Untold Tales of the Intra-Suburban Female





suburbia, suburban female, feminism

How to Cite

Burns, B. (2011). Untold Tales of the Intra-Suburban Female. M/C Journal, 14(4). https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.398
Vol. 14 No. 4 (2011): suburbia
Published 2011-08-18

Australian suburbia, historically and culturally, has been viewed as a feminised domain, associated with the domestic and family, routine and order. Where “the city is coded as a masculine and disorderly space… suburbia, as a realm of domesticity and the family, is coded as a feminine and disciplinary space” (Wilson 46). This article argues how the treatment of suburbia in fiction as “feminine” has impacted not only on the representation and development of the character of the “suburban female”, but also on the shape and form of her narrative journeys.

Suburbia’s subordination as domestic and everyday, a restrictive realm of housework and child rearing, refers to the anti-suburban critique and establishes the dichotomy of suburbia/feminine/domesticity in contrast to bush or city/masculine/freedom as first observed by Marilyn Lake in her analysis of 1890s Australia. Despite the fact that suburbia necessarily contains the “masculine” as well as the “feminine”, the “feminine” dominates to such an extent that positive masculine traits are threatened there. In social commentary and also literature, the former is viewed negatively as a state from which to escape. As Tim Rowse suggests, “women, domesticity = spiritual starvation. (Men, wide open spaces, achievement = heroism of the Australian spirit)” (208).

In twentieth-century Australian fiction, this is especially the case for male characters, the preservation of whose masculinity often depends on a flight from the suburbs to elsewhere—the bush, the city, or overseas. In Patrick White’s The Tree Of Man (1955), for example, During identifies the recurrent male character of the “tear-away” who “flee(s) domesticity and family life” (96). Novelist George Johnston also establishes a satirical depiction of suburbia as both suffocatingly feminine and as a place to escape at any cost. For example, in My Brother Jack (1964), David Meredith “craves escape from the ‘shabby suburban squalor’ into which he was born” (Gerster 566). Suburbia functions as a departure point for the male protagonist who must discard any remnants of femininity, imposed on him by his suburban childhood, before embarking upon narratives of adventure and maturation as far away from the suburbs as possible.

Thus, flight becomes essential to the development of male protagonist and proliferates as a narrative trajectory in Australian fiction. Andrew McCann suggests that its prevalence establishes a fictional “struggle with and escape from the suburb as a condition of something like a fully developed personality” (Decomposing 56-57). In this case, any literary attempt to transform the “suburban female”, a character inscribed by her gender and her locale, without recourse to flight appears futile. However, McCann’s assertion rests on a literary tradition of male flight from suburbia, not female. A narrative of female flight is a relatively recent phenomenon, influenced by the second wave feminism of the 1970s and 1980s. For most of the twentieth century, the suburban female typically remained in suburbia, a figure of neglect, satire, and exploitation.

A reading of twentieth-century Australian fiction until the 1970s implies that flight from suburbia was not a plausible option for the average “suburban female”. Rather, it is the exceptional heroine, such as Teresa in Christina Stead’s For Love Alone (1945), who is brave, ambitious, or foolish enough to leave, and when she does there were often negative consequences. For most however, suburbia was a setting where she belonged despite its negative attributes. These attributes of conformity and boredom, repetition, and philistinism, as presented by proponents of anti-suburbanism, are mainly depicted as problematic to male characters, not female. Excluded from narratives of flight, for most of the twentieth-century the suburban female typically remained in suburbia, a figure of neglect, satire, and even exploitation, her stories mostly untold.

The character of the suburban female emerges out of the suburban/feminine/domestic dichotomy as a recurrent, albeit negative, character in Australian fiction. As Rowse states, the negative image of suburbia is transferred to an equally negative image of women (208). At best, the suburban female is a figure of mild satire; at worst, a menacing threat to masculine values. Male writers George Johnston, Patrick White and, later, David Ireland, portrayed the suburban female as a negative figure, or at least an object of satire, in the life of a male protagonist attempting to escape suburbia and all it stood for. In his satirical novels and plays, for example, Patrick White makes “the unspoken assumption… that suburbia is an essentially female domain” (Gerster 567), exemplifying narrow female stereotypes who “are dumb and age badly, ending up in mindless, usually dissatisfied, maternity and domesticity” (During 95). Feminist Anne Summers condemns White for his portrayal of women which she interprets as a “means of evading having to cope with women as unique and diverse individuals, reducing them instead to a sexist conglomerate”, and for his use of women to “represent suburban stultification” (88).

Typically “wife” or “mother”, the suburban female is often used as a convenient device of oppositional resistance to a male lead, while being denied her own voice or story. In Johnston’s My Brother Jack (1964), for example, protagonist David Meredith contrasts “the subdued vigour of fulfillment tempered by a powerful and deeply-lodged serenity” (215) of motherhood displayed by Jack’s wife Shelia with the “smart and mannish” (213) Helen, but nothing deeper is revealed about the inner lives of these female characters. Feminist scholars identify a failure to depict the suburban female as more than a useful stereotype, partially attributing the cause of this failure to a surfeit of patriarchal stories featuring adventuresome male heroes and set in the outback or on foreign battlefields. Summers states how “more written words have been devoted to creating, and then analysing and extolling… [the] Australian male than to any other single facet of Australian life” (82-83).

Where she is more active, the suburban female is a malignant force, threatening to undermine masculine goals of self-realisation or achievement, or at her worst, to wholly emasculate the male protagonist such that he is incapable of escape. Even here the motivations behind her actions are not revealed and she appears two-dimensional, viewed only in relation to her destructive effect on the weakened male protagonist. In her criticism of David Ireland’s The Glass Canoe (1976), Joan Kirkby observes how “the suburbs are populated with real women who are represented in the text as angry mothers and wives or simply as the embodiment of voraciously feral sexuality” (5). In those few instances where the suburban female features as more than an accessory to the male narrative, she lacks the courage and inner strength to embark upon her own journey out of suburbia. Instead, she is depicted as a victim, misunderstood and miserable, entrapped by the suburban milieu to which she is meant to belong but, for some unexplored reason, does not. The inference is that this particular suburban female is atypical, potentially flawed in her inability to find contentment within a region strongly designated her own. The unhappy suburban female is therefore tragic, or at least pitiable, languishing in a suburban environment that she loathes, often satirised for her futile resistance to the status quo. Rarely is she permitted the masculine recourse of flight. In those exceptional instances where she does leave, however, she is unlikely to find what she is looking for. A subsequent return to the place of childhood, most often situated in suburbia, is a recurrent narrative in many stories of Australian female protagonist, but less so the male protagonist.

Although this mistreatment of the suburban female is most prevalent in fiction by male writers, female writers were also criticised for failing to give a true and authentic voice to her character, regardless of the broader question of whether writers should be truthful in their characterisations. For example, Summers criticises Henry Handel Richardson as “responsible for, if not creating, then at least providing a powerful reinforcement to the idea that women as wives are impediments to male self-realisation” with characters who “reappear, with the monotonous regularity of the weekly wash, as stereotyped and passive suburban housewives” (87-88). All this changed, however, with the arrival of second wave feminism leading to a proliferation of stories of female exodus from the suburbs. A considered portrait of the life of the suburban female in suburbia was neglected in favour of a narrative journey; a trend attributable in part to a feminist polemic that granted her freedom, adventure, and a story so long as she did not dare choose to stay.

During the second wave feminism of the 1970s and 1980s, women were urged by leading figures such as Betty Friedan and Germaine Greer to abandon ascribed roles of housewife and mother, led typically in the suburbs, in pursuit of new freedoms and adventures. As Lesley Johnson and Justine Lloyd note, “in exhorting women to ‘leave home’ and find their fulfillment in the world of work, early second wave feminists provided a life story through which women could understand themselves as modern individuals” (154) and it is this “life story” which recurs in women’s fiction of the time. Women writers, many of whom identified as feminist, mirrored these trajectories of flight from suburbia in their novels, transplanting the suburban female from her suburban setting to embark upon “new” narratives of self-discovery.

The impact of second wave feminism upon the literary output of Australian women writers during the 1970s and 1980s has been firmly established by feminist scholars Johnson, Lloyd, Lake, and Susan Sheridan, who were also active participants in the movement. Sheridan argues that there has been a strong “relationship of women’s cultural production to feminist ideas and politics” (Faultlines xi) and Johnson identifies a “history of feminism as an awakening” at the heart of these “life stories” (11). Citing Mary Morris, feminist Janet Woolf remarks flight as a means by which a feminine history of stagnation is remedied: “from Penelope to the present, women have waited… If we grow weary of waiting, we can go on a journey” (xxii). The appeal of these narratives may lie in attempts by their female protagonists to find new ways of being outside the traditional limits of a domestic, commonly suburban, existence. Flight, or movement, features as a recurrent narrative mode by which these alternative realities are configured, either by mimicking or subverting traditional narrative forms. Indeed, selection of the appropriate narrative form for these emancipatory journeys differed between writers and became the subject of vigorous, feminist and literary debate.

For some feminists, the linear narrative was the only true path to freedom for the female protagonist. Following the work of Carolyn G. Heilbrun and Elaine Showalter, Joy Hooton observes how some feminist critics privileged “the integrated ego and the linear destiny, regarding women’s difference in self-realization as a failure or deprivation” (90). Women writers such as Barbara Hanrahan adopted the traditional linear trajectory, previously reserved for the male protagonist as bushman or soldier, explorer or drifter, to liberate the “suburban female”. These stories feature the female protagonist trading a stultifying life in the suburbs for the city, overseas or, less typically, the outback. During these geographical journeys, she is transformed from her narrow suburban self to a more actualised, worldly self in the mode of a traditional, linear Bildungsroman. For example, Hanrahan’s semi-autobiographical debut The Scent of Eucalyptus (1973) is a story of escape from oppressive suburbia, “concentrating on that favourite Australian theme, the voyage overseas” (Gelder and Salzman, Diversity 63). Similarly, Sea-green (1974) features a “rejection of domestic drabness in favour of experience in London” (Goodwin 252) and Kewpie Doll (1984) is another narrative of flight from the suburbs, this time via pursuit of “an artistic life” (253).

In these and other novels, the act of relocation to a specific destination is necessary to transformation, with the inference that the protagonist could not have become what she is at the end of the story without first leaving the suburbs. However, use of this linear narrative, which is also coincidentally anti-suburban, was criticised by Summers (86) for being “masculinist”. To be truly free, she argued, the female protagonist needed to forge her own unique paths to liberation, rather than relying on established masculine lines. Evidence of a “new” non-linear narrative in novels by women writers was interpreted by feminist and literary scholars Gillian Whitlock, Margaret Henderson, Ann Oakley, Sheridan, Johnson, and Summers, as an attempt to capture the female experience more convincingly than the linear form that had been used to recount stories of the journeying male as far back as Homer.

Typifying the link between the second wave feminism and fiction, Helen Garner’s Monkey Grip features Nora’s nomadic, non-linear “flights” back and forth across Melbourne’s inner suburbs. Nora’s promiscuity belies her addiction to romantic love that compromises her, even as she struggles to become independent and free. In this way, Nora’s quest for freedom­—fragmented, cyclical, repetitive, impeded by men— mirrors Garner’s “attempt to capture certain areas of female experience” (Gelder and Salzman, Diversity 55), not accessible via a linear narrative. Later, in Honour and Other People’s Children (1980) and The Children’s Bach (1984), the protagonists’ struggles to achieve self-actualisation within a more domesticated, family setting perhaps cast doubt on the efficacy of the feminist call to abandon family, motherhood, and all things domestic in preference for the masculinist tradition of emancipatory flight. Pam Gilbert, for instance, reads The Children’s Bach as “an extremely perceptive analysis of a woman caught within spheres of domesticity, nurturing, loneliness, and sexuality” (18) via the character of “protected suburban mum, Athena” (19). The complexity of this characterisation of a suburban female belies the anti-suburban critique by not resorting to satire or stereotype, but by engaging deeply with a woman’s life inside suburbia. It also allows that flight from suburbia is not always possible, or even desired.

Also seeming to contradict the plausibility of linear flight, Jessica Anderson’s Tirra Lirra by the River (1978), features (another) Nora returning to her childhood Brisbane after a lifetime of flight; first from her suburban upbringing and then from a repressive marriage to the relative freedoms of London. The poignancy of the novel, set towards the end of the protagonist’s life, rests in Nora’s inability to find a true sense of belonging, despite her migrations. She “has spent most of her life waiting, confined to houses or places that restrict her, places she feels she does not belong to, including her family home, the city of Brisbane, her husband’s house, Australia itself” (Gleeson-White 184). Thus, although Nora’s life can be read as “the story of a very slow emergence from a doomed attempt to lead a conventional, married life… into an independent existence in London” (Gelder and Salzman, Diversity 65), the novel suggests that the search for belonging—at least for Australian women—is problematic. Moreover, any narrative of female escape from suburbia is potentially problematic due to the gendering of suburban experience as feminine. The suburban female who leaves suburbia necessarily rejects not only her “natural” place of belonging, but domesticity as a way of being and, to some extent, even her sex.

In her work on memoir, Hooton identifies a stark difference between the shape of female and male biography to argue that women’s experience of life is innately non-linear. However, the use of non-linear narrative by feminist fiction writers of the second wave was arguably more conscious, even political in seeking a new, untainted form through which to explore the female condition. It was a powerful notion, arguably contributing to a golden age of women’s writing by novelists Helen Garner, Barbara Hanrahan, Jessica Anderson, and others. It also exerted a marked effect on fiction by Kate Grenville, Amanda Lohrey, and Janette Turner Hospital, as well as grunge novelists, well into the 1990s.

By contrast, other canonical, albeit older, women writers of the time, Thea Astley and Elizabeth Jolley, neither of whom identified as feminist (Fringe 341; Neuter 196), do not seek to “rescue” the  suburban female from her milieu. Like Patrick White, Astley seems, at least superficially, to perpetuate narrow stereotypes of the suburban female as “mindless consumers of fashion” and/or “signifiers of sexual disorder” (Sheridan, Satirist 262). Although flight is permitted those female characters who “need to ‘vanish’ if they are to find some alternative to narrow-mindedness and social oppression” (Gelder and Salzman, Celebration 186), it has little to do with feminism. As Brian Matthews attests of Astley’s work, “nothing could be further from the world-view of the second wave feminist writers of the 1980s” (76) and indeed her female characters are generally less sympathetic than those inhabiting novels by the “feminist” writers. Jolley also leaves the female protagonist to fend for herself, with a more optimistic, forceful vision of “female characters who, in their sheer eccentricity, shed any social expectations” to inhabit “a realm empowered by the imagination” (Gelder and Salzman, Celebration 194). If Jolley’s suburban females desire escape then they must earn it, not by direct or shifting relocations, but via other, more extreme and often creative, modes of transformation. These two writers however, were exceptional in their resistance to the influence of second wave feminism.

Thus, three narrative categories emerge in which the suburban female may be transformed: linear flight from suburbia, non-linear flight from suburbia, or non-flight whereby the protagonist remains inside suburbia throughout the entire novel. Evidence of a rejection of the flight narrative by contemporary Australian women writers may signal a re-examination of the suburban female within, not outside, her suburban setting. It may also reveal a weakening of the influence of both second wave feminism and anti-suburban critiques on this much maligned character of Australian fiction, and on suburbia as a fictional setting.


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Author Biography

Belinda Burns, University of Queensland

Belinda Burns is a published novelist and freelance journalist. She is currently studying for a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Queensland.

Her first novel, The Dark Part of Me, was published by HarperCollins in Australia and Atlantic Books in the UK in 2006. She is currently working on a novel, entitled Motherland, set in the suburban heartland of a modern shopping centre. Her critical work concerns contemporary fictional depictions of the “suburban female” and narrative approaches to intra-suburbia transformation.

Belinda holds a MA in Creative Writing from Bath Spa University College in the UK, and a BA in English Literature and a Bachelor of Business Communication, from the University of Queensland and the Queensland University of Technology, respectively.