Holiday Gruel

A Total BettieHere in Australia, for the very first time, our head of state is female.

On Thursday morning, I watched this event unfold on television. A meringue-lite breakfast broadcaster called Lisa Wilkinson was charged with the task of delivering the news. I watched as Wilkinson entered her seventh hour of broadcast. Given this endurance and the fact that her remit rarely extends to a matter more taxing than diets, I guess she could be permitted a moment of folly

Or several. She made three references to our new Prime Minister’s idle womb. The second of which realised the difficult task of making one of her guests wince. The third of which doused most of my feminist fire. “Are we going to reference the Prime Minister’s reproductive organs all day?”, I asked the electronic media.


Giddy either from lack of sleep or the imagined promise of a feminist tomorrow, the internet and the television is still squealing, “You Go, Girl™.”

Awash with a uniquely Hallmark conceit, journalist Caroline Overington implored us gals to call our mothers and, “Say thank you”.

Fresh from a stint at the marathon Today show where she had been speaking for the female blogosphere, Mia Freedman gently pressed Gillard into the service of the sisterhood. On social media site, a rash of girl-positive comments flared like dermatitis on Boadicea’s chest.

“This is a proud day,” wrote one young woman.

And, of course, it was. I could not help but feel a little gynaecological bloat as Her Majesty’s female representative swore in the female representative of the people. The exchange was, as Wilkinson reminded me throughout the morning, “historic”. And momentarily gratifying in a nation where female labour continues to be undervalued; where women’s participation in public life is often treated with all the esteem of a pajama party.

Scholar and feminist Shakira Hussein beat me in unleashing that “inner party-pooper” seeking to underplay Gillard’s gender. ALthough both feminist and AUstralian, neither of us were wearing our pajamas.

Actually, the new Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, beat both of us when reminded, perhaps a little needlessly, by local press that she was the nation’s first female PM. “Maybe first redhead,” she joked.

That redhead, she said, was never pointed toward the detonation of any glass ceilings.

She set out, she said, to “keep my feet on the floor”. And there her feet remained throughout the 90s as she was knocked back as a representative for her party three timess. That they have now elevated her to the country’s top job is, of course, testament not only to her tenacity but to feminism’s gains. But, this doesn’t give us ladies license to bang on like the epilogue to Sex and the City

First, it’s just unseemly. Second, as any sensible woman should know, it’s perilous to declare one’s self satisfied. As my friend Hussein writes , Gillard’s ascension may be easily seen as evidence that women have, “no further reason to complain”.

I plan to whine for several decades yet. And I plan to assess my new leader’s feminism in the terms of her policy; not of her reproductive parts. Her ascent to the top is not the end of the feminist paragraph. The struggle will continue to be punctuated by the fight for equal pay and equal representation; the battle against domestic violence and the strange prison we have made of women’s bodies.

I’m terribly wary of celebrating appointments like this as “victories” for women and feminism. First, this diminishes the real victory which, in my view, is of a civic-minded politician over her incompetent forebear.. Second, and more generally, it reduces the aims of feminism to that of amassing trophies.

You can name all the CEOs, presidents and Prime Ministers you want. You can even revel in these appointments momentarily. It does us ladies good to remember, though: feminism is in the details; it cannot be located solely in the executive.

A colony founded in masculinity, Australia can still feel like the land that feminism forgot. On this “historic” day, perhaps Overington, Wilkinson and co can be excused their greeting card gush.

Just as long as they stem the flow by the weekend.

Leo Tolstoy was the nineteenth century’s greatest salesman of misery. And, heavens,
was the competition stiff. That the guy could out-gloom losers like Dickens or Hardy is witness to his total wretchedness. This probably had a little to do with the Russian weather.

Without annual fail, there are two phrases that enter my head during the month of December. The first, which has nothing to do with Tolstoy, is “Christmas Trim”. It cracks me up every time I hear it on the television because it sounds so rude. Ha. Trim. The second comes from Anna Karenina and, no doubt, you’ve read it before, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Oh, those Oblonskys. One of them is carrying on with a French girl, another has eyes full of indifference and, in short, none of them is happy and so, according to the terms of Tolstoy’s oft-repeated quote, they are, in their unhappiness, far more interesting than your everyday, happy family and, therefore, worthy of Tolstoy’s particular attention and our passionate scrutiny.

Or, if you prefer short sentences which Tolstoy never did: happy families are common and not very interesting to think about.

I say to the giant of Russian literature: bullshit. On the few occasions I have met a happy family, I have found the experience entirely fascinating. I find them so interesting, I usually ask if I can join.

Every unhappy family is unhappy, I’d say, in a fairly narrow range of ways.

I am reminded of ordinary misery these past few days. I am reminded that my late grandfather was unable to give or receive real love; that my partner’s mother is far more interested in cigarettes than her children, grand-children or festive cheer; that my sister’s heart is not so much broken as curiously obstructed. And I’m reminded that my own mother would rather truss herself up like a turkey and baste in a convection oven for a thousand hours than accept my hospitality; she seems to think I have more than the average volume of communicable germs. And I’m reminded that, despite what Leo might have to say, none of this unhappiness is particularly special. It’s just garden variety shit.

The DNA of my family’s misery is fairly unexceptional. This month, their pattern of disapproval, disgust and emotional constipation will show itself a trillion times. For every bogus snowflake on every local tree, there will be a dozen moments of loathing and far, far fewer through which happiness will pass.

Oh GOODNESS; I’m depressing even myself. I am, in fact, coming over all Nineteenth Century Novelist. Before you know it, I’ll be offering you my recipe for thin gruel. The thing is, though, I did want to urge you to value your happiness where you find it; to treasure those moments of happiness between family not because they are “all alike” but because they are magnificent and unique.

Familial unhappiness is not special. It’s not, outside the last days of Imperial Russia and without the skill of Tolstoy to render it, particularly interesting, either. It’s just a long, dumb slog that makes digestion of overcooked pork just that little bit more trying.

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