Gender Construction, Teenagers, Sexual Identity and a Girl called Blake


A few years back, for a complex set of reasons (oh, all right, I was gearing up to turning fifty), I found myself investigating the entire body of work I had published over the last twenty five years, looking for significant gaps. I’d written for every age group between picture books and young adult novels. I’d written about boys and girls, gay characters and straight characters, characters from a range of class and ethnic backgrounds. I’d written a political novel and some modern fantasies, genre fiction and literary fiction, controversial novels and read-in-the-bath escapism. But there was one thing I’d never done, something so obvious and predictable that I could hardly believe I hadn’t got around to it. Despite starting out as one of the writers in the Women’s Liberation children’s book group Sugar and Snails, I had never centred a novel around an unabashed feminist role model.

Startled into action, I invented Blake on the spot and proceeded to write a ten-book series about her. The Blake Mysteries were deliberately constructed as detective stories, because I had been brooding about the relative absence of crime fiction for kids, but there was nothing deliberate about Blake herself. She just arrived – small and streetwise and determined, on a complicated quest to get at the truth about her extremely complicated family – and ever since then I’ve been puzzling about where she came from. Four weeks ago I wrote the last sentence of the last Blake mystery and, not exactly coincidentally, I’ve finally managed to come up with some answers.

In part, Blake represents a return to my roots. I finished my first novel just before I turned seventeen and wrote another children’s book while I was studying English Literature at university. Then I headed off to England, like Teresa in Christina Stead’s For Love Alone, and I was halfway through writing a novel about university life (an amalgam of George Eliot, Tolstoy, Henry James and D.H. Lawrence) when I bumped into the counterculture – black power and flower power, socialism and anarchism, gay liberation and women’s liberation. Before long, I had decided that the whole idea of great art was just bourgeois elitism. I ditched my Eliot-Tolstoy-James-Lawrence novel and launched myself into the much more interesting business of social change.

Except that, back in Australia, I spotted a notice for a children’s book group that met at the women’s centre, making me wonder whether there might be a place for writing in among these new ideas, after all. I went along to the centre and met a bunch of women who had started out as a suburban consciousness raising group, talking about the effects of sexism on their own lives and then deciding they wanted to do something about it. That was only twenty five years ago but already it requires a historian’s effort to explain that back then picture books were usually about boys, on the explicitly stated principle that girls would read books about boys but boys wouldn’t read books about girls. The women in the Box Hill CR group had got sick of surreptitiously drawing pigtails on half the boys and changing boys’ names to girls’ names when they were reading to their kids, so they wanted to write some picture books of their own, about strong, active, interesting girls.

Working with Sugar and Snails gave me a sense of audience and a sense of purpose. For the first time, I wasn’t following along behind my favourite writers: I was writing because I had something to say. After a group discussion in which we moved on from the obvious points about active princes and passive princesses to wondering why giants and dragons always seemed to be male, I went home and scribbled down the first draft of a story about a girl called Jane, who met three iconoclastic dragons called Bertha, Beatrice and Blackberry, and learned how to breathe fire. (Translation: a story about a girl called Jenny, who moved into a collective household with three feminists and started to get angry with all sorts of things that she’d taken for granted.)

Jane was my first try at an unabashed feminist role model but after that I veered off in a number of different directions. While feminism was a great motivator, I was too much of an Eng Lit student – or maybe just too much of a longterm dedicated reader – to be satisfied with what I call ‘checklist criticism’: judging a book purely on whether it contains a suitable number of tough girls, working mothers or whatever else the critic considers important. Checklist criticism can be a useful tool – for example, counting heads was an effective way to prove that male characters dominated children’s literature in the early seventies – but I wince when I see academics like Pam Gilbert and Sandra Taylor in Fashioning the Feminine (1991) critiquing the Dolly Fiction teenage romance series in terms of the heroines’ career plans, families and hobbies, rather than looking at how the writers framed the relationships between girls and boys. (Although maybe I was particularly alert to this because I’d written 6 of the 18 titles they analysed, under a couple of pen names, so I knew I had just finished writing a handbook on non-traditional occupations for girls and wanted to focus on a different aspect of young women’s lives this time.)

When I wrote an educational kit called Role Your Own for Sugar and Snails, I figured that my job was to put the argument for feminism as simply and directly as possible. When I was writing fiction, on the other hand, I figured I had a chance to work on several levels at once. My next picture book was a small quiet story about a boy learning to tie his shoelaces and tell the time, at his own pace. Because it appeared under the Sugar and Snails imprint, Nicky made a statement that we couldn’t widen the options for girls without widening the options for boys. But Nicky himself wasn’t any kind of role model, the way Jane had been: he was just one of the options, a boy who was neither a jock nor a wimp.

The same sort of thing happened when I veered off to write about sexual identity. In 1975 – International Women’s Year – I worked on a list of countersexist children’s books and in the process I noticed the almost total absence of books with gay main or, indeed, minor characters. From that point on, I knew I had to write something to fill that gap but right up to the last minute I thought I was going to write a standard problem novel: kid realizes she’s gay and deals with everyone else’s reactions. Then, halfway through the first sentence of my application for an Australia Council grant, I found myself muttering, ‘Hang on, why do you want to position being gay as a problem?’ – and instantly I started to write a synopsis about two friends who are asking the same questions about their sexual identity, except that Barb decides she’s straight and Leith decides she’s gay.

In some ways I wrote What Are Ya? from a sense of duty but to my surprise that novel became the basis for an ongoing project. For starters, I realised that, because I’d been concentrating on sexuality, there were a lot of things I hadn’t said about love, so I wrote Mr Enigmatic – from a boy’s point of view, to counter the idea that love was women’s business. Then I got grumpy about the ‘greed is good’, ‘money = success’ ethos of the 1980s and wrote Getting Somewhere, as a statement that there were a lot of different ways to look at work – from a girl’s point of view this time, on a similar sort of principle. And because these three books seemed to be filling in each other’s gaps, I set then in three successive final years at the same high school with some overlapping characters, to indicate that they were all part of the same story.

Starting from the ‘girls can do anything’ feminism of The Three Dragons, I’ve spent twenty five years exploring various levels and shades of meaning around gender construction and sexual identity. But as T.S. Eliot says,

the end of all our exploring
will be to arrive where we started

and know the place for the first time.

Identifying that significant gap in my own work brought me back full circle to Jane’s dragons and the children’s book group and I decided to take a then-and-now look at the novels that are being written for Australian young adults in the 1990s. I’m a freelance academic and reviewer, as well as a writer, so I read a lot of children’s fiction and I can state without a nanosecond’s hesitation that the general ambience has changed dramatically since the seventies. From Margaret Clark’s No Fat Chicks to Glyn Parry’s Sad Boys, Australian children’s writers are aware of the issues around gender construction and have something to say about it.

Nonetheless, when I checked for unabashed feminist role models, it was easier to think of American examples (Cynthia Voigt’s Dicey) or British examples (Jane Gardam’s Jessica Vye) or New Zealand examples (Tessa Duder’s Alex). The Australian women writers of my generation seem much more ambivalent about heroines. In The House that was Eureka, Nadia Wheatley filters the heroic 1930s unionist Lizzie through the perspective of the decidedly unheroic contemporary Evie. In Eleanor Elizabeth, Libby Gleeson’s 1980s Eleanor gains confidence from reading the diaries of 1890s Elizabeth, a character that Miles Franklin would have approved of, and in Getting Somewhere I look at can-do Stacy through the eyes of her less assertive twin Dinah. In fact, the only centre-stage female heroes who stuck in my memory were Garth Nix’s Sabriel, John Marsden’s Ellie and Joss from Alison Goodman’s Singing the Dog Star Blues – two novels by men and one by a young woman, all of them set in the future.

Sometimes it takes a generation to internalize new ideas and perspectives, in which case it’s hardly surprising that we’re still working on ways of representing strong women in realist fiction. However, I had a nagging sense that this issue poses a particular problem for Australian writers and readers. Normally I drift past Anzac Day without paying much attention but this year, perhaps because The Age served up a spectrum of articles criticizing and defending it, I couldn’t help noticing the way both criticism and defence rested on a shared understanding. Diggers and drovers, Jack Thompson and Paul Hogan, footballers and lone explorers and our (male) convict history – they all link together and make up a complex but clearly identifiable Australian male identity that Australian writers can accept or react against or simply mess with. But when it comes to an identifiable Australian female identity … well, there’s only so much you can do with the drover’s wife and Edna Everage.

If myths are what we measure ourselves against, then young women in Australia still have to guess how tall they might grow. The significant gap in my writing turned out to mirror a significant gap in my culture. So – to return to where I started – how did I lock onto Blake so quickly and what did she represent? I knew I’d been remembering Nancy Drew and contemplating Scully from The X-Files but I was obstinately convinced that Blake wasn’t just a translation from the American idiom. And then, walking home from the city to start writing this paper, something reminded me of Darcy Niland’s The Shiralee, about a tough little girl who takes to the road, like a younger version of my Blake, although Niland’s heroine is travelling with her father, rather than going up against him. Without realizing what it was doing, my unconscious had gone burrowing back through my literary heritage and uncovered a scrap of myth that I could use.

One of my favourite metaphors for the act of writing fiction is the image of water flowing down a channel – the channel representing literary and social traditions, the water representing individual creativity. Writers who endorse the status quo can concentrate on flowing in attractive and interesting patterns but if you’re writing new constructions of gender or writing gay, you often find that you have to stop flowing and hop out to dig your channel further or deeper, before you can continue on.

Life tends to move faster than art. I often feel as if the young adult novels I read and write aren’t anywhere near as radical as the free play across gender boundaries that I hear when I’m eavesdropping on Melbourne trams – boys gossiping shamelessly together, girls unapologetically assertive. But then again, life and art are also engaged in an ongoing dialogue that changes both of them. And that’s why I keep writing – because I believe that every time a writer takes another dig at those channels, we all get to flow a bit further.