Cece Devlin ~ Amazing Babes 2.0 at the Emerging Writers’ Festival 2015

Cece Devlin ~ Amazing Babes 2.0 at the Emerging Writers’ Festival 2015

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Cecelia Devlin

A few years ago, a woman from one of my online feminist networks shared a video promoting the release of a new Australian text. Pitched at a young audience, the picture book was titled Amazing Babes, and the concept a simple yet important one: to compile the stories of a diverse array of awesome, indomitable women who, through their achievements, have altered the course of history. In a country where school curriculums still overwhelmingly favour both canonical and contemporary texts centered on the ‘neutral’ (white, cis, able-bodied, straight) male protagonist, books like Amazing Babes are a welcome change to the traditional narrative landscape.

Hearing about the existence of an unabashedly feminist text accessible to kids, (particularly those bookish types), made me rather envious on behalf of my younger self, who steadily chewed her way through the school library in search of exciting new worlds and their colourful subjects, hoping to catch a glimmer of both the diverse and the familiar in the characters she so admired.

Thankfully, the Emerging Writers Festival event held in the book’s honour last Thursday, while not exactly propelling me back in time to relive a more feminist childhood, did allow me (and the large, woman-dominated throng who crammed themselves into the back room of Worker’s Club) to experience a powerful example of women reclaiming the art of storytelling, and taking up the helm of their own narratives. Putting forward an ‘Amazing Babe’ of their own choosing, eight women of mixed writing backgrounds shared an ode to a woman in their lives who had left a lasting, life-altering mark. What emerged over the course of the evening was a drawing together of the Amazing Babes premise – cultivating collective feminist histories – with an immersive glimpse into the impact the important women in our lives have on our feminist present and futures, and their invaluable contributions to our ongoing search for selfhood and representation.

Laura Davis
Laura Davis

As one critical site of our collective feminist inheritance, it was unsurprising that the first half of performers directed their discussions towards motherhood. Our first speaker for the evening, Laura Davis, kicked things off with a brief, funny and touching portrait of a dynamic between teenage daughter and mother, reorienting us with our own familial nostalgias. Providing the affectionate, retrospective picture of a parent one paints when old enough to appreciate the wisdom we once vehemently rejected, Laura’s discovery of personal style and relationship with her body revealed the many ways in which our mothers often attempt to steer us gently towards a positive relationship with ourselves, a heightened awareness of the social and cultural pressures we will encounter as women, and the importance of having room to make autonomous decisions about the people we wish to become.

Lorelei Vashti Waite
Lorelei Vashti Waite
Carly Findlay
Carly Findlay

For many, the capacity to actively question conventional beauty standards while negotiating a gendered identity is a skill set many encounter first (for better or for worse) through the guidance of our parental figure/s. For both daughters and their mothers, these exercises need not (and do not) come without their own pitfalls and tensions. Picking up on this thread, Lorelei Vashti gestured towards the influence of pop culture on the modeling and monitoring of mother-daughter relationships, extracting lessons learned from the quick-witted (and at times, unnervingly rosy) television show, Gilmour Girls. Using the show’s central character and young mother Lorelai as a guide, the need for mothers to maintain contact with a distinct self while tracking the murky depths of parenthood added an authentic layer to the discussion, all the more enhanced by Carly Findlay’s subsequent ‘Ode to an Unborn Child’. Taking an honest and pragmatic look at what the sacrifices of motherhood mean for women with (dis)ability, the conversation circled wider still to the terrain of genetics, the value of life and the need to foster affirmative understandings of difference. Through challenging the reasons why visible difference is denigrated and feared, and why some women are seen as more entitled to their desire for children than others, notions of how to challenge discriminatory mythologies of the ‘perfect’ child were raised, in turn etching out new pathways towards a broadened understanding of identity, ability, aesthetic beauty and success.

Alia Gabres
Alia Gabres

Weaving together the threads of desire, lineage and what it means to write, Alia Gabres took the stage at the end of the first half to share a compellingly crafted tale of literature, culture and grief and the collective impact of these layers on both the woman who pursues the narrative she desires, as well as the self-as-writer searching for coordinates on a map that systematically erases her existence. Crediting her grandmother for the conviction to pursue the uncertainty and risk of a writing career, Gabres spoke of her struggles to recognise herself, as a migrant and woman of colour, in the writings of others, citing the difficulty this presented for the cultivation of her own clear voice: “I knew I existed, but theoretically and politically, I was invisible”. Ultimately, she explained, it was the absence of a reflected self that drove Gabres to take up a pen and fill in the missing narratives, transforming the act of writing into a radical, performative exercise in presenting a self to the world who appears as undeniably and unapologetically whole.

Kiloran Olivia
Kiloran Hiscock
Veronica Sullivan
Veronica Sullivan

Following a brief interval and a frantic crush of bodies towards the bar, Kiloran Hiscock introduced the second wave of performers. In a delicious thematic twist, Veronica Sullivan set a markedly different (and yet, perfect) tone with her Amazing Babe, Nicki Minaj, directing us firmly towards the pop culture analyses that would dominate the rest of the evening. Acknowledging that a feminist icon need not (and should not) be perfect, she spoke animatedly about the singer’s talent, brazen sexuality, business savvy and bonafide babehood. Rather than shaming Minaj’s refusal to adopt the feminist label despite possessing a number of decidedly feminist views, Sullivan reminded us that it is useful to remain aware of what we’re up against – that as women, and especially women in the spotlight, the expectation to be “everything” can obscure the end game. As someone who consistently demands more on her own terms from a dude-dominated industry, Minaj’s work ethic and her experimentations with music, femininity, sex-positivity and the patriarchal gaze, when critically discussed, have the potential to subvert and empower.

Mia Timpano
Mia Timpano

Oftentimes the quest for selfhood and identity begin well before the donning or embracing of a label – a process of negotiation Mia Timpano highlighted succinctly in her piece. Using Cher as an example of feminist embodiment, Timpano demonstrated how our early role models might not carry the expected ingredients for the feminist values we adopt later in life, but nonetheless provide strong scaffolding for the qualities we endeavour toward. For Timpano, Cher’s music, heightened persona and elaborate, avant-garde costumes assisted to carve out a space for a feminist politics by paving the way to the woman she wanted to be – a woman, who, like Cher, simply “became her own justification”.

Sian Campbell
Sian Campbell

This pithy message made Sian Campbell’s progression into medieval fantasy territory a relatively smooth jump. From ‘Hercules feat. Ladies’ to her own, hugely successful spin-off, Campbell described the pertinence of the Xena enterprise to her journey through the complexities of identity as a queer feminist writer. An ongoing challenge for women writers and audience members alike, the freedom to reject expectations of archetypal womanhood still holds much untapped potential where our on-screen idols are concerned. Notably, it is not so much Xena’s obvious heroic qualities as it is the reveal of her darker past and complex, imperfect character traits that seal her position as a venerable Amazing Babe. Her exploration of a queer identity under glaring heteronormative censorship, subversions of the textbook villain and marked disinterest in lofty notions of redemption can certainly serve as a powerful guide for writing future Amazing Babe(s) in to our cultural narrative. What is perhaps most interesting to this audience member is that by gazing through Xena’s shiny, armored femininity to excavate her full potential, we must too address readings of her character that base themselves on an unsophisticated interpretation of her physical, gendered attributes, and question why these traits are made to speak for, rather than in conjunction with, the other elements of identity projected.

Elizabeth Flux
Elizabeth Flux

Finally, the evening was rounded off with one last complex babe of the television screen – Daria Morgendorffer. For those of us who grew up in the nineties, Daria has become somewhat of an alt-darling. At the time of her inception, however, Daria’s cynicism, love of all things bleak and refusal to adapt to the expectations of others made her unlike any other teenage girl to grace the afternoon television screen. Much like Xena, Daria’s inability to remain a smooth-edged character is a large part of her feminist appeal. She is as smart and droll as she is vulnerable, and while acerbic in her social commentary, still holds the tendency to underestimate those around her. Elizabeth Flux ardently, and in her own Daria-like deadpan, reminded us that women characters celebrated as outliers can help to create the social, political and cultural space required to forge broader pathways to selfhood. The dynamic possibilities for writing, representation and identity extending from this concluding message, along with each of the night’s storytellers, made Amazing Babes 2.0 a galvanising evening, and a true delight to attend.

Written by Cecelia Devlin

All images by Mark Gambino – http://timewaster2000.com/

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