The history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of ladies struggling to Lean In. This narrow principle informs the ABC’s newest “factual” blockbuster, Back In Time For Dinner, just as it has come to inform all entertainment aimed at the female viewer white and/or wealthy enough not to have noticed that the West has otherwise turned to shit. I do not recommend this show as a pleasure to anyone who is not (a) firmly of the view that history’s greatest lack is that of Sassy Women or (b) drunk.
As I am firmly of the view that history’s greatest lack is that of the liberation of the masses from servitude to a few, I watched the second episode of Ms Annabel Crabb’s reality program with a bottle of prosecco in fist. This is a delightful drink and one that impairs my critical faculty to the point I can read an article by Clementine Ford about the travails of Clementine Ford, weep and say, “This is so true for all women!” Three standard sparkling wines separate me from the sort of servile liberal feminist universalism that has me believing that it was important for Hillary Clinton to become US President to inspire my daughter.
Of course, at some point I sober up, remember that I have no children, that liberalism of any kind seeks to retain unequal power relations and that there is a prominent warning sign on my antidepressant medication that alcohol may worsen my Condition. Then again, Back in Time For Dinner is cause for despair with or without prosecco.
With prosecco, this “experiment” which takes a single family through a simulation of Australian life throughout the post-war decades, can be enjoyed purely for its set-design. I have never seen such exquisite period dressing on Australian TV before our exquisitely dressed hostess revealed it. Each week, the Ferrone family home is redecorated in gorgeous, if idealised, style and the Ferrone family itself redecorated in period clothing. There is no dodgy wig, slapdash makeup or jarring settee, such as we have seen even on big TV dramas like Paper Giants or Molly. The thing is a great visual pleasure.
As a genuine record of history, however, it is an abhorrence. And, yes, well may you say: this is only entertainment, Helen, and I like you better when you’re drunk. But, hey. You’re drunk. Have you missed the frequent claims, both implicit and explicit, that this imported format seeks to take us all on a legitimate journey to the past?
Yes. It is true that many Australians had ice-boxes in their 1950s homes. It is also true that many migrant workers fleeing post-war Europe faced alienation of a sort I cannot imagine. As I cannot imagine this significant chapter in our history—nor do I have the emotional means to think of life as it’s endured by the world’s 65 million asylum seekers—I’d rather hoped the ABC might “re-imagine” it for me. And, no, I’m not performing some politically correct “inclusion” petit-point here. Father Ferrone is actually figured in the show as an Italian migrant, reflecting the history of his own father.
Yes. Sexism is a problem, but the most urgent problem is the persistence of the liberal, very often white lens of history as something that just gets better and will eventually include all.
There is brief tribute to the Italian migrant experience paid in episode one, but it is of a sentimental and cursory sort. We all simply agree that it must have been very hard to leave everything you knew—we skip over the horror of life in poverty, at war and under fascism—and that’s it for Our ABC’s diversity commitment. Again, not nit-picking. But if you’re going to tell me some bloke just got off a boat and arrived in a nation whose primary language he did not speak, then don’t tell me he has a fucking desk job.
An overwhelming majority of full-time Australian workers in the 1950s had blue-collar jobs. Of the twenty percent or so of persons employed in white-collar positions, an estimated none percent of these had recently survived the hardship of war in Europe. There may be exceptions. You are welcome to seek them out in the National Archive and tell me if the Ferrones are as “everyday” as represented.
It is, of course, entirely true that the gendered division of labour did, and does, place great physical and emotional strain on women. But in Crabb’s eagerness only to tell the story of women and their lack of access to Hillary-level success, we lose the story of migrants, and of men. By the accounts of my parents, aunts, uncles and grandmothers, both of my grandfathers spent the 1950s in toil and silent misery. They did not enjoy food, love, their children or their work and they were haunted by the experience of war. And these were white guys.
It’s all very nice for a very small group of women to celebrate what appears as advancement to them. It is, of course, arresting to see Mother Ferrone, who is described as having a “high-flying career” in episode one, subject to the feminine labour of the 1950s. Certainly, a life spent with Microsoft Excel might be preferable to many than one in service to the maintenance of a family. But this is always explained as the product of “bad ideas about gender” when, surely, a person with Crabb’s political nous knows that the Keynesian policy of male full-employment coerced persons into these roles. Yes, we have, and retain, some silly ideas about gender. But to say that these ideas alone turned men to the service of paid production and women to the work of social reproduction is to ignore a whole lot of shit written down in books.
Yes. Blah. The whole thing is a delight. And people mean very well when they talk about the very few opportunities women had to be excellent etc. But the fact that very few people in history have ever had the opportunity to flourish and that there are socially imposed identity categories—including the “New Australian” of the 1950s—other than “woman” that result in a crap life is just something ignored in this breezy docu-diva jaunt, as it is ignored routinely in this nation.
I have had it with affluent white women complaining about their hurdles to professional success. No one much is enjoying professional success any more and, FFS, there never ever was an explosion of satisfying labour. Yes, for a brief time, Australia grew a white middle-class and mass production permitted mass luxury hitherto unimaginable. But, it has long since turned to shit and the persistent reminder that things are so much better for everybody (read: women of a particular and diminishing class) in 2018 is horseshit I am unable to tolerate without alcohol.
We no longer make things here in Australia. The finance sector produces money which it turns into more money, and aside from that, we seem to be making horseshit. Horseshit that says that feminism is one glorious story of things getting better and better for women, who all have great opportunities, just like all the men.
Who honestly believes this? Who cannot see that the Ferrones, pleasant as they are, are not an “everyday” Australian family, but people lucky enough to live as most people should.
And who cannot see that this blancmange liberal feminist romance novel with the self must end?
Yes. Sexism is a problem. But, the most urgent problem is the persistence of the liberal, very often white lens of history as something that just gets better and will eventually include all. This sentimentalised depiction of white women as brave leaders whose defiance of men—apparently a unified group who attend secret meetings to keep us all down—has got to stop. They have their Business Chicks meetings and networking lunches. They can keep this ahistoric shit off the telly.