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Sexy Nation

This essay originally appeared in The Age on 20 December, 2003, and was republished in the Sydney Morning Herald‘s ‘Spectrum’ section. In The Age‘s 150th birthday celebrations in 2004, the paper selected this as one of its best stories.

In an increasingly internationalised world, what does it mean to be Australian? Does anyone even care? For many Australians who consider themselves sophisticated and cosmopolitan, the very idea of national identity has become more of an embarrassment than a source of pride.

I cringed to hear of the exclusive George Bush barbecue recently at Parliament House, where John Howard smoothed the path to US-Australian cultural understanding by trotting out various sportsmen, tycoons, shock jocks and the Crocodile Hunter.

I cringed in September, to see Prince Harry manhandling native animals at Taronga Zoo and donning an Akubra with painful self-consciousness. And I also cringed in April, when pop star Avril Lavigne’s evident disenchantment with international touring was mollified by a pair of ugh boots and an opportunity to cuddle a koala on national television.

Instead of challenging visitors’ cliched ideas about Australia, these incidents only confirm them. They imply we’re simple and uncivilised, almost ignoring the emergence of a new breed of international Australians. These Australians are individuals who are cosmopolitan, in that word’s original, utopian sense of transcending geography and belonging to a universal civilisation. And, of course, they don’t take themselves too seriously.

These international Australians are overwhelmingly practitioners in the “surface industries” of entertainment and fashion. The word “superficial” might have connotations of worthlessness, but surface impressions are Australia’s first and most powerful points of contact with other people. So international Australians present a strongly Australian image without being shackled to the land itself.

This gradual shift of Australian identity from local to global is illustrated by three famous Australian chicks who flog underwear: Elle Macpherson, Kylie Minogue and Sarah O’Hare. When most people think about Australian national identity, the images are overwhelmingly blokey drovers, surfies, lifesavers, cricketers or Anzac soldiers. But Macpherson, Minogue and O’Hare reconfigure Australian identity as feminine. Along with their bras, undies, camisoles and G-strings, they sell very different ideas of what it means to be a sexy, cosmopolitan Australian woman.

Their promotion of underwear is precisely what enables them to play with Australian identity. In the modern era, women’s identity moved from being a fixed and essential something in the character to being externalised and manipulable, formed by clothing and make-up. Just as cosmetics allow women to “make themselves up”, lingerie becomes a “foundation garment”. It lays the foundations for feminine identity by strategically remoulding, revealing and concealing the body.

Macpherson, Minogue and O’Hare all draw attention to this process in provocative ways. Macpherson capitalises on voyeurism; Minogue exploits the nudge-nudge, wink-wink tabloids; O’Hare invades the blokes’ territory. Thus, they make Australianness a spectacle for global consumption.

Importantly, these three international Australians don’t trade explicitly on their Australianness in the way of, say, a Russell Crowe; indeed, none of them lives here. Instead, inserting themselves ironically into pre-existing ideas of lingerie-clad women, they offer themselves as clean slates on which international consumers can inscribe their own meanings.

But just where do the stereotypes of Australian femininity come from? And how does the lingeriewearing body represent certain feminine identities?

In 1966, folklorist Russel Ward summarised the typical Australian as “a bushman, who is, among other things, practical, courageous, taciturn, sceptical and independent, yet loyal to his mates”.

Struggling with the untamed interior of the continent supposedly produces a better sort of Australian, and writers such as Banjo Paterson and Henry Lawson have provided many examples of epic male characters who bravely take on something larger than themselves: the Wild Colonial Boy, Clancy of the Overflow and the Man from Snowy River.

In this unstintingly blokey tradition of Australian identity, women’s roles were limited and peripheral. As writer Anne Summers has famously outlined, they were put in two pigeonholes: damned whores or God’s police. In the first category, women were Jezebels who led men astray. In the second, women’s moral scrupulousness made them guardians of British colonial patriarchy.

If women’s morality supported Australian colonial nationalism, their underwear was no less supportive. As late as 1939, corsets were promoted as medical devices, supporting women’s slack abdominal muscles and pushing their displaced intestines “back” to their correct positions. But controlling women’s bodies also contains and controls their sexuality. So the corset attempted to maintain moral health to prevent God’s police from slipping into whoredom.

In the early 1970s, Australian identity was led in a new intellectual direction towards the ocker. “Ocker” was a playful, deliberately shocking sensibility that no longer romanticised the bush, but looked for Australianness on the beach and in the suburbs. Filmmaker and critic Scott Murray lists among ocker characteristics: “swearing and coarse language, drunkenness, an obsession with bodily functions, beery mateship and the accompanying derision of women, anti-intellectualism, and a violation of custom and ethnic/religious belief”.

Ocker was profoundly misogynist. Women or, rather, sheilas still had only two roles: sexpots and doormats. Tim Burstall’s 1973 film Alvin Purple narrates the male fantasy of being irresistibly attractive to women. But the sheila’s compliance wasn’t only sexual. In 1975, historian Miriam Dixson described Australian women as “the doormats of the Western world”. While suburban ockers revelled in their new-found liberties, their wives took Valium and cleaned up after them. While surfies frolicked in the waves, their girlfriends sat on the beach and fetched them meat pies and Chiko rolls.

Accordingly, the emphasis of lingerie shifted from concealing the figure’s flaws to enhancing its sexual attributes. Women were no longer expected to use underwear to become physically and morally healthy Australians, but to become objects of desire.

The Wonderbra was invented in 1963 and the advent of Lycra meant that smoother and more form-fitting styles of lingerie became prevalent. Brightly coloured and printed underwear moved from markers of whoredom to markers of sexual freedom. And it became more acceptable to depict skimpy lingerie and nudity in popular media.

Few lingerie brands have capitalised on this risque media climate more effectively than Elle Macpherson Intimates. Intimates is a collaboration between the New Zealand lingerie company Bendon and the Australian model known as “The Body”. Launched in 1989, it was marketed as a bridge between the average woman and the high-flying supermodel, between practical, everyday underwear and the glamour of international fashion. In an interview in 1990, Macpherson described the Intimates ethos as “a combination of good Bonds knickers and a bit of class”.

Bonds and Intimates had very different markets then, and still do. But what Macpherson and Bendon were attempting then was quite new: an affordable, massmarketed lingerie range designed and modelled by an international celebrity. And Macpherson’s bra-clad presence on billboards was stopping traffic four years before Wonderbra’s landmark “Hello, boys!” campaign.

Fourteen years later, Macpherson and her Swiss financier fiance, Arkie Busson, are worth somewhere between $50 million to $100 million. Elle Macpherson Intimates is Australia’s topselling lingerie brand and fills seven sections in London’s hip Selfridges department store. Macpherson is planning to expand into the US.

While Macpherson has always been identified as Australian, she isn’t a local star. Interviewing her in August for The Sun-Herald, Brett Thomas was struck by “that curious accent of hers, a hybrid of North Shore Sydney and St Tropez European”. She has homes in London, Ibiza and the Bahamas, but not Australia, and Busson’s Europe-based business means they’re unlikely to move here.

But it is exactly Macpherson’s hybridity – her ability to combine seemingly contradictory ideas about Australianness – that is the key to her success as an international Australian. As a Sports Illustrated model-turned-catwalk queen, she takes the vigour and natural beauty that foreign observers often associate with Australia (and that Australians seem happy to perpetuate) and infuses it with continental style.

This process works two ways: Macpherson recasts Australia as a sophisticated, creative country and she helps reinvigorate staid traditions of European fashion.

Lately, however, Macpherson has moved beyond sophistication to what some critics would call smut. Last year, she staged her Mercedes International Fashion Week show at a strip club, where the fashions were modelled by the club’s pole-dancing staff.

Her latest campaign, consisting of print ads, outdoor posters and five-second television commercials, consists of a series of voyeuristic images, shot as if through windows, between curtains and cracks of doorways, which tread a fine line between advertising and porn. This campaign tests the limits of social acceptance and it presents Australianness as daring. Macpherson jolts onlookers out of their comfort zone. In this way, she suggests that there’s more to being Australian than fulfilling the bland expectations of the rest of the world.

By contrast, Minogue has made pin-up imagery her calling card. The filmmaker and critic Philip Brophy says Minogue sucks us all in with “the power of her image gravity”, to the extent that we have pathetically crowned “our Kylie as an Australian icon so as to repress the cultural vacuousness that is Australia as seen by the rest of the world”.

But Minogue’s empty symbolism isn’t just bait for the gullible. Brophy inadvertently points to her strength as an international Australian – her chameleon-like ability to be all things to all people. She is literally a sex symbol that allows men and women, the gay and the straight, adults and children, in Australia or elsewhere, to superimpose their own desires onto her pert, pint-sized body.

Love Kylie, her signature label in association with Holeproof, was launched in Australia in 2000, using photographs of Minogue cavorting merrily, her body tilted at uncomfortable-looking angles. In last year’s campaign, she adopted even more stylised poses, reminiscent of cheesecake illustrations in 1940s men’s magazines. But, instead of high heels, Minogue sports Aussie-style rubber thongs with her lingerie.

Minogue has always had a strong camp sensibility, not only because of her theatrical prancing, but because her self-presentation is so arch and selfconscious. But there’s precious little irony in the way these images are consumed. She doesn’t shock and challenge viewers; she encourages them to join in the fun. And join in they have. In 2001, she starred in an infamous ad for the saucy British lingerie boutique Agent Provocateur, which was shown only in cinemas after being deemed too raunchy for TV. It was downloaded more than 3 million times through search engine Lycos alone. Her latest television commercial lasts for two-and-a-half minutes and features Minogue dancing round a room before stripping off her bra and waving it around her head. In August this year, the anti-virus group Sophos worried that if it was downloaded as much as the Agent Provocateur commercials, it could crash companies’ computer networks.

In the form of Minogue, Australianness becomes something to be looked at and desired. At Love Kylie’s British launch last year, she said: “My aim is that the lingerie is fashionable, flirtatious, comfortable and enjoyable to wear.” The same can be said for Minogue’s version of Australianness: playful, flirtatious and approachable and she irreverently exploits it, mugging cheekily to meet the viewer’s gaze.

While Minogue and Macpherson are international bestsellers, people outside Australia are likely to know Sarah O’Hare best for being a Wonderbra model who married the media scion Lachlan Murdoch. But O’Hare is perhaps the most interesting of the three. Because she directly challenges the masculine cliches of Australian identity, she is largely responsible for transforming audience perceptions of Bonds from a blokey, old person’s brand to an inclusive fashion label.

Like Macpherson, O’Hare is an Aussie beach girl who modelled for Sports Illustrated. Like Macpherson, she went on to be a sultry lingerie model, becoming the face of Wonderbra in 1997. And, like Macpherson, she lives a moneyed, cosmopolitan life abroad. But that’s where the comparisons end. When O’Hare surfaced as the Bonds girl in 2000, she had ditched her long hair for a pixie crop, lost her spectacular cleavage and scrubbed off her makeup. She had become the quintessential Australian everygirl. The general manager of Bonds, Sue Morphet, says: “Bonds is a brand for all Australians. We are determined to present the fun, colour and fashionability of all our categories to as many Australians as possible.”

The company dates from 1917 and its flagship Cottontails women’s underpants had remained unchanged since introduced in 1955. In 1999, the company relaunched Cottontails, having lowered the waistbands by 7.5 centimetres and calling them “hipster underpants”. O’Hare was brought in to launch Bonds’ next innovation: its first bras. In the following three years, Bonds’ new product lines grew exponentially and O’Hare has featured in every campaign. Her appeal in these ads is more understated than in Macpherson’s or Minogue’s advertising.

She isn’t a seductress but a girl next door. And it isn’t accidental that the ads, which nearly doubled sales in two years, make extensive use of direct-tocamera addresses and voiceovers. Although O’Hare’s geographic ties to Australia are tenuous, her Australian accent remains largely unchanged. But O’Hare has also presided over Bonds’ emphatic move towards man-style underwear for women. In a television commercial last year, she aped male slobbiness in a singlet and Y-front-style underpants, kicking back on the couch, watching sport. And this year, she and a bevy of women companions could be seen cracking rocks in a quarry in boxer-style hotpants, wiping their foreheads with their shirt tails and wolf whistling at roadside service men.

This commercial, which used the tag line “For hardworking girls”, was so successful that it was pulled from the air because shops sold out of the boxer shorts she was modelling. “Then they restocked the stores, put the commercial back on and, within a short time, they were all sold out again,” O’Hare told The Daily Telegraph. “They’re flying out the door.” O’Hare puts a cosmopolitan spin on masculine Aussie clichés. On her, blokes’ iconic singlets and undies look sexy, modern and fashionable. And when she takes on blokey mannerisms, the result isn’t an ugly, boorish ocker, but a smart woman celebrating Australia by parodying it.

It is our challenge to work out how Australia has changed and where it is heading. The Australian identity is shifting from strongly localised, masculine visions of landscape and colonisation to cosmopolitan, ironic, feminine revisions that suggest new ways of thinking about Australia’s presence on the world stage.

Of course, these images of Australian identity are also problematic. Macpherson, Minogue and O’Hare do nothing to dispel the stereotype of Australia as a paradise where hot chicks constantly get their kit off. They also restrict the development of alternative, more intellectual forms of Australian femininity. But they do reveal several things about international Australian femininity.

First, it is self-deprecating. “Taking the piss” remains crucial to the impression that Australians are unpretentious and laid-back. Second, this piss-taking uses the female body as its object. But here, the females appear to be in control of the objectifying. Third, these female bodyobjects are transformed into national spectacles. They signify something about Australia as they entertain the world.

It’s hard to deny that both men and women in other countries consume Kylie Minogue’s bottom, Elle Macpherson’s body and Sarah O’Hare’s cleavage with alacrity, and in the full knowledge that they are consuming Australianness. Their power as images is rooted in sexual desire (pun completely intended), either a desire for sex, or a desire to be desired.

Ultimately, this makes Australianness exciting and desirable. Ultimately, Australians have always been exciting and desirable, but only now are we disentangling ourselves from the land we call home.