Reading Peanuts

A short time ago, I began to re-read the pile of Peanuts paperbacks which were originally my father’s.

The characters, and moments from the books, were a sort of code between Dad and me. Mostly it was just silly things – a gesture of Snoopy’s or a phrase of Linus’ that we both recognised, that was the perfect shorthand for whatever it was we felt at that moment.

But beneath that was the way the cartoons expressed a certain relationship to life. To read these books again after a matter of decades is like finding myself coming up behind my eight-year-old self, and re-reading them with her, over my own shoulder.

Only now do I even begin to suspect what it was I absorbed from those pages, from the mind of Charles M. Schulz.

* * *

The character of Charlie Brown, though created in 1950, is like an antidote to that noxious and oppressive optimism that infects aspects of modern life and corporate work life in particular. He perfectly captures a certain low-level depressiveness which – I’m going to take a punt here – you will detect in any number of moderately sensitive human beings, if you dig just a little.

There’s no doubt I recognised something in him – in a direct and intimate way – his shyness and insecurity, his predictable disasters, his catastrophic failures of confidence – counterbalanced by his ever-renewed hope, trust and effort, mingled with outright flights of fantasy. But: there was a steady thread holding these opposing trends in check – basic goodness and integrity, an essential steadiness of character.

Then there was that tendency to never quite feel at home in the world.

I see now that I intuited my father in this character, and in as much as I saw myself at that time as being like my father, I saw myself in Charlie Brown as well.

* * *

But if I consciously identified with a character, it was Linus van Pelt, Lucy’s little brother. Mainly it was his younger sibling status, as this was my status too. As he said, ‘So much in the world depends upon who gets born first’: an acknowledgement of power relations in place from the start.

Linus was quirky, smart, and had a leaning towards the spiritual. If I didn’t actually sit in a pumpkin patch once a year, waiting for the Great Pumpkin to appear and select my pumpkin patch as the most ‘sincere’, I could still relate to the sorts of yearnings that Linus felt.

Then again, I also, in a sense, ‘identified’ with Snoopy: another ‘weird little kid’. Or perhaps it’s just that I loved him: his imaginings – World War I flying ace, hockey player, author, ferocious mountain lion, penguin impersonator – and his little house, with its endless interior spaces and possibilities – his Van Gogh (lost in a fire) and his Andrew Wyeth – his stereo, pool table and cedar closet. His front door was always open. Somehow, I wanted a life like that.

* * *

I didn’t, though, identify with any of the female characters. Or if I did, it was a complicated sort of identification that, in retrospect, seems to have involved more rejection than alignment.

I saw Lucy – a powerful figure – largely in terms of her big sister role and her charged relationships with others.

Other than Lucy, the other female characters represented mostly a certain kind of girl in whom I could have little interest: what girl really could? Violet, Patty, Sally, Frieda – all more peripheral characters – were inclined towards unkindness and vanity, gossip and unconsidered opinion. As people, they seemed inconsequential.

Two characters introduced later in the series, Peppermint Patty and Marcie, seemed to reverse this picture. Peppermint Patty was confident, blunt, assertive, generous, and managed a baseball team. Marcie, her friend, was intelligent, bookish, kind, truthful, and given to calling Peppermint Patty ‘Sir’.

Their presence suggests that Schulz was not only conscious of the situation of women, but anxious to show real, modern females. Still, their role in Peanuts is contrast; they are there for their foibles, their particularities. It says a lot that Schulz noticed and took care to depict such characters, but they have limited appeal, or at least they did for me.

So then the question is, just how does this identifying business work, if I could find so little to identify with in the female characters of Peanuts?

Was it to do with merely identifying myself, as did presumably Charles M. Schulz, with the main protagonists – with Lucy representing an antagonist?

Did it work any differently because I came to these characters as a child rather than as an adult? That is, at this time in my life, was I as likely to identify with males as with females?

It makes me think of a conversation I had with a friend in my teens. How as we’d got older we’d looked to the accomplishments of Mozart, measuring ourselves against his life, seeing ourselves as somehow failing as we’d aged past certain of his milestones – first composition at five years old, first symphony at eight, etc.

It sounds ludicrous in retrospect since certainly neither she nor I were geniuses – but early on in our lives we felt distinguished enough by our ‘potential’ that this actually made a sort of sense. Maleness/femaleness was irrelevant to this idea, or seemed so.

I likewise regarded Leonardo da Vinci – the prototypical ‘Renaissance man’ – as a model of what might be possible in life. Brilliance in both art and science! Was it hubris? Was I praised too much? Or is that just how it works for children in a certain environment … who latch on, imaginatively, to the most exalted human being they know of, without questioning …

Was there an element in the identifying process of actually rejecting the female – or rather, the portrayal of the feminine – in Peanuts, not only because it was less central but because aspects of it were on some level sheer poison: manipulative; gossipy; trivial; uncaring if not cruel; intellectually, spiritually and philosophically disengaged?

The concerns of the males seemed universal; the concerns of the females, solely female. Even Charlie Brown’s obsession with baseball spoke to the deeper obsessions and inadequacies of all, despite its distinctly male qualities.

I write this, but I don’t really understand it …

* * *

Thinking this does not diminish the powerful, empathetic pull of the characters I have loved for so long. Only now, I can look at it and recognise how less-than-ideal Peanuts often is as a representation of females and the feminine.

I can’t know what Schulz had in mind, but I don’t believe he meant to diminish women; only to express what it is to be human.

Though the girl characters may be a little out of date, it is still possible to spot their mode of interaction in gaggles of girls and women today. (Though of course it is, and has always been, only a small part of the expression of femininity.)

As for Lucy: it seems to be, if anything, not so much depicting her as dreadfully, horrifyingly female as highlighting with painful sensitivity her plight as a human being. Knowing especially that she loves to build and to create, but is compelled to pull her creations to bits again. Understanding that she wants more than anything to be loved and honoured, but is doomed to forever sabotage her own efforts towards this. What part of Schulz’s life, of his psyche, did this emerge from, I wonder?

I discovered this in The Female Eunuch, in the chapter ‘Resentment’:

A far better account of the miserable destructiveness of womankind is made by Charles M. Schultz [sic] in his characterization of Lucy van Pelt in the brilliant saga of Peanuts. Lucy’s constant nagging anxiety, her imperviousness to all suffering but her own, her ruthless aggravation of Charlie Brown’s inadequacy fears, her self-righteousness, her jealousy of Linus’s blanket, her utter incomprehension of Schroeder’s music together with her grotesque attempts to vamp him, her crabbiness, her fuss-budgetry, the diabolical intensity of her housekeeping, her inability to smile except maliciously, her effect on Charlie Brown’s ill-fated baseball team, it’s all there and any woman who cannot recognize, however dimly, her own image in that unhappy little face, has not yet understood the gravity of her situation …

It was written in the late 60s, and – whether or not you agree with this account of the general situation of women in those days – things have certainly changed since then.

Nevertheless, even if you (if a woman) do not see yourself, as Germaine Greer suggests, in Lucy’s ‘unhappy little face’ – have you not known a woman – if not perpetually like this – at least recognisably inclined to enter this mode of suppressed rage, of inarticulate repression, from time to time?

Yet Lucy is the one with the greatest apparent power, strength and capacity at this moment in time that Schulz has depicted in something like 18,000 cartoon strips, through her voice, her physical strength, her knowledge of how to immediately get what she wants. Only Snoopy seems able to truly stand up to her – illustrated, for example, by a two-hour arm-wrestling match between them which Snoopy breaks by kissing her on the nose – and this is not through the expression of masculine qualities (despite his hero fantasies), but because he represents creative potential.

Lucy exists in a world where her power, strength and capacity are doomed to be frustrated – her ideas about how she might be satisfied (through marriage to Schroeder, largely) already compromised by her requirement to acquire her needs through others, rather than directly through her own efforts.

* * *

It wasn’t until I went to university at an all-women’s college that I was immersed in a world of positive and conscious identification with the female, both in life and in literature – as opposed to merely being exposed to it. Is that even comprehensible?

It seems late – too late, perhaps. But too late for what?

One thing I do know is that I always felt human – fully human. (Whatever that means!) But I was going to have occasion to re-evaluate that idea about myself down the track.

I might have seen myself as ‘human’ before I was ‘female’, but something important was missing.

I now think, for a woman to have a peaceful relationship with her femininity, her felt experience cannot be one of continually seeing the female diminished, outshone, trivialised.

She must conceive of herself as neither satellite nor antagonist to the universal protagonist, but as protagonist herself.

I imagine what that would be like: knowing only a reality of femaleness and maleness balanced – equally privileged to thrive and to be expressed, and to be the expression of what we are.

We’re getting closer to that all the time, of course. We are.

© From the desk of a tiny person 2015

Woman in a state of dysphoria

dysphoria  (noun)  A state of unease

* * *

I’m on the tram, entering Melbourne from the southern suburbs, coming up to the intersection of Flinders and Swanston streets, when it hits.

Bonds – the Australian underwear brand – has gone for complete saturation in its ‘100 Years of …’ campaign. There are smaller ads behind the benches at the tram stop (‘100 years of bums’), there’s a larger one appearing periodically in the electric signboard wrapped around Young and Jackson on the corner (‘100 years of wow’), and finally there’s the huge billboard topping them all: ‘100 years of babes’. Babes.

Bonds 100 Years of babes editWhat kind of make-me-puke, patronising language is that?

That this particular ad happens to include a couple of men, not just women, doesn’t really improve things. In fact, it could hardly be a more perfect illustration of a straight-up split between your bog-standard masculinity and femininity. The boys are muscular, they’re wearing more clothes and they look ready to jump in and ‘drive’ … whatever it is that needs driving. The girls are very slender, they’re exposing more skin, and by their looks and postures, they’re communicating they’re probably OK with not driving right now. I’m sure somewhere in their real lives they’re as ready to drive as the next person; they just aren’t being encouraged to communicate that right now.

Don’t get me wrong. I know it’s all meant in good fun. And don’t think it’s the amount of skin being shown that’s getting to me, either. As underwear goes, Bonds is pretty innocuous.

What’s getting to me is seeing my own kind perpetually represented as utter boobs. And this – layer upon layer of ads, in the very heart of the city – amplifies the effect a hundredfold.

As if that weren’t enough, L’Oréal is presenting a campaign on the other side of the tram stop. ‘ColourRicheMakesMe …’ More pouty faces – passive, ever-promising.

L'Oreal tram edit

Seriously! Are they for real?

Of course, no one takes ads literally, least of all the people who create them. Everyone knows they are about brand recognition and persuading people to buy stuff. Everyone recognises the tricks of the trade, the game that’s being played. I mean: don’t they?

Yet behind all the strategies, all the noise of advertising, is one mammoth deceit: that to respond to the choices they present is an exercise in genuine power. Those whispery, distracting choices that are not so much about briefs or boyleg, orange fever or silky toffee, as they are about opt in or drop out

And it is that opt in or drop out message that gets us in the gut, that haunts so many of us every time we think about what our life might be and how we’re supposed to set about making it happen.

Is that what we want? For our environment to be choked with images that set us up to believe opting in is first and foremost about maintaining a mirage of self? That it is necessary to look and behave in certain ways before we can even begin to feel entitled to act, to challenge, to count?

* * *

Dysphoria – a profound unease – is to look up one day and see your own kind represented everywhere you look, and to nowhere see yourself.

It is not that I want to see physicality like mine represented everywhere I go. I’m not talking about wanting to see tiny women like me looming from billboards and tram stops, posturing and flaunting. ‘Tiny’ doesn’t much express my self-identity in any case. The me‑ness of me.

It’s not the body, as such, that I’m talking about.

I’m talking about power, capacity, mind.

Many women refuse to be an ornament, and to fritter away precious life on what is merely ornamental. Let me see that message dominating the advertising and media, everywhere I turn.

Many women have accepted the challenges and responsibilities of choice, and have made their own way, prepared to ride the consequences. Let me see that kind of courage plastered across the heart of my city.

Many women know that to stop and to wait and to fantasise about what life might bring is pure poison to a living soul. Let me see represented those women, who are realising the pure and serious ambitions of their girlhood.

* * *

The performance of ‘femininity’ attached to being female – have I ever really understood it? Why on earth do we acquiesce to it even still? Stand that way. Walk that way. Wear that thing. Show or not show. Bend your head and bare your neck. Smile. Smiiiiile.

Some women say that being different to the ‘ideal’ freed them, as girls, to follow another path, to define themselves another way.

Molly Ivins, a political commentator whose particular speciality was covering the toe-curling shenanigans of Texan politicians, wrote:

I should confess that I’ve always been more of an observer than a participant in Texas Womanhood: the spirit was willing but I was declared ineligible on grounds of size early. You can’t be six feet tall and cute, both … I spent my girlhood as a Clydesdale among thoroughbreds. I clopped along amongst them cheerfully, admiring their grace, but the strange training rituals they went through left me secretly relieved that no one would ever expect me to step on a racetrack …

Sometimes it’s our inability to fit in that saves us – writers, artists, entrepreneurs, and general treaders-of-the-road-less-taken.

* * *

If you were a bit more clued in than I generally am about these things, you might have recognised that one of the models in the blitzkrieg of Bonds ads is the Australian rapper Iggy Azalea. In fact she is the new Bonds ‘ambassador’, aka ‘brand babe’. (Could two terms be more oxymoronic?)

And you might say – well – isn’t she an example of a woman making it happen? Getting on with her stuff? Choosing?

And yes, she absolutely is. After all, she moved from Mullumbimby to Miami at 15 by herself, partly to get away, partly to pursue her interest in music. She’s got to be the opposite of gutless. But still she’s in there, pouting and posturing like the others, in fact outdoing them on all counts.

Like I said, Bonds underwear is pretty innocuous. Iggy brings an injection of sex hitherto unknown to Bonds advertising. Or at least, that was my reading of the situation, until I read this quote from Pacific brands chief executive David Bortolussi in the Australian Business Review:

‘What we love about Iggy is her straight-talking, can-do, Aussie girl personality.’

Uh … right.

* * *

There are antidotes to all this. I mean, apart from moving to your own desert island or writing frustrated blog posts or just somehow remaining inured to it. They are like tiny bursts of colour – impudent knots – in a huge fabric of business-as-usual.

Australian comedian Celeste Barber sends up the posturings of celebrities in photos she posts on Instagram.

Sonia Singh, a Tasmanian scientist made redundant from Australia’s primary science research organisation, CSIRO, had the brilliant idea of taking a handful of overpainted dolls and replacing their ludicrously exaggerated ‘make-up’ with natural-looking features. Photos of the dolls went viral, and a new business was born.

There’s a ‘#nomakeup’ Twitter feed and stories crop up from time to time of women (and occasionally men like Karl Stefanovic) who are challenging the conventions of ‘feminine’ presentation.

What’s striking, though, is how often these are about expressing what women are not – that is, that women are not just about their bodies – while making the challenge in a way that is still body-centred.

Is it my imagination, or do we grow more faint-hearted when we try to express just what it is we are?

Perhaps it’s that we’re reluctant to exchange one straightjacket for another? Fair enough.

Maybe that leaves us more space to challenge, to enact, to invent, to hammer out our real and our possible selves with commitment, if not downright ferocity.

Maybe that Leaves us free to focus on women can do, not on what they are or what they look like.

Next International Women’s Day (Tuesday, March 8), I want to see the intersection at Flinders and Swanston given over to HUGE images of women who are getting on with their stuff – and trampling the gender divide nonsense underfoot while they’re about it. No posturing or pouting.

That would cure my dysphoria, right enough.

© From the desk of a tiny person 2015

Grace Jones, and it’s all relative

The conversation turned to Grace Jones, whose music Daniel was playing as he cut my hair. ‘You know Grace Jones,’ he said. ‘She’s not that tall.’

Daniel, who owns the salon, Knows People. It turned out she had dated a friend of his.

‘Wow,’ I said. ‘In pictures she looks huge.’ Thinking of a portrait of her I’d seen in a magazine decades before – Jones at full height – dressed, as I remember it, in a minimal amount of shiny black plastic. Since there was no one to compare her to in the photograph, the impression remained of an exceptionally tall, physically powerful woman, one who would tower over most men as well as women.

Daniel laughed, a bit startled, and said, ‘But of course, it’s all relative.’

What he meant was, maybe I had chosen the word ‘huge’ because I am under five foot myself.

But it isn’t all relative – not like that.

* * *

My world’s not so different from Daniel’s: the average height range that I interact with is the same. When I look out at the world, I don’t perceive it as being peopled by giants, just because I am unusually small.

Likewise, when I look inward to myself, I perceive myself neutrally – without height. I fill my personhood completely, without deficiency.

The story shifts, though, when it comes to interactions with people and things. When I bump up against the world. That’s when it starts to become relative.

* * *

A woman said to me once, ‘What happened to you?’ Not really a question.

No sooner do you begin to navigate the social space than you begin to observe how people respond to difference, to otherness. Sometimes it’s with curiosity. Sometimes it’s with reserve or uncertainty or nervousness about how to speak or behave.

Sometimes, it’s with outright repugnance; where difference is received and responded to as if it were an illness – something festering and contagious.

* * *

There is a whole literature of disgust out there, including a compilation of papers enticingly named The Revolting Self.

Joshua Greene, author of Moral Tribes, has noted that ‘Disgust … is a “withdrawal” emotion that originally evolved to expel contaminating substances, such as feces and rotten meat, from the body.’

However, disgust has come to perform a far more complex role in our social interactions. It keeps us away from, or limits our contact with, those who might be ‘contagious’: either in the sense of actual physical illness or disease, or through moral defilement or deviation, or through the mere suggestions of any of these.

It operates, too, on the social level, to separate us from those who have suffered misfortune, or who are unknown to us, and are therefore potentially risky to us. Who may extract a social cost.

We reserve some of our most vehement disgust for the body which deviates from the ideal, e.g. the impaired or obese body. Theorists say this may be because such a body displays, and reminds us of, our universal vulnerability as animals to disease and damage, to death and decay.

Steven Seidman writes of the ‘Other’ as being seen and experienced as ‘defiled’, existing in ‘an existential space between the human and non-human’, and mocking ‘what is considered normal, healthy and civil’.

The Other may as a result experience exclusion; being set apart from the usual social and political order; being denied decision-making capacity; and losing, or never gaining, respect, honour and dignity.

It is likely we will be, every one of us, challenged to view the object of our disgust with humanity; with any comprehension of their personhood.

* * *

Andrew Solomon observes in Far from the Tree that terms such as ‘illness’, ‘syndrome’ or ‘condition’ are often used to ‘disparage a way of being’, while the word ‘identity’ is used ‘to validate that same way of being’. The reality, he suggests, is that many people experience both ‘illness’ and ‘identity’ as part of the same concept of self. He suggests that what we need, aside from a new understanding that accommodates both in a complete view of the self, is ‘a more ecumenical take on healthy’.*

What might this new take on healthy look like? Feel like?

The answers may lie in another key idea of Solomon’s – an epiphany, as he describes it:

Having always imagined myself in a fairly slim minority, I suddenly saw that I was in a vast company. Difference unites us.

It is not merely that there are numerous social groups, each with their specific, often isolating, ‘difference’, which share this deep unity. It is not simply that an attribute, like a birthmark or obesity, can render a person ‘different’; that a change of circumstance, such as ageing or a slide into poverty, can render a person different, who never was (in that way) before. It is that ‘difference’ is a fundamental part of being human: we are, each and every one of us, different from one another.

It is this, I think, that healthy looks like: an understanding, highly developed and valued across society, that we each have our imperfections, our vulnerability to harm and misfortune; a consciousness that even what we view as ‘perfect’ in ourselves or in those we love may appear anything but to someone else. That what we view as flawed in another may be anything but, in their eyes.

On a political level, a healthy public realm consists of each part of society being able to be seen and heard; being able to present its perspective and to make its case. There is no single perspective or voice, no perfection, no normal, which can stand for all of us.

As Hannah Arendt posited in The Human Condition, the very fact that ‘everybody sees and hears from a different position’ is why being seen and heard by others matters.

Achieving this kind of conversation on both a political and an interpersonal level must mean learning to put aside, to cease assuming a right to, the automatic expression of disgust for others whose personhood is other than we think it should be.

As for what a more ecumenical take on healthy might feel like: I think it might feel like a self that is not only at ease with itself by itself; but which, out in the social space, is privileged, like any other, to expand into full personhood – without prejudice, and without even the remotest expectation of experiencing the defilement of disgust.

* * *

Given the point I’m making about the many perspectives that exist and that must be acknowledged if we are to have a healthy social/political space, the logic of denying Daniel his ‘it’s all relative’ in our conversation seems questionable.

But of course, there are commonalities, too, for the people in a society, especially those who share a common space. Each one like a pivot point of agreed value or measurement, around which perspectives shift and flow. It might be something as trivial as the average height of the population. It might be something as crucial as recognition of the universality, and value, of our differences.

I imagine these commonalities emerging, existing, being reaffirmed over time, through the conversation; and shifting, too – evolving over time – as we converse.

© From the desk of a tiny person 2015

To the woman who believes Adam Goodes should apologise to her (once) 13-year-old daughter

Dear Joanne

I’m not sure if ‘Joanne’ is your real name, but they say in the news this is how you are known, so I hope you won’t mind if I call you this.

I have been thinking a lot this week about the way people are responding to Adam Goodes, the way they are speaking about him.

I have watched the unedited video of Goodes speaking to the press in May 2013 after your daughter, Julia, called him an ‘ape’ from the sidelines of the Collingwood/Sydney match.

I have also watched a short video in which Julia says she didn’t mean ‘ape’ as a racial slur. She appears to be smiling, a bit giggly, but it could just be nervousness, the unaccustomed attention.

You – I assume it is you – appear at the end, explaining that she is just a naïve young girl from a country town who ‘doesn’t really get out that much’.

In the press conference, without hiding the hurt she has done him, Goodes stresses her young age, her innocence, the fact that she didn’t know what she was saying. Just as you do.

Yet now you, along with others, are saying that Goodes’ response to that incident – gracious and thoughtful as it has been – has contributed to the constant booing directed towards him over the subsequent two years.

This, although he has only ever been supportive of her and understanding of the circumstances which led her to say what she did. Here are his words:

Unfortunately, it’s what she hears, the environment that she’s grown up in, that has made her think that it’s OK to call people names. I can guarantee you right now she would have no idea how it makes anyone feel by calling them an ape. I think it was just a name-calling that she was doing …

He insists, has insisted from the beginning, on the need for others to be similarly supportive and understanding of her, to not target her on social media or anywhere else.

Despite this evidence of his insight, his generosity of spirit, you have advice for him. It is that he ‘probably should apologise because maybe he should have picked his target a little bit better’.

Yet you know perfectly well he did not ‘pick’ her from the crowd: she drew attention to herself. Loud and clear, with a banned racial epithet.

He did respond, instantly, to hearing the epithet directed at him by a person – identity and age in that instant unknown – sitting on the other side of the boundary wall, as he happened to run past it.

You also say that ‘having her questioned by police without an adult being present was absolutely disgusting on the part of himself and the AFL’.

I agree with you – she should not have been separated from her guardian under any circumstances.

Yet you must know that Goodes had no control over the way security at the Collingwood/Sydney match responded to his request to have her removed from the crowd. Racial vilification is banned by the AFL. Offenders, if they can be identified, must be removed.

Goodes regretted, intensely, that this particular offender was just a young girl.

He’s made his feelings about the experience abundantly plain, with words like ‘gutted’ and ‘cut’ and ‘shattering’. He’s explained how hearing a young girl call him an ‘ape’ reduced that moment – of team victory, as well as of glowing personal achievement – to nothing.

You describe this expression of profound feeling as ‘carrying on like a pork chop’.

Your lack of empathy for him can surely be explained by what this whole business has meant to your family; what it has done to Julia.

But no. In the Sydney Morning Herald last week, you are quoted as saying that your daughter has ‘been going on quite nicely, she’s at school, and she hasn’t worried about this event at all’.

OK, I’m sorry about this, Joanne, but I’m having trouble understanding what you can possibly mean then when you say, ‘I do think people shouldn’t boo him at the football, they should be trying to encourage him to be a better person than what he is.’

Just how does this work?

How much of a ‘better person’ does Adam Goodes need to be before we can relax from trying to improve him?

Let’s for the moment put aside all the honours – being Australian of the Year for 2014 – twice winner of the Brownlow medal – three times his club’s ‘Best and fairest’ player – and an incredible array of other football achievements. Let’s put aside his work for Indigenous Australians through the Go Foundation, which he co-founded, and his advocacy against racism. And let’s put aside the challenges of his Indigenous Australian background, and the anguishing, absolutely disgusting fact that his indigeneity is still, still something we’re having to talk about in terms of ‘disadvantage’ and that he has to deal with, as baggage, every day.

This man – this football legend – has treated your daughter with gentleness and concern. When he spoke at the press conference of your daughter’s innocence, he was not being a fool, and he was not playing to the media. He was being generous. He was doing everything he possibly could to give her a chance.

And Julia has that, if she is encouraged by you and others to take it. A magnificent chance. To turn this moment around, to become a young woman who’s learned to challenge behaviour like her own at thirteen. Who, perhaps, can lead others.

Another thing that was clear in that video. People speak of Adam Goodes as a leader and a spokesman for Indigenous Australia. But that’s only part of the truth.

Judging from his conduct and words in the video I’ve watched today, he is far more than that. He is demonstrating there what a strong, dignified, moral human being looks like.

To me, he looks like a role model for all Australians. You and me included.

With best wishes –

© From the desk of a tiny person 2015

Theseus’ paradox and the search for Australianness

In the thought experiment known as the ship of Theseus or Theseus’ paradox, the boat in question, due to the decay over time of the wood from which it was originally built, is gradually rebuilt, plank by plank, until none of the original planks remain. The question then goes: Is it still the original ship of Theseus, or is it a new ship entirely?

The philosopher Thomas Hobbes asked what would happen if you used all the old, discarded planks to build a new boat. Would that be the true Theseus’ ship, or would it be the one gradually replenished, over time, with new planks? Which represents the true heritage of Theseus?

While I’m looking at the website of Reclaim Australia, one of several groups involved in anti-Islam protests in Australia last weekend, it occurs to me that ‘White/Anglo’ and ‘Christian’, when viewed as being fundamental to what it means to be Australian today, are like the planks in the second boat, the one recreated out of old timber.

In which boat would I rather set out on a long voyage? The boat built of newer, sturdier planks, always being replenished, or the boat built of discarded planks, weak and rotten in places?

* * *

Riding on the Cranbourne line a few months ago, passing through suburb after suburb – from Toorak to Springvale to Dandenong and on through Merinda Park – I realise, as the houses flash by, and people of all kinds get on and off, that I don’t know this country at all.

I mean, I know plenty of stuff about it.

But I’m not sure I really know who ‘we’ are, or what is constant, apart from the ground beneath our feet.

Is the land itself all that keeps us from floating apart?

* * *

On the Left, it is often said that our conservative government has used fear to curtail our freedoms and to turn us against the people who have risked their lives to find asylum in Australia.

But I am beginning to think that the fear goes deeper than that. That it has to do with the fact that the Australian identity feels so nebulous at times that we have trouble knowing what we are; knowing what is constant.

Because of that, I think many Australians fear newcomers who appear to be more sure of their identity, especially when they are so sure that they flag it with distinctive clothes and customs, which they retain even after they become Australians themselves.

Has that fear come to define my country?

* * *

One of the groups involved in the anti-Islam rallies is proposing a complete rewrite of the Australian Constitution and a radical revision of the structure of government. They feel the current Constitution and system of government are failing ‘We the people’. They have helpfully provided a draft Constitution on their website.

The hubris of it is breathtaking, but the feeling behind it – deep frustration with almost everything the government says and does, a sense that we only seem to be going backwards – may be something that is shared across the Left/Right divide. For what that’s worth.

* * *

Mind you, the Australian Constitution does contain some weird nuggets from the past.

It still lists New Zealand among the possible original states (with New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, Queensland, Tasmania and Western Australia). It specifies the salaries of the Governor-General (ten thousand pounds per annum) and the Ministers of State (twelve thousand pounds per annum). It greatly emphasises the role of the Governor-General, while not mentioning anywhere the role of Prime Minister.

Worrying rather than merely quaint, though, are the sections which take for granted that the state and federal governments may wish to create legislation with a specific racial bias.

Section 25, for example, relates to ‘Provisions as to races disqualified from voting’.

Section 51 (xxvi) allows the federal parliament ‘to make laws for the peace, order, and good government of the Commonwealth with respect to … the people of any race for whom it is deemed necessary to make special laws.’

The intention of the latter, often called ‘the race power’, was expressly to enable parliament to control ‘alien races’, as is described in ‘The Races Power and the 1967 Referendum’ by George Williams. The particular concern at the time – in 1900 – was to do with foreigners, especially Chinese, gaining mining rights and hence, presumably, threatening the livelihoods (and, it was often suggested, the morals) of British Australians.

Section 51 (xxvi) was adjusted in 1967, following a much celebrated referendum, to remove the words ‘other than the aboriginal race in any State’, which were seen as being discriminatory against Indigenous Australians.

However, ironically, given the intentions of the 1967 decision, Section 51 (xxvi) has actually allowed the federal government to pass legislation that negatively targets Indigenous Australians, as in the case of the Northern Territory Emergency Response. Even the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 is no protection, as the federal government may override it.

I am happy to report that the Constitution does, at least, prevent the government from ‘prohibiting the free exercise of any religion’.

* * *

In 1873, in Clunes, the gold-mining town where my grandmother was born (somewhat later than 1873), there was a riot.

Management at the South Clunes mine had tried to force its miners to accept Saturday afternoon shifts or lose their contracts. As Saturday afternoon was a customary time of rest from a job that was already dangerous and hard on miners’ health, the miners, understandably, went on strike. When the nearby Lothair mine decided to abolish contracts altogether, and to force its miners to work not only Saturday afternoons but Sunday nights as well, they went on strike as well.

While the strike at South Clunes was resolved fairly quickly in favour of the miners, the one at Lothair continued for several months. The mine directors attempted to bring in European miners from Ballarat, but they refused to come. Perhaps they were persuaded by the appeal, published in the Ballarat Courier by the Clunes Miners’ Association, to refuse the work.

Eventually the directors decided to turn to Chinese labour. A large party consisting of mine directors, Chinese miners and police descended on the town, preparing to break the strike. Having got word they were coming, something like a thousand townspeople – men, women and children – turned out to greet their arrival with a ‘fast and furious’ barrage of sticks and stones, and succeeded in driving them away.

Was it a racist riot or simply a matter of economics – of feeding the family?

Whatever the underlying feelings and motives of the Clunes strikers, the commentary which followed was like a tidal wave of anti-Chinese sentiment, such as this relatively mild example (noted in ‘Class and racism in the 1873 Clunes Riot’ by Jerome Small):

Why should these Mongolians … enjoy the advantages of this colony, which were only intended for Europeans.

Somehow, I think, that sentiment hasn’t entirely gone away.

* * *

Later my grandmother lived in Box Hill, an area of Melbourne that changed dramatically over the fifty years that she and my grandfather lived in their war service home.

At the Box Hill shopping centre, the largely Caucasian population has gradually become more Asian in appearance. With its Chinese, Malaysian, Vietnamese, Thai and Korean businesses, its overflowing and raucous Chinese markets, it is a different world from the one my grandmother knew.

The old-timers who’ve been living in their houses for half a century find that their neighbours are different and that somehow values have shifted in ways that are deeply felt and often resented – for example, in the choices made about real estate and appropriate housing for the area.

Some of these old timers, not all of them, refer to ‘Asians’ with a certain hard emphasis on the ‘A’. The ‘zh’ sound is a baring of the teeth.

Crossing a street in Box Hill with my grandmother one day, her hand tucked under my arm, I try to move us gently to the left to avoid mowing down a young woman of Chinese appearance coming the other way.

My grandmother jerks at my arm, hissing, ‘We don’t give way to them.’

I know her feelings are different things rolled into one – her resentment of the changes to the place she knows, the shared attitudes of people she loves, and the distrust of ‘Japs’ still lingering from the war – but still I’m rocked by this aspect of my grandmother that I’ve never seen before.

It had darted out like a snake’s tongue, then disappeared again. Just the once.

* * *

The cartoonist First Dog on the Moon, documenting his history of taking in foster dogs, describes how an incumbent animal ‘Glares at each new dog like the child of migrants who hates asylum seekers.’

It reminds me of the taxi driver – a migrant from Turkey, perhaps? – who complained to me about the ‘Asians’ taking over Box Hill. That word. That same bite.

Him a migrant.

Me too, going back a few generations.

* * *

The ABC reporter Sarah Dingle in ‘My interview with a white supremacist’ describes how Matt (the supremacist’s) early impression of ‘Asia’ was of a mass of people trying to take over Australia. He’d had family members fighting in Vietnam; fighting the Japanese in World War II. His grandfather had died in a Japanese POW camp.

‘At the time, especially in Western Sydney, we were just told that, these Asians are trying to take over like they did, you know, the Japanese tried to take over,’ he said.

‘So, you know, they’re just trying it again, but this time they’re trying to come in and live here, you know. Buying up all the property and all that sort of stuff. So, just because we have that background anger and the whole community going on about it, that’s why we only targeted Asians.’

He was angry, and his reaction to that, and to what was being said in the community, was to form a group of violent extremists. They had planned to carry out a massacre. Not just on Asians – on ‘Lebanese homeboys’ too.

He sees things differently now, he says; but he also says that, to some degree, the hate is still there.

* * *

In her article, Sarah Dingle also mentions, by way of introduction to her article, the ‘covert’ assumptions she experiences as a person of Malaysian Chinese background. That she is a poor speaker of English. That she is part of that Asian-looking group being shepherded through the boarding queue at the airport. That it is appropriate to ask her where she is from.

* * *

There is a young man with dark skin standing at the intersection of Flinders and Swanston streets, facing the Flinders Street tram stop and the traffic which has stopped for the red light. He is holding a large sign in front of him that says: ‘We experience racism every day.’

Who is the ‘we’ he is referring to? People of dark skin (of any background)? Perhaps the asylum seeker community? I want to step up and ask him, but feel daft. It seems not to be, after all, the right question, given what he’s trying to communicate, standing there bravely by himself.

Then again, his message isn’t ‘Racism happens in Australia every day.’ It is ‘We experience racism …’ So perhaps the ‘we’ is not irrelevant, at least not to him.

I sympathise, only half understanding the message; but I don’t stop.

* * *

Amal Basry, one of the few survivors of the 2001 Siev X disaster in which 353 people died, speaks in Steve Thomas’s documentary Hope of spending 22 hours in the water. She survived by clinging onto the floating body of a woman who’d died.

The things she has known are almost overwhelming.

Why would we waste the things she has to tell us? Why would we not want to know?

* * *

I’m getting a lift home. The driver is about to move into the right lane, but stops at the last minute.

‘I’ll just wait for ISIS guy,’ she says. ‘In the turban.’ As if it wouldn’t be a good idea to cross him.

‘That would be Sikh,’ I say. Avoiding the enormity of what she has actually just said.


* * *

And so the ship sails on, being perpetually rebuilt, plank by plank … toward a time when we might not even recognise it, except for a certain something about its shape.

Whether we like it or not. Whether it’s easy or not.

© From the desk of a tiny person 2015

Womankind, and the thinking woman (a review)

The ‘thinking woman’: what is she? Who is she?

I instantly picture a female version of Rodin’s sculpture, The Thinker. And swiftly discard it.

When I come across a description of Benedict Cumberbatch as the ‘thinking woman’s crumpet’, I know just what that means.

And when I read about a new magazine that’s aimed at ‘the thinking woman’, I know just who she is.

Or do I?

* * *

Womankind issue 1

Issue 1: Simone de Beauvoir

The Australian quarterly magazine Womankind, now a year old, has been described as the ‘thinking woman’s magazine’. It seems like a good way for me to get to the bottom of what ‘thinking woman’ might actually mean.

The magazine’s editor and founder, Antonia Case, told Mumbrella that she wants to position the magazine to ‘reflect the very intelligent and worldly women, who travel, who live in different countries etc.’ She stresses that it is ‘not academic’, but that its aim is to bring ‘the best ideas we can from philosophy, sociology and economics, if we have to, to explain the world …’

The magazine is laudably ad-free and lusciously design-rich, with a cover that, according to Women’s Agenda, was voted one of the top in the world by German media website MEEDIA within a week of the launch of its first issue (shown above). By its own account, it has sold remarkably well.

I have Issue 4 right here at my elbow. On the cover is a collaged image by Charis Tsevis of Frida Kahlo, composed of leaves and flowers. Each issue is organised thematically by country and by animal or insect: this issue it’s Mexico and bees.

Frida cover

Issue 4: Frida Kahlo

Accordingly, alongside the feature on Frida Kahlo herself is a photo shoot of ‘Frida Fashion’ designed by Austrian artist Susanne Bisovsky (not Bisovksy, as it is misspelled in the magazine); an essay on ‘Women as revolutionaries’ which focuses on the Zapatistas of Mexico; a piece by Charlotte Wood, ‘Cooking as revolution’; a short article about a town called Cherán in Mexico where the women held loggers hostage as part of a strategy to take back control of their local natural resources; ‘Memoirs of a volunteer’, written by Cate Kennedy about her volunteer placement in central Mexico; an article on magic realism which references (of course) Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude; a photo essay featuring the work of Peruvian-born artist María María Acha-Kutscher; a feature on the vast border enforcement apparatus now in place between Mexico and the United States; and snippets on the Spanish-born surrealist painter Remedios Varo, and surrealism more generally. There is also a set of surreal photos from the series Flying Houses by French artist Laurent Chéhère.

The bees are represented by visuals throughout; an article on colony collapse disorder among bee populations; a delightful visual bee glossary; a couple of short pieces in the beginning pages; and a profile of Katherine Lyall Watson, an urban beekeeper. ‘Flower hunter’, on the artist Leonie Norton, fits in nicely.

At the end are reviews of books and videos that also relate thematically. And interwoven is content unrelated to the two themes, including the winners of the Womankind Photographers’ Award II; pages of contributions from readers logging their ‘No news week’ experiences; and an impassioned article by Alecia Simmonds, ‘The great Australian nightmare’, on Australia’s obsession with home ownership, which as I write is one of the five top reads on the Womankind site.

The magazine is a feast for the eyes and mind. Within its quirkily chosen themes it provides good variety and quite a few delights, especially for those who enjoy art, and promises to cover fascinating ground in future issues. While it bears a certain relationship design-wise to its sibling magazine, New Philosopher, of which Antonia Case is Literary Editor, the many one-off textures and flavours in the design, especially the distinctive and striking endpapers, attest to the enormous amount of work that has gone into its creation, and well and truly set the magazine apart.

Moreover, as much of the commentary around the magazine applauds, it steers away from the makeup and dieting tips, and the celebrity gossip, that we ‘thinking women’ have had enough of. That on top of the lack of ads make it a sort of safe haven from … certain kinds of messages about what women should want, or how we should behave, or what we are.

In fact, the magazine is determinedly empowering and inspiring – dare I say, ‘nurturing’? – with article categories such as ‘Happiness’ and ‘Ideas to change your life’ prominent on the magazine’s home page. (A little, in that regard, like Dumbo Feather.)

It also strongly encourages the inclusion and participation of readers through regular competitions and challenges, as per the photographer’s award and ‘No news week’ sections mentioned above.

All good.

* * *

It does strike me as curious that the comments on Womankind’s Facebook page seem to suggest there have been no other options among magazines for women readers. Comments such as ‘I almost cried, finally someone has addressed not just the desire but the reality that women are more than their body.’ Or ‘I just wanted to say thank you for creating a magazine with substance which offers more than just advertisements and beauty tips. I haven’t bought a magazine for over 3 years as the thought of flipping through another body shaming, oppressive waste of paper exhausted me.’

There are other magazines in the Australian market that offer substantial food for thought without excluding, shaming or shamefully limiting women. I’ve already mentioned Dumbo Feather and New Philosopher. What about the literary magazines, such as Island (with its current headline article on Marina Abramović) or Overland, with its many articles by and about women and women’s issues?

Womankind issue 2

Issue 2: Rachel Carson

Is it that they are all too academic? Too specific in their focus? Too ‘token’ in their representation of women?

Or not somehow soft enough? Not feminine?

Simply not ‘lifestyle’ enough?

What is it Womankind readers are after? Who are these particular thinking women?

* * *

The answer is: I’m not sure.

For me, tantalising as it is, Womankind has its shortcomings. Foremost among them are lack of rigour and overuse of conventional feminine imagery. Especially flowers.

Flowers first.

The insistence on floral imagery reminded me instantly of the marketing of certain brands aimed at women – feminine products among them. It might have been the pastel hues of the first three covers.

Dumbo Feather Issue-37 Clare BowditchI’m not a flower hater. I love flowers. I thought Dumbo Feather’s cover for Issue 37, featuring Clare Bowditch – with flowers – was absolutely stunning.

But it’s a one-off among the Dumbo Feather covers, and that’s because it’s tailored to Clare Bowditch.

A series of covers featuring the faces of strong women re-envisioned as flowerbeds (admittedly Issue 2 actually uses fish, but the effect is, nevertheless, floral) seems counter to what Womankind is trying to achieve. I want to ask ­– Still flowers for us girls? – this is the best a brave new magazine for women can do?

In Issue 4, the connection between Frida Kahlo and bold, botanical imagery makes sense, given the imagery in her art and her self-presentation. And this cover is glorious. But despite that connection, the bee and floral decorative elements begin to feel fussy and overused. There seems to be a bee or a flower on almost every spread, in a variety of styles.

And sometimes those elements jar; for example, why on earth is there a bee fiddling across the sky in the ‘Frontier wars’ double-page photo, which shows part of the barrier between the US and Mexico, with two people behind it; the hint of tragedy? It is in complete contrast to the serious tone of the piece.

Similarly, ‘The great Australian nightmare’ is encircled with a blue bee and flower frame on every page, with whimsical contrasting images of flowers and bees appearing on both spreads. The effect is infantilising, odd.

On to rigour.

While I appreciate the magazine is not aiming to be academic, it should surely aim to achieve rigour within its own parameters of short, thoughtful, meaningful pieces which look to a range of disciplines.

Chloe Angyal’s article ‘Women as revolutionaries’ gives the impression, until well into the article, that the tens of thousands of Mexican Zapatistas are all female. If you didn’t know better, you’d think this right through until the third page, where she states ‘… of the six current spokespeople two are women’.

In contrast, Angyal refers by name to six famous revolutionaries; only one (Aung Sang Suu Kyi) is female. This would be odd in any publication, especially given it is clear that Angyal is referring to a range of different types of revolutions, not merely the kind where arms and bloodshed are involved. But it seems particularly strange in a publication aimed at women. What of the suffragettes? What of – hell, why not – Germaine Greer?

Truthfully, the whole theme of revolution feels a bit wistful. I think Charlotte Wood’s piece on ‘Cooking as revolution’ is very effectively framed by her description of her mother’s ‘undercover life as a rebel’ and her own adoption of her mother’s ‘subtle revolutionary lessons’ in the kitchen, even if there’s nothing groundbreaking in the tips that follow. But there’s no suggestion in any of these pieces that we have need of real revolution right now … not here. Actual revolution is presented more as a Good Thing, generally. Something an Australian thinking woman would value and support from afar, but not actually participate in, let alone lead.

Moving on: I am puzzled by the sheer number of pieces which blend elements of pop psychology, philosophy and spiritualism – from ‘Memories of our ideal self’ to ‘Subterranean journeys in sleep’ to Flora Michaels’ ‘Where you stumble, there is your treasure’, which references mythologist Joseph Campbell’s ‘hero’s journey’; not to mention a short piece on feng shui.

To have one or two such pieces in the whole of the magazine would be simply to represent – to be inclusive of – a certain point of view. To have a cluster of such pieces, several of them written by the editor, tends to suggest that this is the voice, the perspective, of the magazine itself.

Putting aside the piece on feng shui, which along with ‘The big five personality test’ (also written by the editor) seem to be fairly standard ‘lifestyle’ fare, and putting aside also ‘Where you stumble, there is your treasure’, which is a more substantial essay on the nature of change, we’re left with the two short pieces by the editor: ‘Memories of our ideal self’ and ‘Subterranean journeys in sleep’.

‘Memories of our ideal self’ posits the idea of an ‘ideal’ self, as reflected in others we meet and remember long afterward. It’s incomplete – strangely unsatisfying – and ends abruptly on the question ‘why is this?’ which seems simply to steer us away from trying to understand the idea already put before us.

‘Subterranean journeys into sleep’ begins as a consideration of the uncharted journey of our lives, and particularly of our ‘journey in dream’. It then looks briefly at the way dreams have been viewed historically, and then veers into a critique of what science has done to the way we look at dreams today. Again it ends with a question: ‘… we mustn’t forget the response demanded by philosophers to the important question: “Why?”’ Why what, in this context? It isn’t clear.

These two fragments would not be out of place in a private notebook or blog, or in correspondence with a close friend. In such contexts, this kind of writing, despite its fuzzy thinking, suggests thoughtfulness, a questing spirit, a desire to get beyond the mundane. Its presence, however, in a magazine that purports to lift the bar intellectually for women, is problematic: it gives the ideas a credibility, a sheen of authority, they don’t deserve.

Such writing seems also to reflect a certain concept of female sensibility as being raw, naïve; explicitly valuing of multiple ‘subjectivities’ and minimal filtering or editing of those subjectivities.

While being a valid way to view what a female sensibility can look like, particularly historically and in contrast to the notion of an enshrined and exclusive male sensibility, surely these days we would not be inclined to accept it as a sure-fire guide to the kind of stuff women want to read?

I have to admit also that I was outright startled by the assertion, in ‘Subterranean journeys into sleep’, that scientists ‘continue to stifle thought with their bibles explaining how neurons secrete and fire’. Which is as good as to say, we women thinkers aren’t having a bar of this science business. Whoa! Believe me, if we were paying attention, we’d see how many scientists, many of them female, are doing their absolute best to open up our minds.

Come to think of it, we have a sociologist (Ruth Quibell) and an ecologist (Jo Immig) among the writers of Womankind Issue 4. Are these somehow the right sort of scientist? And the other sort, not?

The overall effect I come away with is of thinking lite. A wonderful, enchanting smoke-and-mirrors performance designed to make us feel we’re getting somewhere, while we remain right where we are.

* * *

What does it mean, to really think? It’s something we’re supposed to get from a decent education – or at least, that used to be the idea. The ability to take nothing at face value – to look at information from different aspects – to weed out the valuable from the irrelevant – to develop an instinct for when further information is required to understand something properly. It works towards a true understanding of a concept, a phenomenon.

Great thinking makes leaps, joins intimate understanding with creative process with the desire to understand, to solve. There’s a hunger to it. It rips through the tacit, the cozy. It’s unconcerned with getting an A in social graces or appearing to be on talking terms with surface knowledge.

Reminds me of Sherlock, really.

* * *

Alex Golub, an Associate Professor in Anthropology at the University of Hawaii, has tried to come to grips with what or who a thinking woman might be as part of his brief, and not overly serious, dissection of the term ‘thinking woman’s crumpet’. He says:

The noun phrase ‘thinking women’ seems at first cut to describe women who think, but this is not exactly right … I think that the term is meant to invoke a certain socioeconomic position and the entire set of habits and dispositions that come along with it: affluent and educated, refined enough to be attracted to someone’s personality as well as their looks, etc. ‘Thinking woman’ is just two words but for those with the cultural knowledge necessary to decode them it summons up an entire way of classifying people which is more or less systematic. In particular, it implicitly defines large swaths of the population as people who ‘don’t think’ …

Womankind issue 3

Issue 3: Nakano Takeko, the last woman samurai

Could he be right? Could being described as a ‘thinking woman’ say more about your social status and attitudes than about what you do with your mind?

Womankind, where it trips up, seems to suggest this analysis of the thinking woman (its reader) is right, in the way that it caters to certain predictable tastes and assumptions; in the way that it remains safe, and not too challenging.

Yet I am certain it is aiming at something more: substance as well as style; a genuine exploration of the world; a desire for understanding and for change.

In the belief that the woman who thinks is, after all, a game changer – a real revolutionary.

© From the desk of a tiny person 2015