by Susan Sheridan with Barbara Baird, Kate Borrett and Lyndall Ryan, UNSW Press, 2001
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There is no doubt that The Australian Women’s Weekly holds a special place in the hearts of Australian cultural historians. Established in 1933, the Weekly‘s longevity and popularity have given it the status of a cultural icon in this country. Boasting a consistently high circulation and an extensive ‘pass-on’ readership, the magazine has long played an influential part in the mass culture enterprise, selling a seductive amalgam of commodity and ideology. Yet, although the Weekly has always proudly participated in an expanding consumer culture, this has never been the sum of its character and function. The Weekly has never ‘simply’ addressed its readers as consumers, but has been, over the years, more or less successful in inviting readers to identify as ‘ordinary Australian women’. Hence, for historians working to foreground some of the identifications and representations made available to women at certain times in the previous century, the Weekly has held a particular fascination.
In Who Was That Woman?: The Australian Women’s Weekly in the Postwar Years, Susan Sheridan offers a detailed examination of the Weekly, concentrating on the twenty-five year period from 1946 to 1971. Focusing on the period encompassing the peak of the Weekly‘s popularity, Sheridan emphasises the importance of the magazine as a cultural site: “It represented everyday Australia to itself during the years of radical social change following World War II” (p.1). At the same time, in order to draw out the implications of the complex and often conflicting discursive representations circulated by the magazine, Sheridan foregrounds the ‘problem’ of the magazine’s address, the nature of the female reader constructed by the Weekly. Central to this study is the exploration of the various and changing ways that this pivotal cultural text produced the idea of femininity during the period of transition on which this study focuses.
In order to understand the structure and construction of Who Was That Woman?, it is necessary to take a look at the major research project out of which this book emerged. A key component of the larger project, which was designed and instituted by Sheridan and Lyndall Ryan, was the compilation of an Index to the much sourced Weekly. The Index which has been produced out of this project covers the years 1946, 1951, 1956, 1961, 1966 and 1977, underpinning what Sheridan describes as the ‘slice’ approach to historical study. By rejecting a more comprehensive approach to the magazine during this twenty-five year period, Sheridan argues that she and her research team have been better able to “identify signs of significant changes at regular intervals (p.8)”.
This particular methodological approach organises Sheridan’s work, and is central to her examination of the changes in the Weekly‘s discourse of femininity during the period under investigation. Divided into eight chapters dealing with ‘facets’ or themes of femininity and domestic culture in the Weekly, Who Was That Woman?conscientiously adheres to the original terms of the inquiry. The chapters deal with: the housewife as consumer: sex, romance and marriage; motherhood; work; house and garden; food and cooking; health; fashion and beauty. These chapters are, in turn, divided into sub-headings which further organise Sheridan’s careful plotting of the changes which can or, as the case may be, cannot be identified over each five year period.
One of the drawbacks of this kind of categorising is that each sub-heading introduces another diachronic sweep through the period being examined and can, on occasion, seem to fragment the general discussion. At the same time, for readers wishing to focus on a specific subject or theme, this way of organising the book could prove helpful. Moreover, Sheridan’s project involves the processing of a considerable quantity and diversity of material: “the complex texture of a women’s magazine: fiction, humour, advice columns, celebrity stories, informative features, photo stories, editorials, advertising (p.8).” Constructing a coherent historical narrative out of this kind of material is necessarily fraught, and it is impressive that Sheridan is so rigorous in her documentation and analysis of the discursive change which is the object of her study.
It is interesting that Sheridan chooses to organise the material with which she is dealing in such a way that she rarely succumbs to the magazine’s allure – not only its nostalgic affect, but the semiotic riches which invite interpretation almost for its own sake. She is rarely tempted to linger, and the examples she draws from her research into the Weekly work to propel each discussion segment through the requisite twenty-five years.
In an essay Sheridan wrote during the early stages of the Weekly project, she pointed to the magazine’s nostalgic power as a pitfall for intellectuals of her (‘babyboomer’) generation. In fact, Sheridan rigorously eschews nostalgia and desire. It is interesting, in this context, how few references there are in the book to theWeekly‘s fascination with both royalty and celebrity. Curiously, in her introduction, Sheridan professes to be ‘haunted by’ other ways of organising her material, one of which was to examine the Weekly‘s celebrity stories: “Do Hollywood, and later, television stars offer any real competition to the Royal Family? (p.8).”
It could be argued that the essays by Sheridan’s associates – Barbara Baird, Kate Borrett and Lyndall Ryan – which intersect the main analysis, release some of the possibilities which Sheridan’s approach require her to reject. In particular, in her entertaining essay on the Weekly in the fifties, Lyndall Ryan chooses to conceive of her own affective relationship with the Weekly as a tool for analysis, rather than a pitfall to be avoided. Ryan describes her relationship with the Weekly of the fifties in terms of recognition and identification. By the end of the decade, however, the Weekly had no more to offer Ryan and others like her: It was as if the Weekly had provided my generation of women with the key to the Pandora’s box of modernity but would not let us open it (p.66).”
While Sheridan’s study of the Weekly is conceived of in terms of social revolution, she avoids the personal and political ambivalence which can be a trap for feminist scholars writing about a text like the Weekly. Focusing on the Weekly as a key discursive site during a period of transition, Sheridan’s concern is to understand the significance given to changing ideas (p.8)”. Hence, while 1971 may have been located in this study as the end of the Weekly‘s era of dominance, Sheridan’s interest is always in the magazine as a vital site of cultural production, never as a quaint artefact of declining relevance.
Susan Bye is a PhD student at La Trobe University. Her research focuses on the representation of Australian television in the popular print media of the fifties.