Academic journal article Outskirts

'Animal Handlers': Australian Women Writers on Sexuality and the Female Body

Academic journal article Outskirts

'Animal Handlers': Australian Women Writers on Sexuality and the Female Body

Article excerpt

The year 2011 saw the igniting of mass protest around the issue of sexual double standards for women with numerous marches worldwide called 'SlutWalks'. Thousands of women across a range of countries including America, Europe, Britain and Australia took to the streets to defend the right of women to dress and behave freely without stigmatisation and violence. The 'SlutWalks' started in reaction to a local policeman in Toronto telling a class of college students to avoid dressing like 'sluts' if they did not wish to be victimised (SlutWalk Toronto site). The public protest in response to this incident demonstrates resistance to historically embedded discourses that demean women's sexuality and blame women for abuse and rape they suffer. Terms such as 'slut' perpetuate a virgin/whore dichotomy fundamental to the oppression of female sexual self-expression. These marches are a recent example that follows on from a tradition of mass protests for women's sexual equality and right to safety such as 'Reclaim the Night'. Drawing on writing and conversations with poets Dorothy Porter and Gig Ryan, novelists Drusilla Modjeska, Kate Grenville, Carmel Bird and Melissa Lucashenko and playwright, Leah Purcell, this article offers insights into individual creative women's responses to this theme of women's sexuality. I argue that the work and ideas of these women are examples of the unique and powerful dialogue that can happen through a focus on creativity and female stories in Australia.

The phrase 'Animal Handlers' in the title draws on Drusilla Modjeska's description of female figurines she sees in a museum, forged from a matriarchal Minoan culture. These forms present alternative possibilities for representations of the female body beyond western notions of homogenised female beauty as passivity. These figurines appear in a range of shapes embodying diversity, strength and tenacity - capable of handling animals if required- neither fixed in stone nor vacant in gaze. I will detail more on Modjeska's encounter later, however this image she describes aptly connotes the literary distinctions I argue are current in women's writing. I present some comparisons with explicitly sexualised writing celebrated as libratory 'porno-lit'. While the examples of 'porno-lit' I cite are outside of Australia, this by no means indicates that this form of writing is not occurring locally and I am not arguing that Australia is a bastion of empowered feminist representation. Indeed it is possible to notice a number of Australian female-authored texts that may well fit the genre of sexual exposé. However the Australian women writers I selected were chosen specifically because they offer a productive alternative to what I am arguing are potentially generic and objectifying representations of women's sexuality.

There is a risk of juxtapositions as articulated in this argument that further perpetuate ideas of judgement around what are 'good' or 'bad' representations of women's sexuality and this itself can be reductive and oppressive. However my interest here is to query the territory where a woman writing explicitly about sex is not necessarily subversive if the writing reinforces stereotypes. Also, I want to explore what kinds of writing may offer variant representations and possibilities-much like the figurines that show women as 'animal handlers' in place of the usual Hellenic models.

The work of the writers I interviewed in this article include some of the most compelling and original voices throughout the last fifty years in Australian literature, though there are of course many more who write around themes of sexuality such as Linda Jaivin and Kathleen Mary Fallon who also offer rich contributions to this topic. This article is not intending to present the latest in Australian writing but more a reflection on writers who have worked over many years and texts as early as the 1980s. It suggests that in such revisiting, appreciation for the diverse range of female expressions may inform the kind of resistance gaining popular force, as manifested in protests such as 'Slutwalks'. …

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