Australian Feminism and Cultural Critique, circa 2002

Tara Brabazon, Ladies who Lunge: Celebrating Difficult Women (Sydney: UNSW Press, 2002); Sylvia Lawson, How Simone de Beauvoir died in Australia: Stories and Essays (Sydney: UNSW Press, 2002)

Reviewed by Margaret Henderson

© all rights reserved

In a difficult climate for Australian publishers (academic or otherwise), it’s refreshing to see the University of New South Wales Press publish two works of cultural critique, both unashamedly feminist in politics and with radical intentions. While their subject matter and approaches differ, Ladies who Lunge and How Simone de Beauvoir died in Australia (surely one of the best titles a girl will hear) both position themselves as part of a struggle against a reactionary historical context, characterised by a depoliticising amnesia. They have a shared concern with feminist history and with finding alternative paths to it, as well as providing us with distinct examples of the practice of feminist cultural studies. Thus Lawson’s and Brabazon’s texts can themselves be read as representative parts of a history of contemporary Australian feminism, revealing shifts in intellectual formations, ideology, and central issues.

For both authors, the alternative path to feminist history necessitates new forms of writing and different types of ‘evidence’. Brabazon’s is a more conventional form of academic cultural studies, based on close readings of popular culture texts such as James Bond films, aerobics, Star Trek, and wrestling, in order to trace the impact of feminism, and to construct “a dialogue with our times” (ix). As her title suggests, she celebrates a variety of difficult women in popular culture (that is, those women who “do not simply re-play the familiar feminine rhythms of life” [xi]), casting them as role models for contemporary feminism.

Brabazon notes, however, that “[t]he way this book is writtenthe howis just as important as the subject matterthe what” (ix). “I write bristling words for the tough broads who like to laugh and thinkat the same time” (ix). Consequently a particular voice emerges, blending humour, polemic, personal anecdotes, a defiant tone, and academic textual analysis, used to elucidate contemporary feminist issues. This combination of narratorial voice and subject matter means that Ladies who Lungeoscillates between being a feminism of popular culture and a popular feminism. Brabazon dislikes the generational narrative used to interpret the women’s movement (as I do), and interestingly,her work is indicative of a far more politicised voice for relatively ‘younger’ or less established feminists than that which tends to find space in the media.

Although the cover, title, and back cover blurb packages the book as popular feminism, it’s clear that Ladies who Lunge writes back directly at certain types of popular feminism and feminist cultural studies which, as she shows, verge on being anti-feminist or, at least, relatively apolitical. In place of Catherine Lumby’s Bad Girls and its specific form of stereotyped remembering we have Difficult Women. In contrast to Kathy Bail’s DIY Feminism, “this book does not celebrate individual women’s success” (x). And instead of the Girl Power charades we have genuine anger and a politicised use of popular culture. That is, Brabazon understands feminism in terms of a women’s movement and thus as a political struggle. It is related to a feminist past that needs to be remembered and acknowledged, unapologetically, for any analysis of the present context to make sense.

While the book promises much (to capture “moments and movements of meaning” [x]) it suffers from an unevenness that can be attributed to tone and language, and to the way these works in its oscillation between popular feminism and a feminism of popular culture. Sometimes the sassy, pop culture-savvy, feminist voice jars. Sometimes the energetic language can’t obscure a weakness in argument or evidence. And the essays don’t always cohere to the stated aims of the collection. Instead, we have a number of essays on feminist cultural studies that could more easily stand on their own. Most of them, however, are good, and Brabazon does raise issues that have been ignored in more conciliatory/conservative forms of feminism; issues such as spinsterhood, not wanting to have children, the pleasures of playing sport, the vacuousness of consumer culture. The essays on the masculinisation of aerobics and on the female wrestler, Chyna, are excellent versions of a feminist sports culture analysis. Her essay on the Body Shop is a powerful anti-imperial critique of feel-good capitalism. And the Star Trek piece imaginatively links popular cultural representations with the problems of women in leadership. Perhaps there is a marketing imperative operating, but I think that the ‘straight’ academic essays in this collection demonstrate that feminism doesn’t have to take on the shape of popular genres to be accessible or more effective.

Given her particular intellectual history in the Australian Left, her work as a journalist, and a longer involvement with the women’s movement, Sylvia Lawson and her voice represent a quite different feminist intellectual trajectory. In a number of places in her collection she laments the lack of diversity and a blunted critical edge manifest in the Australian media. She hopes for a journal that would address this lack by publishing writing arising out of a synthesis of “academically based critical work and the so-called mainstream”, and “critical journalism and the literary magazines” (89). The form of writing in How Simone de Beauvoir died in Australiaexemplifies this hybrid. Lawson’s cultural critique is based on the ethos and style of investigative journalism, allied with a strong emphasis on history. To this combination she adds a blend of fiction, memoir, the reading practices of a literary critic, and an extensive knowledge of cultural theory. Each essay is composed of a number of smaller sections, varying in tone and subject matter, yet continually brought into conversation with each other. New angles of vision are refracted through the fragments.

While her writing and voice seem quite distinct from Brabazon, her aim has affinities. If Brabazon makes a foray into feminist history through popular culture, then Lawson’s seemingly disparate essays construct a feminist-inflected alternative history of Australia, through a similarly diverse range of texts. “These stories and essays take up . . . complicated moments in the news, a book, a film, a big public event, a famous death . . . What’s being sought is understandinghow these moments and events are our business; how, in fact, they’re local” (9). The death of Raymond Williams on 26 January 1988, for example, acts as the catalyst for an examination of his work, particularly in terms of the entanglement of history, culture, and politics; of his legacy to Australian cultural studies (and its decidedly anti-Marxist turn); and how Williams might help us better understand the Bicentenary celebrations. The fiftieth anniversary celebrations of the publication of The Second Sexforms the kernel for a detailed and imaginative reading of Simone de Beauvoir’s history in/of feminism, her use of diverse forms of writing, and her political positions regarding France and imperialism. All of these work together as a model for a committed Australian feminist writing and politics. Lawson’s is one of the finest and most original essays on Beauvoir that I’ve encountered.

The collection’s seven essays and stories range across the federal government’s recapitulation over land rights, the Australian Bicentenary, censorship in the Indonesian media, the betrayal of West New Guinea/West Papua by just about everyone, and the deaths of Simone de Beauvoir and Raymond Williams. Lawson implicates Australia’s recent political and cultural history as part of an imperialist and an often anti-social democratic narrative. Her readings challenge any comforting notions of Australian national self-identity, suggest what we might learn from our near neighbours, and are excellent examples of how a truly radical postcolonial critique might proceed.

Yet interestingly, while the title and the other deaths explored within the pages might suggest mourning, Lawson is not pessimistic. Her political and cultural models of Williams, Beauvoir, and the Indonesian poet-journalist Goenawan Mohamad do not allow such a response to the current context of Indigenous and regional injustices. With the disappointments there are the moments of hope, which she also records; the Aboriginal march on Invasion Day, 1988, for example, and the enormous hope invested in Cathy Freeman at the Sydney Olympics. As Lawson suggests early on, “at least for one maddening flash, it appears that Anzac could be displaced, other stories could be central. It depends what you can see through that suddenly widened window; it’s possible, after all, that justice and excellence might be at home here, and among our neighbours we could even imagine some recovery of national honour” (7). Her unique version of political memoir is one step towards that view.


Margaret Henderson teaches in the Contemporary Studies Program at the University of Queensland’s Ipswich campus. She is working on a book which analyses the ways that the Australian women’s movement is being remembered.

If you would like to contribute to this discussion, please email [email protected]