Early

Early Female Oz TeleTypes

How were women represented during the beginning of television in Australia?

Simone de Beauvoir said, “one is not born a woman, but rather becomes one” (Butler 13). Judith Butler quoted this in her book Gender Trouble, where she reveals that gender is a learned performance. One way gender norms are learned and normalised  is through television. Television has been a major contributor to Australia’s national identity. Bazzani noted, that in other countries national identity was formed in the cinema, but in Australia, “feature production barely existed at the time television started,” therefore television greatly influenced Australia’s national identity (Bazzini 115).   In the very beginning of Australian television there were two opposite female teletypes: (1) traditional types in soap operas and (2) performance types in variety shows. The question is, how did these contradictory roles on Australian TV structure the national image of the Australian woman?  Through an analysis of the early soap opera Autumn Affair (1958-1960) and the entertainment show, The Lorrae Desmond show (1958-1962), I reveal how these two female types, although seemingly opposite, are both structured as being dependent on men and living up to transnational beauty standards.  In other words, these early tele-types reveal how television has constructed the Australian female as ambivalent, contradictory, and in-between. In other words, early television taught Australian women how to “become” a transnational women (Butler).

The Australian soap opera format was created and influenced by international formats and early radio production.  Mercado, wrote, “The Aussie soap isn’t unique, but we have been clever enough to combine the best qualities of the shows produced by our American and British Cousins. Essentially, we sped up the storytelling, because American soaps moved to slowly, and, like the Brits, we preferred to balance our melodrama with a good deal more comedy.” (Mercado 12). Due to this international influence, many of the early female television characters created on early Australian soaps were given international feminine qualities.

The first Australian soap, Autumn Affair, aired October 24, 1958. (Mercado 16). The show was fifteen minutes long and played three times a week at 9 am on  Channel 7 (Mercado 17). Autumn Affair was essentially a radio soap opera, but with images and pictures to accompany the witty dialogue. The show begins with the female protagonist, Julia Parrish, played by Muriel Steinbeck, reciting a voiceover as she writes in her journal. Julia’s voiceover and journal writing normalised journal writing as traditional female practice in Australian culture. The show also focused on Julia’s love triangle between two men. In her journal, Julia wrote about the trouble she had with men in her life.  In one episode, (see video clip)

, the show opens with Julia journaling about how she wants to revise her novel by making her hero an exact replica of her past love, Steve. Therefore, the show structured the female protagonist’s happiness as being dependent on men. Moreover, the show was designed to attract female audiences. Julia’s dependent image is what female audiences look to to “learn” how to behave like a proper Australian female. Also, the show’s short soap opera format made it convenient for housewives to watch, while maintaining household chores.

In terms of plot, Autumn Affair made Julia a loving and caring mother.. In episode 156, Julia said to her daughter Meg,  “I wanted everything to be right for you, and I still do” (Autumn Affair). Her caring image on the show thus socialised Australian woman to be good mothers. To create narrative tension, the soap would have Julia and Meg fight and then make loving amends. In this way, the show’s  love-hate relationship between mother and daughter became normalised.

Autumn Affair centered the women’s life around fashion. Meg, as a clothing model on the soap, constantly worried about her appearance. Mercado wrote, “Julia’s modeling daughter Meg was well-known enough to worry about her reputation —, what if she was seen in the same outfit twice in the social pages!” (Mercado 116). Meg’s role on the soap made glamour and beauty important aspects of the Australian female type .

In terms of Autumn Affair’s mis-en-scene, the feminine set-design and props used in the action socialise particular modern instruments to be associated with femininity. For example, the telephone, an instrument socialised as “feminine”, was often used to push Autumn Affair’s narrative forward. In fact, much of the dialogue on the show occurred between telephone conversations. This strategic placement and use of the telephone in Autumn Affair underscores the way in which early television normalized the telephone as a Australian feminine practice. Female viewers could then relate the telephone to their everyday experience at home.

Just as the first television soaps were adapted by international formulas, Australian entertainer’s gained popularity through international experience. An early example of a female international Australian star is Lorrae Desmond. An interesting aspect to Lorrae’s ‘Australianness’, what that she had to go abroad from Australia to become an Australian star. Lorrae Demond said in a “Talking Head’s” interview with Peter Thompson, “I wanted my own television show. We didn’t have television in Australia…I read in an english newspaper onboard that they were looking for entertainers to entertain trips and I thought, ‘Well, that would be good.’ So I thought, alright I have to go away and become a name then”” (Talking Heads).  Lorrae performed as a comic and singer in Britain for several years before coming back to Australia to do The Lorrae Desmond Show. Her training in Britain thus associated female Australian teletypes with transnational qualities. Furthermore, Lorrae’s initiative and independence excited Australian audience and provided a striking contrast Muriel Steinbeck’s role as an old dependent mother. Moreover, the contrast between Muriel and Lorrae produced a contradictory and ambivalent australian female national identity- an identity caught between dependency and independence.

In 1962, Lorrae Desmond  was given the the TV week Gold Logie award for her spectacular influence and reputation among australian audiences. It was  Lorrae’s beauty and international experience that appealed to the ABC network watchers.  ABC noted that “Lorrae was a fixture in TV WEEK in the ’60s, modeling gowns, discussing her love-life and diet secrets, and even revealing a surprising preference.” In this way, Lorrae’s show was the beginning of contemporary infotainment and lifestyle television shows that taught women how to be feminine. Even to this day, Australia’s female lifestyle is a hybrid of british and american culture and fashion.

Muriel Steinbeck and Lorrae Desmond’s television roles create a feminine paradox. On one hand, early female Oz types such a Julia Parrish were traditional and in the private sphere of the home, on the other, entertainers such as Lorrae Desmond were independent and successful in the public sphere. These two female polar types underscore the ambivalence and contradictory nature of Australia’s feminine national identity.  Butler wrote, “women constitute a paradox, if not a contradiction, within the discourse of identity itself…the female sex constitutes the unconstrainable and undesignatable. In this sense, women are the sex which is not “one,” but multiple” (Butler 14).  Australia struggles to find an original female national image, and its historical past of British dependency leads it to constantly compromise its identity based on  international countries. In a sense, this discussion of the two early famous teletypes is a metaphor for Australia’s national ambiguity. Lorrae’s, represents Australia’s strength and independence, and Julia Parrish represents Australia’s continued dependency on Britain and traditional past. Therefore, it can be said that early Australian television female stars, at their most primitive stage, reflect the multiplicity and contradictions of Australia’s national identity.


Works Cited:

“Autumn Affair.” Episode 156. Channel 7. The Australian Television Network. 24 October 1958. Web. 10 May 2010.

Bazzani, Rosie. “TV Cops Take the Running’, Australian Cultural History, 26, 2007: 113-129. Print.

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. Thinking gender. New York: Routledge, 1990. Print.

Mercado, Andrew. Super Aussie Soaps: Behind the Scene of Australia’s best loved TV Shows. Melbourne: Pluto Press, 2004.  Print.

“Talking Heads with Peter Thompson.” ABC Official Site. Transcripts, 14 April 2009. Web. 8 May 2010.



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