The 1970s Gossip Girls: Gossip's Role in the Surveillance and Construction of Female Social Networks in Helen Garner's Monkey Grip

By Bastin, Giselle | Antipodes, December 2009 | Go to article overview

The 1970s Gossip Girls: Gossip's Role in the Surveillance and Construction of Female Social Networks in Helen Garner's Monkey Grip


Bastin, Giselle, Antipodes


THE ROLE OF GOSSIP IN THE MAINTENANCE OF ONE-ON-ONE relationships is well charted in sociolinguistic studies and much of the study of gossip throughout the 1980s and 1990s considers how women use everyday speech as a means of disseminating information about their domestic roles, of establishing a sense of their own subjectivity, of comparing themselves with others, of negotiating spaces within social arrangements and as a means of entertainment. Gossip in Melbourne author Helen Garner's writing can be viewed as that which is used in attempts to seal friendships, close the spaces and erase the differences that divide "the self from the space of the other" (Nead 6). This discussion will consider how language constructs gendered living and speaking spaces and how Garner's concentration on forms of daily domestic exchange celebrates that which Whitlock refers to as "exalted gossip" over (xxiii), among other things, self-centered masculine discourse. Gossip's effects are shown in Helen Garner's first novel Monkey Grip to be manifold and, in this sense, Garner's first novel set the stage for what was to become one of her major strengths - the ability to tap into what is happening in the Zeitgeist within community settings. The characters in Monkey Grip exist in 1970s Melbourne during a time of considerable social experimentation. However, despite their endeavors to overcome the traditional trammels of established social behaviors, the female characters, in particular, discover that "finding new ways to live is just as difficult as the old stereotypes [. . .] The new boundaries forge different frontiers, but ultimately they remain variations on an old theme" (Smith 204). Gossip in this novel is shown in its capacity to both consolidate a sense of female community whilst also make explicit the ruptures and elisions in group identity. Ultimately, it is suggested, the notion of a fixed social space for Nora and her friends must remain a Utopian "desire" given the unstable condition of all borders and, particularly, the provisional nature of the discourse which they enlist to parole their boundaries. As Lynda Nead says, the lines which demarcate the bounded social body, articulated through daily exchange, constantly threaten to "dissolve apparent unities" and thus make "identity a continuously provisional state" (32).

The cultural critic Irit Rogoff identifies studies of gossip as forming three categories: "Anthropologizing," which looks at gossip as "the discourse of Others'" and "the communicative habits of tribes"; "Moralizing," where "exhaustive efforts" are made to "vindicate gossip from its morally inferior position and earnest attempts to find some purpose in its activity"; and the third category, which is the "Sociological" view that deals with "celebrity" and assumes that "gossip is a by-product of mass culture" and is "refracted through the apparatuses of mass, popular culture" (58-59). The last category is certainly one that has produced a prolific amount of discussion, as gossip has attracted much attention for the way that it is seeping into (indeed, it is often thought of as "infecting") "serious" news coverage, much as Monkey Grip attracted the criticism that it did upon its release in 1977 by some who thought it did not rate as "serious literature." Monkey Grip met with some of the harshest criticisms aimed at Garner's works. Garner's style was thought to read too much like a diary, to be too personal, too feminine somehow. Garner had to struggle to be accepted as a legitimate author, one who was considered "worthy" of her popularity - or perhaps condemned precisely because of it. There is a warning in the now oft-quoted line of Peter Pierce's from 1981 ("Helen Garner talks dirty and passes it off as realism" [113]) that there may be a danger in claiming that daily intercourse or gossip - and the integration of diese styles into prose - may involve itself with the private, the personal (and by implication "the dirty"), and that to pass off such a form of information exchange as legitimate and worthy of serious-minded treatment smacks of folly. …

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