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Brazen Hussies

Peter Malone MSC  |  21 December 2020

BRAZEN HUSSIES, Australia, 2020. Directed by Catherine Dwyer. 93 minutes. Rated M (Mature themes, coarse language, nudity)

The colloquial phrase in the title of this important documentary may not have been heard from the screen but it would have been clearly a phrase that would have come to mind/and voice of so many of the men, especially in the 1950s (and some women) who are seen in the pubs, not hesitant in interviews to talk about women and their place in society or, better, in the home.

Those were the days when Margaret would have been referred to as Mrs Gough Whitlam and the public bars were public for men, women excluded.

This is the kind of documentary that can be described as “consciousness-raising”. But the “raising” is only part of the exercise – “consciousness-challenging” is the important factor. And, even though this is a historical documentary, the consciousness-challenge is still a powerful challenge.

The audience is introduced to the theme of the place of women in society, women’s equality, women’s liberation movements, with some disturbingly embarrassing images of the men and their relegation of women in a men’s society. And that is before discussion of equal pay, domestic violence.

However, the action of the film is focused on the decade from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s, the emergence of women’s liberation. (At the same time of cinema release, there was the British comedy/drama, Misbehaviour, focusing on the Miss World competition in London, 1970, its agenda, its focus on the male gaze, demonstrations and protest.)

While there is a great deal of footage from the news of the times, from television programs, from of significant events, the filmmakers have called on a number of significant, very significant, women who were young at the time, involved in the issues, demonstrating, creating political agenda. They are the talking heads of the film, interviewed in 2019. But, there is a great deal of footage of them when they were young, a record of what they were like in those days, what they said, what they did – and their opportunity to look back and comment on those days and what they had achieved.

One of the most significant of the talking heads, a great deal of screen time given to her interview, is Elizabeth Reid, chosen by Gough Whitlam to be the official adviser on women’s issues from 1973 to 1975. Her role was groundbreaking. She interviewed people, offered advice, created agenda, held a national meeting of women in 1975 which became the target of politicians and an unsympathetic media. Whitlam was ready to let her go but she resigned, September 1975 (and, two months later, the Dismissal).

Another speaker featured throughout the film is activist Ann Summers. But, there are many women not so well-known to the public who make an impression with their interviews, their seriousness and intensity, always matched by the film showing them in speech and action those 50 years ago. There were chainings to the bars in pubs, chains outside public offices, the experience of the moratoriums about Vietnam, university student gatherings, action by trade union women, the range of publications, the creation of alternate lifestyles communities, the issue of lesbianism, the hostile public and media and labelling.

Of interest, and the observations about underlying attitudes, of misogynism in so many leaders from the left, of an assumption about First Nations women that their issues could be simply included in the issues of white women, and a growing awareness that there was inherent racism under the surface.

In just over 90 minutes, this film includes an enormous amount of material, powerful visuals, stirring and stimulating words, and the realisation that while this is a picture of half a century ago in Australia, with the prevalence of domestic violence in the country, with the lack of opportunity for women to rise in the world of business and politics, with ongoing issues of equal pay, there is still so much room today for progress and consciousness-raising, consciousness-challenging.

Film art media 
Released 10 December
Peter Malone MSC is an associate of Jesuit Media


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