On Feminism: Nostalgia Blues

Monday, 3 September 2012

[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.


Jane Flanagan said...

Without having seen this show, I completely hear you, Hila.

I hope they bring it here (Ontario TV tends to bring some good shows over - we recently had "The Slap", which I thought also challenging and well-acted).

I also recently read this story on the NYT (and tweeted it, so sorry if you've already seen), but your description of that particular episode reminded me of this account too: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/12/02/fashion/02love.html

Hila said...

Jane: ah yes, I saw that NY Times article, but didn't have time to read it. I think I'll do so now.

'The Slap' was also brilliant - there have been quite a few excellent Australian shows/films lately. The book it's based on is also great, and I highly recommend it. Christos Tsiolkas is such a good writer. I really hope they bring 'Puberty Blues' overseas too, as I think it deserves to be seen widely.

hannah debbie said...

I'd never heard of that series before, but now I am very interested in watching it. I wonder if I can find it anywhere online.

I really, really dislike when people romanticize the past. I think this has gotten "worse," if you will, with the whole vintage trend going on (not that I do not love vintage things, but that hardly makes the past as perfect as some people -- especially bloggers, honestly -- make it seem).

and as someone that has been sexually abuse, I immediately knew and recognized what you meant by "the dead look in her eyes." It's so haunting to me.

Anonymous said...

I've been watching the series and you're spot on - while there are absolutely nostalgic elements, it's incredibly disturbing to see the way women are used. I think it's been brilliantly done, and will be interested to see the reactions as the darker elements of the story continue to emerge. Well said.

rooth said...

I haven't seen this show but I am glad that you're writing about it the way you are. Perspective, people! Have you thought about writing in a letter to the editor? I think your post deserves a louder voice as well

Sarah Rooftops said...

I haven't seen this or even read the book, though I do like Kathy Lette's writing, but I found this such an interesting article; I'm very curious to see the show when/if it hits the British screens.

cluelesspixie said...

It's such a stupid notion that the "old times" were simpler or more easily understandable - that's always the point of view of those who were privileged or stupid enough not to feel how much worse the old times actually were. In western culture, the old times were always worse for the minorities and/or women - things were indeed simpler - more schematic.

The concept of nostalgic looking back is so widespread in fact, that the instances in which it is sold to the public get positively perverse - films and tv shows set in communist Czechoslovakia still get made and shown in my country and only a small fraction of them are trying to actually address the past instead of exploiting the "retro" feel that the time evokes in parts of the population.

Well, I didn't initially mean to make a rant of it. But you made me think. Thanks for making people think.

Teresa said...

I was watching 'The Project' last night and when they showed a piece about Australia's 'love affair with the past' I felt similar to you. The media is wrapping series like this in fluffy nostalgia.

That said. I do like these series but I appreciate them for what they are and how they show times were and have changed.

'Puberty Blues' was part of our high school English and I've also seen the movie quite a few times over the years. I actually felt the rape scene was more stark in the movie, though it was just as uncomfortable to watch in the show.

It will be interesting to see how the story develops in the show.

soph (owl vs. dove) said...

I haven't kept up with the commentary around the show, but I can see how it could easily get lumped into the 'nostalgia' boat. That and the fact that the majority of Australian media tends to miss the point of everything, ever these days.

I'm really enjoying Puberty Blues for the drama that it is but, as you said here, hopefully all the misguided hype doesn't detract from the very real and relevant themes in the show.

Chuck said...

Gah, how depressing. x

Sally said...

Looking into this book / show / movie, thanks for bringing it to my attention.

This reminds me somehow of my feelings about Mad Men - the show tries to bluntly portray social inequalities of the day, but I fear some people glorify the sexist characters (i.e. by coming to love characters but therefore embracing their faults without question) to the point that I'm uncomfortable, worrying that nostalgia is overpowering our appreciation for how far we've come and how far we have yet to go.

odessa said...

Oh wow, I must confess that I didn't know this aspect of Australian history. I'd love to read the book and watch the t.v. series. You know I've been watching "Dance Academy" lately and totally dreaming of going to Sydney.

Gracia said...

I have not been watching Puberty Blues, but have caught sight of the ads for it, and I do recall reading the book. No doubt on the back of Go Ask Alice (was that it?), another one of those books we all read and were amazed and confronted by. They were the most dog-eared paperbacks in the school library. I don't tend to look back and think things were simpler. To me, everything stays roughly the same. A few things step forward and a few things step backwards, and the balance is held. Or as popular expression reads, the more things change...

On a different visual note, I am off to see the NDT film Move to Move on the weekend. Will have to take you in my pocket.

Siubhan said...

That was a fascinating read. I hadn't heard of Puberty Blues, nor seen the show, but the points you make are fascinating regardless. Nostalgia for the past is often used as a bit of a whitewash in the media - it also reminded me of Mad Men actually (as the previous commenter mentioned).

If that was the state of the Australian suburb in the 70s, and indeed the state of the USA in the 1960s, then we must have at least made some progress, which is heartening.

Hila said...

hannah debbie: I think there are episodes online, if you google the show. Yes, I do know what you mean about the overly romantic tone of some bloggers when it comes to the past. I like vintage things too, don't get me wrong, I just don't assume everything was happy-shiny in the past. I am deeply sorry to hear about your sexual abuse. It's not a subject I talk about lightly, so I hope this post conveys that. That 'dead' look is indeed haunting, which is why I can't forget this episode I watched.

Hila said...

Anonymous: I'm really interested to see how it develops too, and whether these darker elements will continue to be treated so honestly.

Rooth: I honestly have no idea who I would send such a letter to! But thanks for suggesting :)

Sarah: I hope it does reach British screens, it deserves to be seen.

cluelesspixie: I completely agree - those who look to the past as a 'better' time are often those who are in a privileged position anyway. For the majority of the population, the past was not pleasant, or better. And I can see how this type of nostalgia translates into films set in the communist era, I've seen a few of those myself.

Teresa: I saw that Project segment too! Ah, the timing, they did that segment on the same day I wrote this post, ha. At least they addressed the fact that this nostalgia is sexist, although that really wasn't the focus of the segment, was it? It was more nostalgic fluff. I like the series too - I don't think it romanticises anything (at least not so far). As for the rape scene in the film: you may be right. I just felt so much more uncomfortable watching it in the TV show though - like I said, it was something about the way the camera focused on the girl's eyes, and her gaze was heartbreaking. I also liked the way the camera then focused on Sue and Debbie's hands touching, which to me was like a silent implication that the girl wanted to belong, to have a close friendship. It was brilliantly done.

Hila said...

Soph: 'That and the fact that the majority of Australian media tends to miss the point of everything, ever these days.' Ha, so true! It's a bit sad though, I shouldn't laugh. The hype almost made me not watch it, because I thought: 'here we go again, more romantic nostalgic crap'. But it doesn't go there. There is a desire to 'recreate' the mood of the era, but it's not romantic.

Chuck: gah, yes.

Sally: there's always the danger of that happening with such shows, isn't there? That somehow the inequalities and sexism will be swept under the nostalgic carpet. Mad Men is a smart and well-written show, but I also fear it has become a way to glorify the sexism of the past in the popular imagination and the media. This may be what's happening with Puberty Blues too in our own media here.

Odessa: Ah yes, I watch dance academy too :)

Gracia: 'I don't tend to look back and think things were simpler. To me, everything stays roughly the same. A few things step forward and a few things step backwards, and the balance is held. Or as popular expression reads, the more things change...' You're a wise woman Gracia, and you're probably right. There are some things in Puberty Blues that are so extreme in their sexism, I recognised that things were better when I was growing up. However, things do tend to stay relatively the same, as the underlying sexism explored in the series is still prevalent today. I find that depressing.

And yes please, take me in your pocket!

Siubhan: I really hope we have made some progress! Sometimes I wonder ... I don't know whether to be on the side of optimism or pessimism when it comes to this issue :)