It is human nature to believe that our own oppression is greater than anybody else’s. In the early history of feminism in Australia, there was, initially, “great difficulty in accepting that white women had historically been party to the processes of racism and colonialism” (1), so prevalent in the British imperial modus that helped shape the nation from its inception. That kind of tunnel vision, likewise, informs the average teenager, who can reduce an entire universe down to the narrow parameters of the petty tyrannies he thinks he alone endures (or perpetrates). Educational institutions often act as the (smaller-scale) equivalent of nation builders, forging identities based on hierarchy and (un)natural selection. In the British film, Maurice (James Ivory, 1987), Ben Kingsley’s character, an American psychiatrist, tells his worried homosexual patient that, “England has always been disinclined to accept human nature.” This same disinclination occurs in the early feminist discourse of Australia through its post-colonial imperatives and in the institutional/interpersonal dynamics depicted in two rural schools in New South Wales circa 1965 in writer-director John Duigan’s film, Flirting (1989).
Flirting is the middle chapter of a once-planned trilogy featuring the Danny Embling character (played by Noah Taylor), with autobiographical tinges of Duigan himself. This latter element brings to mind the Antoine Doinel series (1959-1979) made by François Truffaut, with its coming-of-age theme and the subjective journeys made by adolescents through reform schools, friendships, arbitrary adult cruelty, and the mysteries of love. John Duigan’s The Year My Voice Broke (1987) established Danny as a 15-year old attuned to beauty and loss and his own capacity for depth – in other words, not the average teenager. The sequel, Flirting, finds him sent to the remote boys school, St Albans, with the hope that he will learn something important about life and, in the end, he does, although not in the way that the adults of his world might wish. On the other side of the lake from his school is the Cirencester Ladies’ College. In Danny’s voice-over, which narrates the film, he describes how the two schools “stared across the lake at each other like brooding volcanoes”, an apt metaphor for the teenage passions at work and their potential to re-draw the landscape. Into the girls school comes a foreign student, formerly educated in England, born of Ugandan-Kenyan-English parents, named Thandiwe Adjewe (Thandie Newton). In his relative depictions of the boys and girls in these schools, writer-director Duigan does two things that would have been rare to the early feminists and colonizers in his country: he accepts human nature and he explores a world in which independence and individualism apply to females of different races.
When Thandiwe awakens on the first morning in her new school, she is surrounded by the cold, curious faces of several of her classmates, one of whom asks, “Anyone got a banana?” This establishes the inherent racism within the educational, cultural framework of the world she has entered. She is at the nexus of Britain, Australia and Africa and, as such, pulls together the threads of historical events that shaped their inter-national perceptions. “Australian racism had local dimensions based on conflict with Aborigines [… b]ut English racism was well established, often based on feelings of superiority towards those conquered in […] Africa” (2). Private boarding schools in Australia were modelled on those in Britain, with their accompanying prejudices and social structures. Thandiwe’s life experience outside the narrow confines of her new school make her infinitely more mature than most of the other girls and she takes the racial slur in stride, as she does with others throughout the film. She is not inclined to have any identity imposed on her and her self-confidence undermines whatever puny attempts are made to do so.
Danny is also an outsider, his intellectualism, small build, slight stutter and frank disinterest in anything that smacks of school spirit cause most of his schoolmates to torment him relentlessly. Observing their groupthink, he wryly comments in voice-over that it was never a surprise to him how Adolf Hitler managed to get so many followers. Danny has a survivor’s sense of humour that bites through the ether of corporal punishment (administered by a headmaster that seems overly fond of his caning ritual) and rugby mentality that structures his days and nights at St Albans. The first time that Danny and Thandiwe spend time alone together, they discover a common interest in Jean-Paul Sartre; Danny reads his work and Thandiwe met him once in Paris. This Sartre connection brings to mind the 1949 book, The Second Sex, by Simone de Beauvoir, and her assertion that “woman must be considered first as a human being, rather than continuing to live in a world where men compel her to assume the status of the Other” (3). In this humanist vein, both the film and Danny view Thandiwe and all the female characters, especially the students, in the narrative as three-dimensional people. This approach is notably illustrated through the supporting character of Nicola Radcliffe (Nicole Kidman), who emerges as a natural leader of the other students at Cirencester. In addition, her icy blondeness and imperious manner make her the sexual fantasy of the boys across the lake, but the film makes clear her own ambivalence about being held up as anybody’s ideal. She shows little patience with people who fawn over her or are intimidated by her. The fact that Danny never exhibits either tendency eventually makes her a surprising ally to him (and to his romance with Thandiwe), despite their vast separation along the popularity scale within school hierarchy. Thandiwe also exhibits this independence when she tells Danny, as they get to know each other, that she seldom finds anybody “complicated enough” to keep her interested. That these are the two main female characters, each one deliberately self-determined, emphasizes the film’s interest in gender relations within a thematic setting of institutionalised, historical and cultural strictures.
Australia, a nation with distinctive origins as both a penal colony and an immigrant frontier, negotiates a unique discourse on feminism, race and colonialism, with the three issues often painfully entwined. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, there was no “social analysis” (4) that would help colonizers, settlers and missionaries comprehend the human patterns of interaction and their natural, ethnographic bases in Aboriginal society. The whites that encountered this native culture were only able to assess it “through a quasi-Darwinian” framework that “provided justification for seeing [it] as fitted only for menial tasks and a servile social relationship with settler society” (5). When white women in Australia began to vocalize their oppression within the bourgeois community, they didn’t initially find any relevance or common ground between themselves and an examination of Aborigine women. “[D]istinctions made between white ‘civilized’ and black ‘primitive’ womanhood were integral to the formulation of the feminist project in Australia in the first half of the twentieth century” and, further, “whiteness became a crucial marker of boundaries and status”. (6) Just as missionaries applied a narrow Christian ethic to how they perceived the social rituals of native people along an artificial (even unnatural) moral spectrum, early feminists imposed their pre-existing, colour-coded prejudices on members of their own gender. “The imperial/colonial mentality enshrined ‘whiteness’ as a dominant value; feminism was not and is not immune to this racial ordering of the world.” (7) Most of the teenagers (male and female) in Flirting circle around Thandiwe as if she were an alien being: for example, one hapless jock – actually called Jock (Felix Nobis) – assumes that English is not her native language and compliments her on her verbal skills. In this same way, Australian feminists initially focused on differences rather than commonalities. “The feminist goal of the ‘advancement of women’ was frequently explained with reference to the ‘backwardness’ of ‘other’, ‘colored’ or ‘primitive’ women.” (8) By setting themselves apart from a racial Other, early feminists and colonists, along with many characters in Flirting, wilfully avoid the difficult cultural work of seeing past outward appearances to get at the real human beings underneath. In this way, each group attempts to privilege its own position, even its own oppressions, as being more important in relative scale than any other.
The adults who run the two schools in the film do so in a way that, much like the larger society throughout history, is blind to the racist and colonial myths that they themselves foster. They perpetuate a misapprehension about human nature and they have no eye for irony. During a church service, Duigan lingers on a shot of the stained-glass window at the front of the school chapel that depicts a uniformed soldier leading an enslaved and naked brown-skinned male as the students and faculty sing religious hymns. In another scene, the director shows us an elaborate sculpture of an elephant herd complete with real ivory tusks on each animal that the headmistress of the girl’s school has on her window ledge. We see Thandiwe’s eyes fall on the objet d’art and her knowing glance renders empty the stern lecture she is receiving on punishment and responsibility. This same school administrator later conducts a dance rehearsal for a stage production that Cirencester is putting on with the help of St Albans volunteers. The upper-class girls of the school are dancing to sexy, jazz-flavoured horns as the headmistress shouts approvingly, “Sultry. Smoulder. Good!” The girls are being encouraged to act out sexualised femininity and, yet, when the African girl has the temerity to actually have sexual desires and is found with Danny Embling, she is coldly removed by the headmistress. It is interesting to note that it takes four adults to crash a motel room and remove two sleepy, but polite, teenagers from their bed. Since Danny and Thandiwe can hardly be considered dangerous fugitives, one must infer a prurient interest on the part of the teachers.
Exploring their own, and other’s, sexuality is the impetus of teenagers everywhere and rural Australia in the mid-1960s is no exception. In Flirting, there are several young characters who are more adept at negotiating the natural elements of lived sexuality than the adults. Danny’s one friend in the boy’s school, Gilby (Bartholomew Rose), earnestly advises him, before his first sexual encounter with Thandiwe, to “remember her needs as well as your own – in the long run they’re more important.” And, on the girl’s side of the lake, Thandiwe’s two friends, Melissa (Kym Wilson) and Janet (Naomi Watts) categorize the various lines she should or should not cross with Danny. Female sexuality, though still new to these girls, is understood by them to be solidly part of their domain. It is a reality and a promise. One of them remarks to the other, as Thandiwe stares silently out the window toward the lake, “She can control him, but can she control herself?” And later, as Danny rows his boat toward Thandiwe, the director films the lake as part of the larger natural environment, dark blue, moonlit and mysterious. There follows a scene of human nature at its most honest: two young people touch each other for the first time and share a frank conversation about the discomfort and unpredictability of the adolescent penis, even when in church. The camera examines the boy’s face at his most vulnerable moment while the girl acknowledges her own sexuality and puts him at ease when he is embarrassed by his body. Then, they go outside and skip rocks across the surface of the lake, well on their way to mastering the dark mysteries it represents. At the end of the night, when Thandiwe returns quietly to her school, it is Nicola who catches her in the hallway, ostensibly to report her for wrongdoing. Instead, she takes her to the lounge, pours her a drink and admits to letting a “tradesman” touch her all over once (while fully clothed), a memory that still occupies her thoughts. Then, Nicola proposes a toast to the surprised Thandiwe: “Here’s to risks.”
Exhibiting less progressive tendencies, on the other hand, are students, even the kindly Gilby, who parrot forth racist stereotypes that carry on the ignorant, historical tradition of such beliefs. “Primitivist discourse cast black women as rampantly sexual, uninhibited in their desires” and the language used: “gin, black, velvet, lubra – denoted their primary sexual identity, which in turn established their difference from white women” (9). In Flirting, some of Danny’s classmates are caught with a note gossiping that he “scored last night with lubra lips” and Gilby cites his knowledge of National Geographic magazine when he tells Danny that Thandiwe might expect sex from him because she is, after all, black and an African. And when she peeks through a classroom window to speak to Danny, one of the other students whispers, “There’s an Abo at the window”, making the superficial judgment that all dark-skinned people are the same, a common misperception by European races throughout history. Even director Duigan is not immune to sexualising the black female body when he films Thandiwe nude from the waist up in a brief shot in the hotel scene. However, since he also shoots rather more unflattering nudity in the boy’s shower, the result is a balancing of both race and gender in terms of universal vulnerability. Finally, the film displays an innate optimism in the form of its central teenage romance and the young characters who support the couple. Despite the early friction between Danny and the other boys, some of these former adversaries at school cover for him to the adults and even seem a bit wistful at his relationship with a real live girl, of any colour. So, perhaps the volcanic passions of youth, in breaking from the average, are capable of sweeping away some of the post-colonial bumps from around the rigid institutions of St Albans and Cirencester.
Danny Embling, through his love (“that word neither of us had used because we were both too cool for that”) for Thandiwe Adjewe, is the only person in the film to literally, and figuratively, row across the dark lake that symbolizes romantic connections as well as cultural understanding. He is not just absorbed by the human little marks around her ankles created by the elastic in her socks, he wants to know about her country. He listens to the “wondrous, oozing words” that signify meaning for her: Zambesi, Mombassa, Tanganyika. As much as for her body, he hungers for her thoughts, her history. He learns that her father has written books “about African Nationalism and the problems as the colonial governments scrambled to get out” of areas such as the Belgian Congo, Angola and Kenya, places he admits he’d “barely heard of”. Later, when they receive word that her father, a visiting lecturer at the University of Canberra, has gone back to Uganda and been arrested, Thandiwe makes the decision to return to her country and try to help her family. As a result, Danny begins to grasp the concept of vastly different human realities, realizing that, while he and his fellow students were “going through the normal, grubby business of school and growing up, the most incredible things were going on in her world”. His teenage sensibilities expand in a way unknown to the settlers, missionaries and early feminists who first inhabited his continent, people without the inclination or understanding to adequately interact with people who did not look like them.
All societies have mating rituals and, in Flirting, Thandiwe first takes notice of Danny when she overhears him say that, “from an anthropological standpoint”, the football match they are attending amidst the massed student bodies of both schools is “a form of mating ritual”. Other such institutionalised gender-mixing occurs at a co-ed debate and at a formal dance. Under the watchful eyes of both teachers and the clergy, male and female students engage each other verbally and socially. The debate, with the boys arguing the position that physical pursuits (unavoidable in the sports-dominated, male arena of St Albans) are the most important of human endeavours while the girls’ speeches are on the side of the “intellectual” realm, claiming that this is the exalted aspiration that distinguishes humans from animals. Danny and Thandiwe set themselves apart during this debate. Danny extols the virtues of his athletic classmates with a flowery irony that they are unable to grasp, while Thandiwe deliberately throws away the debate by arguing for the other side, citing the rock-and-roll song, “Tutti Frutti”, as proof that the simultaneous physicality, sex impulse and poetry in it leave the purely intellectual “for dead”. Their speeches serve the dual purpose of making them rebels in their conformist surroundings (always a romantic notion) and giving them a forum for noticing each other, both physically and intellectually. It is during the school dance that Duigan sets his female characters apart from the males within its ritualised setting. He films the girls gliding from their bus in slow motion, each one dressed in colourful pastels of shimmering fabric. The male students, on the other hand, are lined up in the dance hall uniformly attired in their maroon school blazers – thus, none are identified as individuals, except for one uncouth lad who cannot suppress a belch. When the Cirencester students enter the room, the two groups advance on each other as they assess what they see and, tellingly, it is the girls who choose. All of these school events serve the officially sanctioned purpose of bringing males and females together. For the faculty (and the clergy) to be surprised when teenage sexuality is unleashed as a result is for those adults to be “disinclined to accept human nature.”
St Albans and Cirencester prove to be microcosms of the same historical, cultural imperatives that existed while the nation of Australia was being built. As the diverse populace began to move into a post-colonial era and women, in particular, began to examine human relations from the viewpoint of oppression, issues of race and gender became powerful fulcrums for understanding. Danny Embling and Thandiwe Adjewe, through their ability to talk and to listen, finding shared humanity in the reality of emotions and vulnerable bodies, represent an inclusive multiplicity of these thematic concerns. Further, in their “delineation of an adolescent world” (10) they mark a split from the adult/institutional imposition of unnatural hierarchies within human nature, while at the same time displaying a deeper appreciation for differences as well as similarities. John Duigan (and his alter ego, Danny) explores all these issues through a humane nostalgia for the clarity of youth, the vibrancy of first love, and the wisdom that comes from being told not to do something and doing it anyway.
This article has been peer-reviewed.
- Ann Curthoys, “Australian Feminism Since 1970”, in Norma Grieve and Ailsa Burns (Eds), Australian Women – Contemporary Feminist Thought (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1994), p. 23.
- James Jupp, The English in Australia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), p. 33.
- Curthoys, p. 23.
- Annette Hamilton, “Bond-Slaves of Satan: Aboriginal Women and the Missionary Dilemma”, in Margaret Jolly and Martha Macintyre (Eds), Family and Gender in the Pacific – Domestic Contradictions and the Colonial Impact (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), p. 239.
- Hamilton, p. 238.
- Marilyn Lake, “Between Old World ‘Barbarism’ and Stone Age ‘Primitivism’: The Double Difference of the White Australian Feminist”, in Grieve and Burns (Eds), p. 82.
- Lake, p. 81.
- Lake, p. 88.
- Stephanie Bunbury, “Boys’ Own Stories: Reading Gender in the Teen Movie”, in Grieve and Burns (Eds), p. 249.