australia.
The phrase ‘Animal Handlers’ in the title draws on Drusilla Modjeska’s description of female figurines she sees in a museum, forged from a matriarchal Minoan culture. These forms present alternative possibilities for representations of the female body beyond western notions of homogenised female beauty as passivity. These figurines appear in a range of shapes embodying diversity, strength and tenacity – capable of handling animals if required– neither fixed in stone nor vacant in gaze. I will detail more on Modjeska’s encounter later, however this image she describes aptly connotes the literary distinctions I argue are current in women’s writing. I present some comparisons with explicitly sexualised writing celebrated as libratory ‘porno–lit’. While the examples of ‘porno-lit’ I cite are outside of Australia, this by no means indicates that this form of writing is not occurring locally and I am not arguing that Australia is a bastion of empowered feminist representation. Indeed it is possible to notice a number of Australian female-authored texts that may well fit the genre of sexual exposé. However the Australian women writers I selected were chosen specifically because they offer a productive alternative to what I am arguing are potentially generic and objectifying representations of women’s sexuality.
There is a risk of juxtapositions as articulated in this argument that further perpetuate ideas of judgement around what are ‘good’ or ‘bad’ representations of women’s sexuality and this itself can be reductive and oppressive. However my interest here is to query the territory where a woman writing explicitly about sex is not necessarily subversive if the writing reinforces stereotypes. Also, I want to explore what kinds of writing may offer variant representations and possibilities—much like the figurines that show women as ‘animal handlers’ in place of the usual Hellenic models.
The work of the writers I interviewed in this article include some of the most compelling and original voices throughout the last fifty years in Australian literature, though there are of course many more who write around themes of sexuality such as Linda Jaivin and Kathleen Mary Fallon who also offer rich contributions to this topic. This article is not intending to present the latest in Australian writing but more a reflection on writers who have worked over many years and texts as early as the 1980s. It suggests that in such revisiting, appreciation for the diverse range of female expressions may inform the kind of resistance gaining popular force, as manifested in protests such as ‘Slutwalks’.
An overview of the political and social history of feminism in shaping women’s sexuality is useful in order to understand the contexts in which contemporary women have written on these subjects. Numerous texts proved influential in shaping feminism through the 1960s, 70 and 80s, marking tensions between the sexual revolution and feminist movement. Landmark books, such as Betty Friedan’s The female mystique (1963); Simone de Beauvoir’s The second sex (1949 trans 1953); Adrienne Rich’s Of woman born (1976); Germaine Greer’s The female eunuch (1970) and Kate Millet’s Sexual politics (1970), focused on identifying the ways in which women’s roles, conditioning and identities maintained their status as inferior subjects susceptible to gender bias and sexual inequality.
In terms of women’s sexuality and idealised ‘femininity’, one of the aims of the feminist movement was to liberate women’s sexuality and forge ideas of female desire that originated from women themselves and were not a product of masculine constructions and projections. In 1976, Shere Hite published The Hite report: A nationwide study of female sexuality which challenged many of the myths on women’s sexuality as 70 per cent of the 3, 019 women surveyed said they could not reach orgasm through intercourse. As Ariel Levy explores in Female chauvinist pigs: Women and the rise of raunch culture (2005), the feminist objective of liberation and sexual exploration proved complementary to the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 70s, which claimed to share the intention of liberating sex and desire from traditionally repressive social structures and ideologies. In the U.S, this partnership between the women’s movement and the sexual revolution was exemplified in the fact that Hugh Hefner, creator of ‘Playboy’ and prominent proponent of the sexual revolution, helped fund the groundbreaking case for feminists of Roe v. Wade in 1973. It was this case that determined that laws against abortion violate the constitutional right to privacy and overturned all state laws that banned or restricted abortion. Hefner also helped fund the fight for legalising the birth control pill (Levy, 55).
One of the central issues for the feminist movement in America proved to be the clash that occurred in the late 1970s when a section of the feminist movement, including Shere Hite, Gloria Steinem and Adrienne Rich, challenged pornography and the exploitation of women’s sexuality in the media and entertainment industries. Susan Brownmiller, one the founders of a new group called ‘Women against pornography’, published Against our will: Men, women and rape (1975) causing controversy as Brownmiller radically stated that the threat of rape was the method men used to keep women in a constant state of fear. Within the women’s movement, two main factions developed. One faction supported the rise against pornography, claiming it depicted submissive, humiliating and violent representations of women and the other faction was comprised of ‘sex positive’ feminists who felt such an anti-porn move was once again promoting moralistic judgements and repressing female sexuality.
In the 1990s to the present time, a number of publications, such as Susan Faludi’s Backlash (1991); Sheila Jeffrey’s Anticlimax (1990); Lisa Duggan and Nan Hunter’s Sex Wars (1995); Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth (1990) and Fire with Fire (1993), document the emergence of a ‘backlash’. As many of these feminist authors note, this backlash also affected the civil rights movement, as politically and socially right-wing conservatism increasingly dominated public discourse. One example that Faludi gives of the media backlash is an article in Newsweek, which claimed that single, college educated women over thirty had only a 20 per cent chance of being married. Once over forty, this percentage shrank to 1.3. The article stated that a forty year-old woman had a better chance of being shot by terrorists than marrying. Faludi examined the study on which these statistics were based and found them all to be false. Faludi’s conclusion was that media hype of this nature manipulates women into fearing feminism and the goals of education and independence for women. While this summary has referred to events in the U.S given their historical influence, Australia has its own dynamics and Jocelynne Scutt’s The sexual gerrymander (1994) and Anne Summer’s The end of equality: work, babies and women’s choices in 21st century Australia (2003) describe the backlash within the Australian context. Summers states:
in 2002 we had a prime minister who said we were in the ‘post-feminist stage of the debate’ … Thirty years ago women had to reinvent the world and their place in it … We thought – or we hoped – we were on track to achieve justice for women but we have been derailed (17).
More recently, Monica Dux and Zora Simic detail the contradictory reactions to feminism in The great feminist denial (2008). They argue that feminism is charged with being a bad, bad girl, accused of inciting a myriad of problems that women now face. Their chapter on ‘Pole Dancing for Beginners’ captures the convoluted positions that are articulated around ‘raunch culture’, ‘female empowerment’ and exhibitionism for the male gaze versus a fun sexy exercise routine. In mapping out the current debates they note that:
At worst, feminism leaves itself open to charges of hypocrisy and neglect. At very least, feminism is caught in a paradoxical situation, complicating and confusing traditional political allegiances. (124)
Women writers, by the nature of their position, speak into such spaces creatively and the following discussion explores how the individual women I interviewed have responded to depictions of female sexuality and some of these issues. Ariel Levy states:
Many of the conflicts between the women’s liberation movement and the sexual revolution and within the women’s movement itself were left unresolved thirty years ago (74).
The representations of women in literature and popular culture since reflect the legacies of these ongoing tensions and debates.
In the creative semi-biography inspired by her mother, Poppy, Drusilla Modjeska follows her mother’s footsteps exploring Minoan civilisation. She maps out her mother’s journey as part of the writing process. At the archaeological museum Modjeska sees the remains of the Minoan culture. She is cynical of claims that Minoa was a matriarchal culture, believing this may be the wishful thinking of feminists searching for matriarchal roots. However, when she beholds the figurines of women that her mother had previously described in her letters, she sobs as her mother did before her, out of ‘shock and also recognition’ (163). The figurines are different from the ‘idealised classical feminine’ forms of Hellenic Greece. They are agile, squat, working women: jugglers, priests, mothers, animal handlers. Modjeska echoed the question her mother had written in her own journal, ‘Where do such women come from?’ (163)
The shock comes apparently from seeing images of the feminine not commonly presented to women in contemporary culture: the feminine as a body imbued with a sense of its own agency and power not as an exoticised, sexualised and objectified ideal. The recognition comes from knowing that these alternative representations of the feminine are closer to the truth than the ones promoted by western patriarchal culture. As Modjeska describes in her text, the ancient figurines sing of ‘the desires of the body expressed through a voice that seduced me long before I was born’ (188).
It is interesting to note the contrast to such an expression of ‘shock and recognition’ at sighting Minoan female figurines with the spate of international texts termed a ‘new wave’ of sexually liberated literature that became popular in early to mid 2000’s.This ‘new wave’ movement was exemplified in the publication of semi-autobiographical novels, such as Melissa P’s One Hundred Strokes of the Brush Before Bed (2003), Catherine Millet’s The Sexual Life of Catherine M (2001) and Valerie Tasso’s The Diary of a Nymphomaniac (2003), and became a phenomena supposedly resulting from the evolution of feminism or ‘pro sex feminism’. These books in the media hype of the time, apparently demonstrated the positive effect of feminism on women’s sexual confidence and active expression of their desires. They included depictions of sado-masochistic fantasies, with images of a fifteen-year-old girl blindfolded while groups of men have intercourse with her and a woman at a club opening her legs up on a table only to close them thirty couplings with different men later. They may be erotica but such representations do not evoke the seductive voice of ancient matriarchal figures singing of a time before sex was a consumer product with women as the main commodity. These textual representations of the feminine are more in keeping with Booker judge and Erotic Review editor Rowan Pelling’s disturbing claim that women fantasise about prostitution in the way that men fantasise about going to war (Rees, 3).
This term ‘pro-sex feminism’ which author Catherine Millet uses to argue the progressive nature of works including her own memoir, implies that any woman questioning the stance of those for whom liberation equates to women’s sexual availability must be anti-sex. Millet’s position may be seen as an evolution of the ‘sex-positivist’ faction of feminism that formed in opposition to the feminist anti-porn movement in the 1960s. However the agenda of the sexual revolution linked freedom with consenting to sex more readily. The feminist movement generally attempted to question this agenda, redefining women’s liberation to mean freedom for women, not mass feminine submission to a masculine bohemian ideal. The term ‘pro-sex’ feminism by definition is arguable as many feminists involved in the anti-porn movement were never against sex as the placement of ‘pro’ would imply, though there were certainly radical feminists, such as Susan Brownmiller and Andrea Dworkin, who did create contention in equating heterosexual intercourse with rape. This term ‘pro-sex’ however, can be a misleading interpretation of many feminists’ agenda in arguing that women have the right to say ‘yes’, the right to say ‘no’ and that for anti-porn feminists, pornographic depictions which render women submissive and subjected to humiliation and violence are exploitative.
‘Raunch’ culture of which ‘porno-chic’ (and I would add to this ‘porno-chic lit’) are a manifestation, is indicative of a ‘dramatic increase in the sexualisation of women’s bodies’ in public space as Adrienne Evans, Sarah Riley and Avi Shankar note in ‘Technologies of Sexiness: Theorising Women’s Engagement in the Sexualisation of Culture’ (2010, 114). The spike in marketing of these forms of literature is evidence I suggest of what Evans, Riley and Shankar describe as:
the complex and contradictory nature of discourses around contemporary active female sexuality, for example, that it is experienced as pleasurable and liberating, and yet reproduces an image that appears objectifying.(116)
In contrast to the literary porno-graphication for women signalled by the eruption of erotic memoir circa mid 2000s, the writing and approach of the contemporary Australian women writers I interviewed offer alternative representations of feminine agency and sexuality which I argue counter this contradictory discursive moment and resist such objectifying reproduction.
Poet Gig Ryan states that writing as a woman about sexuality is automatically a subversive act because ‘You’re observing everything, not being the observed object. This is subversive in the sense that you’re directing thought and directing what you see’ (pers. comm). Her work fundamentally opposes the construction of woman as erotic porn object. In contrast to texts riddled with contradiction around actively sexual women performing female desire as submissive, as if the woman and the writer is frozen in the male gaze, Ryan’s writing subverts this inertia with her own dramatically disruptive perspective.
She achieves this by actively ‘sending up’ the popular depiction of women’s sexuality as reliant on female submission to male domination. Rather than buying into the role-plays in which both genders partake, Ryan parodies the situations and attitudes that keep them locked in a primitive pseudo-erotica that feeds on humiliation and perversity, rather than liberation. Ryan works on a subtle level, dismantling these stereotypes even as she articulates them. In our interview she explains:
What I’m pointing out is that society expects women to play these certain roles or they’re not going to be acceptable and most women don’t want to risk not being acceptable.
An example of Ryan subverting the traditional gender roles can be seen in her early poem ‘Small Scale’ (1981). This poem explores the sado-masochistic nature of male / female relations through its depiction of a heterosexual sex scene. While the poem opens with the line, ‘The Nazi in your bed arranges you’, by the end of the piece the woman has ultimately rejected this Nazi man:
And when he’s grasping like a dog
you’re not there.(39)
The woman in ‘Small Scale’ transitions from a passive object prostrate at the will of a violent masculinity to escaping this oppressive force, leaving the man empty handed and unsatiated. In this way, the female protagonist alludes to the conventional positioning of the feminine as victim even as she evades the Nazi’s grasping hands.
Ryan feels many critics who write about her work as simply victim poetry are missing the satire inherent in her writing, as well as its honesty in revealing the games women feel forced to play in a society where power is still attained through men. In this sense her work is more subversive and, I argue, genuinely liberated than women writers who, in a mysterious irony given the patriarchal naming or un-naming of women, appear to have lost their own last names, such as Melissa P and Catherine M.
With a different but equally effective approach, Porter’s sensual poetry is more evocative of a liberated desire than the images of masochistic women presented by ‘raunch’ literature. Porter describes her message to women as, ‘Live imaginatively. Live with guts’ (2002, pers. comm.). Her characters are passionate, sexual beings whose sexuality is often happening in their heads. It is a provocatively intellectual sexuality capturing Porter’s idea that in our oversexed society much of what is truly sexy is the suggestion rather than the full exposure, the chase rather than the capture:
In a rather jaded modern age, an oversexed modern age where we’re bombarded with sexual images the whole time, desire needs to play with some taboo or another, that’s not just something repulsive or horrible …. It’s the chase, like Keat’s poem ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ when the lover is frozen and will always be in love because he’s never going to get that nymph ahead of him. (Porter, personal interview)
Porter felt very few books are able to convey this sensual desire in an authentic way, which is where a lot of writing ‘lets people down’. Her ability to convey desire effectively is a quality she says might well be the key to her success as a writer.
Porter’s poetry invents ways of writing the body that embrace the strength and active power of female desire. Women are not only victims or receptacles; they are profoundly authoritative entities whose sexuality and feminine bodies can, if necessary, be a weapon. This is exemplified in her poem ‘Fear Me’ from The Monkey’s Mask (1994), where Porter lists the various parts of the female body, invoking their potential for both creation and destruction:
At my crust
Right down deep
At my fingertips
In the glands of my breasts
In the shield of my cervix
In my feral womb
Fear me, fear me, fear me
The female narrator of this poem is far from inert and awaiting penetration. She is a force that is self-defining and dynamic. The rhythm and repetition of ‘Fear Me’, is like a drumbeat sounding a warning as it reverses the conventional representations of female helplessness in the face of male violence. Porter’s poem resonates with the sense of awe Modjeska writes about in her response to the Minoan female figures. One is tempted to ask, as Modjeska does in Poppy, ‘Where do such women come from?’
Contrast Porter’s power and self-definition with this example from the celebrated wave of sexual literature. The following is an excerpt from Catherine Millet’s The Sexual Life of Catherine M (2001):
Andre came and watched and stroked me as I squatted. It was not an unpleasant situation but it did make me feel slightly ashamed, and it was perhaps at that precise moment that I learned to sidestep my embarrassment by burying my head between his legs and taking his cock in my mouth….
…All I can see through the metal bars are the brightly lit walls; I am aware of the other girl lying on a divan in the corner of the room. Andre fucked me first, quite slowly and calmly, as was his way. Then he stopped abruptly. I was overcome with an ineffable feeling of anxiety, just long enough to see him moving away, walking unhurriedly his back arched towards the other girl. Ringo came and took his place on top of me, while the third boy…ran his hand over my upper body. Ringo withdrew and the one who’d been watching took his turn even though I had been resisting a terrible urge to urinate for some time. I had to go. When I came back, he was with the other girl. I don’t know if it was Andre or Ringo who took the precaution of telling me that he himself had only gone to “finish off” with her. (4-5)
It is evident from juxtaposing Porter’s ‘Fear Me’ with this excerpt, that Millet’s feminine is grounded in passive submission with elements of shame and degradation. The woman appears to perform oral sex out of embarrassment rather than willing autonomous pleasure. In contrast, Porter’s feminine draws on the power of women as active, potent entities with a deep embodied physicality.
While depictions of women having sex or advertising themselves as sexually available may titillate audiences, other aspects of women’s bodies not fitting with this commodification may be seen as unnecessary, distasteful or scary in fiction. Generally, menstruation or female bodily functions that don’t relate to sexual gratification may be treated with trepidation. Porter’s young adult novel, The Witch Number (1993), which contains references to menstruation and witchcraft, received extremely hostile reviews. Porter says that many men found it profoundly threatening and cited one male reviewer in our interview who called it a ‘repulsive and horrible book’. Porter thought the negativity was due to the ‘double whammy of witchcraft and menstruation, secret women’s business’.
Likewise, novelist Kate Grenville says that she has often been criticised for writing about women’s bodily functions. She quotes one of her main characters from Lillian’s Story (1985): ‘I do like books with toilets in them metaphorically speaking. I do like books that don’t gloss over the fact that we actually do have bodies’ (2003, pers. comm.). Grenville notes, though, she may have pulled back from writing about the body in ways that would confront and alienate readers. In assessing Grenville’s body of work, her fiction does appear to have moved away from writing the female body in such a sensory, raw fashion. In early work, such as Bearded Ladies (1984), a collection of short stories, there are numerous explicit descriptions of the female protagonists’ awareness of their bodies. Her early novel Dreamhouse (1986) contains scenes where the pregnant wife is placing her finger in her vagina and smelling herself. In contrast, one could not imagine her female character in her work, The Idea of Perfection (1999), even contemplating such an act. In our discussion, Grenville spoke about the fact that what she sees as normal is shocking to many people and over time the accumulated effect of these negative reactions means she does restrain herself:
A lot of reviewers talked about my ‘obsession with bodily functions’ with the early books. It took me by surprise the first time I read this kind of fastidiousness in reviewers. Intellectually I thought that frankness about bodies was a good thing, but it might have had its effect on me eventually. Eventually you think, ‘To me this isn’t shocking, to me that’s just part of life but I’m clearly shocking those people’ and then it becomes a choice, do I want to shock them or not? (Grenville, personal interview)
It is a concern that in a society where a woman’s lips can be modelled into a urinal for men, as was the case in Virgin Airway’s clubhouse at New York’s John F. Kennedy airport, women writing themselves into their bodies in ways other than erotic titillation may yet be seen as shocking and distasteful. The result of this fear of alienating readers is that women become alienated from their bodies. When there is no connection to the body forged from an internal self who explores and translates it, women get their cues from society. Eve Ensler, the writer of The Vagina Monologues (1999) states in an interview with Decca Aitkenhead that women’s ‘alienation from their own bodies actually destroys the possibility of empowerment’ (2004, 3). Aitkenhead notes that in contemporary society, ‘It is taken for granted that a woman will despise at least part if not all of her body’ (3). This situation, according to Ensler, has been responsible for the decline of feminism’s international power. The privileging of erotic pornographic discourse means women learn that to objectify themselves earns significant social and cultural capital. This is perhaps how scenes of fifteen-year-old girls being gang banged emerge as literary liberation marketed as positive female sexual expression. It is very far from Porter’s ‘Fear Me’ and her fearless definition of the feminine body.
The contemporary women writers interviewed have had to navigate these contested notions of feminism and sexual empowerment. I spoke with Grenville about her response to the active / passive binary. Her depiction of women appears at times to reverse the tradition of punishing the active woman by punishing the passive one. Grenville says this is true and relates her attitude back to her tomboy childhood and the resentment she felt in being pushed into passive roles as she became a woman: ‘Intellectually I forgive myself, but that twelve year old can’t’. In punishing her passive female characters, Grenville is punishing the parts of herself that conformed to social gender constraints. Grenville did attempt to write a happy ending for one of her passive female characters, Louise, the wife in Dreamhouse (1986), but failed as the character was so shallow it was impossible to believe she could set up house with another woman in London and ‘blossom into powerful autonomy’.
In speaking about why these passive characters were so harshly drawn, Grenville expresses anger at other women who have been involved in the pressure to conform to the traditional role of the feminine woman:
Oppressors always use trusties from the oppressed class to be their most vigorous collaborators, don’t they? And beat up the others of their class. It’s little kids in kindergarten who police the gender stereotype roles most rigidly and I think it’s other women who police the gender stereotype roles more rigidly than any man. So maybe that’s the kind of thing I’m getting at. I’m thinking of women who even now are policing those lines. They’ve made their deal with the powerful ones, and it’s very important to them that those of us who’ve chosen otherwise be brought into line. (Grenville, personal interview)
In The Idea of Perfection, Grenville creates a character, Felicity, who was so concerned about wrinkles she rations her smiles to two a night. Grenville says she was less interested in tracing the cultural roots of Felicity’s obsession with youth and beauty than seeing it as part of her failing as a human being:
In Felicity’s case I sketched towards the pressures that made her like that, of being pretty and being saved by her prettiness, but it’s very sketchy, I’m not interested in that. What I’m interested in is the product. The portrait of Felicity is a remnant of that rage against the female stereotype. (Grenville, personal interview)
Male characters did not seem to garner as much rage as Grenville’s female characters. Dark Places, narrated by a father abusing his daughter, takes up the question of what the effects of the constructs of masculinity may have on men. As Grenville says, Dark Places could be seen as one long justification of the most unlikeable man, a justification she has not written for women. For these reasons, she could be seen as ‘letting blokes off the hook’ as she put it:
Maybe at some primitive stem-brain level, I’m sufficiently a child of the 50s, to feel that the sky will fall in if I really attack the patriarchy. They’ll turn on me and destroy me. Those early experiences go very deep. (Grenville, personal interview)
While Grenville has been able to go part of the way towards dismantling the constraints she felt as a child, hers is still:
a journey that hasn’t quite got there … I often talk to other women of my generation and we would agree that we can go a certain way along that journey, but there’s a point where we just can’t go any further. Some responses are embedded in us so deeply that we can’t change—we can recognise them operating in us, and we might not like them, but we can’t actually change them. (Grenville, personal interview)
For Grenville, systemic discrimination and gendered enculturation are too deeply etched into her body to re-inscribe a new and absolute sense of agency. Her journey indicates that while it is possible to become conscious of one’s own habitus, as ‘embodied history, internalised as second nature and so forgotten as history … the active presence of the whole past of which it is a product’ (Bourdieu 1980, 57) that one can often only modify rather than entirely reconstruct it.
In this instance, Bourdieu’s emphasis on the difficulty inherent in permanently reconstructing one’s habitus can be appreciated. The probability of reversing one’s history as embodied and inscribed as second nature is weighted against such a possibility. Here, Grenville appears caught between the power of her upbringing and the products of her ‘self-work’ in analysing and seeing flaws in what she has been taught and encouraged to become. Conscious of the potential freedom inherent in resisting structures that deny capabilities and equality, one can still bound by these structures. In Grenville’s statement that ‘some responses are embedded in us so deeply that we can’t change’, there is an innate appreciation of the difficulties of complete transformation of habitus; a challenge which Bourdieu affirmed in his critique of the feminist movement, as requiring more than a conversion of will (1998, 41) as he emphasised the ‘inevitable priority of originary experiences’ (Bourdieu 1992, 133).
Brought up a decade earlier in the1940s, Carmel Bird’s work can be read as the writing of a woman who has witnessed a great deal of female exploitation. As with Grenville, the dichotomy of sexual power is reflected in her depiction of active / passive women. Often the active women are perverted, abused and inherently corrupt. In turn, they abuse passive women as with the cult leader Petra in The Red Shoes (1998). If they are not corrupt, then the active women, such as the detective Courtney Frome (from Bird’s detective series), piece together after the fact the death and destruction of the passive women. The passive women in these texts are innocent by nature, young and gullible. Their passive nature is the forerunner to a tragic fate as they are murdered, drugged, brainwashed and / or imprisoned. When I asked Bird why women are repeatedly abused in her novels, she replied simply ‘girls do’. In Bird’s experience, the fate of the feminine body in a misogynist world was exploitation—girls do get abused. Bird’s relentless and chilling depictions of these victims is on the opposite scale to the power witnessed in Modjeska’s Minoan statues and Porter’s ‘Fear Me’. Bird’s eerie fairytale gothic rings like a dark antithesis to Porter’s drumbeat. It is a warning, not of fearing the feminine but of what happens to females. This exploitation of women is the very danger Porter so vividly reverses in her poem.
When speaking with Indigenous novelist Melissa Lucashenko and playwright and performer, Leah Purcell, it was clear that while abuse and exploitation may be written about in Indigenous and white women’s writing, their positioning and histories are often diametrically opposed in terms of racial and sexual representation. As Aileen Moreton-Robinson states in Talkin’ Up To The White Woman:
White men positioned Indigenous protocol within the eighteenth century discourse of the sexually deviant native, which was used to justify the rape and sexual abuse of Indigenous women for over a century … for over 200 years the Indigenous woman’s body has been positioned as accessible, available, deviant and expendable (2000, 166 –167).
Traditionally, white woman’s virtue, morality and passivity has been contrasted with western representations of ‘primitive’ promiscuity and ‘animal appetites’ of the ‘native other’; the ‘wild sexual savage’ as bell hooks describes this repellent stereotypical iconography (1992, 67).
In our interview, Lucashenko spoke of the way in which Indigenous women’s sexuality has been mistreated and misunderstood:
The construction of black women’s sexuality has been different I think, certainly to middleclass white women’s sexuality in that we’re hyper-sexualised and that still goes on today. Blackness is hyper-sexualised and with the experiences of rape and sexual abuse in our communities I guess it doesn’t feel particularly safe to be talking about sex a lot of the time. (Lucashenko, personal interview)
Lucashenko says she only felt safe to discuss sexuality in a safe, private environment, with no men present. She did say that it is important to speak out about the fact that Aboriginal women, like white women, have been abused. This did create some conflict for her because while it is important to recognise these facts in literature, it is also a part of her culture to not discuss sex publicly:
It’s important to say ‘Yes, we get raped a lot’ but it’s also again that cultural thing of wanting to talk about that behind closed doors and whether that’s an oppression in itself or if that’s a valid cultural thing … I used to think that that was part of a patriarchal plot. I’m not as sure anymore. I really don’t know. (Lucashenko, personal interview)
Lucashenko stated that it is a basic fact of life as a black woman to go out and experience racism and sexism in the world and come home and experience sexism, the double-bind. Lucashenko’s writing is a site of resistance to white oppressive forces and sexism. In Steam Pigs (1997), she foregrounds issues of rape and abuse as her female protagonist, Sue Wilson, endures the horror of a violent relationship with her partner. As one of her characters Kerry, says to Sue:
I looked after someone in a refuge once who asked me to just let her sit with it for a little while, so I did. Her husband got to her the next day with a .22, so you’ll just have to excuse me if I don’t let this go. (143)
Through her novels, Lucashenko makes it clear it is imperative to speak about the subject of female exploitation. At the same time she indicates that she was wary of talking about sexuality with white people, as this can be a difficult process given the history of colonisation, racism and misrepresentation:
I talk about rape in my books, I do and it is important to do that and it is important to do that in the political arena as well but you have to be really careful that you’re not misinterpreted. Being Aboriginal is always a dance around white people’s misperceptions and weaving in and out and trying to pick up on the missed cues before they happen almost. (Lucashenko, personal interview)
Lucashenko’s courage in speaking about the subject of sexuality and sexual abuse which she is intensely private about, in an atmosphere where she may be misinterpreted is a compelling example of the strength of her voice in confronting oppressive dominant forces.
Purcell’s response to the issue of the hyper-sexualisation of black women is to subvert oppressive depictions of women. As was often the case in our interview, she was quick to turn anything negative into a positive and reclaim her power. She made terms used to degrade black women into words that she would take as compliments:
I just look at it positive, black velvet, we all love to lie on velvet and it feels good … You’ve got to be fuckin’ blonde hair, size six, and blue eyes and big tits like Jo off Big Brother and that’s beauty so when I danced in the desert, my black dancing sister was black velvet. She was stunning, her skin just shone and I just went, ‘Now I’ve seen black velvet and that’s beautiful’. Her whole body just shimmered in the moonlight! It was amazing. I just fell in love with her and she was a big strong girl. All she had on was her skirt and in the full moon, off the light of the moon on her skin, she was beautiful. Every time I hear black velvet that’s my image and it’s beautiful and it’s positive, my big black central desert sister; proud to have seen real beauty not this fabricated magazine bullshit. (Purcell, personal interview)
Purcell wanted to teach her daughter how to respond positively to these terms as well. She spoke about the reasons she thought it was important for her child to hear derogatory terms said in affectionate way:
We’re sharing that word with her in a positive way so that when someone does come back to her and says something like that, then she’ll think about it in the way that we use it and go, ‘Oh you’re just having a bad day, that’s your problem’ and not carry that burden of the negative … If someone said ‘Come here you black ***’. I could either walk over and deck him or go ‘Hey I’m black, I’m proud and I’m beautiful, thank you!’ (Purcell, personal interview)
By reclaiming the term’s origins and drawing out its meaning, Purcell saps the potency of any racist insults intended to hurt and oppress herself or her daughter. Purcell’s perspective is evident in her writing such as her one woman show Box the Pony (1999) where she tackles issues of domestic violence with ingenuity, strength and integrity. In this play, a boxing bag hangs on stage. Purcell uses it to represent the character of the Boyfriend as the script describes:
The bag swings back and hits her, lifting her. The bag has become the boyfriend. Steff (played by Leah) holds herself in close to the bag. She is being punched by the boyfriend (the bag) between each line…Steff lays there and slowly sits up … Leah narrates: ‘Steff packed her things in garbage bags while he was sleeping it off. She rolls her car down the drive, quiet. But there on the lawn are these blue cranes. They’re there for her. ‘Fly away, fly away, Bungabura, fly away’. (112-113)
For the creative women interviewed, writing about sexuality and the female body is a complex aspect as race and gender intersect with power and control. These women speak in diverse ways, highlighting female exploitation as Bird, Ryan, Grenville and Lucashenko do, inventing a language to empower women like Porter and Modjeska, reclaiming derogatory language and inspiring with stories of escape like Purcell. These women write against a dominant social discourse of sexuality and female bodies as if they are ‘animal handlers’, forging their representations from more ancient female cultures and feminist analysis. Despite social pressures, they manage to question and at times represent alternatives to the idealised classic feminine reinforced by western cultural paradigms or the more recently popular ‘porno-chic’. It is important to appreciate that despite the complexity of navigating social and cultural constraints, women writing in Australia such as those voices in discussion here, have tackled the subject of sexuality and the female body with imagination and thoughtful resistance—a marked deviation from representations keeping women, to draw on Millett’s imagery, on their backs ‘overcome with an ineffable feeling of anxiety’ (5).
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