On Feminism: Nostalgia Blues

[Trigger warning: discussion of rape and sexual assault]

I’ve been watching the hype surrounding the new Australian series, Puberty Blues, with part fascination, and part anger. The fascination is largely the credit of the series itself which is smart, well-acted and unafraid to present sex and gender roles in 1970s Australian suburbia in an unromantic, realistic (and often brutally honest) manner. But it’s like I’ve been watching a completely different series to some of the commentators and media journalists in Australia. I realise some of this is canny marketing: one of the best ways to create hype for a new show set in the past is to draw on a generational nostalgia for the ‘good old days’ and make people feel good. But the show isn’t really about nostalgia for me, or about making people feel good.

Puberty Blues is based on the iconic Australian novel of the same name, authored by Gabrielle Carey and Kathy Lette in the 1970s. It was later turned into an equally iconic Australian film directed by Bruce Beresford in the 1980s. This was all before I came to Australia myself. However, if I learned how to read English properly when I moved to Australia via the aid of Roald Dahl books, I learned all about ‘Aussie’ surfie and teen culture through reading Puberty Blues. Lette later criticised Beresford’s interpretation of the book, which toned down its feminist perspective. But if Beresford softened-up the gang-rape culture and the quite disgusting way girls were treated by their surfie ‘boyfriends’, the new television series based on the book, doesn’t.

The last episode I watched left me quite haunted and uncomfortable. It didn’t help that I watched it late at night in bed, and so had ample time to run through the images in my head in the dark. But I think this is what the show is supposed to make you feel. This episode centred on the two teenage heroines of the story and best friends, Debbie and Sue, losing their virginity to their surfie boyfriends. For Debbie, it is painful and unsuccessful – her boyfriend may have slept with other girls, but he has no idea what he’s actually doing, and doesn’t particularly care if he’s hurting anyone in the process. Sue doesn’t fare better, she looks distinctly bored and uncomfortable losing her virginity in the back of a van while his and her friends listen. She seems more excited by the prospect of a ‘choc-top’ ice-cream afterwards, which reminds you that these girls are just young girls looking for ‘sweets’ and acceptance, and instead are passed around like ‘sweets’ themselves.

This all builds up to a scene on the beach depicting an unpopular girl being gang-raped by a bunch of surfies in the back of a van in plain view of a party, Sue, Debbie and their boyfriends. The girls watch her getting raped and the guys taking turns, and seem to recognise the dead look in her eyes. It’s the same look they have when their boyfriends climb on top of them. It was sickening to watch this scene, even if it was so brilliantly acted. The look in that girl’s eyes was completely abject, like she herself thought she was a piece of garbage; a thing to be used, rather than a person. And the casual way in which Debbie and Sue accepted this, just highlighted their own creepy ‘initiation’ into what Lette called the ‘most sexist place in the world’: ‘the Australian suburbs in the 70s’.

Lette goes on to say in this interview that:

I mean, for example, their terms for women in the 70s in Sydney were ‘bush pigs’, ‘swamp hogs’ or ‘maggots’ and if you were good-looking, they called you a ‘glamour maggot’ or a ‘glam mag’. I mean, it’s not exactly a Shakespearian love sonnet, is it?

I left the suburbs when I was 15. You know, the only examination I’ve ever passed is my Pap smear, but you can understand why I had to get out of there. I mean, those men, they actually disproved the theory of evolution. They were sort of evolving into apes. But at that age, you have no objectivity on what’s happening. I thought that was normal, that all women were treated that way, as, sort of, um, sperm pittoons ... spittoons. We were treated as, sort of, um, sequels rather than equals, really. ... It’s very, very sad. We wrote
Puberty Blues because at that age you have no objectivity about what’s going on with you, you think that that’s normal. And we wanted to show the girls that they didn’t have to be sperm spittoons, you know, they could have another identity.

Watching the television series, this message comes across, even if it is difficult to watch. But what really disturbs me, and this is where the anger part comes in, is the way this show has been talked about in the mainstream media and early morning breakfast shows, as some lovely, fluffy and nostalgic trip into a ‘simpler time’. If anything, Puberty Blues shows us the danger of romanticising the past as some ideal golden age when everything was better. Because it quite clearly wasn’t for girls like Debbie and Sue, who think the only way to fit in as a girl and as a woman is to please your man as a subservient sex-slave, to your own detriment. I don’t doubt that there are many teenage girls who still think that way today. However, as I was watching Puberty Blues, I also realised things are probably not quite as bad now as they were in the 70s. We have a very long way to go, but we’ve also made a few tentative steps forward. This is why I resent the whitewashing, sentimental and silly hype surrounding Puberty Blues. No, these weren’t ‘simpler times’, they weren’t ‘better’. In many ways, they were far worse. And it’s doing this fantastic and brave new show a great disservice to suggest that it’s actually about Nostalgia Blues, rather than Puberty Blues.