by Tara Brabazon
© all rights reserved
I am a Thatcherite bitch, I hear, which is middle-class liberal shorthand for a working class girl who has made it … I refuse to lose, I refuse to be anyone’s hard-luck story. Coming from where I did, the most rebellious thing I could have done was to make it big. And I did. 1
That woman seems to be everywhere these days – hardening political allegiances with her infuriating contradictions. Julie Burchill‘s ‘pulling herself up by her shoulder pads’ attitude provides a living example that 1980s Britain was a time and place that rewarded the talented. Her political positioning is confusing: Tory but working class, a woman yet misogynistic. Burchill can not simply be dismissed as a Conservative sympathizer who has ‘nothing to say’ to the Left, feminism or Cultural Studies. She writes with clarity and boldness during a time of conviction politics and the betrayal of the welfare state. Burchill has worn many identities: the scribe of English punk, Thatcherite sympathizer, lipsticked feminist and a 90s woman journeying through the lesbian continuum. It is her public prose, as much as her iconic status within cultural studies, that is of interest to my analysis.
Burchill is the most famous journalist in Britain. Born in 1959; at sixteen, she was writing for the New Musical Express. She also co-authored a book with her soon to be ex-husband, Tony Parsons, that actually constructed the meaning of punk in Britain. Like a safety pin through a garbage bag, The Book Looked at Johnny pierced the boundaries of acceptable commentary on cultural phenomena. During the 1980s, she worked for The Face, The Mail on Sunday and is currently employed by The Sunday Times , Burchill is an unreconstructed little Englander. More specifically, she remains a London girl.
Burchill has suggested that London is a place of experience, fantasy and melancholy. The sexual expeditions possible within the city are matched by the hopes for political radicalism and emancipation, producing a freedom for textual exploration. From the politicized city of the GLC to Burchill’s dreams of the Underground, London’s multiplicity has offered an incisive venue for social exploration and political challenges. The Underground remains a powerful metaphor through which to consider the limits and boundaries of Burchill’s world.
Burchill, like Thatcher, lived through the central concerns and contradictions of the 1980s, relating to sex, sensibility and a woman’s sense of self. Burchill and Thatcher are dangerous – politically, socially and theoretically. As dangerous women, they seduce us into trying to understand this decade that makes less sense the further we are removed from it. Both women are outside heterosexual, masculine, middle-class normality. Both are cultural figures who defined the nature of Britishness in the 1980s.
The contradictory, fragmented, confrontational temperament of the 1980s was best embodied in the Burchill question: ‘Is this decade at the end of the world, or just another excuse for a party?’ 2 Of course, for many British feminists, the 1980s did signal an end to the imaginary unity of a single sisterhood. Julie Burchill and Suzanne Moore were part of the generational challenge. The dispute, however, did not reach public attention until Moore and Germaine Greer engaged in a feud within the pages of the Guardian newspaper. Burchill became embroiled as a fellow member of lipstick feminism.
Burchill had a closer involvement with an even more controversial figure in feminist theory and politics. She entered into a ‘fax war’ with Camille Paglia who, like Wilhelm II, approached every problem with an open mouth. Paglia and Burchill exchanged faxes about the nature of journalism and academia, questioning the meaning of writing in public. Faxes are odd textual sites: private correspondences that invoke mysteries about origins and end points. Those who send faxes do not know the context of reception. Those who receive faxes do not know how many hands have touched the communication at the starting point. The resultant text is a private correspondence that has been removed from the shield of an envelope. The faxes by Burchill and Paglia were published in full by The Modern Review and other international papers.
The repartee between the two women was fierce and ugly, but in the cat-fight the working class little Englander came out stronger and smarter than Paglia, reducing the academic to a pompous, elitist intellectual who knew little about the rules of the street. Paglia’s greatest insults included calling Burchill “completely unknown in America.” 3 Obviously, for Paglia, being completely unknown in America is the most effective scorn to be poured on a writer. Yet for those who see Paglia as intellectually over-rated, arrogant and politically naive, Burchill’s reply seemed justified. After receiving three faxes filled with venom from the American professor, she replied
How you of all people can complain of my ‘malice’ is a complete mystery to me. Now you know how Naomi Wolf and Susan Faludi and all the others must feel every time you spew up your spiel to a waiting world. I’m here to tell you that you can’t come on like a street tough and then have an attack of the Victorian vapours when faced by a taste of your own style … Don’t believe what you read about the English; our working class, from where I am proud to come, is the toughest in the world. I’m not too nice. I’m not as loud as you, but if push comes to shove, I’m nastier. I’m 10 years younger, two stone heavier and I haven’t had my nuts taken off by academia.
Paglia’s reply was … well … embarrassing.
I could have helped you far more than you could help me. I am read and translated around the world from Japan to South America, and the basis of my fame is not journalism but a scholarly book on the history of culture. You are a very local commodity, completely unknown outside of England, and you have produced nothing of global interest .
Burchill merely replied, “I’m very glad you’re big in Japan.” Do we cheer at this point? Has Burchill won again, while Empress Paglia’s clothing appears somewhat translucent?
What is remarkable about this faxical interchange is that both women assumed that there was no alternative to their confidently presented world view. Such Underground Maps can make those of us in Australia and the Pacific feel decidedly lost. Both Burchill and Paglia were parochial, imagining the parameters of their public in different terms.
The clash of maps between the New York Subway and the London Underground also invokes the perceived functional divide between journalism and academia in the United States. Paglia was offended by being treated as ‘a hack.’ She wished for a clear demarcation between the intellectual and professional writer. However Burchill’s stature in the British cultural sphere contaminates such a divide.
Burchill, like Angela McRobbie, has instigated a subtle linking of class, gender and generation. Burchill conveyed something of this voice from the Thatcherite genderation when she stated, ‘Too many of my friend’s lives are ending in pregnancy at 16 (working-class women still die in great numbers in childbirth; they just die in a different way, is all.)’4 Poignant and powerful, Burchill’s writing in public does tap into the most personal of fears and oppressions. She is no Thatcherite ‘yes-woman’. But besides conveying the horrific consequences of being young, English, working class and a woman, Burchill also imparts the contradictory pleasures of this identity.
Being a working class woman is not merely a question of social positioning in response to material or sexual oppressions. It involves a language and physicality that transcends the boundaries of a feminist or Marxist sexual/political subject. It is a style of dressing, friendship, drinking and speaking.
Julie Burchill does not, however, dwell in the sphere of her grimy working class origins. The nature of her desiring self was contained within the title of her first novel, Ambition. This hunger was recognized as the primary locus of her life.
All I ever wanted from life was love and money, and from a very early age I realized that fame would provide the most pleasurable and profitable shortcut to both … But most of all I waited in my room, waited to be Somebody; then and only then would I be Myself. My only real definition of myself was that I was Somebody, which I wasn’t yet; and that, I think, is the Modern experience – that you don’t really exist until you see your name in print. That you are simply not yourself till you are famous .
In this extract, from The Face article “Burchill on Burchill,” she has articulated one of the major ideological premises of writing in public. She has argued that, within the Modern experience, a person does not exist until their name is in print. The consequences of that statement are problematic, both theoretically and politically. In old fashioned feminist terms, she is allowing the private/public divide to stand. In old fashioned class mobility terms, she desperately believes in the importance of being somebody. For Burchill, the only way to gain that stature is through writing in public.
Julie Burchill is risky – politically, socially and theoretically – but through her perniciousness, feminist theory, politics and writing may be renewed. She embodies much of the potential for a blending between cultural studies and cultural journalism which has its origins in the nightclub and in the High Street rather than the University. While journalists have always engaged in cultural critique, questions of style were rarely granted currency outside of fashion pages. The Face , however, changed the rules of British publishing. The Facewas published from May 1980, exactly one year after Thatcher assumed office. It was so effective in its construction of an audience that it was termed ‘The Magazine of the Decade’ in 1985.
The bratty, insolent, but upwardly mobile child of The Face was The Modern Review . Featuring ‘low culture for high brows,’ The Modern Review became the home of ex- Facereaders who, through the fault of gravity, could no longer wear spandex leggings. It was edited by Toby Young and founded and financed by Julie Burchill. Crucially, too, the connection between cultural studies and this new form of journalism was strengthened through the presence of a Cultural Studies editor on the staff, Matt fftche. Subjects varied from fashion to the Flintstones, and encompassed numerous feature film, television and book reviews. Regular columns had titles like “Naff things publishers do” and “Art for Bart’s sake” (Simpson of course.) The paper was knowingly (and teasingly) theoretical, poaching the storytelling style of Generation Xers. The ambivalent intellectualism of The Modern Reviewwas matched by a real celebration and appreciation of the popular.
As is common within cultural studies, The Modern Review rendered popular culture an intensely special form: the sound track to parties, the photographs of significant moments or a cinematic trace of powerful social or political instants. The reading practices seem lost to time, leaving only the sweat on a dancefloor, anonymous people smiling out of a photograph and torn movie tickets. To grant meaning and significance from such texts is profoundly different from an individual historian ‘responding’ to a dusty document. As Suzanne Moore warned, ‘you can’t feign an interest in popular culture and then hold back when something gets this popular.’5 A belief in the crucial role that popular culture holds in defining the historical present cannot be faked. The dynamism of the texts renders non-enthusiasts the appearance of fools and outsiders.
Like all good cliches, The Modern Review had to loose its place in the semiotic sun. It ended with issue 21, from June-July 1995. The hands that created it, Toby Young and Julie Burchill, also destroyed it. In an article titled ‘The end of the affair’, Young told the story of how his young assistant editor, the devilishly named Charlotte Raven, and his long time friend, Julie Burchill, became lovers and tried to gain control over the Review. ‘Faced with the prospect of my kingdom falling into enemy hands, and with nothing left in my treasury, I decided to torch the place.’6 Certainly, the publication offered a potent cocktail of cultural populism, political cynicism and nonchalant street-wise ambivalence. There is something poignant and tragic about the Burchill-led dykonstruction of The Modern Review . Yet I am reminded of what one reviewer termed the publication: an ‘Offspring of the union between Cultural Studies and Thatcherism.’7 It is appropriate that Burchill, the sage and muse of the Thatcher years, snuffed out a pivotal link between academia and journalism, theory and politics.
If we are to gain anything from that woman , then perhaps lessons are derived from her intensely public existence. Her words capture the spark of celebrity and the sheer panic and strain involved in the maintenance of rhetorical power. Without formal qualifications, the tensions of being ‘an accredited intellectual’ do not weigh down her prose. As a celebrity, rather than a scholar, her feminism has more to do with Fredricks of Hollywood than McRobbie of London. The desperation to leave provincial England, to get on the Underground and go somewhere , provides a challenge for Cultural Studies to leave the drab, frumpy language of the academy and just occasionally jaunt into a stylish semiosphere. Perhaps through cultural journalism, a space may be found for a Julie Burchill to make it big, inspiring others to make a future of their choosing.
Tara Brabazon works in the Department of Communication and Media Studies, Central Queensland University, Rockhampton, Queensland, Australia.
Reprinted with permission from UTS Review, contact [email protected]