Monday, April 25, 2011

Cleo & the birth of sex positive feminism

I watched the Australian TV show Paper Giants: The Birth of Cleo. It was about the launch in the early 1970s of Cleo, the first of the Cosmo type magazines for Australian women. The editor was a woman named Ita Buttrose, who became a big media personality here in Australia.

The show was well-acted and produced and had some good 1970s nostalgia value. But two things stood out for me. The first was that Ita Buttrose, far from being held back in her career, was catapulted into senior management at a relatively young age. If there was a glass ceiling back then it wasn't evident in Ita Buttrose's career. Her boss, Kerry Packer, paid for her to have a nanny and put her on the company board when she was only 32.

The politics of the show was also interesting. The female staff of Cleo were shown going off to listen to a young Germaine Greer. When they came back to the office the consensus was that Greer's feminist politics were good but that she was too aggressive in how she presented them. One of the staff then summarised feminism this way:

It's how we're defined - not a woman, not a wife, not a daughter but as a person.

That is of course liberal autonomy theory. It's the idea that we are made human by being self-defined, rather than by unchosen categories like our sex. (To underline the point, a soundtrack was later heard in the background with the famous song lyrics "Do what you want to do, be what you want to be" repeated several times.)

But Ita Buttrose didn't follow this theory in the way that the most radical feminists did. She didn't look on women wearing lipstick or having sexual relationships with men as being a betrayal of feminism. She was a forerunner of a "sex positive" feminism. If Ita Buttrose wanted to be liberated from sex roles, it was more by pushing a single girl lifestyle in which women were "liberated" to pursue casual sex and careers.

It was a variant of feminism more likely to appeal to young heterosexual women and it has undoubtedly been influential. But the TV show did present some of the more negative consequences of the philosophy. If men and women relate to each through sex alone, rather than through family roles, then you do get more chaotic personal lives. The husband of Ita Buttrose is shown walking out on her when she is pregnant with their second child (she then reportedly became the mistress of her boss, Kerry Packer, who under pressure from his wife dropped her; she then married briefly before divorcing again and was single from the age of 40); other characters are shown having affairs or divorcing.

And there's something forced and false about the culture of these magazines. They present women as being sexually assertive and adventurous to a degree that I doubt is authentic for the average woman - there's a fair bit of game playing going on. And it's a dead-end culture; even if a woman does try to follow this kind of lifestyle, it can only be for a period of time in her 20s. It doesn't prepare her for an adult life beyond this.


  1. I watched two minutes of the show and felt it to be all about the rise of female empowerment in a/the world dominated by men. Of course the vehicle for this empowerment is a lifetsyle and fashion mag, which seems a bit of a stretch for the creation of a feminist founding mother, nonetheless, these magazines are dominated by feminist theory of a type, (even if one that many feminists reject), and so they deserve I suppose a sort of low brow feminist icon status of the type that Oprah personifies. Its possible to say that Cleo is the Australian Mad Men.

    As a bit of a backstory I heard that Ita had an affair with Kerry Packer, which might explain why he was willing to promote her so quickly.

  2. A prayer for people hooked to sexual impurity and pornography ---

    May you be well.

  3. Elizabeth offers an interesting and necessary prayer for the modern world. Feminists, of the hard core intellectual variety, despise the focus on women's bodies and sex (see the attractiveness of the woman featured in the previous photo), whilst feminists of the Cleo kind encourage it.

    This issue, however, is not likely to be resolved any time soon. As liberals they have put humanity, and therefore the human body at the centre of their worldview. This means that sex will always be at the top of their agenda and they can't escape it.

  4. Jesse,

    An interesting argument. I was also interested in the issue of why the Cleo kind of feminists would focus so much on sex.

    My thought was that if women are no longer supposed to relate to men through gendered social roles anymore, as wives or as daughters etc, but only as individual work colleagues - then what's left to connect men and women together? The answer:sex. That becomes the glue of relationships.

    To put this another way. If you were a 23-year-old woman before the sexual revolution you would probably expect to marry soon. So you would think that you would be connected to a man in a variety of ways: not only through sex, but through marital love, through a commitment to marriage, through raising children together - i.e. through being a wife and mother.

    But what if you're a 23-year-old during the sexual revolution and you believe that such gender roles are oppressive and that you should be thought of not as a wife or mother but as a person and a work colleague.

    You might still have the instinct toward relationships with men. But that would now be expressed more through a sexual relationship alone, rather than through being a wife or mother.

    One problem with this is that if it's just a sexual connection, then people are more likely to move on and find a variety of partners. Second, it doesn't fit the nature of a lot of women to be aggressively and assertively sexual - not to the degree portrayed in magazines like Cleo. There's a certain amount of pretence involved.

  5. Oh dear I just wrote a long post and it got eaten by a technical fault. I'll write again latter.

  6. If you go to church they'll say that you shouldn't engage in your carnal nature because its a sin. Your carnal nature being more than just sex but all baser desires. In the liberal world your carnal nature isn't a sin but an expression of humanity. Indeed the sacred as something outside of yourself, or outside of humanity, isn't really recognised. So we see today a focus on sex and cooking and general impulse satisfaction. Indeed its not just not sinful to do this but sinful to not do it, ie you're seen as repressed and denying your nature etc. So people increasing follow their carnal instincts rather than their higher god directed instincts and every desire based instinct becomes in a way sacred and a priority to be satisfied.

    The strongest desire based, or human based instinct/activity, we have is sex so this will be an absolute focus in a liberal world.

  7. There is no need to overanalyze this.

    Feminism is about female supremacy, it always has been -- more choice for women, more duties for men.

    Clio came along when the birth control methods meant women could indulge in as much sexual action as they wanted with minimal danger of getting pregnant, thereby unleashing female hypergamy. I know some tradcons denounce the idea that women would willingly ride the "carousel" -- Clio is an excellent example of that carousel in action.

    Unleashed female hypergamy means that women are free to chase the alpha men they desire, if only to have them for a few nights, and the Pill makes it possible for them to do so over and over again. Clio simply shows them how to do it, much as Cosmo does in the US.

    Everything flows from the combination of feminism (more choices for women) and the Pill (reliable way to avoid pregnancy). Legalizing abortion as a backup for Pill failure follows. "Mens's fault" divorce, to enable women to dump their no longer attractive husband, but continue to live on his resources, follows.

    Family court to enforce the "men's fault" divorce follows. Laws to garnish wages and jail men who don't pay enough child support, also follows. Laws broadening the definition of "violence" follow.

    Clio's version of feminism is actually predictable, once one understands female hypergamy. The fact that many feminists, and traditional conservatives are baffled by it just indicates how many people don't know the truth about women.

    Cosi fan tutte...

  8. Anonymous Reader,

    If you say the defining characteristic of women is hypergamy surely this is a baser instinct that can be controlled. How is this that different from male baser instincts to sleep with everyone? You might go to a feminist site and they would say "all men think with their dick" as if that is a conclusive argument. Surely, however, we can overcome this.

    If we say that hypergamy is an actual female trait or desire its useful information for people to know and Its also useful for women to know that their instincts or desires might not be exactly noble. Nonetheless I don't think that this should be the last word on women.

  9. For Mother's Day, today's Saturday Age did an article on the policy until the 1970s of encouraging mothers who had children out of wedlock to give them up for adoption and said what a horrible policy it was. I was struck by one of the interviewees bemoaning how hospital staff deliberately refused to tell them about welfare payments that would help them keep the baby - as though this was positive empowerment.