Babies, literary tics and ritalin

First published by Arena Magazine, August-September 2002

Sylvia Ann Hewlett, Baby Hunger: The New Battle for Motherhood, Atlantic Books, 2002

Elizabeth Wurtzel, More, Now, Again, Virago Press, 2002

Tara Brabazon, Ladies who Lunge, UNSW Press, 2002

 

Half a century ago a young journalist knocked on the doors of middle class American suburbia and interviewed the most educated (and medicated) housewives the world had ever seen. Betty Friedan turned their stories and her observations into The Feminine Mystique, a book that famously begins with the chapter `The problem that has no name: a “yearning” for something more than my husband, my children and my home’.

Fifty years later Sylvia Ann Hewlett has been haunting the bedrooms and corporate boardrooms of America’s upper middle class, interviewing the daughters and granddaughters of Friedan’s housewives. In Baby Hunger: The New Battle for Motherhood, she too claims to have identified a hitherto unrecognised problem–the alarming number of high-achieving women who `yearn for children’.

While today’s headlines are all about the so-called fertility crisis and too many ovaries going to waste, the headlines in Friedan’s day were all about how the birthrate in the US was overtaking India’s. And just as The Feminine Mystique documented the post-war trend for girls to marry at an ever younger age, and for college girls to drop out in favour of marriage and children, Baby Hunger documents the late twentieth-century trend for women to postpone marriage and babies–often altogether.

Friedan gave a passing nod to the occasional voices of dissent–such as the space race scientists who were dismayed at the loss of so much brainpower to the task of sending endless laundry loads into mini-orbits. Today, the voices of protest are generally coming from the conservative corner. Some express alarm that women are so focused on their careers that they are forgetting to schedule in marriage and children. Others argue that, in wanting to `have it all’, women end up neglecting both their workplaces and their children (not to mention the social fabric) in the process.

Although not quite as conservative as some of the talking heads who have recently taken her argument and run a very long way with it, Hewlett clearly falls into the alarmist camp. Nevertheless, she builds her argument with a patchwork of convincing–and concerning–statistics:

Depending on what study you look at, somewhere between 34 per cent and 61 per cent of high-achieving women are childless in mid-life … Forty nine per cent of female executives earning $100,000 or more a year are childless, while only 19 per cent of 40-year-old male executives in the same earnings bracket [are].

And so on. Hewlett’s figures come from her surveys of what she calls `high-altitude’ career women (the book is full of Americanese such as `career on ramps’ and `off ramps’).

Like Friedan, Hewlett is primarily interested in the most affluent members of the most affluent country on earth (she does briefly refer to comparable countries, trotting out that now well-circulated statistic that 28 per cent of young Australian women will go through life childless). And, like most authors in this genre that reach best seller status, she has the gift of the media-friendly grab: one chapter is punctuated by capitalised headlines such as `Childlessness Haunts the Executive Suite’, and `High Achieving Women are Extremely Unlikely to Have a Child After Age 39′.

But it’s Hewlett’s grab for the headline and the emotive argument that unfortunately undermines her statistical argument. She expresses alarm at the numbers who are child free, and interviews many who are unhappily so, but she doesn’t ever ask how many of the childless are happily so, and we don’t hear their voices in her many personal interviews.

At one point, Hewlett does ask her respondents to think back and consider whether they wanted children in college. But even then, she downplays the existence of the happily childless: `Only 14 per cent of high-achieving women said that in college they didn’t think they would end up having children’. Only two paragraphs later, discussing the 17 per cent of women who said they wanted three children, she calls it `a sizable minority’. What a difference 3 per cent makes when you’re running an argument.

Hewlett says she wants to arm young women with the research, statistics and information that will `cut through the anxiety and skepticism around marriage and [help them] figure out that giving priority to establishing a stable, loving relationship early on might well be worth the effort’. Young women, she says, should not `squander their brand-new freedoms of modern, natural birthing. Just remember: our foremothers would have given their eyeteeth for such choice’.

You get the feeling she means well, but she totally oversteps the line when she stops being just an adviser on motherhood and starts to become a pusher of motherhood–as if her audience isn’t already feeling enough anxiety and stress over the difficult choices they face. Hewlett’s advice to young women is to plot their personal lives as ruthlessly as their career lives. While it possibly makes for wise words in the mistress-of-your-own-destiny sort of sense (although the idea that plotting to snare a man and his sperm will lead to happy-ever-after is dubious, to say the least), it’s not the politics of social transformation. And that’s why it’s so hard to slot her into the feminist camp–where she clearly wants to be seen.

When she visits a New York dating school designed to soften out the hard, picky edges of female career executives, Hewlett comes across like the mother in Bend it Like Beckham who takes her football playing daughter shopping for push up bras and warns her `there’s a reason Sporty Spice is the only one without a boyfriend’. She doesn’t seem to get that, at its core, feminism is not about women constantly compromising or masquerading as things they are not. It’s about social change.

To be fair, Hewlett pins some responsibility on straight men, too, and she interviews apparently liberated men and women who still live in a world where a woman’s successful career puts too much strain on relationships, and men’s fragile egos. And she notes the injustice of the situation where men continue to look for younger, less successful and less wealthy partners but women look for the opposite, and then logic dictates that the pool of potential partners actually increases for men as they age, while for women it shrinks.

But strangely, Hewlett really wants to lay a good part of the blame for the missing babies at feminism’s feet. Without naming names, Hewlett calls the women’s movement to task for its supposed tendency to `downplay the importance of family’. To back up her claims about these anti-family feminists, she resorts to quoting selective paragraphs from one–one!–obscure 1970s sociologist. It’s strange because if you try to think of all those who have ever dismissed the value of women’s work, downplayed the importance of motherhood, or ignored women’s roles as mothers in the workplace, it’s not the feminists who come to mind.

Hewlett fits more neatly into a new tradition where motherhood is not only a moral right, but where children are practically a consumer right. Although she is cautious about the agony and expense of IVF treatments, and the difficulties of late pregnancy, Hewlett seems to regard IVF as simply another service that women with enough money should be able to demand and receive without question. And as something governments should fund without regard to competing funding demands from other health and social services.

Unnervingly, Hewlett’s professionals seem to view childbearing as another achievement to tick off, or a route to personal growth. One would-be mother tells Hewlett that she thinks the `radical out-of-controlness of it will be good for me–will open me up in ways I cannot yet know’. Another woman seems to reflect her fast-track, short-cut life when she says of her adopted daughter: `I am convinced that–if she sleeps with me and if I just carry her around in a Snugli during the day–we can jump start the whole bonding process’.

When Hewlett delves into the wells of pain these high altitude women feel, you can’t help wishing that they would just spend a little more time getting a life, and a little less agonising over their inability to give life. On the other hand, it’s not too hard to feel outraged at the price even these successful women have paid for their careers. Clearly, just because a woman earns $100,000 a year doesn’t mean that she shouldn’t have the same statistical chance of parenthood that a man earning the same amount does. Men have always been allowed to `have it all’, to knit their public and private lives in reasonably uncomplicated ways–even if they don’t really devote themselves to the parenting role until their children are grown up, or their grandchildren are born, or until they find a younger mate. At least, Hewlett notes, they get a second chance.

One damsel in distress who obviously missed out on Hewlett’s counsel in her twenties is Elizabeth Wurtzel, who won huge public fame with her memoir of private misery, Prozac Nation. Now in her thirties, her latest and third book, More, Now, Again chronicles her descent into Ritalin addiction, and her very American story of recovery and redemption.

Wurtzel has the addiction chic market cornered. Winner of a Rolling Stone college journalism award, former music critic for the New Yorker, she is Hunter S. Thompson’s depressed and feminist distant relation. Even her editor gets in on the act: `Editing Elizabeth Wurtzel is like editing a hurricane, like producing Courtney’s albums, like mainlining sticky blue ink’.

Unlike Friedan’s housewives, whose Valium addiction was linked to their exclusion from the public sphere, Wurtzel is a hugely successful author. Wurtzel does drugs because of her complete inability to function in the private sphere–and her lack of a proper home. She doesn’t open her mail for three years and someone else has to pack and unpack her boxes every time she moves to another New York apartment or dingy hotel in Florida.

`It’s the basics. I can write a whole book, but I cannot handle the basics’, Wurtzel moans. She gets on the wrong planes fitted with a diaphragm full of cocaine, misses flights to publicity tours in Sweden, and finds herself in Iceland by mistake (Prozac Nation was big in Holland). She forgets her sassy, television friendly self and freezes up or rambles incoherently on panel shows. She sleeps through a fashion shoot and her one chance to be a pin-up chick (they use Katie Roiphe instead).

Drugs give her the gift of being in the moment–which is probably not such a bad thing for a woman who’s always analysing the past, but living in a city that trades in futures:

Sometimes someone will be standing in front of me, and I already feel him walking away. I have no sense of presence, mine or anyone else’s. But on drugs, I could feel that moment, I could be something besides nostalgic for the things that haven’t happened yet. I could live here now.

Like Hewlett, relationships with men are a central Wurtzel concern: `I could say I love cocaine because it makes me forget that I am waiting for some guy to call me’. During the course of the book, she has affairs with a married film producer who wants to turn Prozac Nation into a film (it’s about to be released with Christina Ricci in the lead) and an alcoholic maths genius she meets in rehab.

The trouble begins when Wurtzel’s doctor prescribes her Ritalin–normally given to children with attention deficit issues–to help her wean herself off harder drugs. At first, it’s like a muse to her writing. But soon she is cutting up and snorting forty tablets a day. Clearly, it’s not sustainable living:

After a fit of productivity that went on for some weeks, I am now fatigued with thinking. The Ritalin manufactures fascination with so many different ideas that it is impossible for me to sit and concentrate on any one thing. My writing is all over the place. I get a lot done, but it is all disjointed.

When she is not pouring out streams of geniusness on the page for her editor to mainline, Wurtzel loses herself in her current obsession. In a no star hotel, under an incandescent light, it’s just her, a bunch of pre-arranged lines and the hairs on her legs:

I can start tweezing at night, not look up for what seems like minutes but is really much longer, and when I finally stop to take a break, the sun is shining. It is not sunrise, or even morning–it is sometime in the afternoon.

Wurtzel does drugs because her life is as hollow, empty and flat as the surfaces she is constantly looking for in New York’s public toilets. What’s fascinating about Wurtzel’s writing is that she’s an extraordinary person caught up in ordinary, everyday pain. The source of her emptiness–divorce, a neglectful, drug addicted father, an overcompensating mother–is not particularly interesting or unusual. What’s interesting is her out-of-the-ordinary talent for laying it all out so lucidly on the lines of a page (even if she can only get them done with lines of crushed up Ritalin tablets beside her).

When her obsession of the week is Timothy McVeigh, Wurtzel just doesn’t get the pain of ordinary people caught up in extraordinary situations like the Oklahoma City bombing. As a writer she’s good enough that you hardly care that it’s deeply ironic when she condemns `their insistence on filling the airtime with their compulsion for attention’. Wurtzel says she `cannot fathom what makes these people think that a public discussion of their trauma will resolve it, will heal it in any way. It gives me the creeps.’ Wurtzel doesn’t write for some sort of resolution to her pain–she writes because telling stories is what she does. She’s the least anonymous advocate of the twelve step program the world has ever known.

More, Now, Again proves that if you are smart, sharp, and look as beautiful on a front cover as some of the prose within, people will tend to forgive you for almost anything. Wurtzel’s friends tolerate her inability to remember their birthdays, their near fatal car accidents and her inability to turn up to dates within an hour of the arranged time–if at all. Her editors tolerate the way she installs herself in a Doubleday office to finish off the last pages of her second book Bitch and sends Doubleday assistants down to the lobby to retrieve packages from her coke dealer. Hewlett’s affluent and childless women talk about their pain in a way that just makes you want to run away; Wurtzel describes her pain in a way which millions of readers can’t get enough of.

Unlike Wurtzel, who unselfconsciously and confidently knows that she is a writer, Tara Brabazon, a Murdoch University cultural studies academic, self-consciously and constantly reminds readers that she is a writer in her most recent book, Ladies who Lunge:

I disdain dishcloth-wet writing, essential oil euphemisms and Laura Ashley politics. [Instead] my words dance in the spaces between women, femininity, feminism and popular culture.

And she’s just warming up.

If she could write, she wouldn’t use words like `genuflectingly’, as in the following extract (which almost reads like a direct riposte to Hewlett):

It is actually crucial at this point in women’s history that we do not expect young women to genuflectingly continue the movement with only gratitude and deference to prior struggles. Probably the most radical thing a young woman can do today is avoid marriage and pregnancy, thereby giving herself some space and choices.

Brabazon displays all the most annoying tics of the worst cultural studies writing. There’s whole pages of aphorisms which each need their own PhD to support them (pornography is `a Barry White school of sexual etiquette and must be relocated into the theories of both hegemony and consumerism’). There’s the frequent use of backslashes (`care/free/less’) and bracketed words that show us–gosh–that big words are made up of smaller words, and that it’s fun to combine them with an oxymoronic sentence: `The aim of this chapter is to unpick this seamless fabric(ation)’.

Then there’s the out of context and clunky popular culture name dropping, `I laughed more while reading this text than when watching the `Bro’ episode of Seinfeld’. And what can be made of baffling statements such as: `It has been said that the sculpture is already in the marble. Similarly, the sculpture is already in the woman. That means that there is an important relationship between women and sport’? It’s as if Brabazon was receiving Wurtzel’s Ritalin prescription by mistake.

It’s the sort of writing that makes you want to hide the fact that there are a couple of cultural studies subjects in your degree. Her idol is Julie Burchill, English music journalist, essayist and a cultural studies natural. Burchill has a way with words that few can match–and it’s embarrassing that Brabazon tries so hard to emulate her, and yet fails so badly.

Reading her essays about wrestling, aerobics or Star Trek is like visiting a friend who holds ten conversations with you at once while she flicks through the remote control of her 50-channel cable TV and comments on every show. She just can’t stay with the program, or stick with an argument, long enough for you ever to understand the plot.

Ladies who Lunge begins with Brabazon having a very Sylvia Ann Hewlett moment. Describing a scene from her life when a date blew her off at the last minute (after she’s shopped and preened and cooked and hung the best towels in the bathroom), she asks:

‘How has this happened? This bloke is fifty-five years old–most men his age would give up their firstborn child to have dinner with a 30-year-old, upwardly mobile, blond woman.’

Unlike Hewlett, Brabazon wants to defend the single, professional woman: `Childless women are feeling pathologised’ in the workplace, she writes. Instead of arguing that feminism has ignored women’s mothering roles, Brabazon believes it has gone too far: `If feminism is mainly about maternal motivations, then it will continue to exclude some of its most visible, stoic, vulnerable and complicated representatives.’ (Again, no names, no roll calls.)

Her single status, she insists, is not a sacrifice, it is not a `cruel choice’, and Brabazon’s book is better when she is doing a bit of traditional film or cultural studies, such as her celebration of portrayals of spinsters and unconventional women by mid-twentieth century screen stars such as Bette Davis and Katharine Hepburn. It’s even better when she gets down to some traditional cultural studies media analysis–such as the moral panic caused by baseless reports of Western Australian girls out-performing boys at school.

But otherwise you’re either with her or you aren’t. When she says: `Thatcher was a binary outlaw, conveying a hyper-femininity that “took out” masculinity on the journey through to a gendered identity’, or when she discusses the way that wrestling is used by the disempowered to `renegotiate’ social positions, you either live in her world or you don’t. Her impatience with actually waging arguments, and her tendency to talk around a subject rather than about her subject, is incredibly frustrating.

Brabazon might be perfectly clear what she means when she writes: `The feminist exfoliation of ideas reveals more than the aroma of cheap perfume and cheaper politics’, but I think her words–like Wurtzel’s body–are in need of a serious detoxing treatment.

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Chariots of ire

 First published by The Australian, 1 January 2000

Music to Move the Stars

By Jane Hawking

Macmillan, 610pp, $45

STEPHEN Hawking – “the black hole man”, as Queen Elizabeth is said to have described him – has fascinated us for some years now. It’s not a little to do with the paradox of his paralysis-ravaged, wheelchair-bound body that nevertheless harbours a mind that can roam the universe and produce intellectual leaps that have taken him to audiences around the world. But few would have given much thought to the woman in his life who, in many ways, suffered a much greater psychical and mental imprisonment because of his condition.

His first wife, Jane Wilde, was just 21 when she married the 23-year-old Hawking as the first signs of his degenerating motor skills were showing in his drunken gait and his prognosis for longevity was pessimistic. It’s not hard – although perhaps a little unkind – to think that it was the image of a somewhat tragic, but eccentric and older Oxford student with the skewed bow-tie, skewed manners and foppish hair that captured the imagination of a romantic young girl. The young Jane is in awe of the young Hawking’s intellect, even as she’s taken aback by his combativeness. He reassures her that intellectual differences need not be taken personally. So it’s all the more striking when the irreconcilable differences between the rational scientist and the more spiritually bent Jane eventually play a key role in the breakdown of their marriage.

His family is an intellectually competitive and superior lot, according to her telling. It certainly does not welcome her into its collective bosom. “We never really liked you,” his mother even tells her at one point. You feel their coldness and rejection: “in their eyes I was just a drudge, the vehicle for producing their three grandchildren”. Affairs don’t really improve when the young couple moves to Cambridge, where wives (but not mistresses) are banished from college high tables and where condescension and academic pettiness abound. By Jane’s account, she is often treated with as much interest and sensitivity as an inanimate life support machine for her husband (which is what she often was).

But a number of kindly souls also come in and out of their increasingly internationally mobile lives. Curiously, Australian friends and colleagues pop up with the frequency of our soap stars in London’s West End. At times, the book reads like a catalogue of slights and favours.

While she glosses over the actual mechanics, the Hawkings produce three children (two boys and a girl). But the growing physical distance between them parallels their increasing emotional and mental distance. “It was becoming very difficult – unnatural, even – to feel desire for someone with the body of a Holocaust victim and the undeniable needs of an infant,” she so candidly writes. Her pleasure is eventually destroyed by the knowledge that in the act that creates life she could end his.

Somewhere along the way – in between cooking Hawking’s gluten-free diet, baking children’s birthday cakes and serving cucumber sandwiches to post-seminar soirees – she also manages to produce a PhD thesis. Her textual detours into her topic of love poetry in medieval Spain are engaging and stimulating, and you amaze at her ability to shift gears in between the sheer grunt and grind. But it’s probably also what kept her sane. Hanging on to her own academic life was certainly a necessary salve to her feelings of inferiority among the academic set, and probably crucial to sustaining some sort of equilibrium in her marriage.

Reflecting the chaos of her life, her book reads as part memoir, part political tract for the rights of the disabled, part travel literature, part PhD thesis. In a lesser writer, these sharp stylistic shifts would have been disorientating, if not pretentious, but mostly you are happy to go along on the ride. Some scenes, such as a private drawing room meeting with the Queen where Hawking plays carpet removalist with his wheelchair, are hilariously described.

The real hero of her book, however, is the gentle musician Jonathon Hellyer Jones, a local Cambridge man who comes into her family’s life just before the birth of her third child, and just after his wife died of leukemia. He’s the man she eventually marries.

When he enters the book, so does the flowery language: “We tentatively allowed the poor, sickly plant of our relationship to come out into the opening for an airing and to bloom.” In contrast to the increasingly selfish Hawking, Jones is constantly described as selfless and supportive in Jane’s struggle to keep her fractured family together. Their relationship (which her husband apparently tacitly approved of) is also the catalyst for her re-entry into the church – yet another barrier in the marital relationship. Hawking had no time and no mind for such pursuits.

While her love for Jones grew, so did her disillusionment with Hawking and the round of nurses she eventually persuades him to accept. After steadfastly refusing daily professional help for years, Hawking – who resents her fear of flying and reluctance to leave their children – taunts her with his nurses’ willingness to accompany him on yet another overseas tour. For her part, she endlessly disparages “malicious”, “manipulative”, “wayward” nurses, and her treatment of them sits uncomfortably with her constant desire for help in the hundreds of pages prior. No doubt there were mischief-making personalities among them – perhaps not least of which was the nurse who eventually married Hawking, if you accept this version of the story – but her “I-gave-my-all-and-they-did-me-wrong” tone is eventually tiresome and off-putting.

The warring camps eventually dig into their opposing positions. Jane believes his family and helpers have poisoned his mind against her. The end comes when he calls her back from her French country retreat for a reconciliation, only to find he intends no reconciliation at all. The “limpid grey eyes” that once warmed her heart have turned to permafrost. At this point, the engaging detail of earlier chapters becomes claustrophobically overwhelming, putting the reader uncomfortably in the midst of a bitter separation. You are almost thankful when she concludes that Hawking’s genius and sickness could justify so much of his behaviour and her sacrifices. It’s a victory for science, if not for feminism. But don’t for a minute imagine she’s an insignificant woman.

Off the Rails: The Pauline Hanson Trip

First published by Arena Magazine, December 1999

One of the most memorable features of the 1998 Federal election campaign was the appearance on nightly news bulletins of Margo Kingston, Sydney Morning Herald political reporter – her face exploding in anger, one finger pointing while the other hand thumped the closest table – at yet another One Nation press conference that had dissolved into confrontation and acrimony. Kingston, it seemed, had `lost it’ again.

The hostility between One Nation and the media reached its climax just a few days before polling, when detailed costings of One Nation policies failed to materialise despite the fledgling party’s long-standing promises. The angry media pack held a spontaneous sit-in and the usual friendly flesh-pressing of election campaigns became a more serious game of pushing, shoving and shouting.

Off the Rails, the Pauline Hanson Trip is Kingston’s attempt to explain how relationships deteriorated so badly that they ended in this stand-off. She writes of a campaign where all the established rules and roles were utterly ignored or completely confused – a campaign with none of the usual understandings between politicians and journalists that each has a job to do, and that their respective professional fates are, therefore, inextricably entwined.

It comes as a surprise, then, to read that the personal relationship between Kingston and Hanson was generally quite convivial, especially in the campaign’s early days. They have almost girly coffee chats; Hanson offers to teach Kingston the secrets of buying fish; and Kingston plays Hanson’s media liaison officer when newer journos arrive on the scene and Hanson is once again alone and unadvised. Hanson even asks Kingston to dinner at her house, sending her off the next morning dressed in a T-shirt from the Hanson wardrobe.

At first, Kingston despairs of this campaign-like-no-other-campaign with cancelled set-pieces, country town car chases, and an array of ‘crazy’, ‘loopy’ and `mad’ One Nation policies, such as the two per cent Easytax. She describes the press pack as variously ‘gobsmacked’, ‘stunned’ and ‘flabbergasted’, when not busy swapping witticisms about what they dubbed the ‘Please Explain Tour’.

There’s nothing much that’s new in all of this – One Nation’s disorganisation and poverty of ideas have been well and truly worked over by many a media hack. What is new about this book is the (mostly unintentional) insight it gives into the poverty and slipperiness of the media’s own ethics, and the self-serving justifications of journalists when they use every trick in their travel pack to `get the story’.

Kingston kicks off her book by portraying herself as the faithful reporter, just doing her duty to her readers (not to mention the greater social good): ‘Our readers needed the facts – her political style on the road, her rhetoric, and voter reaction’. Ironically, Hanson is the first person in Kingston’s book to point out that the media don’t just sit back and passively report what’s happening – they influence events and even make them happen. And often they get the story wrong.

Early on in the campaign Hanson gives ‘her journalists’ (as Kingston calls them) a tongue-lashing over the way their stories had portrayed voters as reluctant to talk to her during a day of door-knocking. Hanson tells the media that voters’ reluctance to talk had more to do with their suspicion of the media pack which had temporarily and intimidatingly camped on their front lawns. Kingston’s readers are left wondering whether such stories had more to do with wish-fulfillment on the part of journalists, than media reps gathering the facts which the readers so urgently needed.

 

In Off the Rails you have Hanson’s airplane circling so that the media can land first and get ‘the picture’, TV crews playing campaign directors with lighting and staging advice, and pollies and the media constantly lending each other their mobile phones. One moment photographers are setting up Princess Di-style pictures of Hanson, mini-skirt blowing in the wind, the next Hanson is stopping her car and helping Kingston to use a public phone so she can do a critical radio interview about the campaign.

In light of these hopelessly entwined relationships, Kingston’s faith in an ideal of objectivity in her stories and relationships – and her constant agonising over drawing clear-cut professional boundaries – seems hollow and simplistic. Well into the campaign she is almost in paroxysms of ethical knots over whether to give Hanson a newspaper article in which a One Nation candidate made outlandish statements about Aborigines. Her colleague, the Daily Telegraph’s Helen McCabe, tells her `If what you do means she makes another statement or changes her mind, that’s an intervention in the story’.

It’s said in a deadly serious tone that’s in no danger of having even a passing familiarity with the concept of irony – as if by this point the implosion of media, politics and entertainment hadn’t already taken off into another surreal stratosphere altogether.

What makes these moments even more bizarre is that between these bouts of ethical dilemmas, Kingston is almost boastful about how, say, she and her sister (Age reporter Gay Alcorn) set up a meeting between Jeff Kennett and Hanson. Kingston even sells the confrontation to Hanson, telling her that it’s in her interests to play on the `big bad Southerner thing’.

The shopping mall meeting was another memorable campaign moment, yet few news stories mentioned that it was a media-generated event. And Kingston blithely brushes off any introspective doubts by explaining that Alcorn – a rookie on the Hanson trail – felt she was at an unfair advantage compared to her competitors.

While Kingston agonises over whether she `is getting too close to Pauline’, she is happy to play all the usual games journalists play to get their story. `I couldn’t believe our luck,’ she says when Hanson – in what appears to be an off-guard moment – looks like she wants to have a heart-to-heart over a coffee. Then – all of a sudden – Kingston pops on her Ms Morals hat when a TV crew thrusts a mike in her face during another tete-a-tete. She sends the reporter packing and, in a `can you believe those immoral reporters?’ aside to readers, says, ‘I thought we were having a private conversation’.

Perhaps most telling of all is Kingston’s admission that she vetoed her sister’s natural journalistic urge to write a juicy story about her Hanson sleep-over. Kingston’s Lois Lane persona, as the protector of truth and the public’s right to know, completely disappears at this point, and her excuse for such sibling censorship sounds not a little immature – she did Alcorn a favour by giving her a lift in the Fairfax car, so Kingston gets to play censor. Kingston admits her up-close-and-personal behaviour might be `beyond the pale’, but she did it because, well, everyone else would: `I’d dare any journalist to turn down such an invitation from a mainstream leader’ (that competition thing again).

Kingston wants to have it all – the right to demand answers and put Hanson under scrutiny, and the right to deflect any scrutiny of the media’s (and her own) `institutional role’. She never ponders basic questions such as who gives the self-appointed media its power, and what are its limits.

Off the Rails is premised on Kingston’s notion that she is – or should be – an autonomous actor making a series of ethical decisions. But it’s a naive and egotistical notion. She gives scant thought to the institutional demands and limitations on journalists’ behaviours – which is all the more surprising given her readiness to pass the blame whenever she has to carry out some dodgy task for the story. Of course she and other journos have to run red lights and go on dangerous car chases – Hanson makes them do it. She is determined not to ask about Oldfield’s personal life, but when McCabe gets a scoop about his relationship with Hanson, it’s the sub-editors’ fault when the story gets the full front-page tabloid treatment. It’s the public’s need to know, the demanding editor, the crazy One Nation or those competitive colleagues who are to blame — anyone’s but Kingston’s fault when she is forced to behave against her better ethical judgement.

To be fair, Kingston does try to understand the complexities of her profession, and she’s aware of the gulf between the press pack and the average Australian. She realises that the slick set-piece campaigns of the ‘majors’ have reduced journalists to ‘theatre reviewers’ for a disinterested and disillusioned public, and she recognises journalists need to dispense with the press kit and get out and talk to the community. But it’s difficult to imagine this happening. For all their noisy breast-beating, Kingston and her mates just have too much fun exchanging arch remarks, being oh-so-clever and throwing Dorothy Dixers to the satirist Pauline Pantsdown (`Do you find Mr Oldfield sexy?’).

Everyone, it seems, agrees that there is plenty of confusion over the media’s role – as entertainer, satirist, reporter or even moraliser. But there are too few answers and all too much goobledeegook spouted on the subject, as the recent Australian Broadcasting Authority cash-for-comment inquiry amply proves. Only recently the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance – the journalists’ union and professional association -mailed members a glossy colour poster of the new journalists’ Code of Ethics, revised in February 1999. While the code is full of praiseworthy and excellent ideals you could hardly take issue with, it is completely out of kilter with workaday demands to fill a newspaper space or a TV spot – not to mention the competitive context (among both journalists and media outlets) that really is the ultimate behaviour-shaper. Most journalists would have to break one of the code’s rules – or its spirit – every day just to get through it. If they didn’t, they’d probably be out on their broken news-hound noses – they certainly wouldn’t be the first in line for promotion.

Returning to the problem of Kingston’s book, readers could do worse than seek out the author and journalist Janet Malcolm. Her book The Journalist and the Murderer begins with the sentence: “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows what he does is morally indefensible.”

Yet Malcolm continues to practice this impossible profession. While she doesn’t really have any more answers than Kingston about the ‘proper’ way to get to the facts, she takes us on a fascinating and more self-aware journey on her way to them.

 

We’re all bit players in a television drama

First published by The Australian, 25 September 1997

In “The era of living vicariously” (Opinion, September 17), Valerie Parv writes that in the wake of Thredbo, Port Arthur and Diana’s funeral, we are in danger of becoming a nation addicted to virtual experiences, hooked on virtual emotions, virtual romance and the virtual hobbies and crafts demonstrated on infotainment television.

The problem with Parv’s idea that we are retreating into a world of safe, risk-free virtual experiences is that it sees TV in black and white rather than in all its colour. It assumes that there is real life on the one hand, the world of TV on the other and that their orbits will never collide.

While footage of the Vietnam War may have made cynical and desensitised audiences of many viewers, it is now understood to have added impetus to a mass movement of anti-war protests across the world. Similarly, the first images of the Earth from the moon landings were seen by many as giving an emotional focus and public relations boost to a growing environment movement.

In recent years, media studies academics have been less interested in what TV does to you than what you do with TV. Friends getting together to laugh at and send up favourite soaps and dramas can be seen as affirming their sense of community and shared values rather than a group of individuals retreating into isolation.

When Parv says that “we increasingly crave the virtual experience and savour it in place of the real thing”, I would suggest that she is really expressing an anxiety that we can’t easily tell the difference between what is “real” or “authentic” experience and what is “fake” or “virtual” experience.

Reality and TV are interacting in ever more complex ways. When a piece of amateur video footage capturing the bashing of Rodney King by Los Angeles Police Department officers was repeatedly broadcast by US TV networks, it sparked an unforeseen series of events, climaxing in the Los Angeles riots.

In this context, deciding on where the media world ends and where real life begins is becoming increasingly difficult. The ABC’s Frontline – the often hilarious and sometimes chilling spoof of the TV current affairs show – owes its success to a playful bending of real and fictional characters and events.

Perhaps more confusing is the almost cartoon-like mixture of real events and media hype found in a new generation of “real life” TV programming. These shows are strange hybrid forms of entertainment, information and pure voyeurism.

The Jennifer Keyte-hosted Moment of Truth is just the latest in this genre to arrive on our screens. As with the series Weddings, the minutiae of everyday lives of everyday people are recorded, or they are given cameras to record their lives themselves. It is the very banality of our lives that seems to be the selling point of these programs. That we can watch them knowing that we are in the company of a million other casual voyeurs is part of what makes us turn on.

RATHER than indicating that we are all turning into passive watchers rather than doers, these shows can help explain the feeling that our every action is potential TV feed.

On a much grander scale, Australian communications theorist McKenzie Wark writes about the Gulf War as a series of feedback loops and “vectors” between audiences, the military and TV images. Opinion polls and military manoeuvres responded to TV images of Saddam Hussein stroking the hair of an English child held hostage. Images of George Bush walking through the desert and past rows of F-15 and F-16s in stage-managed sets constructed by a former Las Vegas advertising man, Sig Rogich, were part of a political strategy. With the unprecedented use of “missile cams” in the war, Wark argues that the “suturing” together of TV and viewer is almost complete. “This one missile becomes a million viewers,” he says, “stitched eyeball to eyeball with its line of flight into enemy territory.”

In a world of confusing boundaries, it’s hard to know the difference between the real us and the televised us. Were the masses who watched Diana’s funeral (whether at home or on the giant TV screens set up for the mourners outside of the service) manipulated to experience false emotions by the mass media? Or were they spontaneously expressing a sense of community and collective grief over the demise of someone who represented real values in their lives?

In the end, there is no simple real world versus the TV world. We could call this the Emma Dilemma, after the no-win situation that confronted Frontline’s researcher with a conscience. Caught between ratings, advertisers, overpaid egos and predatory executive producers, Emma was always powerless to change the established script of the show within the show. But what was so interesting about Emma was that, as the series progressed, she slowly began to transform into the people and environment that surrounded her.She was the literal embodiment of the idea that there was no inside or outside in the media. She, and we, are TV.

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