As History Week kicks off in NSW, Associate Professor Michelle Arrow gives us a preview of tonight’s flagship Annual History Lecture she will be delivering titled ‘The Popular Is Political: struggles over national culture in 1970s Australia’.
The 1970s was an era of significant change in Australian history. It was the decade of women’s liberation, gay liberation, renewed demands for Indigenous land rights, and the beginnings of multiculturalism.
It was also an era in which Australians engaged in a very lengthy discussion about national identity. While this had many dimensions, it was perhaps most potently expressed in popular culture, especially in film and television.
What most of these forms of popular culture had in common was the figure of the Ocker. The Ocker was crude, loud and brash, he was obsessed with sex and drinking, and he loved his mates. From Barry McKenzie to Don’s Party to The Paul Hogan Show, Ockerism was hard to ignore during the 1970s.
For the last few years, I’ve been researching the history of the 1970s in Australia, focusing on the many ways that the divide between public and private was reorganised and reordered by the politics of the new social movements.
In particular, I’ve been examining the decade through the prism of the Royal Commission on Human Relationships, a major investigation into the private lives of Australians, initiated in 1974. The Commission was an attempt to reckon with the realities – and inequalities – of contemporary life. It examined people’s experiences of abortion, sexuality, parenting and intimate relationships.
In its final report, released in 1977, the Commission shed new light on the unhappiness that existed behind closed doors. One of the consequences of the Royal Commission was the ways it showed that the family, far from being a safe haven, could be a place of danger and unhappiness, especially for women and children.
This research made me consider the pop culture Ocker in a new light. How might these two parts of the 1970s puzzle – Ockerism and women’s liberation – fit together?
The Ocker is seen as a figure of national identity, but his gender has been taken for granted. Few scholars have considered the Ocker in his specific historical context: an era in which Australian ideas about gender, sexuality and race were being challenged and remade.
In this lecture, I will argue that the Ocker and his continued dominance in seventies popular culture was a response to 1970s feminist politics.