Australian Journal of Cultural Studies
Vol. 1 No. 1, May 1983

Australian woman: a national joke?

Delys Bird

'A working man needs his beer at the end of the day before he goes home to face the tiger in the kitchen.'—John Murphy, Secretary of the Queensland Liquor Trades Union. (Women's Role, The National Times, July 12-19, 1980).

No originality attaches to the observation that Australian culture is androcentric; further, that it is insidiously crude in its attitudes to women and debilitatingly insistent in its denial of the value of that which it designates 'feminine'. This categorisation is much broader than a gender distinction. The 'feminine' refers not only to 'woman', but also to that cluster of cultural concepts which lie out side those ascribed by convention as 'masculine'. Notably, these include the in tellect, the arts and the emotions. Beyond that, they incorporate any sexual, psychological, social, political, racial or religious difference from the patriarchal conservative, chauvinist, therefore 'masculine', modes of behaviour and beliefs which are proffered and approved by Australian ideologies and which constitute Australian culture. This vulgar oppositional structure performs the convenient cultural and ideological function of excluding all that is not masculine, which then acquires the status of the 'other', and of assigning the 'feminine' a place outside the cultural space occupied by the dominant ideologies. Thus the now familiar signification of the sign 'woman' as the 'other', the 'unconscious', the 'instinctual' and so forth, extends in Australia to include all those things classified as 'feminine', and the category is established and circumscribed by the nomina tion of 'difference'. This process is similar to the one Kristeva identifies in About Chinese Women, where 'China' as a whole signifies the 'other' for Western culture; that is, it is feminised.

These generalisations assume that 'woman' is an identifiable cultural construct, and as such is inscribed and represented (in Althusser's terms) in the various signifying systems, those discourses, images and myths (Belsey Critical Prac tice, p.57), which are part of that culture and which form its ideoiogy. In a self fulfilling, circular demonstration of strength, Australian ideologies assert and simultaneously prove their masculinity. National identity is portrayed in solely male terms; 'mateship' rigidly excludes everything associated with the 'feminine' the bush is a masculine world; egalitarianism ignores female equality. Characteristically, women in Australia have been defined only by negation, that is by the lack of those male qualities to which the hegemony assigns value. Yet, paradoxically, they are dependent on the male-dominant ideology for this negative identity.

Since language is a "way of articulating experience" (Belsey, p.42), it par ticipates in ideology, and at the same time ideology is inscribed in language. Analysis of the way language presents the matrix of socio-cultural, historical and psychological representations of 'woman' in Australia through its social discourses can expose the force and completeness of the male-dominant ideolocv. To do this is not to assume that language is transparent or meaning

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unmediated, in a simple equation which asserts power based on language because language constructs reality Language constantly nat~ralises the dif ferences inscribed in it; thus language, like ideology, hides or smooths over the contradictions within the social organization and present in its discourses, myths and so on. But although 'woman' is subject to these ideological practices, it is possible to transgress the symbolic other—to take advantage of the outlawed state of the 'other'—by reading the social discourses of Australian culture from a position deliberately counter to that of the dominant ideology.

To adopt a position in opposition to prevailing attitudes and to their inscrip~ tion in various social discourses requires a conscious effort, one which seeks to expose the contradictions that occur between the way language names and defines women and the woman's own experience in her world, Language and discourse are revealed as both political and collusive, and the radical reading stance allowed by this knowledge is the one referred to by John Fiske in his paper, "Ideology and the Reading of a Popular Narrative", (unpublished article) that "refuses to accept the ideological closure of the text." For my purpose, the text exists in the discourses of everyday language, media language and jokes; forms predicated on ideological closure.

From the now celebrated remark which greeted the arrival of the first female convicts in Australia as "those...damned whores" to the contemporary if less public advertising slogan, "sheilas buy the shit", women in Australia have been subjects of and subjected to a demeaning nomenclature. Offered identification in one of two equally limiting roles, as either 'good sorts', the decorative yet despised objects of male lust, or 'good women', the traditional wife and mother, repository of 'culture' and symbol of morality, Australian women are labelled in a consistent and persuasive way. But it is one that denies them a place in their culture or a positive identity (which according to the national ideology can only be masculine).

By allowing their subjectivity to be constructed by the antagonistic culture, Australian women have no alternative if they wish to attain ideological identity and cultural specificity but to enter the male world by becoming a 'mate', adop ting the role which seems to offer comradeship and support, and at the same time negotiating a relationship with the masculine ideology. However, 'mateship' is a sign without signification. Supposedly signifying 'natural' loyalty to one's fellows, other men, it developed as a myth to manifest male self-belief and clari ty of identity. But 'mateship' actually exists to exclude the 'feminine', that is everything which is not 'masculine', and arguably it points only to the central experience of Australian life as one of massive doubt concerning social and cultural identity. Women who seek to join this male world must then internalise its doubt and are doubly disadvantaged, while their behaviour is patronisingly interpreted as deviant.

Deviance or difference is the subject of joking, a form of social discourse presenting a paradigm of cultural attitudes. As a signifying system, jokes are highly motivated and dependent on semantic closure, but can be deconstructed by the subject. Any number of Australian jokes revolve around the sexist assump tion that woman is the property of and subject to the acquisitive male world. An examPle: "What is a description of the perfect Australian wife? A deaf and dumb

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nymphomaniac, the only daughter of a recently deceased millionaire, who also owns a pub" exemplifies those masculine attitudes which suppress women within a one-sided sexual exchange in which they have only material value, which abstracts thought or feeling from the culture's concerns, and which rnost im portantly denies women speech. Represented and codified by the patriarchal language, woman is spoken by the culture, but cannot speak her own experience of the culture, nor can she speak within this culture.

As the butt of an endless series of such jokes, women in Australia are con trolled by the reductive force of these language games. Women artists who have left Australia testify to the difficulty and discouragement of living in a society in which the 'feminine' is habitually derided. Shirley Hazzard, an expatriate Australian writer, speaks of the culture as both philistine and misogynist, one that "sometimes (has) no hesitation in raising the brute laugh over a woman's appearance." (A.L.S., 10, No.2, October 1981) Those who stay and insist on a voice through public life or the arts, when silence is accepted as one signifier of the excluded female, practise what Dorothy Hewett referred to recently as a dual subversion. (Westerly, No.4, December 1982) Women in a predominantly male ethos, she says, "think subversively by nature and experience." To voice this experience the hidden subversion must be articulated, yet this possibility remains problematical, since there is no available feminine discourse. For Hewett, it must come "from that othercountry of spirit and physicality which still remains, for us, largely, uncharted." The territory of the 'other' is unchartered because it is unspoken. And it will not be spoken until the closure of the phallocentric social discourses is challenged.

To return to my opening epigraph, which appeared in the predictably minor space given over to "Women's Role" at the end of the Overflow column of The National Times. "Women's Role" is an ostensibly illuminating if gross indicator of Australian attitudes to women. This remark, apparently made to justify the Australian male custom of going to the pub for a beer with the boys after work, produces a startling metaphor for the Australian woman. Women are often typified by animal names—cow, bitch, cat and so forth—a device which naturalises by domestication according to a process in which nature is 'feminine' and distinguished from culture which is 'masculine'; in which, therefore, nature is controlled by culture. As an untamed cat, however, the tiger presents an in teresting mix of controlled and uncontrolled nature. This semantic ambiguity is reinforced by the ironic syntagmatic disjunction between "tiger" and "kitchen".

Potentially powerful, free and active, the tiger is restrained by domestication, confined and rendered passive ('kittenised') by being placed in a kitchen. These contradictions of meaning are expanded in the remark as a whole, which creates a clear distinction between the dominant "needs" of the "working man", who Is thus made independent and seen as participating actively in a social organiza tion, and the woman who is eliminated from this world as she is made sub-human, subservient and inactive. Denied identity by being animalised, she waits, restricted by her suburban location. Essentially ambiguous, the "tiger" symbol of woman is both 'wild' and 'domestic', signifying the displacement of women in the male world which excludes the 'feminine' because it is unnatural to the culture itself. Although the 'feminine' is naturalised, by domestication in this case, it never theless threatens the fragile ideology which seeks to SUPpress it, and the si~n

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"tiger", repressively given, signifies this possibility of escape. Women are caught or trapped in their kitchens and in the vocabulary, thus controlled by the domi nant culture and its ideologies, precisely because their tigerishness is hostile, therefore threatening, to the power structure which must confine it.

Although the name "Women's Role" establishes an implicitly ironic context for the series of reductive remarks by the media and men in public life it presents, its wider field, The National Times, contains other modes of social discourse, conflicting with the apparently critical commentary generated by "Women's Role" on the particularly pronounced variety of Australian sexism. Another edition of The National Times ~January 4-11,1981) printed an advertisement which began "Buying a small business computer is like choosing a wife. You need one that will help you prosper, satsify your every need and won't cost you the earth." While this inherent ideological practice of perceiving and inscribing women as passive socio-sexual objects with only marketable worth is blatantly displayed, "Women's Role's" seemingly unmediated, therefore critical, representation of demeaning models for women's lives is compromised. An unresolved contradiction between "Women's Role" and that advertisement, for instance, conveys ideological con flict. Further, "Women's Role", which appears to subvert the dominent ideology can actually be seen to maintain it. As part of the discourse which is The Na tional Times, "Women's Role" becomes not an index of radical social awareness but a discourse that functions as sexist jokes do. Both are closed semantic con structs which invite a response of knowing amusement, reinforcing the conven tional beliefs and attitudes of the masculine culture. According to Kristeva (About Chinese Women), 'woman' is the "the external satire of the community", and 'woman' in Australia is inscribed through a range of social discourses in this role. As a cultural construct, the Australian woman is a national joke.

Delys Bird, School of English

Western Australian Institute of Technology


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