Bicentennial Preliminaries: Aboriginal Women, Newspapers and the Politics of Culture
Greenfield, Cathy, Williams, Peter, Hecate
Now that Aborigines are becoming more politically powerful, a certain proximity has been forced on white Australians, a cultural and political proximity to a race which hitherto has been kept distant. Political issues such as land-rights, access to medical, housing and legal facilities, alternative education, writing of history, and so on, have tended to force people into new understandings. Talking about specific issues disrupts the usual ways of talking about Aborigines as a totality.(1)
This article is concerned with some recent print media images of Aboriginal women and with the politics of ways in which one particular cultural medium constructs and positions Aboriginal women as `newsworthy' individuals in `human interest' stories. More specifically, we are concerned to discuss these images and positionings in the range of historically produced and socially organised contexts leading up to the 1988 Australian Bicentenary with its theme of `Living Together' in a consensual, multicultural society. Informal content analysis of Australian daily newspapers would seem to indicate that during 1987, the year leading up to the Bicentenary, there has been a quantitative increase in the number of reports on and photographs of Aborigines generally and Aboriginal women in particular.(2) The particular print media incorporations and presentations of Aboriginal women at once register their political significance on a dominative surface of visibility for what might be termed the Bicentennial national-cultural agenda while also managing the conditions of visibility, positioning and ordering of elements of this agenda in specific and important ways that make very little space for the negotiation of Aboriginal self-presentations.
This works as consistent, culturally authoritative pressure which simultaneously disregards and discounts the possible effects of newspaper reportage and accompanying images on their large and diverse readerships. As a `mass' medium, widely selling and effectively monopolistic, newspapers are often dismissed as merely pandering to the social `lowest common denominator.' The effects of such cultural products are often regarded as transitory; as tawdry and insignificant appurtenances of `the information society'. It is our contention, however, that the print media repetition over time of a definite and limited range of ways of seeing Aboriginal women can be expected to have material social effects and outcomes. The widespread repetition of these particular frameworks for seeing and thinking about Aboriginal women may close off competing and contradictory ways of addressing the various sorts of social relations in which Aboriginal women are actually inscribed.
To work in this way is to take up themes previously elaborated in Hecate. For instance, Jackie Huggins wrote of the multiple discriminations to which Aboriginal women have been historically and continue to be socially subjected:
Today women's status has been changing, their prestige and opportunities increasing more rapidly than men's. Aboriginal women have continued important work roles. But, of course, to add to the disadvantage of sex and class, Black women carried the additional burden of racism. Women have been prominent as workers, office-bearers and spokespersons in Aboriginal lobby groups and pressure groups arousing public awareness of Aboriginal needs. Women have also participated in the various State and Commonwealth consultative bodies, along with many men.(3)
Newspaper narratives and photographs often contribute to effectively racist and sexist constitutions and positionings of Aboriginal women while at the same time marginalising the politicality of many of their activities.
Neither of the writers of this article can claim to speak for or on behalf of Aborigines. However, our critical distancing and analysis of the possibly sexist and racist effects of recent print media images and (re)presentations of Aboriginal women may, hopefully, help to clear a space into which Aboriginal self-presentations can be worked up and placed as a contribution to the transformation of the ways in which social identities such as those of Aboriginal women are publicly and dominantly produced and used. …