History, rape and Razor

From ninemsn.com.au

The way that the past is remembered and presented for our consideration is influenced by the present in which that remembering and representation is done. The relationship between the past and present is not straightforward or simple, and can be interrogated, but there is undoubtedly a relationship and an influence.

Underbelly Razor has been interesting in a number of ways, particularly in its depiction of women. All the Underbelly series have had a slightly tortured relationship with their female protagonists, with a tendency to the exploitative – more breasts than one would have thought strictly necessary. Razor however focuses on two female leads who have real power within the criminal environment.The most interesting depiction of women has generally been, however, of those participating in law enforcement – the police. The powerlessness and challenges faced by women in these situations has been an ongoing theme of the Underbelly series.

Nonetheless, I think that Episode 5, The Darlinghurst Outrage was a particularly unusual and special piece of television, centred as it was on a complex rape case. It raised a number of scenarios – woman crying rape because she was paid to do so; woman crying rape because her husband found out she was a prostitute, straightforward rape of a woman dragged off the street. The “truth” of the episode was more complex – a wife and mother, forced by poverty and her husband’s unemployment, engages is some casual prostitution. After consensual, paying sex, one of the men involved wants to go further – she does not consent to this, and is anally raped while being held down by the two other men.

Attitudes within the police are made clear – senior officers only want to pursue the case when she is a respectable wife-and-mother; we hear that they have been unwilling to bring forward a number of cases of the rape of prostitutes. A male policeman argues that the case is unwinnable – it is the word of one woman against that of three men. So when the female officer, trying to make some headway in the prosecution of rape, finds out that prostitution has been involved, she ignores this fact and allows it to remain concealed. Ultimately, the prosecution loses. It is then that we see what Kate Leigh says she’d pay a lot of money to know, the truth according to the show. Ida Maddocks is held down and raped, screaming no.

What makes this depiction most compelling is the current media, judicial and social discourse around rape. One could almost imagine the same conversations being held by the police now. Rape against prostitutes is still, sadly, seen as a less awful crime. If there has been some form of consent given to some form of sex, public discourse often extends that consent to all forms of sex and any number of partners. The events in which football players, in particular, seem to find themselves embroiled often entail similar levels of complexity, and as often as not, this complexity is part of the tactics used to escape conviction. As is the woman’s sexual history.

Against this background of the current discourse around rape, what I think makes this an excellent contribution is that the message is clear, Ida Maddocks said no. Ida Maddocks was raped. And one of the men knew this – he was identified by the markings on the back of his neck because, while he held her down for business purposes, he knew what was happening was wrong.

Thanks Underbelly for acknowledging that, whatever our sexual history of previous consent, no means no.

SommeWorld and the Disney-ification of history

In The Fourth Bear by Jasper Fforde, the characters encounter SommeWorld which “invites its visitors to taste the marrow-chilling fear of being an infantryman in the Great World.” The as yet uncompleted SommeWorld encourages visitors to change into “uncomfortable British army uniforms before manning the trenches outside” where they encounter artillery barrages, mortars and parachute flares.

While this is a wholly fictional theme park, it is not so far from some of the approaches being taken by modern museums, including our very fine Australian War Memorial here in Canberra. The move to a greater level of interactivity, to the idea of “experiential” history goes beyond just making use of technology to attract new visitors. Someone told me yesterday, possibly completely apocryphally, that a Director of the Australian War Memorial had wanted to find a way to include scent in the exhibitions. Given that, as Rosenweig and Thelan found in 1998, museums tend to be viewed by the public as the most reliable source of knowledge about the past, one wonders how this move to the experiential will impact on people’s perception of and interpretation of the past – and also their faith in the museum. Static objects which provide seemingly (but obviously not really) unmediated access to the past make the public value the presentations in museums. While audio visual experiential history might make museums more entertaining, this does not mean equate with making them more trusted as a source of history.

Another interesting sideline in the Australian War Memorial is that aspect of entertainment sited in the past has bled into a commodified form of entertainment value from the space itself. OK, that isn’t very clear, but my own ideas abotu this are not quite clear and something I think is worth working through. Some time ago I attended a ball in the ANZAC Hall at the War Memorial which had a “spy/secret agent” theme. We dined under the remains of the midget submarine on tables decorated with plastic guns and licorice bullets and danced under the wingspan of G-for-George. It is a fabulous venue, but it also leaves you with a slightly odd feeling. I don’t have any of the outrage that somehow we are profaning something sacred or any such investment in the objects of the past, but it is interesting how it turns what has been seen as a space of commemoration and memory into a site of celebration, commercialism and even business – anyone can hire this space as a venue for cocktail functions or balls. Not sure that there have been any weddings there, but I guess it is possible…. Now this is, from a pragmatic viewpoint, a sensible way for the War Memorial to make additional money from what would otherwise be empty spaces at night which it cna use to continue to restore and support its collection. from a theoretical viewpoint, it represents a whole lot of other things. It is interesting, for example, to contemplate what Pierre Nora might think about it, about this use of les lieux of memory.

Perhaps in the future we see the past reflected to us in the form of SommeWorld, or the historical pageant theme parks of Julian May’s Galactic Milieu, which Stein gets thrown out of for being too authentic in his attempt to recapture his viking past, and Mercy orchestrates as she tries to capture something not able to be satisfied in the world she lives in.

Woodstock and the myth of the Sixties

So it is 40 years since Woodstock, which means we get people (who are cultural theory academics apparently) saying stuff like this:

To many people it kind of represents the 60s and we put that in quotation marks. All of the kind of optimism and energy of the counter-culture of the 1960s seems to have been temporarily placed at Woodstock.

It became the capital of the 60s for a brief period. And of course, I think one of the reasons Woodstock becomes so embraced, it wouldn’t be very many years before so much optimism of that period had in fact collapsed.

Basically, it is mythological bollocks.

Paul Lyons writes about how he sends his undergraduates out each year to interview people who lived during the Sixties.

He describes the reaction of students who are sent to interview baby boomers about their experiences during the decade. Inevitably these students complain that they are “not finding the right people” and that those they interviewed “weren’t really part of the Sixties.” This is because their subjects do not confirm to the tropic understanding of the Sixties held by these students: that the Sixties involved Woodstock, hippies, civil rights and the Vietnam War. For many, the sum of these tropes is the Sixties.

OK, so what is a trope? Hayden White says:

Tropic is the shadow from which all realistic discourse tries to flee. This flight, however, is futile; for tropics is the process by which all discourse constitutes the objects which it pretends only to describe realistically and to analyze objectively.

What he means is that tropes are organising concepts which in the case of history can obscure what we are actually trying to objectively consider. So, in the case of Lyons’ students, they are so fixated on the tropes of the Sixties – the sex, drugs, protest and rock and roll aspect of it – that they are unable to understand that in fact, that isn’t what constituted the experience of most people during the period. And by then denying the voice of the non-tropic recollections of history, the idea that those things constituted the decade becomes further reinforced.

You will probably find that, if you asked, most baby boomers have been to a hell of a lot less protest marches, taken less drugs, had sex with fewer people than most people 20 years younger than them. But not in all cases of course. Someone the other day was saying it would have been exciting to be young in the Sixties. Maybe – if you came from the socio-economic class where you could afford a higher education, where you might, maybe, at university have engaged with political movements. For the majority of young people growing up at the time, it was nothing like that. There is as much excitement and change and pioneering going on nowadays.

This is not to deny that there was signifiant cultural change during the Sixties and that many movements had powerful pioneers during that time to whom we should all be greatful. The women’s movement, the civil rights movements in America and the fight for Aboriginal rights in Australia, the anti-war movement were all critical and significant parts of change. However, they didn’t “happen” to everyone, and not everyone who lead those movements was young at the time.

Nonetheless, we mythologise. And Woodstock was not all peace and love anyway. There was at least one rape reported following the event in 1969 and probably a great deal more that went unreported, given the approach to dealing with rape at the time. And rape could be a very challenging area when intersected with the “free love” movement. It is notable that, by the 1980s, some women viewed their experiences with “free love” and the sexual revolution somewhat skeptically. While there was an undoubted change in the way women dealt with sex during the Sixties, the perspective that many women took by the 1980s was far from a total endorsement their sexual lives from the time. For example, Lillian Rubin interviewed one woman who argued that the revolution, which had freed them to say yes, also disabled them from saying no. “It was weird; it was so hard to say no,” said 38-year-old Paula…“The guys just took it for granted that you’d go to bed with them, and you felt like you had to explain it if you didn’t want to. Then if you tried, you couldn’t think of a good reason why not to, so you did it.” A number of other women interviewed by Rubin repeat this theme. Rubin herself notes that “it was the coercive force of a movement that, in fact, had wide appeal to women, while it also rested on a deeply entrenched structure of roles and relationships that was bound to corrupt the ideals on which it was founded.” Thus free love without sexual equality could lead to coercive expectations on women around sex.

Despite all this, when rapes occured at the Woodstock festival in 1999, it was seen as a condemnation of “young peope today” and moral panic about the manner in which this mythologised event was being diminished. And this is essentially the danger of mythologising and tropes. We can’t critical analyse in a past when we are too obsess with protecting it and with seeing it as representative of everything about an era. Nothing, no single event, and especially not an LSD fuelled orgy can represent an entire decade, and entire generation. To try and argue that it does oversimplifies and, in so doing, distorts the past. And by distorting the past and obscuring the analysis, we can’t understand it in all its complexity.

So, I might have liked to have been at Woodstock – although I tend to avoid music festivals where I have to camp…And it certainly is an interesting event which illustrates the peak, arguably, of a certain small subculture within North America at the time. But let’s not overblow its meaning, let’s not oversimplify what happened in the past.