The culture of fear
This era has long gone, and children today rarely have the freedom to wander like Fatty Finn and his mates. We have entered the age of fear, a phenomenon which has been well studied by researchers such as the sociologist Frank Furedi, whose ground-breaking book Culture of Fear (4) deals with adult ‘obsession with theoretical risks’. More recently Furedi’s article in The Australian on 7 September 2011, ‘The real danger to our children’, is subtitled ‘Sometimes the most well-intentioned initiatives to protect children end up with unexpectedly disorienting consequences for everyone concerned’. Furedi writes that, ‘The experience of the past three decades indicates that an understandable concern with the safety and wellbeing of children can swiftly mutate into a zealous crusade that often incites parents into a state of panic’.
He is referring in particular to the announcement by Queensland Premier Anna Bligh that the Daniel Morcombe Child Safety Program will become part of the school curriculum for Prep to Year 9. According to Furedi:
'The most regrettable outcome of child protection policies that target strangers is the diminishing of intergenerational encounters. It is no exaggeration to state that a growing number of adults feel awkward and confused when they are in close physical proximity to children that they do not know. Nor is this sense of unease confined to intergenerational interaction between strangers. Many teachers and nursery staff confide that they often feel self-conscious in their relationships with children in their care. They understand that frequently an unintended remark or a physical gesture can be easily misinterpreted by others and that they will be judged guilty until they can prove their innocence.' (5)
A serious omission from Furedi’s otherwise thoughtful article is the well-documented knowledge that most child abuse is carried out not by strangers but by family members or other adults well known to the child.(6)
In Australia, the 21st century is not only the century of fear, but is fast becoming the century of faceless children. In both television and print media, children’s faces are now distorted to prevent recognition. The public database for the Australian Research Council project Childhood, Tradition and Change has all images of children shown with colours inverted, for the same reason.(7)
Given that children are not consulted in this matter, it might be argued that this practice contravenes Article 12 of the 1989 Convention, which offers children the right to freely express their opinions on any matter concerning them.
How might these practices affect the National Film and Sound Archive, whose mission statement holds that the NFSA collects, preserves and aims to ensure the permanent availability of the nation’s audiovisual heritage? Is the NFSA to go for a century, or even longer, without any naturalistic representations of children in its collections?
I attribute many of the fears about children’s safety to television, which came into Australia in 1956, promoting the notions of crime, violence, kidnapping and dismemberment as ‘entertainment’, together with the commercial practices which became known as Corporate Paedophilia.
In October 2006 the Australia Institute published a report by Emma Rush and Andrea La Nauze titled Corporate Paedophilia: Sexualisation of children in Australia.(8) The report attacked the use of very young children, mainly girls, in sexually provocative poses for advertising and marketing material, including by a major department store. It also detailed premature sexualisation of children in magazines aimed at young age groups.
Needless to say, many of the targets of Emma Rush’s report were outraged by the label ‘paedophilia’, and the arguments and research continue.(9) Children are bombarded on television with sexy images in advertising (and some programming), and in music video clips which feature artists such as Beyonce and Lady Gaga performing in titillating costumes. I believe this exploitation of children contravenes Article 34 of the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child, in which States Parties undertake to protect the child from all forms of sexual exploitation and sexual abuse, and I have written on this subject before today.(10)
Controversy about representations of children continued into 2008, hitting a high with the so-called ‘Bill Henson controversy’. On 22 May 2008, the opening night of Bill Henson’s 2007-08 exhibition at the Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery in Paddington, Sydney, was cancelled after eight individual complaints were made to the NSW Police about Henson’s photographs of adolescent children. Later in that year, a new furore arose after Henson was allowed into a Victorian primary school to pick out suitable subjects for his photographs. In both cases, no legal action was taken against Henson. I have argued that Henson’s photographs contravene Article 16 of the Convention, which protects a child’s right to privacy, though the photos can probably not be considered ‘arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy’, as noted by the Convention.
Girl Talk: One hundred years of Australian Girls’ Childhood
At the NFSA I am researching material for a book, Girl Talk: One hundred years of Australian Girls’ Childhood, and I’m defining childhood as up to 13 years of age. More than 20 years ago I carried out 14 interviews for the National Library of Australia with older Australian-born women about their childhood. With the addition of some newer interviews, I could span one hundred years, from 1910 to 2010. My oldest interviewee, now deceased, was born in 1904. Most of my newer interviews have also been supported by the National Library of Australia, to whom I express my sincere gratitude. Since most of my earlier interviewees were Anglo-Australians, I’m trying to introduce more diversity into the half-dozen newer ones. They are all Australian-born, and I have women of Italian and Iranian parentage, two of Aboriginal heritage, and a great interview with Sue Broadway, one of the founders of Circus OZ, who comes from at least four generations of Australian show business practitioners.
The bulk of the text in my book comes from the oral histories themselves, and since they are just random snapshots, I’m making some commentary about the social history of the times, and about issues which stand out from the interviews. Each one has something which gave me a special sense of the time and of the childhood experiences of the women talking to me. My oldest interviewee, Ethel Carroll, like most working-class girls left primary school at 13 and it was never considered by her family or school or herself that she might have gone on to high school. Her grandmother, who also left school at 13, had a certificate to say that she was ‘sufficiently educated’. Ethel was not the only person I interviewed who talked about the stifling of ambition and initiative in working-class girls. And even though this intelligent woman was dux of Stott’s Business College and got a good job in a lawyer’s office, she didn’t have enough initiative to ask for a cushion for her chair, which was too low, and spent her entire working life in that office until she was married, sitting on a telephone book. She spoke about these aspects of her life:
'I lost six months at school, but it didn’t hold me back. When I finished school I was the youngest. I won a half-scholarship to Stott’s. I suppose if I had a chance I could have gone places, but you didn’t think about it, you knew you couldn’t go to high school. You didn’t moan about it. I really think if somebody had taken a bit of interest in us, say the headmaster, or a teacher, there might have been some scholarships one could have got to go on further. We didn’t know anything about it...I got a job when [I was] nearly 16, and stayed there for seven years. I only ever had the one job. My job was in a patent attorney’s office in Martin Place. I was the only girl. I had to do everything: shorthand, typing, filing, entering dates on cards, doing the banking, making appointments, everything pertaining to a small office. I had a very good man I worked for. He was very kind. But the conditions I worked for – I only worked from nine to five and nine to twelve on Saturdays. There were no amenities. No facilities to make a cup of tea. I had to sit on a telephone book, and the window looked on to an alley which ran into Pitt Street. Also it was very, very lonely. I wished I’d gone into a bigger office with other girls. I started at a pound a week, which was considered pretty good. I didn’t have any initiative to leave. I got another job in Martin Place with a firm of solicitors. It had more money, but when I told my boss, he offered me the same money. I think I didn’t like to hurt his feelings! My mother might have said he was a good man, and I might get into bad company.' (11)
Lord of the Flies
One of my current interests is William Golding’s book Lord of the Flies, first published in 1954. Lord of the Flies has sold about 14.5 million copies worldwide, in many translations. It has been made into four films (the last in 1990), is still in print and on reading lists for many schools today, where both the book and one of the films are usually studied. It is still widely read by the general public, despite its dystopian picture of children behaving worse than animals.
Can Lord of the Flies be described as ‘influential’? How might adults’ views of childhood be influenced by this novel’s representations of children engaging in cruelty, murder and untrustworthiness? Having spent most of my working life involved with children, as a school counsellor, lecturer in child development and children’s folklorist, I believe that children are cooperators more than antagonists. Of course there is fighting and bullying. But where children’s traditional play flourishes, so does collaboration. You can’t build a cubby house, or play marbles, or play skippy, elastics or hand-clapping games, without negotiation and sharing knowledge with younger or less expert players. Children will bend the rules of a game to accommodate younger players, and ensure that everyone has a good game.
Lord of the Flies (1954) is often said to be an allegory for the Second World War (1939-1945), when the world engaged in some of the worst savagery in human history. At the end of the book, the schoolboys, who have descended into bestiality, are finally rescued by the British navy. The officer who finds them, filthy and starving, asks them how many of them there are. They don’t know, but admit to two dead. The dead boys were actually murdered by their fellows, and there are probably more than two. What distresses me about this famous novel, allegory or not, is that Golding has used children as his avatars for adults in a chilling study of human evil.
How influential might the film Jedda (1955), produced by Charles and Elsa Chauvel, have been in shaping white Australians’ views of Indigenous people? The opening credits tell us that ‘to cast this picture the producer went to the primitive Aborigine race of Australia’, and it tells the story of an Aboriginal girl, brought up from infancy as white but whose ‘primitive mind’, so described, leads her, when she becomes a young woman, to follow the rogue Aboriginal Marbuk, with tragic consequences. The film has some magnificent scenery of northern Australia. It claims to have been made with anthropological advisers, but still seems to me to encapsulate all the racism which underpinned the Stolen Generations policies and actions, which flourished in the time when this film was made, and continued into the 1970s.
Childhood on film
For my research at the NFSA, I looked at about 130 pieces of film, to study representations of childhood. I had to stop my researches in 1955, mainly because of the sheer enormity of the NFSA’s collection, but I also believe that life in Australia changed radically after 1956, with the advent of television, and other social changes.
Against my expectations, I was disappointed by the representation of children in home movies. First, only prosperous people could make home movies, in early days, so in terms of social class, they are very much the same. Second, most of the proud fathers wielding the cameras (and they were always fathers) were poor cinematographers. There’s a limit to the number of times you can watch Betty digging a hole on the beach, or Johnny hitting a cricket bat. One very interesting exception, however, is Bryce Higgins’ Family and holiday scenes: 1909-1924. The 1909 scenes – at a family picnic in Hobart – are striking because of the extremely elaborate and constricting late Victorian clothing worn by the women and children, clothing which was to change very quickly into the 20th century. I consider this home movie to be of considerable historical importance as one of the earliest pieces of Australian documentary filmmaking.