Thursday, December 30, 2010

A Belated Christmas Treat

It perhaps comes as no surprise that I was a rampant certificate collector as a girl. At my Catholic primary school, some children would take it upon themselves to collect rubbish in the yard and would then inform someone in authority of their selflessness in order to receive a holy card for their good deed. (From recollection, this sometimes involved presentation of a fully-laden metal garbage bin.) I cannot say for certain that I did not jump on the bandwagon when I learned of the largesse that picking up some chip packets and balled-up Gladwrap could bring.

Certificates were seemingly valued in 1916 as much as 1986. I bought this fantastic one that was presented to the dutiful Gwendoline Hatton on eBay. Somehow it has made its way down through the family for over a century in perfect condition, showing just how important her work was in perhaps knitting some socks or bundling up some clothes to send to a soldier. If you can't make them out, there are Girl Guides and Boy Scouts spelling out the letters "A Happy Xmas" with semaphore. My mother would have said that they have taken the "Christ" out of Christmas, but there are only so many flag-bearing boys and girls that can be fit on a small piece of card.

It's a small sign of how children were inserted into both the war effort and the imagined task of maintaining the British Empire. I wonder how the current fighting in the Middle East is being presented in schools today, if at all? I remember after 9/11 there was solemn discussion about how to prevent children being afraid of terrorism if they had seen the attack on the news, yet so much print culture of the Victorian and Edwardian period deliberately exposes children to news of war, sacrifice and potential invasion. Though it's hard to be too worried by the cheerful looking soldier and sailor on this certificate who appear rosy-cheeked and well-fed.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Article at On Line Opinion About Apostrophes

This piece is not girl-related, although I'm sure that Victorian girls would have been chided had they mispaced or omitted apostrophes in their writing. The Girl's Own Paper's editors certainly took correspondents to task for sloppy handwriting or poor spelling.

Where are the champions of punctuation marks now? Who is there to chide Tattslotto for their 'New Years Eve superdraw'. In this short essay at On Line Opinion, I ponder the fate of the disappearing possesive apostrophe.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

T-Bag '80s TV series on DVD

I'm not sure how a child of today could ever proclaim to be "bored". With TiVo or Foxtel IQ (or whatever those special boxes are that 'record' all of your favourite shows digitally), online streaming, cheap DVDs and even, dare I say it, torrents, any television show or movie is available at almost any time. Kids once had to be judicious with their television scheduling. In Australia especially, with only four channels, the TV guide had to be memorised to ensure that a favourite wasn't 'missed' (and when you missed something you really missed it, potentially for years until a repeat was scheduled without notice) and prime viewing availability wasn't squandered.

One of the first programmes in my essential schedule was the British series T-Bag. It was effectively a live-action pantomine that was filmed inside a studio- the outdoor shots resembled The Wizard of Oz on a $100 budget- and was set in a fantasy world. The fantasy world was often located within a teapot from recollection. There is very little chance that T-Bag would get a look-in with child viewers today. The first series I remember, 'Wonders in Letterland', involved the girl heroine Debbie searching for a letter of the alphabet in each episode, with the villain T-Bag seeking to foil her at every turn. T-Bag had a boy side-kick, T-Shirt, whom she had effectively enslaved: he was forced to keep brewing her tea. I am aware this plot description might sound insane to readers outside Britain and Australia. You can watch a snippet on YouTube.

The series ran for nine years. The actresses playing the girl (whose name changed) and T-Bag changed several times, but T-Shirt grew from the cute little button you see on the front of the DVD cover in this post into a lumbering man during the course of the series. Never an auspicious beginning to an adult acting career.

With the 25th anniversary of the original series, the show has finally been released on DVD after relentless petitioning by nostalgic Gen X-ers like myself. I'm about to order the first set of two series, and I'm wondering how much I'll be disappointed after twenty years of growing up since I last saw it. In retrospect, I wonder if it was the female-centredness of the show that I really liked. Both the questing character and the villain are female. It was T-Shirt who was put-upon and who made the cups of tea, not the weak and downtrodden girl. And the set budget must have been redirected to the costuming of T-Bag, who never failed to be wearing an extravagant gown or elaborate headdress. The cardboard backdrops melted into insignificance with those outfits. Now they'd use CGI and T-Shirt would have hair like Justin Bieber.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Girl Guides article in The Age

I forgot to mention that I had an opinion piece published in The Age newspaper on the Girl Guides to coincide with the Centenary celebrations. Well, the Centenary that is not really the Australian Centenary if any of the historical material I've seen is anything to go by. That is, 2011 really should be the Centenary, but the stamps are issued, the coin has been struck, and it is being celebrated in Australia this year to coincide with the British anniversary of Guiding.

It was difficult to have an opinion on Girl Guiding. The piece initially began as a historical "did you know" jammed full of interesting oddities, but it was not opinionated enough for an opinion piece. This is why I inserted the slant about how Guiding might be something of a counter to all of the imagined problems with girlhood in a sexualised and consumer-culture oriented world. Oddly enough, the now former Victorian Labor government's plan for all year 9 students to attend a "boot camp" to attain life skills released about a month later seemed to share similar ideas about the potential of the outdoors to impart vital life skills. That said, engagement with a movement with a well-developed programme for young people attended weekly for several years is no doubt more successful in doing so than a potential two-week horror show of short-sheeted beds and damp clothing.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Dumb Dads in Ads

If you watch free-to-air television, you will be intimately familiar with “dumb Dad”. While your mind may wander during advertisements, if you trawl through your mental archive, you’ll be able to see the quizzical look on his face as he ponders the complexity of pouring a drink or removing a stubborn stain. I could no longer ignore him after his most recent manifestation in a cordial ad. Dumb Dad is summoned to the table for dinner by the name “Elizabeth” because, as we discover, he was too domestically inept to believe that the wonders of modern science have made possible a super-concentrated version of Fruit Cup.

The question is whether “Elizabeth” is more demeaned than the hapless star of an air freshener commercial who is visibly bemused by the product’s capacity to spurt forth a chemical concoction approximating gardenias at pre-determined intervals.

What we do know is that it is time to cue a shake of the head from all-knowing Mum. Because in all of these dumb Dad advertisements it takes Mum to really know how the home should function. Sure, in reality, most of the bridges we drive over are engineered by men, almost all of the surgeons we entrust our lives to are men, and most of the CEOs of the business world are men. In ads for domestic products, though, a medical qualification or an MBA can’t help anyone with XY chromosomes work out how to add half a cup of water and a knob of butter to a packet of pasta and powdered flavouring.

We’ve always had the Tip Top Mum who could be relied upon to rustle up a wholesome sandwich after school, while Dad was conspicuously absent from snack duty. Yet it’s an entirely new development for mum transmogrify into a super-being reminiscent of a Transformer in order to shield her children from the ominous threat of household germs. Clearly she needs to take on this superhuman role against streptococci because Dad is still on the couch ruminating over the erratic behaviour of the air freshener.

Of course, in the advertising world women are often sexualised, whether draped over a pair of Windsor Smiths or clutching a Chiko roll, and men are frequently injected with a heavy dose of “bloke” that sees them get “it” lifting and shifting, as VB would have it. Now advertisers are hell bent on convincing us that men are incapable of cooking or cleaning and women are clever and heroic for taking up the slack. The reason for this trend is not male-bashing, as some would argue, but a veiled affirmation that women’s rightful place is in the home.

Part of the canny strategy of advertisers may be to appeal to mothers who perform the majority of the housework and childcare. Let’s all pretend that scouring congealed pasta sauce from around the hotplate ring is a mark of achievement that a man can’t manage, rather than contemplate that women are still doing most of the domestic chores and the child-rearing while conducting work outside the home. Perhaps we might be able to attain an honorary doctorate from Spray and Wipe College (an affiliate of the Ponds Institute) to compensate for women’s inability to break through the glass ceiling.

Advertisements, with their polite and clean children, are not reality. Yet they are symptomatic of wider trends that present men who are competent in the home as anomalies. The recent documentation for the federal government’s paid parental leave scheme that will come into effect in 2011 observes that the payment is “usually” reserved for mothers but can be “transferred” to fathers. This wording conveys that a man taking primary responsibility for the home is unusual.

The continued idea that only women are truly capable of maintaining a home that infuses many ads is a key reason why it is women’s careers that are affected by a couple’s choice to have a family. A mother needs to consider the implications of her absence from the home because in her absence her partner will be reduced to Steve Guttenberg in Three Men and a Baby. Yes, a male partner can close a million-dollar deal, but, no, he cannot work out how to affix the adhesive tabs to a nappy. Who knows what kinds of damage will be done to the child who does not have Transformer-Mum on hand to ensure that domestic order is maintained and soap pumps are safely free of germs.

It is a clever sleight of hand trick that these ads don’t seem as conservative as the stereotypical advertisements from the 1950s that showed ever-smiling, well-groomed mothers drawing forth apple pies from the oven upon father’s arrival home from work. Instead, it seems that men are now the victims. After all, they are the ones who are shown as helpless domestic imbeciles.

We must be clever enough to recognise that these ads aren’t detrimental to men, but continue to contribute toward women’s inequality. By suggesting that only women possess the innate ability to ensure cleanliness and cook dinner, the weight of caring for the family remains firmly on women’s shoulders and men escape its pressure and any impact on their own career. The idea of the men who occupy the majority of senior positions within our corporations and professional fields throwing up their hands in confusion at the prospect of removing mould from the shower is not really demeaning towards men. After all, they’ll still return to their respectable, high-paying positions once Mum has finished shaking her head knowingly. Instead dumb Dad is really an underhanded way of reaffirming that women should rightfully cook, clean and care for children and forget about work outside the home.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

I Can Has Fellowship!

I'm definitely going to have more time to blog next year thanks to the recent news that I have been awarded an Australian Research Council postdoctoral fellowship. This means that I have a paying job for three years and all I have to do is research.

The project is a collaborative one with Professor Clare Bradford at Deakin University and Dr Kristine Moruzi, who is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Alberta, Canada. It is snappily entitled, "From colonial to modern: transnational girlhood in Australian, New Zealand, and Canadian print cultures (1840-1940)". Translated into non-academese, this means that we'll be raiding the archives of girls' book and magazines for these three countries to uncover lots of things girls were reading that no one has yet looked at. Because there will be so much primary material, we're each responsible for trawling through one nation's libraries in the first instance. I'll be charged with the Australian books and magazines, Clare with New Zealand and Kristine with Canada (which is handy, seeing she is living there).

I'm hoping there will be lots of exciting finds in libraries across Australia to report on here. I've got conference trips planned to Adelaide in February and Brisbane in July, so I will no doubt build in some book unearthing time to these.

And, in another exciting news, I've been asked by the lovely Angie Hesson to give a lecture on childhood from 1750-1850 at the Johnston Collection of decorative arts in March next year. It will be the first lecture in a series to accompany a special exhibition called "Oh, Do Grow Up: Growing up in England 1750-1850". Time to brush up on Romantic and Regency childhood. And perhaps the person giving the talk should have grown up themselves, as I just bought a stuffed toy replica of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (from the classic stop-motion animation movie). What can I say, his nose actually does light up, and he speaks too. This is all integral to the research process.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Mad Hatter, The Goblin King and Mr Tumnus: Girls Desiring Men

After a return journey from hell, I'm now back from Canada and the girls' texts and cultures symposium in Winnipeg. As someone who studies inanimate texts that do not speak back, it was a real revelation to hear researchers who work with actual girls speaking.

One paper ended with a video edit of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe with a love song spliced over the top to suggest a kind of love plot between Lucy and Mr Tumnus. Immediately, I was reminded of the relationship between Johnny Depp's Mad Hatter and Alice in the recent Tim Burton film adaptation of Alice in Wonderland. While the film made a connection between the Hatter and Alice's deceased father through their mutual fascination with things outside the "normal" range of thought, the tension generated when Alice must decide whether to remain in Underland or return home seems much greater than that of a girl who must leave a friend behind. On the part of both the Hatter and Alice, there seemed to be a romantic interest that made the decision all the more poignant.

On the long flight from Vancouver to Sydney, the paucity of movie choices gave me the opportunity to find another filmic girl who is placed within a romantic relationship with a man. In the 80s classic Labyrinth (directed by Jim Henson), the fifteen-year-old heroine Sarah must rescue her baby brother from the goblin king, Jareth, who is disturbingly played by David Bowie, replete with backcombed hair and a codpiece. She must do this before the thirteenth hour or her brother will become a goblin, and she'll presumably be struck from babysitting club membership across the nation. As part of Jareth's attempts to prevent Sarah from reaching his castle by way of the labyrinth and rescuing her brother, he enters her hallucination of a masquerade ball (though both are unmasked). Sarah suddenly looks a lot older than she has throughout the film, with her hair elegantly styled and a face full of make-up. Jareth attempts to prevent Sarah from moving forward in her quest by dancing with her, and the scene again seems to show a girl desiring a man, or at least the idea of one, as she is temporarily transfixed by the spell of the ball and Jareth.

I'm not sure whether there are other examples, and the Lucy/Mr Tumnus one is a stretch (although I did feel a little uneasy with Mr Tumnus on first viewing the film as he seemed lecherous to me!), but with all the paranoia about paedophilia in contemporary culture it seems interesting to see at least a few very popular films that acknowledge the possibility of a girl desiring someone who is an inappropriate love interest. Perhaps it is a part of the demonstration of the girls acquiring maturity that they are shown as having the capacity for romantic interest in men, and the quick return to the normal world outside of fantasy lands leaves any conflict between social norms and the girls' feelings behind? I suppose it is an awkward reality that girls often experience sexual desires before boys their own age have matured and hence desires are projected on to much older pop culture idols, in what is usually only ever a fantasised relationship. Perhaps that's why these girl/man tensions turn up in fantasy films, as they'd be too awkward to contemplate in realist ones.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Fulla, the "Muslim Barbie"

Somehow cereal lead me to Fulla. I was reading about how extruded cereals are purportedly very unhealthy (an unpublished study conducted with rats apparently showed that the creatures that ate the cereal box lived longer than those that ate the rice krispies inside), and then through the link of unhealthy foods came across a discussion of Oreo cookies. There was an ill-fated attempt to promote the cookie with an African-American "Oreo" Barbie, and finally somehow a brief update on the world of Barbie lead to my discovery of Fulla.

Fulla's occasional description as "Muslim Barbie" seems wholly inappropriate, as I can't imagine there to be an equivalent to Barbie in the Islamic world. If you mean a method of socialising girls into cultural norms, then perhaps Fulla does fulfil the same function as Barbie. Barbie's life is entwined with her boyfriend Ken's (though I never owned a Ken because it seemed a waste to get a "boring" tuxedo-clad Ken when there were more elaborately dressed Barbies to own). Her primary function is as a fashion model to be dressed and undressed in approximations of contemporary women's clothing and swimwear. On the surface of it, Barbie exists to rehearse scenes of Western dating and sexual display. While I don't have a strong knowledge of this area, clearly these aims are not central to socialisation of girls in Islamic nations.

As such, animated promotional videos of Fulla, who is described on her American site in English as "the little girl who wears modest outfits", show her inhabiting a female-centred, domestic world. In the two that were often embedded in newspaper stories in English about Fulla she is ensconced within the home. In one of these, Fulla remains in her gigantic house. She conducts her morning prayers, makes her bed, takes a phone call from her friend, fixes herself breakfast (on Fulla dinnerware, and eating what appears to be Fulla cereal- so product tie-ins transcend cultural and religious difference to some extent), welcomes her friend for a visit, whom she surprises with a cake, and then settles in to bed while looking through the happy memories in a Fulla photo album. In the other, Fulla dances around her home -which seems to occupy its own large tract of land that keeps it distant from other dwellings- magically changes outfits twice, until she is dressed in what I believe is referred to as an Abaya, which then enables her to move outdoors and pick a flower, while continuing her unstoppable dance of happiness.

Fulla's face bears quite the resemblance to Barbie's, despite the difference in eye and hair colour, and the abundance of pink and the font used to write her name also seem similar. These two videos created the perception in my mind that Fulla was entirely confined within the home, a convenient answer to problematic interactions with men in the public sphere. One more clip shows Fulla painting a picture and imagining dancing out in a field with two other girls dressed in Abayas.

Some further searching on YouTube showed that there was much more to Fulla and the range of options presented for Muslim girls than this, however, even if certain religious or cultural requirements had to be met. Like Barbie's much touted "careers" as a doctor and an astronaut, Fulla works as a dentist. You can see the dentist Fulla playset here. She rides a horse across the desert past a number of building and structures, including the Sphinx, albeit side-saddle. I'm not sure why she cries as she lays the flowers at the end of the clip, so there is something significant in there that I am not knowledgeable enough to understand. She sings, along with her sidekick dolls, in a tamer recreation of the 1980s "Barbie and the Rockers" band, though these scenes are interspersed with her reading the Koran (I think) and nurturing children. Overall the videos work against many Western norms, but other elements of Barbie culture are reinforced, such as the focus on jewellery and clothing, and references to touchstones of American culture (if not just appropriations of Barbie herself, but also Fulla clutching a Care Bear).

In another, Fulla is finally shown outside (not in a dream), riding a scooter and playing badminton with a friend. Though Fulla is often depicted with two children, I think it is clear that they are not her own children and that she is unmarried. It's consequently a little strange that we never see her parents in any of these clips, though I think Barbie's dream home is permeated by a similar uncertainty about just how she's acquired such a mansion in her own right. I did read an explanation that it would be inappropriate for Fulla to have a "boyfriend" like Ken, and as such, no male companion for Fulla would ever be manufactured. In these videos in isolation, from a cultural outsider's perspective, the absence of other people, especially men seems striking. When Fulla rides across the desert, into an amazing looking historic town, or scooters around something that looks like Munchkinland, there is not a soul to be found. At home, her female friend visits, or she cares for children. In the world at large, there are no other people, however, with the vast metropolis shown in the scooter video not offering up a single soul to invade Fulla's outdoor freedom. Is this because of restrictions on girls' free movement outside the home, or customs about their interaction with men?

There is, no doubt, much more at work to the world of Fulla than I have the ability to talk about, but I find her fascinating. I've also discovered an equivalent to Bratz dolls (Arabian Friends) and a few other attempts to combat the appeal of Barbie in Muslim countries. I might post on them separately. Some have questioned whether she is merely another ideal for girls to conform to, even if she is not parading around in swimwear and high heels. Whatever she is doing, she is certainly more successful at capturing buyers in the Middle East than previous attempts to create a modestly dressed doll rival to Barbie. Paradoxically, I think she's done it by following Western models of marketing and branding pioneered by the likes of Barbie.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Krao, The "Missing Link"

I have just finished writing a draft of an essay about the first Tarzan novel. While it felt strange to be meddling in the territory of boyhood (though I had some familiar materials about Darwinism and Boy Scouting to include), I managed to cleverly generate a footnote about a girl in the process so that I did not have to totally separate myself from girlhood.

Krao was a girl from Thailand (known as Siam at the time) who was extremely hirsute. She was afflicted with hypertrichosis, a condition that most visibly results in an excess of hair on the body and face. You might have seen images of other people suffering from severe examples of the disorder, such a Lionel "the Lion Faced Man", who is also pictured here, and the present day examples of Larry and Danny Ramos Gomez (known as the "wolf boys").

Krao seems particularly interesting to me because she was "discovered" not long after the publication of Charles Darwin's famous works on evolution and sexual selection, On the Origin of Species and The Descent of Man. As the leaflet from one of her exhibitions at the Westminster Aquarium in London shows, she was touted as the "missing link" between ape and human. While Darwin said that humans had developed from an "ape-like progenitor", this did not mean we were descended from apes. (Though Darwin did say he would rather be the descendent of a clever baboon than some of the "savage" races he had seen in the wild.) Nevertheless, in popular thought, many people imagined that there had to be a being that sat mid-way between the ape and human.

There were other examples of people with disabilities exhibited as "missing links", such as the microcephalic black man, William Henry Johnson in the United States (also know as "Zip, the What is It?"). Krao seemed to be the most widely travelled and frequently exhibited, mostly because her condition meant she required little trickery to convincingly exhibit as the missing link. She spent much time in the United States of America in museums and carnivals, even purportedly ending up as a bearded lady at Coney Island. On her return exhibit at the Westminster Aquarium after some time in the US, according to an excellent article on Krao by Nadja Durbach in Victorian Freaks , Krao's bodily development into womanhood elicited some concern by scandalised members of the public. One outraged letter writer felt that Krao surely had to be the result of bestiality. Durbach describes the lengths that were gone to in order to prove that Krao had been civilised by British education and she was often dressed in fine clothing as further evidence of her transition. It is hard to believe that this constituted entertainment, but then, reality television seems to be the modern version of the freakshow diguised as "self help" in examples like The Biggest Loser.

Monday, July 26, 2010

What to do with Enid? Blyton books in the twenty-first century

It is not a mark of honour to be an uncritical, unabashed Disney fan in the world of the academic study of children's literature. The "magic" of Disney is tainted once you wake to the films' gender, race and class politics. It is still acceptable to inexplicably, and guiltily, want to visit Disneyland, however (as I have done in Los Angeles and Paris). Enid Blyton occupies a slightly lesser-known rung in the world of children's texts, but seems to provoke a similar polarity between loving adoration and total hatred.

They do let children off from most crimes (well, except for the James Bulger killers, but that was murder), so you must not record a conviction for this, but my first book love was directed at Enid Blyton's Faraway Tree and Wishing Chair series. Oddly, or perhaps "queerly" as Blyton would have said, many of my students at Deakin University, when asked their favourite children's book, often mention one of Blyton's books. I was surprised that her books were still a fixture of childhood reading.

I'm not sure how much of a part the illustrations played in my enjoyment of the books. The editions I collected were the large format, hardcover, lavishly illustrated ones like the one shown in this post. I used to draw versions of the pictures for school projects. At a certain age, I believed that it was entirely possible for there to be a magic tree at the top of which different "lands" materialised each week, many of which seemed to culminate in an unending buffet of desserts with obligatory treacle puddings prior to departure. In grade one, a girl at my primary school told me that the Faraway Tree was actually situated at the end of her street. This was in Frankston, Victoria, which meant it was perhaps not too dissimilar from someone claiming that a circle of fairy folk sat at the back of their trailer park behind an old car body. If the folk of the Faraway Tree were going to choose somewhere, it would probably not be in Frankston, but a suitably English glade or perhaps a European forest in which red and white spotted toadstools grow. But I believed her. And I was very jealous.

And so, it's time for another outraged response to modernising Blyton's prose for new editions of the Famous Five novels. I remember a similar outcry several years ago when two of the protagonists of the Faraway books, Fanny and cousin Dick, were relieved of their genitalia-connoting names to be renamed Frannie and Rick. We sniggered about those names in 1986. Did it take another 20 years for publishers to catch on to this?

I feel a bit ambivalent about these changes. On the one hand, children's texts are products of their time, and historical children's literature often makes for uncomfortable reading for adults, even scholars. I wouldn't like to put one of Angela Brazil's novels in which characters sing a "coon song" into the hands of a child. And yet similar ideologies sometimes inform E. Nesbit's books, yet they still seem to get the nostalgic seal of approval. If we accept that children's books help socialise children into our world, then if a child reads a book in which girls do all the cooking, boys take care of the important work and "dirty gypsies" spew forth hordes of children and try to steal babies (cue E. Nesbit) then they won't be exposed to ideas we agree with.

Which brings me to the other hand, child readers of today will not be fully immersed in books like Blyton's or Nesbit's. Instead, such books will likely be introduced by well-meaning parents or grandparents and will form a tiny sliver of their cultural exposure. In my own childhood reading, the unfamiliar, formal British dialogue of Blyton's books seemed to render them all the more fantastic. I'm not sure that I wanted them to resonate with my contemporary reality. I did not want Jo to peer into Moonface's house only to find that Duran Duran were playing a surprise gig in there with Bubbles the chimp guesting on drums. I find it irritating when British books must be "Americanised" along the lines of Harry Potter. I suppose the question that I fixate on is, are children looking for magical fantasy in need of contemporary language use or is some of the archaic language part of the charm? Does every word need to immediately make sense? Does every saying have to reflect contemporary usage?

So I suppose I sit in the middle in that if present day child readers are going to devour Enid Blyton then any overt racism should be quietly expurgated. The quaint and unfamiliar language, and some of the unfamiliar practices (like Dame Slap, a maniacal wielder of corporal punishment, who we are positioned to dislike) is part of the appeal of the books. I know there have been abridged and altered versions of Huckleberry Finn, and its race politics has generated a lot of discussion about its appropriateness for today's child readers, but would publishers attempt to jazz up the language to make it seem more familiar? Or is the historical specificity part of what helps the reader make sense of a different world and its different conceptions of race and gender? Taking away the sense of temporal difference also takes away the context for understanding different historical worldviews.

Most posters on an Australian news item about the story seem to hold Blyton as sacred and unalterable, mentioning her in the same sentence as the Bible and Shakespeare. We know that there are various editions of these central texts of Western literature too, of course. What really seems to be being assaulted here is the childhood experiences of adult readers. I felt a similar outrage when 1970s and 1980s episodes of Sesame Street were released on DVD recently but labelled "not for children" because of particular elements that did not meet the requirements of present day educational theory (if memory serves, going home with strangers, possibly the suspicious Mr Hooper, was also part of it). I wonder then if the defence of Blyton is more about the defence of our own youth, than preserving the sanctity of some fairly ordinary prose that has just happened to sell 500 million books worldwide?

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Winnipeg here I come! Girls, Texts, Cultures Symposium

I have become used to "girls" being a fringe, underappreciated realm of study. I almost have responses ready when people ask "so, you teach children?" (like the airport security attendant who was rubbing my clothing and bag down for traces of explosives a fortnight ago), and I've accepted that prestigious universities will take the candidate with the publication on Henry James informed by the philosophy of Agamben rather than girls' genre fiction.

Given this acceptance, I didn't expect to be invited to a symposium at a university on the other side of the world in order to speak and listen to other scholars on the subject. I've generously been invited by Professor Clare Bradford, who is the current recipient of a prestigious Trudeau Fellowship, to attend the 'Girls, Texts, Cultures' symposium at the University of Winnipeg in October. A quick Wikipedia check (only for initial checking, not for actual "research", students) revealed I'd be heading to the coldest city in the world with a population above 600,000. So perhaps it's warmer than Siberia, then.

I know I'll be joining Dr Kristine Moruzi, who has just taken up a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Alberta (hooray!), Professor Mavis Reimer (from the University of Winnipeg) and a range of other international scholars from gender studies, education, psychology, sociology and international development.

I've put in an abstract to speak about British books and magazine stories about Australian girls. I have a list of a dozen or so such books written by British authors to confront at the State Library. But where will I find the time for that as Lindsay Lohan has just entered jail and I must maintain a candlit vigil by the television in order to await news of her potential early release.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Blog Emerges from Book-induced Coma

At last the time approaches for my book manuscript to be submitted on 1 August. So guilty thoughts can now be spared for the ailing blog. As a result of one such guilty thought springing to mind as I mowed the lawn in advance of a rental inspection tomorrow, here I am reviving the poor neglected thing.

I've rejigged the title of the book, as the focus has changed somewhat from my PhD thesis, which focused on the connections between empire and mothering. The revised title is "Empire in British Girls' Literature and Culture: Imperial Girls, 1880-1915". In my mind I was hoping for "Imperial Girls" to occupy the coveted position before the colon, but the editors felt that it did not clearly indicate what the book was about. While this is true, it did make me think of Madonnna's "Material Girl" and hence that I might be staking a claim for some degree of cultural relevance for Victorian and Edwardian girlhood. But then, it's not about Madonna anymore, but Lady Gaga, so then we'd get down to something nonsensical like "Imperial Face" or "Victoriandro". I actually thought it would make a nice companion to Joseph Bristow's "Empire Boys". Nevertheless, this is my first book and I'm not a publishing expert, so this "talent" is not about to be difficult.

I'm mightily happy with the cover image, which is hopefully going to be the fine, patriotic girl you see before you in this post. The original book, A Patriotic Schoolgirl by Angela Brazil, was published after my time period, but the image was so appropriate that I had to use it. I've certainly learned a great deal about copyright law in gaining permission for images. Frustratingly, some of the illustrators I'm dealing with died less than 75 years ago, which leaves their works still in copyright. Children's books publishers have often shut up shop in the interim and the rights to old children's books that will never likely be published again are not sought after so many trails are cold and lead nowhere. It's strange to think of the rampant downloading going on with music, movies and tv shows to the point that stores are closing and labels downsizing, but the book world is still sticking with the straight and narrow in terms of permissions, the last bastion of copyright compliance.

I wonder if the eBook is going to see massive piracy and downloading impinge on sales? Not that I need to worry about my own small revenue from eBook sales, but I dread the thought of the physical bookstore going the way of the record store. I suppose it's similar to the bookless library. That said, I have been grateful for the ability to borrow an eBook at short notice rather than having to trek in to a university library to look up a small piece of information. It feels traitorous to even do so. While my interested has been sparked by the iPad, it feels like it would be joining the dark side to buy one. It seems we're still in the "early adopter" phase and, for some reason, I don't like being seen as arriving "early" to the consumer party. I'll walk in fashionably late in a few years' time when I begin to be ostracised for not owning one.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Desiring Justin Bieber, the Tween Frenzy

You know you're a gulf away from youth when you not only do not understand why the latest teen singing sensation in so sensational, but you never knew he existed until he caused a public commotion involving crying girls waving meticulously hand-made banners declaring their love. (It is also a worry when a sixteen-year-old, the latest teen sensation, Justin Bieber, actually looks about twelve to you.)

I too was one of these girls in my pre-teen years. I was obsessed with the original "boy band" New Kids on the Block. I had posters covering every wall in my room, and a collection of cassettes, videos, books and whatever paltry range of merchandise was available in Australia. One item that did make it here, sold at Woolworths, strangely enough, was the New Kids on the Block doll. I bought the "Joe" doll and thus could posess my desired boy in miniature. When the band finally toured Australia in 1992, I crafted my own sign with "I Heart Joe" on it to wave at the concert. It was a marathon effort that involved copious use of glitter.

The commotion generated in the lead-up to the latest teen sensation Justin Bieber's arrival in Australia resulted in several girls fainting and a panicked crush at 2am in the morning! This is not the first time he has had to cancel a performance because of over-zealous crowds of girls. The police reported that girls had camped the night waiting, many without any parental supervision, showing their supreme dedication to the cause of catching a glimpse of their idol. The crush that ensued was partially blamed on mothers failing to control their daughters, who were repeatedly instructed to move back. David Koch, the host of the show Sunrise for which Bieber was performing, called the mayhem "extraordinary scenes, quite dangerous scenes down there".

Pre-teen and teen girl desire being described as "dangerous" and "extraordinary" seems a bit of an overstatement. I'll bet there were more girls screaming when the Beatles touched down in Australia in 1964. It is interesting to see girls injecting all their developing sexual desire into fandom for teen stars while they are waiting for the boys of their own age to mature. Before you know it Bieber will no doubt have a drug habit and will have a few children who must be concealed from fans (like New Kids of the Block, two members of which had "secret" children that fans could never know about because it would destroy the fantasy that they were available). As Bieber's interview comment when he was asked if he had a girlfriend suggests, the whole basis of this kind of teen girl fandom is the illusion that each girl has a chance to live out her dream to be with the boy hearthrob: "So all you Australians - I’m single". Don't worry about me encroaching on your territory, girls. I think I'd be doing something illegal given that I'm soon to be thirty-one.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Girl Scouts Cake Mix Advertisement

I'm still buying silly amount of Girl Guide and Girl Scout paraphenalia on eBay for a potential book. Girl Guides originated in England, and the movement arose out of very British sentiments, just like the Boy Scouts. The adoption of Girl Guiding as Girl Scouting in the USA saw a few distinct differences evolve. Not only is the name and uniform different, but the Americans have unsurprisingly proven to be more effective merchandisers and promoters of their girls' movement. I have bought many UK books, badges, letters, scrapbooks etc. but it is from the US that I find annual Girl Scout calendars, most LPs of girls singing, clothing and equipment catalogues, dolls etc. Girl Scouts also regularly feature on popular magazine covers, such as the Saturday Evening Post, as symbols of American identity and innocence.

I've also found a number of American advertisements in which the wholesome connotations of Girl Scouts are used to market other products, including for Mutual Life insurance! This one for Dromedary Angel Food cake mix shows a level of commercialisation that just doesn't occur with Guiding and Scouting in the UK. I am partially annoyed at people who are tearing out advertisements from old magazines, destroying them as historical records and then charging large amounts for them on eBay. But then, without these opportunistic sellers, I'd never come across these images, so I'm not entirely innocent in the process.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Over the Shoulder Boulder Holders.. for seven year olds

Controversy over underwear that replicates brassieres for girls too young to have any amount of protrustion from their chests is not new. In Australia in recent years, retailer Target attracted controversy for underwear sets for under-10s that included a bra-like top. Amid discussion of Bratz, Britney Spears and paedophilia, the sets were swiftly withdrawn from the racks in all stores.

The most recent incident of this ilk, which has generated international media interest, concerns UK clothing chain Primark, who were selling padded bikinis, seemingly sized for girls as young as seven. The image above shows the degree of padding, designed to counteract the fact that a triangle bikini just will not sit right on a flat pre-pubescent chest. While girls are reaching sexual maturity at a younger age in the the West- I think I had my first training bra at about age 10- and there may be a need for bras for "early developers", the adding of the padding in this instance seems to reach a new level of disturbing.

Online comments seem to gravitate toward polar extremes. The majority suggesting that such products are lures for paedophiles, and a minority of Mums and women noting that sometimes a small amount of padding in a bra can "smooth" budding nipples, causing less embarassment for girls as they are developing breasts. My negative opinion of this product is not based on fear of men at beaches being delighted by young girls leaping about in padded bikini tops, but rather on how it affects the girls themselves.

Girls and women learn to become acutely conscious of any perceived inadequacy in their appearance as feminine. There is an awkward point in a girls' life when other girls are shaving their legs and those with a soft layer of fluff still in place are the subject of mockery. We learn there are things we must do so that other girls will not tease us (the pressure women learn to apply to one another to push conformity to norms of feminine appearance) and so that boys might think us attractive (the pressure to be desirable to men and the learned satisfaction in achieving this goal). We learn that if we don't meet particular standards of desirability then there are things we can do and products we can apply, so that we do meet them, at least for as long as the make-up stays in place or the spray tan remains visible.

We also learn that there are particular body norms that are deemed attractive. Overweight women are rarely admired in popular culture, and most often the subject of derision. With porn not just a stash of old magazine or a few hidden VHS tapes, but ever-present online professionally produced movies and amateur videos (including those performed live for the viewer), the impossible sexual ideal of skinny woman with gigantic, implant-enhanced breasts travels much more widely and more frequently than ever before. Women who don't meet these usually artificial norms can feel inadequate, or not as sexually attractive. Padded bras usually serve the purpose of filling out a flatter chest, of adding extra bulk to fit an ideal. This may make some women feel more comfortable or feminine. They may feel that they now fit the ideal a little better.

Do we really need to start introducing another anxiety that women experience into the realm of pre-pubescent girlhood? Should seven- or eight-year-old girls be contemplating their lack of chest and thinking that they need a little padding to gain a more womanly silhouette? To introduce the idea that girls are not living up to another feminine ideal so early only further encourages feelings of inadequacy and poor body image that many women suffer from.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Mark Ryden's 'Saint Barbie' and 'Big Doll'

I'm a fan of Mark Ryden's surreal artwork. I have a framed limited edition lithograph of one of his works, The Magic Circus, at home. I don't know why a tiny reproduction, little bigger than a photograph, cost as much as it did, but I do know that the full-size limited edition lithographs sell for over $1,000 and are always snapped up immediately upon release.

As a casual fan, I was surprised to see that there was a pertinent artwork for this blog that had escaped my attention. 'Saint Barbie' from 1994 puts the icon of manufactured femininity in the position of a deity, and the nostalgic innocent girl (with her puffy-sleeved dress and Alice headband) as pleading worshipper. I haven't reached a conclusion about the spotted butterfly with a man's head yet (initially I took it for Barack Obama!), but it is situated above the Barbie-goddess and the girl, at the top of the visual hierarchy. The other gaze in the image is coming from the flower in the foreground, which is a recurring motif in a later Ryden work, Big Doll.

Once you see the Barbie-esque doll at full-size, she becomes grotesque, with her receding hairline, oversized head and impossibly wide eyes. The real girl, who is miniaturised, almost becomes the doll by virtue of her size, but her realistic depiction, her plain, dark eyes, her short limbs and basic dress, make it difficult to recognise her as the giant Barbie's plaything.
I suppose the presence of the eyes in both paintings could be read as the way in which the development of girls plays out under the public gaze. The sense of always being looked at, and assessed, is an inescapable part of leaving girlhood behind.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Australia's TV girls

A media frenzy worthy of a Frontline episode has accompanied the recent allegations against former Hey Dad...! actor Robert Hughes. The patriarch of the Kelly family in Australia's most successful sitcom (which ran from the late-'80s to the mid-'90s) is accused of abusing his on-screen daughter played by Sara Monahan. In the ensuing circus, a number of other women who claim to have been fondled, groped and propositioned (including fellow co-star Simone Buchanan, who was only 18 at the time) have added weight to Monahan's claims of long-term abuse.

It's prompted me to reminisce about Australian TV in the '80s, and the shows of my own childhood. When I got to thinking (after marvelling at clips of "Nudge" being dubbed in German), I realised that Sarah Monahan was one of the most recognisable girls on Australian television in the '80s and '90s. While I can think of a number of American shows where girls have taken centre stage in the "family" viewing slot, like Blossom, Moesha or Hannah Montana, it's hard to think of Australian equivalents. The first show featuring Australian kids that I remember loving was The Henderson Kids (1985-1987), which was about a brother and sister forced to move to the country from the city after their mother's sudden death. Nadine Garner played one of the leading roles and Kylie Minogue appeared as a regular supporting character. After a bit of wanton YouTube viewing of old clips, I couldn't believe the "Aussie-ness" of the show, particularly the extremely broad accents of the kids. You wouldn't catch Kylie dead speaking with that kind of twang now.

I have vague recollections of being fascinated by the film BMX Bandits (which starred a young, frizzly-haired Nicole Kidman), and engaged in a conversation to that extent while at my next door neighbour's house watching afternoon TV (I can remember that it was Wombat with the puppet Agro, as it wasn't part of my preferred viewing schedule). But apart from these early memories, Sarah Monahan's role as Jenny would have to make her the most recognisable Australian girl on television of that era. There's Kate Richie growing up as Sally on Home and Away but somehow seeing her playing the part until the age of 30 on-screen destroys the mental picture of her as a perennial child.

Apart from the clear horror involved in any instance of child molestation by an adult and a co-worker, I wonder if we're not all so fascinated by these allegations because Monahan played the quintessential Australian schoolgirl of an era that now has nostalgic associations. I saw the final part of the last episode from 1994 and it actually makes a joke about "GCodes"! With a lack of other broad-accented girls to think of (well, not any longer, with Monahan's Texan strains), the character of Jenny almost sums up the idea of genuine, unaffected Australian girlhood. The realisation that her on-screen father was violating his position as an authority on the set destroys the only long-term comedy family we've ever had on Australian screens. (Not unless you find soaps like Neighbours and Home and Away unintentionally funny.)

In a reunion special from a few years ago, where Hughes was noticeably absent, actor Chris Truswell (Nudge) described Hey Dad...! as Australia's answer to The Cosby Show in that it featured a professional father, and a slightly more upper-middle class sensibility than might have been seen on our screens previously. Ultimately, it was quite a painful show to watch, far more painful than those it supposedly emulated. God knows how it became our most popular. It seems much funnier overdubbed in German, strangely. Nevertheless, if the show was meant to represent a more sophisticated Australian family, these abuse revelations also destroy the idea of safety in the middle-class family. Hughes is accused of fondling daughters of family friends and using his own daughter as somewhat of a cover to ensure his bedroom visits during sleepovers were not seen as untoward.

With his relationship with fictional girls, the real girl who played his daughter, and real girls who were family friends, now in question, the ideal television father (who cared for his family after his wife's death) has now rendered one of the most iconic- yet tedious- Australian shows of its era unwatchable.

Friday, March 19, 2010

An Australian Alice?

Last month I had the good fortune to attend the Rare Books Summer School at the State Library of Victoria. The sessions I attended focused on illustrated children's books from Australia and England. In the early Australian books, it was common to see attempts to impose British mythological creatures on the Australian landscape. Lots of dainty fairies skipping about among gum trees replicating the same stories from home with an exotic backdrop.

A very kind colleague of mine recently gave me a book called The Magic Seeds: Tessa in Termitaria, published in Sydney in 1940. It has lots of shades of Alice in Wonderland with its girl protagonist who wanders alone in the bush and swallows a fern-seed that makes her as small as a white ant. Excitement awaits as Tessa enters the ants' city, "Termitaria" and "learns all about their civilisation". The author, Keith C. McKeown, was an entomologist, so much factual information is jammed in, with flimsy framing devices like Gilbert the Cricket ("who knew everything") informing us of the meanings of terms like "ichthylogy" and "ornithology".

While he may have made a strange attempt at marrying didacticism and entomology by mimicking Alice in Wonderland, you can't accuse McKeown of total unoriginality. When Tessa arrives in Termitaria, the worker ants find her clothing irrisistably mouth-watering because it is made of cellulose. They promptly eat her "little dimity dress with the pink flowers" and she is rendered naked in the rest of the book's illustrations. (Well, at least until the small closing illustration when Tessa is returning home restored to her usual size.) It's quite entertaining to look through the whole book and spot the variant ways in which insects can be used to obscure naked Tessa's chest and genitalia.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

What a Tangled Web we Weave

I couldn't have asked for better inspiration to follow up my last post about the low status of girls' stories, than news about Disney's next animated feature, Tangled. The LA Times has reported on the film's title change from Rapunzel in order not to alienate boy viewers. The President of Disney and Pixar animation reportedly remarked, ""Some people might assume it's a fairy tale for girls when it's not. We make movies to be appreciated and loved by everybody." Of course, if a story is for or primarily about girls that rules out interest from boys, but stories about boys are seemingly "loved by everybody" regardless.

There are some changes to this filmic version that suggest a surface modernisation of the heroine. Much like Princess Fiona in Shrek, apparently "the demure princess is transformed into a feisty teen." Those who've given a few moments thought to analysing that film (well, at least students in a subject I teach at Deakin University have), find it easy to see the "feisty" heroine is still rendered subservient in needing to be rescued by her prince, by her natural role as the one who cooks and cares for others and her obsession with ensuring that she fits the standards of physical attraction required by her suitor.

It remains to be seen how Rapunzel fares as a heroine, but the hero "bandit" named Flynn Rider sounds like he will be injecting the right amount of masculine protection-and most importantly, action sequences- into the mix.

Scarily, this perception that "girls' stories" alienate boys is having an affect on which movies ever make it on to the screen. The complex Hans Christian Anderson story "The Snow Queen", which I loved as a child (and which includes both a strong girl and boy in its narrative), is reportedly now on the scrap heap because the studio has had "too many" girls' films in its schedule. So the simple presence of the word "queen" is too feminine? Or is it because it's about a girl who saves a boy? Would Beauty and the Beast be made today with its overt reference to a girl in the title and no action hero inserted to balance out the puffy dress quotient? Not that I'm a fan of the puffery, just irritated by the universalising of stereotypically masculine traits and the segregation of femininity.

Catmull believes that the recent Disney animated film The Princess and the Frog suffered at the box office because of its overt call to girls: "Based upon the response from fans and critics, we believe it [box office takings] would have been higher if it wasn't prejudged by its title". There are numerous other factors to consider here, including the film's use of traditional hand-drawn animation, which has clearly been struggling against CGI children's films in the past decade. On another front, The Princess and the Frog was the first to feature an African-American heroine. Already it had to challenge the perception that only girls watch girls' stories and, in addition, that white children are only interested in reading about or seeing white characters like themselves.

And so the box office takings of this film have a flow-on effect on the belief that stories about girls are only for girls, and stories about non-white characters are not for the white middle-class only serving to reinforce the homogenous norm even more rigidly than before.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Girls' Books vs Boys' Books

The child_lit listserv is a place of conflicting responses: awe (when Philip Pullman casually posts), appreciation (when erudite and passionate discussions transpire), and frustration (when a well-meaning member repeatedly posts topics that no one else seems to share the same enthusiasm for ad infinitum). Many times it prompts me to think about children's reading today, in ways that I don't ordinarily do as a scholar who is more up-to-date with reading habits in the 19th century than the 21st.

A recent discussion on the list concerned the segregation of books into gender-exclusive categories. As a Victorianist, I'm familiar with the idea that girls looked for adventure in the pages of boys' magazines and novels. When there was no swashbuckling or discovery of the wilds of Africa in girls' books, girl readers were able to turn to their brothers' books to experience excitement not only vicariously, but at a remove from their intended audience. There are documented boy readers of girls magazines, such as the Girl's Own Paper, but they appear to be in the minority as compared with the reverse situation of girls escaping moralistic tales.

I'm not sure today whether you'd find more girls playing football than boys being chaffeured to ballet lessons by their parents, and similarly much about children's reading seems to be directed on gendered lines that put girls' books in no-go zone for boys. One list member discussed removing a dust jacket from a book to make it appear less "girly". The boy to who read the books enjoyed it but the marketing of the book as overtly girly was seen as putting off boys who may have enjoyed a story about a girl protagonist.

While there are reasons to be sick about the "pinkifying" of girls' culture, which are well covered by the Pink Stinks campaign, it also plays a part in situating girls' books as irrelevant to boys. As list members pointed out, to suggest that white child readers could not enjoy a book about a person of colour would be largely unthinkable (even though publishers do their best to outwardly whitewash their titles), but the perception that books about girls are unappealing to boys while the reverse is not a problem continues to undermine girls' interests, strengths and abilities as inferior to typically masculine traits. Do educators have to hide the outward signs of masculinity on books in order for girls to read them?

There is a lot more thinking I need to do about the gendering of contemporary books, but as I first see it, this continued status difference begins to instill a hierarchy of feminine and masculine culture from childhood. Women's interests are frivolous. Men's important. Football and fishing shows should occupy television schedules on Saturday, a day of rest from work, but never those about typically feminine interests (apart from cooking, which nearly always involves a man showing us how it's done, unless she's scopophilic fodder like Nigella Lawson). I'd be interested to read more about the gendering of children's books over time, particularly series fiction. While it seems there is far more literature out there that does not perpetuate some kind of artificial gendered reading distinction, it still amazes me that the gendered divide is still so prominent.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Collector's Impulse

I've got two Girl Guide projects on the boil at the moment. And for this reason I've become a somewhat compulsive eBayer, trawling for interesting ephemera that might make for good illustrations. I've now got a giant box of Guide books, photo albums, camp diaries, badges, certificates, letters, application forms, even an original belt. Here's hoping a book results or I'm going to have a busy time relisting a hundred back issues of the Waratah (New South Wales Girl Guide magazine) from the 1950s.
I've also nabbed a few fairly scare weekly issues of the Girl's Own Paper with their advertisements still intact. Anyone working in this area knows that advertisements were usually removed for libraries and binding into annuals. I've only ever seen advertisements from this magazines contained in a Library of Congress microfilm, which include issues from the early twentieth century. The copies I found are from the 1880s, the earliest years of the paper.
Some contained additional fold-out ad booklets, usually for soap, including the pictured advertisement for Brooke's Soap, which I think became well-known as Monkey Brand soap. I've been reading Anne McClintock's article on the history of soap, and she mentions mirrors, soap, light and white clothing as the four domestic fetishes of the period. In this image, we've got a kind of mirror in the form of the artist's canvas, but it's depicting a humanised monkey that the girl has proudly painted. As I'm intending to write a paper on Tarzan in light of Victorian popular understandings of social Darwinism, I'm not sure what to make of the monkey in the suit. Can he be humanised and civilised like native peoples with the influence of femininity and whiteness? But what on earth is that giant furry thing on the girls' chair? An animal skin? If so, is there a reversal of the monkey in the tuxedo with the idea of the girl in the monkey's fur? A strange one, that's for sure!

Friday, January 8, 2010

A Tribute to My Mum

It has been a challenge to keep the focus of this blog on the topic of girls' literature and culture. Every day there are dozens of issues that I feel compelled to write about, but I've not made the decision to blog about "everything that bothers me and what I think of it", rather to focus on anything that relates to girls, femininity or children's books.

One thing that has been immensely challenging to the idea of regular blogging during the past 8 months has been the illness of my mother with mesothelioma. It is a rapid, debilitating disease that makes relentless progress regardless of treatment.

My mother passed away on 8 January 2010, after diagnosis in April 2009. She was only 64. She was a central part of my life. I spoke to her every day. And it is hard to adjust to knowing that she won't be there on the other end of the line when I call home.

In the shellshock of the moments after my Mum had finally gone, I wrote an opinion piece for The Age newspaper. My family had not had time to be angry about the fact she had suffered through a disease that she should never have contracted. A disease that was the result of company greed, despite the known risks of asbestos decades before she was exposed to its deadly fibres.

My mum taught me to read before I went to school. It is hard to know that the first piece I had published in a newspaper appeared because she is now gone.