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.