If destiny was a soufflé…Humour, Feminism and the Ways of the World
Australian cartoonist and writer Canberra
7 March 2002
|All the words appearing in italics like this are the rough titles of the cartoons shown during the lecture. Many of the full versions of the cartoons (words and pictures) are available at www.horacek.com.au and all are available in various Horacek books|
I wanted to start with the life on the edge series of cartoons, both because I haven’t shown them for a long time, and because in some ways they are how I feel about life at the moment. The occasional moment of drama but basically hanging around and watching and trying to work things out.
|Life on the edge||I find it very therapeutic||To be continued…|
Before I begin properly, I’d like to do some information sort of things. I’m a freelance cartoonist, and have been for over a decade. First up I have to tell you, because there are still some people who haven’t caught on, that I’m not in the Australian Magazine any more, where I was once a fortnight for four years. The Magazine has been redesigned and when a new editor comes in and a redesign happens, freelance cartoonists are generally the first to go. I know it’s a bit unusual to appear at a public event and make a big announcement about having been sacked unless it’s 1975 and you’re Gough Whitlam of course, which I’m obviously not, and I wouldn’t even mention being sacked but people always ask.
I am disappointed not to be in the Magazine anymore, and I hope you all miss my cartoons dreadfully. It’s sad not to have a regular mainstream place for my work at the moment. Now, instead of being in a national newspaper, I have a website. How very 21st century. Actually I’ve had a website for a while, but it now looms much greater in importance in terms of getting my work out there. A lot of you will already be aware of it through receiving my email newsletter either direct from me or via the ACT women list. The internet is an amazing place where we can get back to grass roots and reach likeminded people all over the universe, completely bypassing the Murdochs and Packers of this world. And also bypassing any income.
My website is at www.horacek.com.au and it’s currently visited by about 400 people a week. About 50,000 people would have seen my work fortnightly in the magazine – I’m short about 49,600. It’s an “aspirational” website. The website has lots of information and cartoons and it features the soon to be famous Topic of the Month. That is, every month there’s a different topic, with at least a dozen of my cartoons. This month it’s Feminism, next month is Computers, followed by Mornings. And every month I send out an email announcing the new Topic of the month so if you would like to subscribe send an email with the word subscribe as the subject, to <firstname.lastname@example.org>.
|Woman with a past, woman with a future, woman with a present|
I also have these postcards and you can all have one, while stocks last. I made these postcards to advertise my website, see there’s a little “woman with a website” picture on the back. If you decide you want to stick it on your wall rather than send it to someone who would potentially be prompted to visitwww.horacek.com.au for the first time, you have to promise that you will instead tell a friend about the website. I don’t care how you tell them, if you email them or drag them into a web café or do a huge graffiti somewhere in Garema Place but you have to promise.
This year is the 100 year anniversary of women having the vote in Australia. Or as Meredith pointed out, 100 years of white women having the vote – indigenous women, and men too, didn’t achieve suffrage until the 1960s. To commemorate the 100 year anniversary of the beginnings of women’s suffrage, the National Museum of Australia has put on an exhibition of my cartoons called “I am woman, hear me draw” which opened yesterday and is on till 23 June . You can go there and see in the flesh many of the cartoons I’ll show on slides tonight. Your other free gift for coming tonight is an exhibition poster. Only while stocks last.
There are no free steak knives.
I feel very honoured to be asked to give this lecture. I went to the Pamela Denoon website and saw the illustrious list of women who have given the lecture since it began in 1989 and it was quite daunting. Originally I’d planned to read the past lectures, but I was daunted enough by just their names. I did get some relief from the note that prefaces Eva Cox’s 1995 lecture. She wrote “When I suggested, and later introduced, the first Pamela Denoon lecture I did it because the best way of honouring her was for her friends to keep working for feminism. Doing it publicly – discussing ideas and possibilities – is part of the process of making women’s voices heard.” So I figure from that that I’ll just make sure that I speak clearly and use the microphone and I should be right.
|I am woman hear me roar||Animal impersonations||Jack & Jill||“You’ve come a long way baby”||Career Advice No. 9|
The aim of my work, and the work of many other women – cartoonists, writers, artists, filmmakers, lecturers – is about giving women voices. The aim is to depict women, to literally put them in the picture; to create things that reflected our experiences and produce things that show that we exist at all. It’s a world where men do nearly all the talking.
I’ve also done a cartoon showing three men in suits which unfortunately I don’t have on a slide. The caption says “They’re white male, heterosexual and right wing and once they ruled the world. Actually they still do.”
Behind all this ‘making’ is the belief that how we represent our society, the stories we tell, the images we make, aren’t neutral reflections of an externally existing reality. The pictures, the stories, the metaphors, in fact construct that reality. Cartoons are both part of that and are also ideally placed to deconstruct it, at least as far as that is possible.
|If destiny was a soufflé|
The title of the lecture refers to this cartoon, rather than how the lecture is going to turn out I hope. I have a lot of trouble with titles. Only very occasionally do you come up with a really good one and the rest of the time you’re just getting by. “Woman with Altitude” was a good one for example. “I am woman hear me draw” – I reckon that’s a humdinger of a title. It rocks as they say. Or as I heard someone say once, I think it was on Big Brother, people probably say something else now. It ‘vibrates’. I called this lecture ‘If destiny was a soufflé’ because I like the cartoon and because I had to come up with a title nearly a year ago when I didn’t have a clue what I’d be talking about tonight. I know the really conscientious way to go about things would have been to write the talk back then, see what it was about and then name it but that plan didn’t get off the ground. And I’m not Robinson Crusoe in that, as a real estate agent I met recently would say.
I don’t think ‘If destiny was a soufflé’ rocks as a title. More likely rattles a lot and then falls of the shelf. Which might be a good thing.
As it turns out, a huge amount has happened in the world in the since I came up with the title all those months ago. I think more than normal. In Australia we’ve had the ongoing asylum seeker stuff, the issue of conditions in detention centres, the race election, the Tampa crisis, and the whole appalling children overboard mess. Not to mention the ongoing stolen children issue and indigenous issues generally. Then there was what happened in America. After September 11 the world can never be the same everyone said, which is true in one sense, but in another the world is very much the same. Sure there seems to be more happening, but it’s pretty much the same kind of stuff. There’s nothing new about revenge, or fear or greed, or looking locally, about politicians lying, or public figures behaving without principles. What is new is how much bigger it is. The size of the Twin Towers, the position of the public figures behaving unprincipledly, the enormity of the lies, the baroque quality of the lying about the lying.
This talk also has the subheading “Humour, feminism and the ways of the world”. I know it should be feminisms, or feminism/s to express the increasing complexity of what feminism does, can do, tries to do, might do. ‘Ways’ in ways of the world has always been plural, but I think now that should become ‘ways/s/s/s/s/s/’ because the world has become so much more complicated.
Eva Cox called her talk a smorgasbord – a range of ideas which need to be tackled. She wrote that she used a domestic food analogy deliberately, “because this is women’s territory”.
I use food analogies a lot – sometimes because they are women’s territory, like housework and supermarket shopping still largely is, and sometimes just for the heck of it. Because housework and supermarket shopping and especially food, are things everyone deals with.
|Focaccia||A brief history of café pessimism||Sweet potato|
And co-incidentally soufflés appear in a metaphor that Paul Keating used about Andrew Peacock. He said “A soufflé never rises twice”. I have spent ages thinking about this, under the mistaken impression that Keating said it about John Howard. I’d built a whole little thesis around the idea that Keating had said it about Howard just before Howard beat him in that election. I was going to wonder just how many times John Howard has now risen, counting the last election, the scandalous children overboard incident, etc, while all around him lie ramikins with sad looking deflated doughy things, that used to be politicians and public servants and others. Perhaps honesty and loyalty and civic spirit as well. I was going to continue the metaphor and somehow work out what sort of baking could encompass what’s going on with the Governor-General but I couldn’t get any further than the fact that it’s not savoury. But [as] John Howard is currently my shorthand for “things that are wrong with this country”, I thought the soufflé thing would be worth mentioning anyway. “Wedge politics” will go down in history as having spread in Australia as quickly as the rabbit and the fox, and will probably prove to be as difficult to eradicate, and certainly at least as damaging. I know I’ve changed metaphors here but we’re an intelligent audience, you can cope.
But then a friend told me that Keating didn’t say it about Howard at all but about Peacock. He said “Remember it was a fantastic thing to say because of the way Peacock’s hair rose up light and fluffy.” And thinking about it, Howard isn’t very soufflé-like at all; certainly he’s not likely to be deflated easily, even when it seems he should be. He’d probably favour being compared to a Sunday family roast, but I think he’s probably something that has a greater laxative effect than that. That’s your homework: “If John Howard was food, what food would it be?”
(Someone in the audience calls out tripe)
The idea behind soufflé cartoon of course is that what is about to happen is that there will be a crash or a gust of wind or something and the whole soufflé will collapse. When I did it I was thinking of better things than John Howard, of good work, perhaps of the delicate balancing act of trying to live a life of integrity in this crazy world Or any life at all for that matter. Sometimes after a huge amount of effort, just before the point of finishing, the final triumph, something happens and the whole edifice collapses. It’s an “opportunity knocks and you’re not home” sort of cartoon. When I started writing this I had the idea that this cartoon was unusual in my oeuvre, that my work was generally more optimistic and happy than this, that private moments I had like this were rare. But when I went through my slides it turned out this wasn’t the case.
|Getting out on the wrong side of the bed||The window of opportunity||Suicide of the fridge magnets||Thongs of innnocence and thongs of experience||Shit happens|
What is interesting about this, well to me at least, is that this isn’t really how my mind works. I tend to think that things will all turn out and that life is basically pretty good (unless you happen to be an asylum seeker of course). Yet it turns out that there are lots of cartoons I’ve done (there’s no denying it, they’ve got my name on them) that present the world as this “one door closes, another slams in your face” place. It’s practically a subgenre in my work. So it’s obviously something I think about and even more importantly, something that I think would be common ground with an audience, a type of humour that other people would understand and enjoy. I think this is what we humans are like, in some ways we relish the things that do go wrong, these are the things we like to laugh at. “You’ll get a great story out of that.”
Not things going wrong in a September 11 sort of case, but definitely in a missing the bus, breaking a shoelace way.
|Philosophies of the dodo||First day||Career Advice No. 12|
Just by the way, when I first started cartooning and something bad happened to me, you know broken heart, landlady from hell, barking dog in the night, people would say to me “You’ll get some great cartoons out of that”. Didn’t matter how tragic it was, that’s what they’d always say. Now they say “You’ll get some great cartoons out of that” whenever anything happens to me. Anything at all. I’m here to tell you that it’s not that easy. If only it were true that the world was full of cartoons just lying about the place waiting to be picked up and stuck on the paper by wandering cartoonists. That would make my job a lot easier.
|What heaven is really like||Birth of Eve||Monster|
The very fact that the Destiny a soufflé cartoon makes any sense at all is based on our shared knowledge of what could happen to a soufflé. Now I’ve never actually made a soufflé in my life, and neither of my parents made soufflés, but I have this knowledge of the imminent threat of their collapse. And I’m sure it’s from television shows – particularly those family sitcoms where the mother is always cooking, the ones that give out the line that the woman’s worth is based on how well she can perform domestic tasks. The soufflé is a fancy task, a kind of pinnacle of housewifeliness. It’s the kind of thing that would be made by Carol Brady, not Alice the housekeeper. It would be a running gag, Carol takes out the first soufflé and one of the kids runs past and it collapses. A bit later she takes out the second soufflé and another of the kids slams a door, and another soufflé and someone would come running in with a kite – ppfffftt…. As I’m sure most of you know, there were six kids in the Brady Bunch – probably we could all sing the theme song – and a dog, so the running gags could be pretty long. In the end Carol probably did make a successful soufflé, but only after Mike had joined her and organised some architectural gadget or new house regulation that allowed the soufflé complete peace.
Remember that we got Carol Brady after Jeannie the Genie and Samantha the witch. If either of them made a soufflé that collapsed they could just magic it up light and fluffy again. Or they didn’t care that much in the first place. Well, you can see how those messages couldn’t be allowed to go on so we got Carol.
But we’re not just talking lessons of gender inequality, you get class in there too. In the case of Alice, the Brady’s housekeeper, and this collapsing soufflé idea, she wouldn’t get to make a soufflé, she would be doing something more mundane like mopping the floor. Mop mop mop, stand back, admire, then one kid or another would run through and leave foot prints. Mop mop mop, admire, then another kid would come through and so one. We wouldn’t want Alice getting soufflé ideas above her station. She was after all unmarried as well.
Now I don’t know if either the soufflé or the mopping plot line actually happened, but they are so likely and fit so well, that if they didn’t happen something very similar did.
|Dr Jekyll||Unrequited Love No. 31 Sleeping Beauty||And on the seventh day God rested…|
I didn’t intend the soufflé cartoon to make any sort of feminist comment and I’d be loath to claim that it did. It does deal with cooking, which is traditionally women’s territory but not women’s territory in a feminist sense, and the character is a woman, so that’s sort of feminist in that she’s the only one in the cartoon, she’s not an adjunct to some male. There’s no Mike Brady around, she is having her own little adventure, albeit a somewhat bleak adventure. But the cartoon is in its own terms the very opposite of a woman in control of her own destiny. For me that would be an important part of any definition of feminism, that a woman is control of her own destiny.
But then we aren’t really in control of our own destiny, none of us are, no political discourse can give us that kind of guarantee. I gave a talk a couple of years ago at a private girls’ school in Melbourne. It was a tricky talk to give because the audience was composed of girls aged 11 to 17, an enormous range, and I was worried that they wouldn’t get my cartoons anyway, even the older ones. I decided that I would talk about the sorts of things I would have liked to have heard at that age. What I would have liked to have heard is that girls can do anything, that you can get out there and make the world into the place you want it to be, you don’t have to put up with second best, you’re worth as much as anyone else ra ra ra. And I was told that to some extent at school, but in thinking of my school days I had the feeling that I wished I’d been told it more. But I was aged 11-17 in the seventies, this was the 90s, second wave feminism is decades old. During question time, after I was asked how old I was by the Year 7s about 15 times – I think they thought it was compulsory to ask a question and that was the only one they could think of – one of the Year 12s said “Tell us, we’re always being told that we’re as good as anyone else and capable of doing whatever we want and so on, what do we do when we get out in the real world and it’s not like that?” Which is a damn fine question and one I don’t know the answer to. It’s not that she thought people were lying to her or trying to trick her, and I’m sure she knew that you have to believe all that stuff to be able to proceed at all, but the real world is a bit more soufflé-like than we like to think. And you have to know that to be able to proceed too.
|“Not because you’re a woman of course”||Provocative gender||Frying pan||Bringing home the bacon|
|New lease on life||Unrequited Love No. 49 Heartline||Scapegoat|
I’ve faced a similar dilemma in relation to the real world with my work. For me, discovering feminism and becoming a cartoonist are inextricably linked: they happened at the same time, they fed into each other. Since becoming a cartoonist I’ve often given talks about my work and usually called them something like “Do feminists have a sense of humour?” In these talks, I talk about representations of women in traditional cartoons, about the power of using female characters as Everyperson figures, about how when you’re a feminist you’re concerned with things that are often so appalling that sometimes it’s very hard not to become grim, but how you have to have a sense of humour or you’d completely go under. Then I show some cartoons so devastatingly funny that they lay to rest once and for all the myth that feminists don’t have a sense of humour.
I’ve been giving these ‘Do feminists have a sense of humour’ talks for a decade now, somehow in the belief that all it would take was a few more women cartoonists and a few more women public figures and a bit more recognition of women’s issues as important, and of women as people in their own right and of the power of representations, et voilà – Revolution.
That led by cartoons, women would throw off the last shackles of inequality and patriarchy, everyone would be au fait with the power of representation, with gender politics, and we would all be equal and free and have lots of things to laugh at together.
Obviously there was too much Pollyanna mixed in with my postmodernism. But I’m sure I’m not the only one here who’s had the feeling that, given that feminism is such common sense, really all you need to do is explain a few things and everyone will suddenly be convinced. And isn’t it disappointing when it doesn’t happen like that.
|Pie in the sky||Image consultant||Unrequited Love No. 9 “I’m not a feminist but…”|
|“God’s in his heaven, all’s right with the world”||Aggressive/Assertive||Unrequited Love No. 5 Passing a building site fantasy|
A friend found an article, on the web again, which talked about my work and was subtitled “the tricky issue of complicity within feminist post-structuralist humour”. It was a paper given at a Critical Management Studies Conference in Manchester, for those of you who know what that might be. In ‘The Humour and Irony stream’ no less. The author, Linda Perriton of Leeds University, explained my work thus:
‘Horacek, through her ironic images, plays with uncertainties about women and their response to the world in ways that are not common in generalist feminist humour or cartooning. In effect in answer to the question “How would women react if feminism triumphed?” she is answering that no one knows – least of all women… The humour at the moment lies in the variation and indeterminacy of women as opposed to the structures and assumptions that attempt to fix their images in ways that aren’t representative of the “slippery” reality.’
I put that in because I’ve always wanted to feature in an academic paper. And also because I think she has a point. It’s the same question as the private school girl’s question. It’s another version of the world being completely different and yet utterly the same. And because this is kind of the postmodern section, here are the po mo cartoons. Actually there are lots more, but this should be enough to go on with.
|Frog thesis||Postmodern knitting|
About a week after September 11 there was an erudite feature in one of the broadsheet newspapers about how the whole thing was so huge that no one could be funny about it. Three people with various connections to humour wrote pieces about how this was finally something that couldn’t be joked about. I didn’t keep it unfortunately. I didn’t believe it either. Practically the next day I heard a vox pop report on Triple JJJ about the huge number of September 11 jokes circulating by email. Some of the interviewees were a bit hesitant about it, one guy said he thought it was too soon and that the jokes were in bad taste. But when the interviewer said “So you deleted them then?” he said “No I forwarded them on to everyone”. There’s probably several theses in this anecdote about how much we’re all different tribes now, even with different value systems, or about how ponderous some of the media likes to get with questions of tragedy when out in the world people are just beetling on with whatever they were doing. And there’s probably a thesis about the compulsions of using technology and email. Probably every anecdote in this complicated world can be used a metaphor for many different things, maybe even contradictory things. The way/s/s/s/s/s/s of the world.
|Jack and the website||Career Advice No 84||The straw that broke the camel’s back|
I only remember one of the September 11 jokes. It may be politically incorrect, I don’t know, but to me it is a fascinating collision of popular culture versus reality, myth and fairy tale and ultimately helplessness. “Why didn’t Superman stop the planes hitting the World Trade centre towers?” “Because he’s a quadriplegic” Because of course the actor who played Superman is just a man, and he had an accident horse riding. There were no Bruce Willises or Mel Gibsons saving things just in time.
A while ago it was announced that the death toll of innocent people killed by American bombs had surpassed the death toll of innocent people killed in America on September 11. I can’t see how that’s helped anyone.
What I am trying to do with my cartoons, and with my work in general, is look at ways in which I think things could be better. I became a cartoonist because it was a medium that allowed me to have my say and hopefully make some sort of a difference. I love cartoons that make people think about things from a different angle or suddenly see a connection that they hadn’t seen before. Generally I believe simple things like if people just thought about it for a bit they’d have to see that not only is feminism common sense, but so is social justice and collective bargaining and looking after the environment and stuff like that. And that we have responsibilities to our fellow human beings, responsibilities that rise above races and nations and all those constructs, and should rise above old boys’ club loyalties and desires to maintain power at all costs.
This is an idea: if we all tried to be nicer to each other , things in general would be better. On good days I think that this philosophy is so simple and self-evident that it’s sheer genius; on not so good days I think that it’s hopelessly naïve. But I don’t think there’s any arguing with the idea that if we saw other people as being at least as important as ourselves, at least as deserving of our respect and our duty of care, and of our help when they are in trouble, then the world would be a better place. I prefer to think of this as a hip follow the Dalai Lama sort of stance rather than a desire to live with a children’s choir singing ‘what the world needs now is love sweet love’. I think any rendition of that song would be too high a price to pay even for universal human happiness.
I’ve been very disturbed and depressed about the whole asylum seeker issue and detention centre issue for a long time now, as I’m sure many people here have. At the very least it’s made our country look ridiculous, more likely greedy and inhumane. The efforts to keep refugees off Australian soil, the way we treat people who have arrive here, the very disturbing fact that the discourse has shifted so far that what would have been considered an outrageous statement in regard to refugees just 5 years ago, is now main stream thought. The sort of stuff Pauline Hanson was disendorsed by the Liberal party for saying now seems to be policy for both the major parties. In last year’s election campaign One Nation announced: ‘The Coalition took our policies’ and someone in the coalition actually replied ‘No, you just expressed opinions, it was up to us to turn it into workable policy.’ Go Coalition! Well done!
|Martin Luther King in the 1990s||Instant gratification||Swimming pool||Sack of rocks|
The whole way the government is dealing with things, the conflation of the refugees and September 11 terrorists, the kids thrown overboard, the video, the photos, the who said what, it’s kind of Kafka and George Orwell with a hefty dose of 50s McCarthyism thrown in for good measure.
Just another word from Linda Perriton at the Humour and Irony Stream in Manchester. “The continued major and minor outrages committed in the world against women are firmly in the minds of the women in her cartoons, the humour resides in the various ways in which women respond to them.” In fact my mind is full of major and minor outrages committed in the world against lots of people, not just women, although we could argue especially women. And my current response is to finish this lecture by showing you some cartoons that I hope will cheer you up. Happy International Women’s Day.
|Need a lift?||Nice disheys||Career Advice No. 34 Follow your instincts|
And it wouldn’t be an IWD lecture without:
|Woman with Altitude||Therapy Santa||Unrequited Love No 70 Perfect wife||End to inequality||“You feminists have gone too far”|
Many of the full versions of the cartoons (words and pictures) are available at www.horacek.com.au and all are available in various Horacek books