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American critiques of Australian racism: the KFC ad & the Hey Hey imbroglio

10 Jan

Not long ago I spent a stint of insomniac nights wandering through Joe Bageant’s Deer Hunting With Jesus: Dispatches From America’s Class War, written in the last waning period of George Bush’s presidency. Honed from his  blog, Bageant’s style has a gonzo extravagance about it. He mixes political rants with a sassy gum-chewing snappiness – and as the subtitle of his book suggests, he does not mince words. (How many Americans would use the term ‘class war’?).

In spite of his deliberately intemperate style, Bageant in many ways treads a more nuanced political line than most well-off American liberals.  He writes about the people in the conservative and working-class American town in which he grew up – the sort of people derided as yokels and white trash by affluent Democrats – in a way that is at once scathing and affectionate. Bageant manages to excoriate the individualist politics and racist sympathies of his white working-class former neighbours, and at the same time to passionately deride the contempt with which middle-class West Wing-wannabes direct their way.

Something of the same nuance is in order concerning the response from certain sections of the American media to the racist faux-pas aired on Australian TV over the past few months. Yes: it was naively racist for a bunch of white-ish Aussies to black up for a nostalgic skit on the Australian variety show, Hey Hey It’s Saturday in October last year. And yes, the more recent KFC ad depicting an Anglo-Aussie cricket supporter winning over black West Indian spectators with a bucket of fried chicken – that was naively racist too. Racism can come from gauche stupidity as well as from malicious intent.

The blackface performers on Hey Hey It’s Saturday in Oct 2009, appearing with bozo host Daryl Somers

It is no longer widely remembered in Australia that audiences here once flocked to blackface minstrel shows back in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In these shows, black people were depicted as simpletons who thought of nothing but fried chicken and happy-go-lucky dancin’. Even though that racist caricature has not survived in popular memory here in the way that it has in the US,  where it originated (and even though there are obviously huge disparities with regard to the two countries’ histories concerning race relations), it was still stupid for Australian television to air material that brought those demeaning depictions to mind. But as for the chorus of denunciations about these incidents mixed with a sneering air of superiority from some American commentators – well, that deserves a rant worthy of Joe Bageant in my view.

After the Australian KFC ad was lambasted in the US, there were a whole range of comments by American viewers and talk-show hosts which served to juxtapose backwards Australian racism with soaring American progressivism:  “Yeah, coming from the same people who almost single-handedly wiped out the whole race of aborigines (sic). You people are the worst. I’ve had friends who visited Australia and they told me how it is over there”.

The same kind of commentary attended the Hey Hey, It’s Saturday imbroglio. On the TV talkshow The View, one of the co-hosts declared: ‘we are in what people like to call post-racial America right now… we are trying to grow as a country and that’s kind of a demeaning sketch that we would never do here anymore’. Other commentators emphasised that it was an American judge (Harry Connick Jr) who criticised the skit on air (‘thank goodness Harry Connick Jr was there to be the voice of reason’) and ended with a jibe at Australianness: ‘hey hey, we’re talking about kangaroo land, after all’.

A white reader of the Newsweek then cut to the chase. “Thanks Harry Connick, Jr. for showing the world that all whites are NOT racist buffoons’, she wrote. We see here that white middle-class American prestige is the real thing at issue so far as most of those objecting to the ads are concerned – something that would surely prompt a ‘here we go again’ from Joe Bageant were he to comment on these storm-in-a-teacup controversies. Methinks a little less ego-stroking and a little more humility from any non-blacks implicated in our racist histories, both American and Australian, would not go astray here.

City Traces

1 Jun

I’ve been going back to plenty of the classic Australian urban histories lately, to oldies-but-goodies such as Shirley Fitzgerald’s Rising Damp, Andrew Brown May’s Melbourne Street Life, Ronald Lawson’s Brisbane in the 1890s, & Graeme Davison’s voluminous back catalogue. It put me in mind to visit Julia Shiels’ Melbourne art-blog City Traces again.

Each of the natty yet poignant treats in the discarded series on this blog sums up what it means to be interested in urban history with a concision that never fails to please:

Some things cast long shadows

the city and its strangers#7 (Elizabeth St, Melbourne)


the city and its strangers#15 (Little Collins Street, Melbourne)

Such is life

the city and its strangers#9 (Tattersalls Lane, Melbourne)

The latest thing

On Punt Road Hill

The War of the Roses, Pt I: A Review

15 Jan

The War of the Roses, directed by Benedict Anderson for the Sydney Theatre Company

For the entire first act of the Sydney Theatre Company’s The War of the Roses, Pt 1, a condensed version of Shakespeare’s plays on that subject, gold rains thick on the stage. It is just little rectangles of tinsel, but so much of it that the actors become wreathed in goldenness, stuck to their hair, shoulders, sometimes to their eyes and mouths, and to their hands and wrists like gloves.


Photo: Steven Siewert, Sydney Morning Herald

Cate Blanchett, seated at the front of the stage all in cream, a crown on her pale hair, her luminous face through this golden downpour, is a mesmerising King Richard II. The first act (all-but-two hours of it) is devoted almost entirely to her King’s soliloquising. It is all about Richard’s conviction of the divine right of his kingship, the fact that his whole being is saturated in his kingship, and what happens within when this is taken from him. Blanchett makes every moment of that riveting: now laughing, now crying and despairing, now defiantly mocking Bolingbroke as he takes her Richard’s crown. Sometimes the falling gold created optical illusions: at moments it seemed Blanchett’s Richard was moving upwards, the whole stage borne towards the ceiling by the force of his self-reckoning. Extraordinary.

After Richard II’s death and the second act is bereft of Blanchett, however, I can’t say I felt the same way about the rest of the production. Based largely on Henry IV and V, this act charts the descent into the horror of bloody and still bloodier war. While Richard II’s murder was represented bloodlessly, Hotspur and his father and the other sundry victims are slick with the stuff when they die. Gone is the shimmering deluge of gold: the stage is bare of everything here except a muso playing guitar and the various liquids – blood, spit, cum, honey, pitch, and Falstaff’s vile sherry – which are sprayed or poured or smeared or spilt over the course of proceedings.

I am of two minds about the pared-back contemporary dress and grunge chords which accompanied this act. Certainly, it means one thinks about these plays and their bleak violence in new ways. I can hardly even imagine it in period costume now, with a fat merry Falstaff instead of the seamy Aussie wino compellingly played by John Gaden.

But really, the seediness of the thing went too far. Dressed in his drab blue shirt and black jeans, Robert Menzies, who played Henry IV (what is it with these Australian actors with the names of Prime Ministers?) was not a compelling king. Unlike Blanchett, he acted all in one tortured register, and overdid it at that, which palled after another two hours. And for God’s sake, his Henry wears a McDonald’s bag cut with eyeholes at one juncture, stumbling about to a backing of grimed-up guitar, in a moment not only ugly but silly.

The stripped-back quality of this act would have worked if it gave a sense of concentrating its human intensity, as it did in Blanchett’s portrayal of Richard II. But in the end, it seemed to amplify its self-consciousness – to put it bluntly, to try too hard.

The War of the Roses, Parts I and II play at the Wharf Theatre, Walsh Bay, Sydney, 5 Jan – 14 Feb 2009 

Call for Papers: The Girl in History

4 Nov

Next year, on 1 July 2009, the Australian Network for Research in Women’s History will be holding a day-long conference at the University of the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, which I am organising. Here is the theme –

The Girl in History

What does it mean to be a Girl rather than a Woman in history? What does it mean to be interested in the study of younger rather than older femininities? How exactly does one distinguish between these things, and what are the consequences of doing so?

The Network for Research in Women’s History invites papers which consider questions of young womanhood and girlhood in history. Of particular interest are papers which attempt to work through some of the conceptual, methodological and political issues raised when historians focus on youthful femininities. Other potential topics for papers are:

• The position of girls in past youth subcultures
• Histories of girlhood or ‘girl culture’
• The ‘Australian Girl’ and her relationship to Australian national identity
• The ‘Modern Girl’ and her relationship to histories of modernity
• Personal reflections on writing about the feminisms of one’s youth
• Personal reflection on what it means to be a young woman writing gender history, or a man writing about young women in history.

Abstracts of papers to be considered for this conference should be emailed to Dr Melissa Bellanta at the University of Queensland (, ph: (07) 3346 7410) no later than 6 February 2009.

Proto-feminism on the East End stage, c. 1885

9 Oct

Kick-arse female characters like Jennifer Garner in Alias or the Charlie’s Angels are often seen as distinctively late twentieth-century creations – a product of feminist or post-feminist gender politics. But in the reviews of late-Victorian melodramas I’ve been reading lately, it appears that such go-grrrl characters have a longer lineage.

Before Walter and Frederick Melville began producing their bad-girl melodramas at East London’s Standard Theatre (the subject of my last post), that theatre was home to a series of plays featuring late-nineteenth century versions of Lara Croft. These plays starred an actress called Amy Steinberg, who was given top billing in Standard playbills and posters during the late 1880s.

Standard Theate productions were no small affairs. They attracted nightly audiences well in excess of 3000 and (unusually, for an East End theatre) a smattering of flattering commentary in the London press. In the last half of the eighties, many thousands of London theatregoers would thus have seen Steinberg star in what were sometimes called ‘comic heroine’ roles. In plays such as The Lucky Shilling, The Silver Wedding and The Royal Mail, she appeared as the vivacious sidekick to the more traditional heroine, and in each case her character ended up saving this heroine through feminine derring-do.

In A Dark Secret, Steinberg played May Joyce, the energetic sister of the lily-white female lead. During one febrile scene, a French villainness took a horse-whip to this slender sister, reducing her to screams for mercy. Moments later, Steinberg’s character burst onto the stage and knocked the Frenchwoman to the ground. ‘Give it to her well!’ was shouted from the audience during the fisticuffs which followed. In The Lucky Shilling, she leapt onto a balloon before it took off to the skies and beat off the villains within. In the final scene, she shot one of the villains in the leg and extorted a written confession from him of his dastardly deeds.

In The Royal Mail, Amy Steinberg played a divorcee called Catherine Wade who took control of a mail-cart (a real one, with real horses) before tracking down the bad-uns and giving them what they deserved. ‘What will they say? A female is driving the mail!’ called out one of the male characters after Steingberg seized the cart. ‘Don’t they always?’ Steinberg retorted as the cart careered by.

The popularity of dashing women in late-Victorian productions may also be found in places other than the Standard Theatre. There were plenty of female highwaymen plays produced during this period – and not just in East London, either (indeed, one was playing in Melbourne a couple of weeks after the Australian bushranger, Ned Kelly, was executed on 11 November 1880). And there were also plays featuring highwaymen or attractive thieves played by female actors in drag. The perennial popularity of Jack Sheppard as a role for women could be seen in Mrs East Robertson’s portrayal of the rascal prison-breaker at the Britannia Theatre in Hoxton in 1898. In 1874, too, James Greenwood described a play at a Whitechapel penny gaff called Gentleman Jack, or the Game of High Toby (a ‘toby’ being flash cant for highwayman). It featured a woman dressed in regulation tight breeches and thigh-high leather boots, brandishing pistols and striking swashbuckling poses. This character, who also received top-billing on posters outside the gaff, was received with approving roars from the crowd. And she too ended up saving the heroine before marrying her at the end of the play.

Melodrama characters such as Steinberg and the penny-gaff toby had the versatile benefit of appealing to male members of the audience as feisty women with sex-appeal, and to female members as embodiments of what we now call grrl-power. What a shame that so many of those first-wave feminists regarded East End theatres and gaffs as snake-pits of iniquity, don’t you think – for surely here was a form of proto-feminism being offered in melodramatic guise?

(Okay, so this isn’t an image of the highwaywoman from 1874 … I stole it from Helena Love’s flickr site)


John M East, ‘Neath the Mask: The Story of the East Family (London: Allen & UNwin, 1967), p 203

James Greenwood, cited in Paul Sheridan, Penny Theatres of Victorian London (London: Dennis Dobson, 1981)

Royal Standard Theatre, Bound book of programmes and clippings, Enthoven Collection, V&A Theatre Archives

A. E. Wilson, East End Entertainment (London: Arthur Burker, 1954), p 130

Sydney Morning Herald, 30 November 1886, p6 (reference to The Female Highwayman, a two-act drama, playing at the Opera House, a then down-at-heel venue not far from the Rocks).

NB see Jim Davis’ discussion of the characters played by Sarah Lane at the Britannia Theatre, Hoxton, for references to similar dashing female roles in the 1860-70s: Jim Davis, ‘The Gospel of Rags: Melodrama at the Britannia, 1863-74’, New Theatre Quarterly, 7.28 (November 1991), pp385-6

Network for Research into Women’s History (Australia)

20 Jul

The Australian Historical Association conference in Melbourne was overly big and unwieldy, as always: it is always less rewarding to go to something with masses of parallel sessions like that than to a smaller affair. The best part of the conference for me in this regard was the Network for Research into Women’s History, organised by Penny Russell: a day’s session on ‘Feminism and Sexuality’. There was a sense of collegiality and even intimacy there which was absent from the rest of proceedings.

In particular, Susan Magarey gave a wonderful and even hilarious paper on the sexual experiences and attitudes of second-wave feminists in Australia, herself included. Many of the people she was talking about were in the room: people who came of age in the 1970s, so to speak, and were either laughing or blushing as she went along. That was quite special. I had the sense, though, that there were far more of Susan Magarey’s peers in the room than there were women in their thirties like me or younger. And I can’t remember any men at all in Susan’s session (there were perhaps three in the session in which I gave my paper earlier in the day).

The Network for Research into Women’s History needs younger men and women to sustain itself in future. So if you have it in mind to come to the day session at the Australian Historical Association’s conference on the Sunshine Coast in July 2009, let me know. I will be organising it, on a theme yet to be decided. Suggestions welcome.

The allure of prudery

9 Jun

Artistically speaking, the upsurge of prudery in English culture during Victoria’s reign was a boon to its comic poetry and song. So says J S Bratton anyway, in her now-venerable work The Victorian Popular Ballad (1975).

Before inhibitions about sexual display and discussion were on the rise, hack writers put out broadsheets aplenty (home-printing jobs on single sheets of paper, offered to passers-by by roving sellers in the street), full of baldly bawdy jokes in verse. But with greater reticence came greater ingenuity. Public prudery ‘put at an end to the threadbare reiteration of old jokes about sex in the old words and with the same old range of innuendoes and variations’, Bratton says. It forced writers ‘to look for new ways of making their point’.

The rich range of sexual allusions which became part of the Victorian music hall’s comic songs would not have developed absent this growing restraint. Nor would audiences would not have found suggestive songs so delightfully risque. The prohibitions on overt references to sexuality fostered the conspiratorial rapport which developed beyween singer and audience, making it hilariously naughty when Champagne Charlie popped his bottle in an ejaculatory burst of froth, or when a girl was said to have  ‘never had her [bus] ticket punched before’, or when erotic meaning was invested in a commonplace word and a raise of the eyebrows.

Advertising today still frequently trots out lines about being ‘sinfully indulgent’ or deliciously ‘devillish’ or ‘naughty’ – usually by buying chocolate or drinking ice tea, or something equally banal. But since there aren’t the same restraints on public discussion of sexuality, those suggestions are hackneyed and meaningless. There isn’t the same conspiratorial allure or comic mileage to be had from the risque anymore, not in an age of gross-out comedy and the bald literalness and acessibility of porn. Perhaps that’s part of the reason that there is a growing fascination with Victorian sexual mores and the allusive comedy of the music halls (I’m mindful here of the slated docu-series on Victorian sexuality said to feature Rupert Everett as narrator, and of course the range of scholarly literature touching on the relationship of public prudery to sexual practice in the era, from the work of Peter Bailey to John Tosh to Joy Dixon to Jeffery Weeks, to the innumerable volumes on Oscar Wilde’s trial and divorce scandals a la the Beecher and Tilton affair). An age where the limits of permissiveness were more sharply drawn – in public, at least – is fascinating to those operating within quite different, if uncertain, parameters.

Voting for fun

9 Apr

The latest issue of M/C is out now, an online journal of media and culture. It looks at voting and citizenship, and has an article by yours truly called ‘Voting for Pleasure, Or, The View From a Victorian Theatre Gallery’.

I wrote the article in response to claims that various forms of voting-for-entertainment represent a coming epoch of direct democracy in Western culture… that old everything-is-democratic-is-good chestnut that still seems to count for so much in media and cultural studies. Actually, voting-for-entertainment isn’t all that new. As I show in the article, popular theatrical audiences regularly experienced the thrill of evicting performers or cheering for the ones they liked in rowdy Victorian theatres. Those forms of de facto voting hardly won them political gains or other freedoms outside theatre galleries. So what makes new media commentators like John Hartley so convinced that current forms of voting-for-fun (like Idol, or online polls) are so emancipatory now?

Towards a truly constructive criticism; or, the perils of peer review

19 Feb

Every academic experiences it at one time or another, and yet I have not read an honest discussion of what it feels like to have one’s work raked over by an anonymous peer review. The whole endeavour of scholarly enterprise depends on the rigorous assessment of work provided by review processes, and at least in theory these are freed from toadyism or fear of reprisal by the mechanism of anonymity. And I do agree that anonymity is significant. If someone asks you for your opinion of their work, it is often hard to really give it honestly. You worry about their feelings if you say something critical, perhaps, toning it down because you don’t want to jeopardise your friendship. And a more junior person may well feel prevented from honesty in some measure if asked to assess a more senior colleague’s work.

Nonetheless, there is also something about the nature of anonymous comment which invites a highhandedness or snarkiness of manner that I think is one of the curses of academe. The fact that you do not have to worry about the author’s feelings in an anonymous review seems to be taken by some as an invitation to unfeeling waspishness, or a chance to blow one’s own trumpet in an underhanded way.

I have received some of the best and most valuable constructive criticism of my own work via anonymous review. I can absolutely say that it has challenged me in ways that I am hugely glad for now, and know that this will continue to be the case. Criticism is difficult to receive even at the best of times, but there is no growth without it – and it is in many ways a boon to be able to receive it privately, having time to absorb it without anyone witnessing your initial (often crestfallen) reaction. But I have also received nasty reviews, and even if sweetened by recommendations of publication, or at least some faint praise, it makes for an excoriating experience. Early academic life is an uncertain and difficult business enough as it is without having work you have laboured over for months imperiously dismissed. And at such times, there is a sense of injustice that  it has been provided without accountability because it is anonymous. 

This post in part a reminder to myself: may I avoid the little thrill of superiority that comes from demonstrating my command of an intellectual field (or what I imagine to be my command of the field) at another person’s expense. I think we need to work hard at fostering a culture of truly constructive criticism: warm, rigorous, involved, aiming at really getting to the nub of an argument or expanding ways of thinking about an issue rather than choosing to snipe at someone else’s contribution, or to seek self-aggrandisement that way.

An absence of eloqence? Australian speech in the 1890s

18 Feb

Once again I’ve been reading Don Watson’s exquisite diatribe, Death Sentence (2003). It’s an important book. It rails against the mangling of language by big companies – and even worse, the adoption of their managerial verbiage by politicians and public servants. It’s also a rollicking book. “This is a clag sandwich with the lot”, he writes after citing a particularly mealy example of corporate-speak. I laughed out loud at that one. 


Now that I’ve been reading back over reportage of the Maritime Strike of 1890 for my chapter in Crucial Moments, however, I’ve found myself questioning some of the historical arguments Watson makes. Australians were never bred to be eloquent, he says. Across our history since 1788, we’ve been taught not to enjoy the sounds of our own voices, to avoid flights of sentimentality, to shy away from verbal extravagance. At the turn of the twentieth century in particular, no animating ideals appeared on which to base a sense of Australian nationhood: ‘none at least that were articulated’.

Even a quick glance at the speeches of trade unionists during the Maritime Strike, or the histories of it written by Labor leaders over the following years, suggests that this was not always the case. Here is the New South Wales Labor leader George Black, for example, writing in 1915:

‘The magnificent loyalty of the strikers… and the splendid self-denial of their martyred wives, were equal in heroism to the undying deeds which are blazoned in the glowing pages of history’. 

And what about William Guthrie Spence, a union leader and Labor MP?:

‘The trades unionist workers – men and women – are the true heroes and heroines of the world. Their names are unrecorded in history, but their work lives after them and has given colour and force to a Movement which cannot die, but is becoming more powerful and better understood as time goes on. After all, names matter not; it is deeds that count’.

What, too, about the manifesto issued by Queensland’s Maritime Council in August 1890, calling on unionists to support a group of marine officers on strike: ‘The same spirit of union courses through their veins which thrills in ours’? 

Historian John Hirst writes about the sentimental language accompanying the ideal of federation in late 1890s Australia. We hear a lot about the pared-back prose of bush poets in this era, he says. But most Australians did not take the work of Henry Lawson or Banjo Paterson all that seriously at the time. They saw it as light and ephemeral verse, lacking ‘the nobility, the profundity, and moral elevation thought proper to poetry’. Real poetry was of the kind William Gay wrote, so high-faluted it is liable to induce altitude sickness in those unaccustomed to the style:

‘From all division let our land be free / For God has made her one: complete she lies / Within the unbroken circle of the skies…

O let us rise, united, penitent / And be one people – mighty, serving God!’

So it seems that the absence of a rhetorical tradition in Australia is actually a matter of historical forgetting: more of a lack of eloquence in subsequent historians and publicists, perhaps, than at that formative time.