IWD: plus ça change …

Today is International Women’s Day. The 100th International Women’s Day, to be precise, celebrating a century of women’s advancement in society; and to be sure, we have come a long way since 1911. As a feminist I should be proudly wearing my green, white and violet and attending one of the many events being held in the capital to mark the milestone, but somehow, all I can see today is the continuing exploitation of young women by powerful men and media interests.

On Sunday night, 60 Minutes, Channel 9’s long-running current affairs flagship, aired an interview with the young woman at the centre of the so-called ‘dickileaks’ scandal.

There is just so much wrong about this whole sad, sordid situation that it’s difficult to know where to begin, but something about the 60 Minutes interview with this young woman, who is way out of her depth in the glare of the public spotlight, rang a bell of familiarity.

In the late 70s two girls from the Sutherland Shire, Kathy Lette and Gabrielle Carey, wrote a novel about growing up in the surfing culture of the 1970s. When it appeared in the bookshops in late 1979, Puberty Blues created a sensation. Under-aged sex! Drinking! Thirteen year old girls in the backs of panel vans! This was a time when boys surfed and girls minded their towels, bought their chiko rolls and provided sexual services. It was not something that had ever been exposed before from a female perspective and suddenly everyone wanted a piece of the action. So to speak. After a brief spell in the spotlight, the two authors both moved on from Puberty Blues and carved out individual careers as writers but in a 2006 memoir Carey revisited her time as a ‘teenage celebrity”.

The media attention after the publication of Puberty Blues was intense and Carey recounts not only the pressure of countless interviews, but also the pressure of fending off middle-aged media blokes who clearly thought that because the girls had written a raunchy book about teen sex, they were fair game. The low point, for Carey, was a 60 Minutes interview with George Negus, filmed over several weeks in the girls’ sharehouse and on Cronulla Beach. Though she loathed the filming process, Carey felt that it would be a positive reflection on the two girls and their story. She felt that she would finally be given a voice rather than appearing like a media puppet.

When the show was finally screened, we were again portrayed as shallow, sex-crazed, attention-seeking teenyboppers…. Since then I have come to recognise the general hatred that the media, and perhaps the Australian community at large, have for ‘youth’…. Too late I got the advice which I now regularly pass on to younger players: ‘Remember this: they are not your friends.’

Carey can be grateful, and probably is, that in 1980 there was no Twitter audience to judge her and Lette as the 60 Minutes production team got them to “roam the beach in bikinis flirting with surfies” and “walk over North Cronulla rocks in high heels”. I can imagine a 1980 Twitter commentary would have looked very much like the vile invective that was directed at the young Melbourne woman last Sunday night as 60 Minutes paraded her in skimpy clothing and invited the world to judge her against our idealised standards of how ‘youth’ – particularly young women – should behave and against the respectable weight of the St Kilda Football Club.

When Gabrielle Carey and Kathy Lette penned their story of growing up in Cronulla in the 70s it was new and different and no one really knew how to handle it. Was this really how teenagers behaved? The two young women took the lid off a culture that exploited girls and just expected them to put up and shut up. When the culture was laid bare for the world to see, the media then exploited them too, trading them the fickleness of fame against the big ratings and advertising dollars that sensational stories reap for the networks.

That was over 30 years ago.

So, what’s changed? The football culture, despite its official policies of respect for women, still exploits girls and expects them to put up and shut up. When one of them decides not to shut up and to expose the culture for what it is, the media goes to work, showing her as shallow and sex-crazed. I’m sure Kim Duthie – thanks to 60 Minutes we now know her name and have seen her face, despite other news agencies repeatedly saying that neither could be revealed due to her age – thought that she would finally be given a voice and not just appear as a puppet. The torrent of abuse and insults hurled via Twitter directly reflected how the girl was portrayed.

That is now.

And here we are, celebrating 100 years of International Women’s Day. We can only hope it doesn’t take another 100 years to see a change in the world of sensationalist anti-youth and misogynistic media. The world where a presumably respectable current affairs program can take young women who have exposed the underside of male-dominated cultural practices, and portray them as nothing more than shallow nymphomaniacs out for attention and whatever else they can get. That’s my hope for International Womens’ Day, 2011. That’s what I’ll be working towards for the next century.


Gabrielle Carey’s collection of biographical essays, including “Confessions of a teenage celebrity”, from which I have quoted, is So Many Selves, published in 2006 by ABC Books.

Puberty Blues was made into a film, directed by Bruce Beresford, in 1981


About Coffee with Ruby

Ruby is a writer, lecturer and thinker who blogs mostly on politics, environment and social philosophy. She has been at the coalface of the political process, but is now strictly an observer. Join Ruby for coffee and musings over whatever is going on at the time ...
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