Dame Edna as Mrs. In-Between

How did Dame Edna, as a television character, embody the physical feminization of Australian suburbia? What are the implications of Humphrey cross-dressing for Australian masculine tele-types? Although, Edna refers to her Australianess in her contemporary performances, is her Australianess important to her international persona? How does Edna’s global “in-betweeness” reflect Australia’s contemporary and contradictory national identity?

“Dame Edna is synonymous with surprise, and even with shock. As her sobriquet ‘housewife/superstar’ implies, she is a celebration of contradictions: hilarious and malign, polite and lewd, generous and envious; high and low comic. But the most sensational of all Dame Edna’s contradictions is, of course, that she is a he” (Lahr 4).

Dame Edna Everage, Australia’s most famous female television star, is ironically a man. Edna was a character created the famous Australian actor and comedian, Barry Humphries.  Edna was originally called “Aunt Edna” in the 1960’s when Humphries was studying acting at Melbourne University, but since then, Aunt Edna has risen out of the Australian suburbs into global space as an international “mega-star” (Turnbull 18). Through her road to international fame, however, Dame Edna Everage’s stage performance reveals a paradox. Edna appears to be strong, confident, and overtly sexual, but her Australian identity remains ambiguous and in-between due to her international fame. Therefore, Humphries drag performance influences the way in which global audiences have come to understand Australia’s female identity as transnational and in-between.  Through a discussion of Australia’s colonial bush-women, Australia’s suburbia, and Barry Humphries childhood in Melbourne I will reveal how Humphries’ character, Dame Edna Everage, reveals the tensions within Australian femininity and the internationalization of Australian female type.

Dame Edna Everage’s “in-betweenness” can be linked back to colonial Australia. John Coad said that “gender trouble down under [in Australia] began with the convicts” (Coad 14). As a way to cover up the dirty image of early male convicts, Australian media created a reified Australian national type- a masculine type that was practical, friendly, and easy-going (Ward 103). As a result of the media’s continued perpetuation of this masculine national character, the complex history of female identity during Australian settlement remains hidden from modern imagination. In early colonial Australia, women would often cross dress as bushrangers for work (Kean 26). Louisa Lawson refers to these women as “bush-women” (Coad 106). Lawson describes early colonial women as having “stolid legs, large hands, shapeless body, and impassive expressions” (Coad 107).  In this way, Australian femininity became defined as being in-between. I argue, that Humphries’ televisual performance of Dame Edna re-incarnates this in-between image of a bush-woman; a woman in-between masculinity and femininity. Dame Edna’s stock legs and overt sexuality within a classy-suburban female persona underscores the ambivalence of Australian female identity and sexuality on television. Edna often mentions her gynecologist during her performances. She wrote on her website, “I know I’m fit as a fiddle because my gynecologist has just given me the thumbs up” (Everage 2002). Women in Australian suburbs repressed their sexuality, but Edna’s “openness” as a suburban wife conjures up an earlier time of the bush-woman. Coad wrote, “Such fluctuating gendering and overt eroticism recall Australia’s female convicts, some of whom…were characterized as psuedo-men given their butch appearance, foul language, and lesbian activities….” (Coad 107).

Furthermore, Humphries’ physical demasculinsation underscores the domestic influence of women in Australian suburbia. Similarly to the United States, the Australian suburbs in the 1950’s were primarily feminine spaces; private spaces where women could enact their agency. Australian artists such as John Brack saw the suburban space as a threat and an antithesis of the “legendary” and bush culture of Australia (McAuliffe 68). Chris McAuliffe wrote, “the domestic interior [of the suburbs], locus of feminine activities, repository of consumer goods, has man… in its clutches, the siren song of suburbia emasculating the husband and by extension, the nation”  (McAuliffe 71). In this way, I argue that Humphries’ cross dressing embodies a suburban emasculation and a lament for an inability to live up to the reified masculine national identity portrayed in the media.

Much of his suburban satire is linked  back to his own childhood in Kew, Victoria. Humphries said, “I certainly didn’t enjoy my childhood tremendously in Australia…unless children like jumping about in water…injuring themselves on the football… if you’re simply simple minded, Australia is ideal” (Lahr 66). It was this dislike of Australia’s simple domesticity, that Humphries used in his comedy.  Thus, his satire was intended as an attack on the women in the home and his memory of his aunt’s “niceness.” Humphries said, “I had a lot of aunts, all very nice, but they were there [home], all the time. So I was pretty good at giving an impersonation..of their obsession with domestic detail” (Lahr 66). Thus, Humphries’ performance calls attention to the way Australian females have been naturalized to think domestically. The role of Julia Parrish in Autumn Affair underscores this female “domesticity.”(See journal on “Early” female television types). Additionally, to make his comedy appeal to international audiences Humphries’ had to ‘transnationalise’ Australian female suburbanness.

Humphries initial failure at gaining popularity in Britain was due to the fact that Britain was not familiar with Australian suburban way of life. Instead of reevaluating or presenting Australianess in a a way British audiences would understand, Humphries’ let go of her Australian ‘suburbanness’ and transformed into an international star mocking the recent trends in popular culture. Sue Turnbull noted, “Edna’s success was also a result of a shift in attention from the minutiae of Australian suburbia to a focus on British habits and customs as well as the politics of fame…Edna finally managed to break through not because of her Australianess…but despite it” (Turnbull 22). Ironically, as a result of Humphries’ success in England, he lost support from Australia. In fact, many Australian’s thought his “drag” performance was a disgrace. Upon a visit home in Australia in the late 1970’s, Humphries overheard the radio discussing his performance. Humphries’ said, “Was I good for Australia or not? It was generally felt that I was doing Australia a great disservice by my impersonations…but from what I’ve heard it’s a disgrace” (Lahr 64). Humphries emasculation was an insult to Australia’s masculine bush legend. Thus, Dame Edna’s Australian femininity became characterized by in-betweenness and transnationality. Furthermore,  it can be said that Dame Edna’s transnationality is a satire on the trend of Australian actresses’ international fame. For example, most Australian female stars go abroad to gain recognition (i.e Lorrae Desmond, Nicole Kidman, Cate Blanchett etc). Therefore, Edna’s fictional persona is the comic version of young female performers that go to Britain to become international stars.

Although Edna’s characters abandoned Australia for international fame, she still uses bits of Australianess in her comedy shows to underscore Australia’s in-betweenness and Australia’s geographical isolation from the rest of the world. In 2005, at the Laughs International Comedy Festival in Quebec, Edna refers to her Australianess as being bi-hemispherical. She said:

“You see I’m bilingual as well, but not only bilingual, I’m bi-hemispherical…we Australians, we are all bi-lingual. We all speak english and Australian with equal fluency! We do!”  (http://www.youtube.comwatch?v=YV6Q4Q9u1pU&feature=related).

This bi-hemispherical comment underscores the way that Australian female television stars must define themselves by learning multiple cultures and nationalities. Moreover, it underscores the fact that Humphries, as a male cross-dresser, had to learn how to be internationally feminine.

Just as his position on television is neither female or male, Humphries’ nationality is neither Australian nor British but somewhere in-between.  Humphries’ international performance has become a microcosm for the general transnational and in-between pattern of Australian television actresses. His satirical character, reminiscent of early Australian bush-women, underscores the fact that women in suburbia can be internationally deplored by men who feel threatened. John Coad said, “The feminine is despised when it is considered a threat and seen to undermine men’s hyper-masculine fantasies. If women are avoided or scorned, it is because they already successfully enact the masculinity rituals that Wild Colonial Boys can only dream about” (Coad 177). In a way, Humphries’ performance as Edna can be seen as a backlash against his feminine suburban childhood and an inability to live up to Australia’s masculine national stereotype.

Works Cited:

Coad, David. Gender Trouble Down Under: Australian Masculinities. Valenciennes: Presses Universitaires de Valenciennes, 2002. Print.

“Dame Edna- Just for Laughs 2005.” Youtube Video. Online video clip. youtube.com Accessed on 08 June 2010.  <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YV6Q4Q9u1pU&feature=player_embedded>

Edna, Dame, “Dame Edna’s Official Website,” Edna Speaks.2002. Web. 10 June 2010.

Kean, John, “Bush Women: Narrative Paintings from Outback Western Australia.” Artlink 14 (1): 2010. Print.

Lahr, John. Dame Edna Everage and the Rise of Western Civilisation: Backstage with Barry Humphries. London: Bloomsbury, 1991. Print.

McAuliffe, Chris.  “Siren Song of the Subdivision.” Art and Suburbia. Ed. Chris McAuliffe. Craftsman House: Sydney, 1996. 66-75. Print.

Turnbull, Sue. “Mapping the vast suburban tundra: Australia comedy from Dame Edna to Kath and Kim.” International Journal of Cultural studies. 11.1 (2008): 15- 31. Print.

Ward, Russell.  The Australian Legend. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1958. Print.


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