First published by the Sydney Morning Herald, 9 November 2016
Their first names start with D, they’re both ginger-haired, and they both have interests in real estate empires, but otherwise Rosehaven’s Daniel McCallum and Republican Donald Trump couldn’t be more different.
A large part of the pleasure of watching Luke McGregor (Daniel) in the new ABC drama is, surely, that our hero plays the anti-Donald. When you spend your days trying to duck from near hourly clips of Trump boasting about grabbing pussy, or his tearful victims’ testimonies, tuning in to watch Daniel – a man so terrified of hurting himself or anyone else you imagine his first word was “sorry” – functions as a form of “cultural crack“. The show screens out the world’s awful blighted reality, replacing it with a nicer, lighter high.
Trump is all unrestrained and aggressive id – Freud would have had a field day with his split attraction/aggression towards women, his obsession with breasts, and his disgust for women’s bodily fluids (who would have thought menstrual blood and toilet trips would become a presidential campaign talking point). Anxious, striving Daniel, meanwhile, suffers from an excess of superego. And unlike Donald his respect for women is clear: his best friend is Emma (Celia Pacquola), a benignly bossy woman who pushes him to stand up to bullies and chase the girl he still loves.
While shows such as Seinfeld, Friends, The Secret Life of Us, and more recently Please Like Me and Girls, have long portrayed friendships between men and women as a standard feature of modern life, it’s still rare to find a show where a platonic friendship between a man and a woman is the central – and completely unremarkable – premise. There’s no backstory of a past relationship, and no sense of a love affair in the air. And it avoids the sweet but now terribly tired and easy trope of the straight woman/gay man best friends.
It’s been more than a decade since Ethan Watters’ book Urban Tribes dissected the way friendship groups are the new family for a generation that is delaying marriage, prolonging studying and sharing group houses well into their 30s. The post-1970s generations didn’t invent friendships between men and women, but they are a defining feature of young adult life now. Stories that portray how such friendships work, and are central to many people’s lives, are long overdue.
I’m not suggesting there aren’t any Donalds in the post-1970s generations, or that there aren’t 70-year-old Daniels in the world. But when you’re raised with the belief that the differences between men and women, if they exist, are wildly exaggerated and overly prescribed, withholding empathy from the other sex simply becomes that much harder.
Not that differences don’t remain and aren’t sometimes useful. Daniel doesn’t force Emma to talk about her marriage breakdown, and you suspect that had Emma turned to an over-empathetic female friend she might have fallen into a self-pitying hole. As Graham Little, writing in his book, Friendship, says about our need for friends who aren’t mirrors of us, “Friends dread the tedium of being merely echoed in a conversation, their attitudes not enhanced or contradicted but Xeroxed”.
It’s time we recognised and celebrated our opposite-sex friends. Those people we’ve known for decades, who offered us friendship when we started work in a politically-charged workplace. Who helped us move out of an old home or decorate a new one. Friends who have been there for births, funerals and every bad joke or career screw-up.
Now that significant friendships between men and women often outlast romantic relationships, a show that acknowledges this friendship is a welcome breath of sexual tension-free air. The audience for the early episodes of Rosehaven, a fictional, though truthful story about a platonic friendship between a man and a woman, was similar in size to the final episodes of the Bachelorette, a real but totally fantastical story about finding true love on national TV. Viewers, it seems, agree.
Rosehaven screens on ABC TV Wednesdays at 9pm.
First published by the Sydney Morning Herald, 26 September 2016
Crowded House’s farewell concert on the Sydney Opera House forecourt in 1996 has taken on a kind of Woodstock folklore: everyone in the country under 35 at the time was apparently there. The pictures and the reports of the concert, and the reminiscing in the years since by those who were there, have so effectively infiltrated the memories of those who didn’t make it’s easy to think one really was there.
It isn’t surprising then to hear it only took seconds on Monday morning for tickets to Crowded House’s November Opera House shows to sell out. In another two decades, at least 10,000 will legitimately be able to claim we were there the second time around. Others will reminisce about how they made upwards of $400 on-selling a coveted ticket – a kind of monetary calibration of how of-the-moment bands whose heyday was 20 or 30 years ago now are.
Gen X is finally taking power, culturally and politically, if not always economically (look, for example, at the 40-something men leading governments and oppositions across the country). And it’s as if the current festival of 1980s and ’90s musical legends touring Australia has arrived to offer a triumphal soundtrack. We’ve had Culture Club and the Cure tour. Bruce Springsteen will be here in early 2017. The Stone Roses will perform at the Opera House in December. I imagine today’s teens and twenty somethings must feel a bit the same way I did at their age, whenever another front page headline covered in great detail every development – a divorce, a baby or a drug-related arrest – in the life of a by then middle-aged Rolling Stone or Beatle.
It’s a funny kind of thing when the bands of your youth, even ones once considered edgy and indie, come to town, grey of hair and plump of belly, to play shows that can top $200 a seat at the country’s most prestigious venues. The bands understandably want to cash in on their final flickers of fame while international airfares still come without exorbitant senior travel insurance.
The audience, meanwhile, are generally more cashed up than they were in their 20s but are at a peak work-life juggle moment. We want a night out that comes with an insurance policy. A night that can remind us of who we were before our lives were full of cares and worries and complicated histories. A time of life when, as Meghan Daum writes in an essay on nostalgia, “we could walk around with an abiding feeling that, at any given time, anything could go in any direction”.
There is also a more sombre reason to see these bands now. The deaths of Prince and David Bowie makes us wonder if this will be the last chance to see an iconic figure live, to hear a treasured song from our youth (and yes, I know Bowie was a boomer who was dreaming of Major Tom and Ziggy Stardust before many of us Xers had even landed on earth; but we claimed him as ours).
For Gen X the time stretching out behind us now feels much longer than the time stretching out ahead of us. It is no coincidence to me that the march of these ageing bands through our venues is matched by my Facebook feed, which is full of old friends who played music or painted or wrote when they were young finding the muse again. “I just decided I had to do it now or I never would,” says one friend who is writing a novel.
Now that big ambitions are mostly achieved – children, travel, jobs, houses – we’re trying to catch the dreams of our youth. There is something exciting about this middle-aged burst of activity, both from the famous and not-so-famous. And while it’s great to see bands who can take us back to a familiar, youthful place, it’s even better when they find new tunes or create new art too.
On a weeknight earlier this year, I watched New Order’s lead singer Bernard Sumner bop around the Opera House stage for a couple of hours with his endearing dad dancing, running through all the band’s hits – Blue Monday, Bizarre Love Triangle, Temptation. At the end of the night the band – notorious for refusing encores in its early years – returned to the stage to perform Love Will Tear Us Apart, the song Sumner played with Ian Curtis in Joy Division. This was a rare moment where “rock concert” and “poignant moment” could briefly co-exist. But at the same time, there is also something that doesn’t sit quite right with a much older band and crowd singing such a brilliant but, let’s admit it, young person’s song.
That’s why, although I was tempted, I found it hard to buy tickets for the Stone Roses. Their slowly building, soft, soft then louder songs were the sound of a party about to begin, the sound of something about to happen. But I’m not sure about watching a band already into their 50s singing “I wanna be adored”. That was cute coming from someone in their 20s. But the Stone Roses are well into late middle age now. Their website currently says an upcoming concert was cancelled because one member fell and broke a bone, the injury sounding like the kind of thing that happens to an old person, not the self-afflicted wound of the young.
Gen X know which way we’re heading and we’re dreaming of our past. Perhaps that’s why we’re so keen to listen to Crowded House singing Don’t Dream it’s Over one more time.
I have an 11-year-old boy, and it’s next to impossible to imagine him running away from home to sell counterfeit whiskey on the streets of Cairo. But that’s what George Catsi’s father did*, and the fantastical tale is one of many in Catsi’s one-man show, Am I Who I Say I Am? Eleven-year-old Emmanuel would ply customers with a small sampler, and once they agreed to buy his wares he’d pull out a bottle of “whiskey” he’d prepared earlier: but it wasn’t whiskey, it was tea. And then he’d run. Emmanuel Katsivelakis was a life-long runner. And a trickster. This small story early in the show is just a short vignette, but it’s important in setting up the themes of Catsi’s father’s life: a chronic tendency to desert family, and a sucession of ever-more elaborate business scams.
It can’t have made for an easy childhood for Catsi, but it does make for a great story. And a great show. It’s family memoir by a performer who is part serious dramatist, part hilarious stand-up comedian, a story about growing up with a mostly absent Greek father who is always spinning epic stories.
It’s also a show that taps into some of the great dramatic themes of Greek drama: sea voyages, battles with monsters, betrayed wives and lost and abandoned children. Like a less-heroic Jason, Emmanuel was just 16 and back living with his family in Alexandria, Egypt, when his mother marched him down to the docks and signed him up to the merchant navy. A few years later he landed up in LA, where he convinced his restaurant employers he was French and seduced Catsi’s mother.
The couple moved to Detroit, and then she followed Emmanuel to the new home he seized upon in Sydney, Australia. Sailing to Sydney on one of a number of journeys following his father between the two countries, Catsi, along with his mother and siblings, ended up in lockdown in their cabin when a partying Parramatta league team embarked on a violent, days-long rampage (there’s your giant sea monsters). And once settled in Australia, it becomes clear there’s been a great Medea-like betrayal, as Emmanuel leaves Catsi’s mother for another woman.
Those are the bare bones, the eternal, mythological nature of the stories. But it’s the details – a family fancy dress party where his father dresses as an Indian chief and invites his lover to come dressed as his squaw, a little boy’s bewildering/thrilling ride in a police car in Detroit – that make the story new again. It’s shocking, appalling, but it’s all leavened with moments of humour and even affection. There’s a particularly hilarious scene where the grown-up Catsi, by this time working in a special needs home, tries to take control of a minibus full of his clients that is hurtling down a main street of Cooma.
Catsi doesn’t make any excuses for Emmanuel Katsivelakis (the evolving surname is an entire subplot), but he does show us both the comedy and the tragedy of his life. And in the end, after spending an hour with this fascinating, scheming character, we’re seduced a little too. And against our best judgement, we even warm to him a little. That’s the trick of the play. Which makes you think: as another spinner of captivating tales, perhaps Catsi really is his father’s son after all.
*At least, that’s what Catsi believes happened. What his father told him happened. But it’s hard to know for sure. His father was, remember, a born trickster.
The most recent season of Am I Who I Say I Am?, at the Petersham Bowling Cub, finished on July 31.
First published by The Conversation, 5 July 2016
In Maggie’s Plan (2015), Rebecca Miller’s (The Private Lives of Pippa Lee (2009)) new film, Ethan Hawke plays John, an adjunct teacher at a New York college and “the bad boy of fictocriticism”. For my money, he’s the middle-aged version of Troy, the philosophising musician Hawke played in Reality Bites (1994). He’s still a man-boy, but the angry young man has softened and he’s made some concessions to the establishment.
John still has a few commitment issues though. He’s married to the tenured Georgette, a woman more driven than he is, but he finds himself attracted to Maggie (Greta Gerwig), a woman from the administrative class – she helps students “bridge art and commerce” – when she agrees to read the novel he’s writing.
Julianne Moore plays the wife Georgette as a neurotic who is as psychologically coiled as the towering hair sculptures she wears night and day. She takes study trips to observe “Icelandic maternal techniques”, and we learn “family dynamics” is one of John’s specialties. Which is hilarious, considering how clueless they both are about their own disintegrating family.
Writer/director Miller lays on the academic stereotypes thickly. And it’s hard to know whether it’s the genuinely affectionate ribbing of a bookish class she knows well, or all an elaborate revenge for the C someone gave her years ago for a paper.
Whatever the motivations, her sketches of academic life, while drawn large, do ring true: Georgette’s absorption in the minutiae of choosing publishers, John dispensing wisdom in the campus cafeteria (avoid the word “like” he tells his students, it’s “a language condom”).
It’s a world where telling someone “no one unpacks commodity fetishism like you do” counts as foreplay. And where an academic panel is really just a thinly disguised and brutal game of more-radical-than-thou one-upmanship. It lampoons mercilessly, but there is bound to be an audience for this movie: after all, this must be the first film (surely the first mainstream movie) where name-checking Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek is a plot device.
So this is satire. But it’s also a screwball comedy with a triangle at its heart – which is why we need the titular Maggie. After John and Maggie’s “meet-cute” in the college pay office, there’s another hurdle to their affair beyond John’s relationship: the single Maggie has enlisted a sperm donor, a man who happens to be an artisan pickle entrepreneur (the imagery is nothing if not heavy handed). She’s even set a self-impregnation date: March 23 (wait, let’s just calculate that… oh! A Christmas present. It might not be a virgin birth, but the conception will turn out to be a mystery).
Of course love – and sex – gets in the way. (It always does.) Maggie and John fall for each other and into bed. John devotes himself to his novel, cannibalising his own life for plot points. Maggie devotes herself to John and their blended family. Georgette, meanwhile, writes an autoethnography about her spurned wife experience, giving overwrought readings in bookstores as fans queue for signed copies.
Scholars, Miller seems to suggest, are not immune to the modern demand to create a narrative from one’s life, and to turn one’s personal life into a commodity. They might, in fact, be experts at it (and whether that’s narcissism or merely an honest acceptance of the hopeless subjectivity of everything, is a debate best left for the ethnography journals).
John, meanwhile, becomes so lost in his novel’s plot he can’t see another relationship falling apart. Here the film takes a Midsummer Night’s Dream turn, in a development that’s loudly signalled in its first minutes. And while this film might be ground zero of movies that have failed the Bechdel test – I mean, this is a story about two women sharing one guy – it scrapes through on another kind of feminist test: if you count women plotting to sprinkle metaphorical love dust in a hapless man’s eyes as empowering.
But why do these women bother? Maggie is supremely domestically competent (John is like another child), and she can self-impregnate, remember. Georgette’s career eclipses his. If a man isn’t necessary, then why is Miller persisting with the centuries-old marriage plot? You could read the story as an indictment on the female characters. Or you could read it as an indictment on patriarchy.
But Miller wants to ask some more interesting questions about fate and free will. The film suggests the real gods, the real power, can lie elsewhere – in our genes, for example. John and Georgette’s children are testimony to that: manipulative, clever, occasionally truth-telling mini-mes of their parents.
Despite the characters’ furious efforts to plot their lives, they’re not nearly as in control as they might like to think. Miller, following Freud and friends, suggests we’re defenceless in the face of our childhood-based neuroses and desires, the tensions between our need to parent and be parented, to be separate and together.
And our desire to be authors of our own plot is constantly doing battle with our desire to surrender ourselves to somebody else’s plot. As John says, kneeling at Maggie’s feet: “I can’t help it, I’m in love with you”.
In the end, as a screwball Maggie’s Plan requires some kind of restoration of domestic order. And just as Georgette tells John that too much theory, his over-intellectualising, has killed his novel’s story, we could take her lead and surrender ourselves to the movie’s plot. And to the perverse pleasure of three people making more of a mess of things than we are. At least, that’s what we hope – as we squirm in our seats, hands covering our eyes, watching the characters through the slits between our fingers.
Maggie’s Plan opens in Australia cinemas on July 7.
Not so long ago, the ABC’s Q&A turned the tables for a bit of self-examination: why, the show’s producers asked, don’t we have more women on the panel? Trying to understand the show’s gender trouble, series producer Amanda Collinge cited women’s reluctance to put themselves forward compared to men’s self-promotion, the trolling and online harassment of women who do join the show, and the fact that the show reflects the relatively blokey composition of our parliaments – a key source of guests.
This ongoing absence of women from the public sphere in numbers approaching anything like gender parity is not just Q&A’s problem. The Global Media Monitoring Project, which maps representation of women and men in news media worldwide, found women make up less than a quarter (24 percent) of subjects interviewed or reported on, while only 37 percent of stories in newspapers, television and radio are reported by women. When they are reported on, women are more likely than men to be portrayed as victims or eyewitnesses, and much less likely than men to be sought out as expert commentators.
While women are still notably absent from the authoritative, expert voice of the public sphere, there’s another sphere where we women excel: women have no trouble speaking out in blogs, websites and magazines that are aimed at women readers, and that feature highly intimate and personal, sometimes joyful, but oftentimes sad and painful real life stories. It’s as if we’ve said to men: “Move over guys, we women have got this whole first-person business covered.”
In an opinion piece I wrote for the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age last month I raised some questions about our appetite for telling, and hearing about, women’s personal stories. Particularly women’s stories about traumatic events. I said we’d created an attention economy that tells people, particularly young and female people, the most interesting thing about them is the worst thing that has ever happened to them.
And I suggested we shouldn’t forget the lesson of second wave feminism: that telling personal stories was the starting point for building social movements. My piece struck a chord with some people, including many writers and authors and editors who contacted me to say they’d been thinking some of the same things. The piece also deeply offended many other people.
I linked to some stories I’d recently read that I thought illustrated certain aspects of a cultural pressure, particularly on young women, to reveal all. The authors – not entirely unfairly – took exception to my article’s suggestion that traumatic personal stories were now being used by artists and writers to meet a market for certain kinds of narratives and to build their profiles. Some people have called this phenomenon the ‘first person industrial complex’. I suggested we needed to rename it the ‘first person traumatic complex’.
I didn’t choose the stories I linked to for any particular reason other than that they were just the most recent examples I’ve read of the types of stories I was starting to notice everywhere. And yet: people were hurt or offended to varying degrees, and so I asked Fairfax’s opinion editor to remove the links and references to particular stories in my piece. The idea we’re now editing by Twitter is a worrying development, but I never intended to offend or hurt anyone, nor single out any particular writers for particular criticism, either. If I’d thought through the implications of linking to specific stories more completely, I don’t think I would have included those links in the first place.
Anyway. The rest of this essay is an attempt to clarify what I said that has been misrepresented, and to add a couple of things I would have liked to have said, were the opinion piece format a 2,000-word format. The following are observations I’ve made about aspects our media, arts and literary culture that sometimes concern me. And no one – absolutely no one – should take them as a specific reference to them.
I think there was a lot of value in the second wave feminist’s tradition of telling personal stories, and I certainly see the consciousness raising tradition being carried on in the way many women still talk about their personal lives publicly. But one of the strengths of second wave feminism – which I think we can sometimes lose sight of – is the way their personal stories were always used to connect to a broader social theory, and a broader movement to change the world.
Of course, not all personal stories have to be attached to a social movement or a theory of how to change the world: sometimes there is simply consolation, revelation and value in telling personal stories that explain what it feels like to be in the world. It can be empowering for the author and enlightening for the reader. But sometimes (and I say sometimes, not all the time) what happens with the personal story – if it’s not done with an eye on broader social issues and theories – is all that’s left for the author to change is herself.
Recently, in an excellent piece in Meanjin, Eleanor Robertson wrote about – much more thoroughly and articulately than I can or will here – many things I (and many others) think about the way contemporary feminism is often expressed as an overly individualised form of politics, without an eye to systemic change and collective forms of organisation. (While I think Robertson at times overstates second wave feminism’s essentialism – second wavers also frequently argued gender was socially constructed – I agree with her essay’s fundamental argument).
In my opinion piece, I was also pointing to a culture where the expectation that we will reveal our most innermost lives is almost taken-for-granted. We see it everywhere: in reality TV shows, in newspapers and magazines and in social media – social media is, really, the sine qua non of this selfie phenomenon. We see it in Ted Talks, where speakers are encouraged to document their personal ‘journey’, and in the way celebrity life is conducted.
When my piece was published writers contacted me and tweeted to admit they recognised this self-revealing phenomenon with a kind of cringing recognition. One friend, a fiction author, told me she resented the expectation when she marketed her books that she should reveal her own personal stories – particularly the more traumatic ones (she’s a fiction author). In an astute piece in the Saturday Paper Brigid Delaney wrote that the ultimate privilege, one now reserved for the über wealthy, is the right to complete privacy, to power obliterate your presence online.
It’s illuminating to read critiques by theorists who’ve done some deep theoretical thinking about contemporary capitalism, and its tendency to turn everything into a commodity. Even our selves are becoming commodities, claim some theorists. And if you work in the creative industries, our personalities and lives and creativity can be turned into goods to be parcelled up and sold.
It’s nothing new to say it’s a system that turns us all, to a greater or lesser extent, into brands. There’s barely any escape from this system. I’ve also frequently written about my own life, and continue to do so. But a feminist critique has to note how unequal this process is: it’s women whose personal lives are most often exposed and written about.
I certainly don’t want to argue that women who do freely choose to talk about themselves and their personal lives should stop doing so posthaste. Or that if they do so, they have no agency. While first person accounts of all experiences, including traumatic experiences, are absolutely necessary and valid, I think we need to think through how they are told in a context where women’s personal lives tend to be held up to excessive scrutiny, and in a context where we almost seem to expect to hear women’s voices speaking from a more personal and confessional position (just look at the righthand side of any news site. Or just speak to Julia Gillard).
We women dominate the personal essay market. And I think there’s a troubling intersection of issues here: women’s right to tell stories, and an attention economy that seems to expect women to tell personal stories. I don’t have all the answers, but I do think we need to ask questions about how this process plays out. Helen Razer, in an article prompted by my opinion piece and the response to it, suggested that the function of the personal essay is now to provide diversion and entertainment. It’s a suggestion I think we need to consider (and her essay is well worth reading).
When I wrote in my article* that young women keen to break into the literary magazine scene would “be advised” to write about topics such as eating disorders or sexual abuse, I certainly didn’t mean that the specific women whose articles I referred to were being manipulated by some kind of cunning and exploitative editor. I was thinking of the advice I might give to media students I’ve been teaching lately if I threw out all the usual instructions about the inverted pyramid, about news values and objectivity, about keeping themselves out of the story. If I was honest and said: “You know what, there is this huge market for personal stories about your suffering”.
It’s a new development, you could say, of the “if it bleeds it leads” rule. I’ve worked as both a journalist and an editor, I’m keenly aware of the calculation that goes on, about what stories are sold and told. We need to be able to talk openly about this.
Young writers and students really don’t need any particular encouragement to go down this personal path. Speak to any university creative or non-fiction writing teacher and they will tell you their students’ first instinct is often to explore their most traumatic experiences. The trick is to help “steer them towards the bigger point” they might be trying to make in their story, as one teaching friend put it to me recently.
If my students feel inclined to explore the personal essay, that’s for them to decide to do. But I do think we have a duty of care to those who are willing to expose their personal life in the public sphere. A personal story can come to define you. It can take you down career and creative cul-de-sacs, not to mention political cul-de-sacs. And continually writing about your own life can be both exhausting and exhaustive.
Editors and websites waiting for their inbox to ping with the latest explicit or sorrowful tale are the modern day miners, turning these raw resources of someone’s life into the fuel of content. But writers offering up their own life – often for $50 a pop, or sometimes, simply for “the exposure” – are selling a finite resource. Digging it up may be cathartic and liberating, there’s no doubt. But it can also be depleting, a move that leaves one with no energy left.
If, knowing all this, young women do consciously choose to go down this path, then all power to them. They may have suffered, but if they can craft a narrative and release it into the world I see them as strong and in control of their life (as much as any of us are). But if they choose to enter this system, they also need to expect people to ask questions about their works, just like critics do of any other text.
Questions like “what sort of cultural environment produces certain kinds of genres and modes of speaking?” Or: “Do these stories work as art or literature and, if so, how?” Or: “Why do we seem more interested in hearing women’s very personal stories than men’s? And is this unbalanced interest always helpful to the project of equality?”
And if texts or artworks claim to speak in the tradition of a movement such as, say, feminism, then they are inevitably going to be judged by how their stories work as texts within that tradition. Not to ask these questions, to seal off such stories from such discussion, is patronising. It is treating the authors not as strong, but as on-going victims.
There’s one point I didn’t make in my opinion piece (because it seems like a somewhat longish bow to draw) but let’s try it out: could our interest in hearing harrowing and traumatic individual stories be a proxy way of (not) reckoning with the harrowing future we are handing to the younger generation. It seems to me we are happy to hear the distress of individuals. But we’re not so up for dealing with the distressing inheritance, economically and environmentally, that we are passing on to a generation. I’d like to hear an all-women Q&A panel debate that.
- Before I asked for it to be edited
First published by the Sydney Morning Herald, 24 May 2016
There’s a scene from an early episode of Girls where the editor of Hannah’s e-book presses her to write about her most personal, shocking and sexual stories to make her book more compelling. “Did your hymen grow back?” her editor complains after reading a draft of Hannah’s too-tame exploits.
I thought about this scene again recently while reading about a new artwork, Are you ok Bob?, a three-minute video installation that shows artist Sophia Hewson’s face while she is “raped” by a stranger in her apartment. Hewson describes the work as a “self-orchestrated rape representation”: to make the artwork she invited a stranger, whom we only see by his arms, to come to her home and “rape” her. The 31-year-old claims the work is a “militant feminist” piece she hopes will “dismantle male power”.
If a measure of an artwork’s success is whether viewers can’t avert their eyes from a work, then Hewson’s piece seems to be working on all counts. But it’s also hard not to think this piece was as much a product of “militant feminism” than it is of a thought bubble that asked “what can I do for my next art project that will get the most attention?”.
We live in an age that has an insatiable appetite for the salacious, the scandalous, or simply the unbearably sad: last year Slate’s Laura Bennett coined the term the “first-person industrial complex” to describe the rise of online sites such as Jezebel, which publish harrowing and dramatic tales, most dramatically illustrated by Natasha Chenier’s essay about sleeping with her biological father.
I think we should re-name this phenomenon the “first-person traumatic complex”. These days a reality TV contestant can’t sing her first note or slice an onion without first doing a piece to camera revealing a decades-long battle with depression, or the loss of a parent to cancer. And if you’re an aspiring writer looking to break into the newspaper market, a tell-all story about your life as a sex worker is a guaranteed way to secure a byline.
The same arithmetic applies to literary magazine scene, where young women would be advised to explore battles with eating disorders or anxiety. Or if you’re a former reality TV star with a new show to plug, talking about your sex addiction or fake six-year online relationship is almost compulsory.
In this era of baring all, to gain attention one must disclose tales that are either titillating, traumatising or some messed up mix of both. We’ve created an attention economy that tells people, particularly young and female people, that the most interesting and valuable thing about you is the worst thing that has ever happened to you. It’s no surprise then we were all willing to go along with the tragic story of “wellness blogger” Belle Gibson, whose false claims of terminal brain cancer fooled not just her thousands of followers, but the tech giant Apple and publisher Penguin. The only surprise is that there aren’t more Gibsons fooling us.
This was on my mind as Gloria Steinem spoke to a full house as part of the Sydney Writers’ Festival. Steinem is one of the most prominent leaders of second wave feminism, the movement that gave us the slogan the “personal is political”, and naturally people are curious about Steinem the woman. And she politely answered Jennifer Byrne’s questions about her personal life – what influence did your father have on you? Tell us about the time you were sitting between Saul Bellow and Gay Talese and Talese dismissed you as a pretty girl. But while Steinem good-naturedly offered up each anecdote, she also valiantly kept trying to bring the conversation back to everyone else in the room: a movement, or the world, is not about individuals, but relationships and connections between people who are “linked, not ranked”, she reminded us.
Steinem told the audience she was more interested in listening to other people’s stories than in answering questions about herself, and she asked the audience to make a new friend before leaving. She invited activists to come up to the mike to make announcements.The difference between Steinem’s feminism and the kind of feminism now played out in the media and cultural industries is that where once telling a tragic personal story was just a starting point to building a movement, now it has become the whole point and the way to build a personal brand.
What’s most interesting about Hewson’s “rape representation” video is not that it’s a “militant feminist” piece challenging “patriarchy”. It’s that it is an artwork that speaks of a culture where performing terrible stories has practically become the default speaking mode for young women in the public eye. Turning the cameras onto yourself and your suffering may momentarily subvert the male gaze, perhaps putting it through some kind of feminist correction filter. But sometimes, turning the cameras on yourself simply just creates a harrowing house of mirrors. One that looks like nothing much more than a canny marketing strategy.