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Victims and Vixens

Recurrent gendered tropes in Helen Garner’s ‘non-fiction’

In this article, I draw out the parallels between Helen Garner’s highly contentious The First Stone (1995) and her most recent work, Joe Cinque’s Consolation (2004). At the narrative core of both these works of ‘non-fiction’ are women, constructed as manipulative and destructive, who are charged with annihilating a man’s self – one figuratively, the other literally. In Joe Cinque’s Consolation as in The First Stone, narratives which claim an impossible access to the ‘truth’ of the incidents they represent, Garner mobilises a series of tropes and myths surrounding gendered interaction that necessitate further feminist scrutiny. One of the main points of convergence between these two narratives, as my analysis of their central characters will demonstrate, is Garner’s discursive construction of men as ‘victims’ and women as ‘vixens’. In these two texts, men’s powerlessness and women’s power are exaggerated, resulting in deeply problematic narratives that ultimately work to buttress a hetero-patriarchal masculine/feminine binary. In both texts, Garner’s simplistic Manichean frame positions men on the side of ‘good’ and women on that of ‘evil’.1

There are superficial similarities between the two narratives, so it is not surprising that these points of connection have been emphasised in mainstream newspapers, women’s magazines, literary journals, and even in Joe Cinque’s Consolation itself.2 In The First Stone, Garner mounted an attack against Australian feminism’s alleged puritanical strain, which was held responsible for the sexual assault charges laid by two young women against the Master of the University of Melbourne’s prestigious Ormond College; its publication resulted in a national ‘media event’ to which many prominent Australian feminists contributed. In Joe Cinque’s Consolation, Anu Singh’s murder of her partner through a drug overdose provided another opportunity for Garner to deploy a series of questionable assumptions about masculinity/ femininity. While the ethical issues embedded in each case are worlds apart (and themselves deserve further examination), Garner’s representational techniques, in terms of gender, remain little altered.

The Master and Joe Cinque: figurative and literal victims
Throughout The First Stone, Garner aligns herself with the victim. For Garner, the victims in The First Stone, however, are not young women involved in the case of sexual harassment against the Master of Ormond College but the Master himself. In The First Stone, reconstituting sexual harassment to ‘nerdish passes at a party’ (Garner, 1995: 38), Garner suggests that the young women were excessive in ‘going to the cops’. Cloaked in a rhetoric of the mutability of power, Garner significantly under-estimates the masculine power and institutional privilege that envelops the Ormond case to characterise the Master as a victim of an imaginary feminist orthodoxy; he is simply one of many ‘poor bastards’ (Garner, 1995: 99). The Master, she suggests, ‘did not impress as powerful, if anything, he looked even meek’ (Garner, 1995: 32).

Through her sympathetic rendering of the Master and her persistent references to his weakness, unworldiness and vulnerability, Garner implies that the problem is not women’s ‘Othering’ in hetero-patriarchal capitalism, but the inability of feminism to provide men with models of masculine subjectivity following its reconfiguration of masculine/feminine binaries: for Garner, he had no way of knowing that his actions would be deemed inappropriate (see Garner, 1995: 123), and thus he is a victim of a particular feminist discursive frame. Her repositioning of the Master from alleged perpetrator to victim (of feminism) is also consistent with broader Australian nationalist mythologies (Lake, 1995: 26): ‘Colin Shepherd (‘dogged’ ‘meek’, ‘vulnerable’) joins the long line of defeated men – Ned Kelly, Henry Lawson, Burke and Wills, the Gallipoli diggers, the men on the track, the blokes on the susso – who embody our national mythologies’ (Lake, 1995: 26). Garner’s defence of the Master, therefore, also functions as defence of this recalcitrant national fiction.

In its blatant defence of the Master, The First Stone can be described as what Anthony McMahon calls a ‘wounded man’ text (McMahon: 1999), a popular genre of ‘men’s movement’ texts which perform a denial of masculine privilege and posit a period of uncertainty for masculine subjectivity – an ontological crisis due, they argue, to the overwhelming successes of those power-wielding feminists. She tells a young feminist: ‘Blokes who come on to girls are putting themselves out on a limb—their self is at risk. You start to learn that women have a particular power of their own, if only they knew it’ (99, author’s emphasis). Again, utilising a generationalist rhetoric that became common in mid-1990s Australian public discourse (see Davis: 1997), Garner assumes that the women’s inability to recognise their power comes from their youth and inexperience. The Master, and implicitly all men, are victims of an irrational femininity (Flax, 1998: 81) which has the potential to ruin men’s lives and disrupt their already fragile ego boundaries. The ultimate personification of such irrationality is, of course, the feminist. The familiar trope of the hysterical feminist represents the Other against which Garner’s humanist ‘commonsense’ is defined. As Jane Flax has observed, representing women – and feminists in particular – as irrational or hysterical can serve as a potent form of erasure in the public domain (Flax, 1998: 66) and it also depoliticises behaviours named by feminism such as sexual harassment. In Garner’s representation, feminism becomes emblematic of the phallic woman en masse, castrating not only the Master, but the entire homosocial economy which she naturalises. For Garner, feminism has left men undefended, in literal and symbolic terms.

In Joe Cinque’s Consolation, the eponymous hero is a bright young man with a promising future. He is personable, charming if shy, and adoring of his partner, Anu. Given Garner’s heavy reliance on interviews with his family to inform her representation, it is not surprising that his portrayal is that of a caring son torn from his family by a selfish, tyrannical woman. For Garner, Joe was Anu’s victim not only in death, but in life. That is, his life choices were circumscribed by an unhealthy relationship with an unhealthy woman. Like the Master, Joe Cinque is a victim of a particular type of woman; Garner observes: ‘He seemed to me an innocent who had fallen into a nest of very complicated evil’ (Garner, 2004: 152). Joe, like Singh’s accomplice, Madhavi Rao, was helpless ‘before the power of her erratic will’ (Garner, 2004: 180). Furthermore, Garner discounts Singh’s claims of domestic violence in a further effort to emphasise Joe’s vulnerability (see Maher et al, 2004).

As in The First Stone, Garner relies upon the families and friends of those directly involved to mediate her representation; interviews with his mother form the basis of Garner’s discursive construction of Singh’s murdered partner. Observations and interpretations made by Mrs Cinque are commonly left to stand without authorial comment, a narratorial strategy also used in The First Stone. In these emotive accounts, Joe Cinque has been fundamentally altered through his interactions with Singh. As Garner visits the Cinques’ home in Newcastle, his mother comments: ‘Joe changed when he met her. He wasn’t a happy, free spirit anymore’ (Garner, 2004: 90). Throughout, Garner is at pains to locate sources who would confirm that Joe’s work, study, friendships, and family relationships suffered once his life was consumed by this Indian Other, Anu Singh. Garner cites one of Cinque’s friends: ‘He reasoned well. He had sound logic. But she infiltrated him on such a deep level that his logic went out the window’ (Garner, 2004: 301). The emasculation of Joe Cinque prior to his death is given as much narrative space as his death itself. And it is in emphasising such emasculation, and the concomitant reallocation of power to the narratives’ central women, that the similarities between the two texts become most evident.

As Garner had accepted one of the Ormond men’s characterisation of the Master as ‘unworldly’, so too she accepts the maternal representation as offering the ‘truth’ of Joe: ‘He was naïve, that’s all’ (Garner, 2004: 78). Like the Master, Joe was ‘powerless in the irresistible pull of Singh’s sexual potency and devious nature’ (Maher et al, 2004: 234). This characterisation has thoroughly pervaded Garner’s own construction, as she suggests that Joe was ‘helpless before the force of her erratic will…this was a woman of formidable coercive powers’ (Garner, 2004: 180-181). Anu Singh’s overt displays of sexuality render him helpless. As in The First Stone, Joe Cinque’s lack of power is established relationally through emphasising its abundance in his partner. Again, in a lengthy interview devoid of authorial commentary, one of Joe’s friends remarks upon Singh’s decidedly unfeminine dominance in a social context: ‘She’d hijack the conversation. She’d dominate, and Joe would sit passively, or offer an occasional opinion. I thought it was quite ball-breaking – she’d go on and on’ (Garner, 2004: 300). This friend continues, describing the contents of the house shared by Joe and Anu: ‘There was a dildo in the bedroom. Joe wasn’t like that. That wasn’t what he wanted from life…She’d had an impact on him – she’d changed him. She’d violated the way he’d previously lived’ (Garner, 2004: 302). This language of violation, infiltration, and penetration to signify how Cinque’s inner self was infected/affected by Singh circulates throughout the narrative. Furthermore, the negative connotations here regarding Singh’s possession of a dildo, followed by the suggestion that ‘Joe wasn’t like that’ further works to sexualise her and (like Rosen) locate her firmly in the realm of the ‘bad’ girl.

The most obvious ethical problem with Garner using the same discursive frames for her representation of Joe Cinque as for that of the Master of Ormond College is that the former was literally a victim while the other was merely perceived as one through Garner’s particular ideological frame. Joe Cinque lost his life: The Master his livelihood – losses in no sense commensurate. That said, in both narratives, pairs of women are the inflictors of pain and suffering (in the latter case, of a much more heinous variety) on innocent unworldly men. Feminism, it is implied, has created such men – and such women. For Garner, these men are victims due to the type of women with which they interact: ‘vagina dentata in her full glory’, as Cassandra Pybus infamously remarked in her review of The First Stone (Pybus: 1995).

Feminine ‘evil’: Elizabeth Rosen and Anu Singh as vixens
Two of the central women characters in The First Stone and Joe Cinque’s Consolation, Elizabeth Rosen and Anu Singh3 respectively, are constituted as the archetypal vengeful woman who has long fuelled patriarchal imaginaries. In Joe Cinque’s Consolation, Garner makes an explicit connection between the two cases: both reflect her interest in ‘women at the end of their teether’ (Garner, 2004: 13). There is something quite disturbing about this link, as if there is some sort of equivalency between the actions of women in the Ormond sexual harassment case and the action of someone who took a life. That said, the similarities between Garner’s representation of Singh and the Ormond woman dubbed ‘Elizabeth Rosen’, like those of Joe Cinque and The Master, are pronounced.

In particular, the power attributed to them, a power Garner suggests is abused by both Rosen and Singh, is embodied and highly sexualised. For Garner, their abuse of the power written on their bodies is their fundamental transgression. In The First Stone, Garner reads a photograph of Elizabeth Rosen as illustrative of the type of ‘power’ she allegedly holds, and which is seen as responsible for Garner’s incomprehension of her trauma: ‘It is impossible not to be moved by her daring beauty. She is a woman in the full glory of her youth, as joyful as a goddess, elated by her own careless authority and power’ (Garner, 1995: 59). In short, the Master’s actions amount to a physical expression of the appreciation articulated through the male gaze by the narrator. As is common in representations of sexual assault and harassment (see Benedict, 1991: 152), Garner attempts to construct a particular type of subject and body capable of attracting unsolicited male attention. However, the power conferred by this sexuality is limited as it is conceived in terms of ‘what it invites not what it does’ (Cossins, 1995: 557). At other points in the narrative she remarks on Rosen’s overwhelming power: ‘…I wondered, as I had many times before, whether Elizabeth Rosen had any real awareness of the profound effect she has on men’ (Garner, 1995: 133).

This trope of the vengeful, hypersexual woman resurfaces in Garner’s representation of Singh as the most extreme form of such feminine power: the woman who literally annihilates a man. Much work has been produced on media representation of women who murder, and Garner mobilises a number of these familiar pathologising strategies. Women who murder are often seen to have transgressed the passivity traditionally associated with femininity (see Morrisey: 2003, Walkerdine & Blackman: 2000). In this sense, they commit both literal crimes and ‘gender crimes’ (Grant, 1993: 164). In terms of one of the most prominent ‘fictions of femininity’ (Walkerdine and Blackman, 2000: 141), women are society’s carers and nurturers, and therefore any act of violence must be seen as evidence of a rupture in this ‘natural’ state of being. Throughout the narrative, Singh is constructed as self-obsessed; as staging a ‘narcissistic melodrama’ (Garner, 2004: 182), and her evil and wickedness are remarked upon throughout: ‘She was the figure of what a woman most fears in herself – the damaged infant, vain, frantic, destructive, out of control’ (Garner, 2004: 18). In this sense, both books are cautionary tales for women and, as the previous section has suggested, men.

In both narratives, as I have suggested, feminism is cast as responsible for the production of such powerful subjects; Garner quotes Joe’s mother: ‘Joe tell Nino, ‘Just be careful when you talk to her. Don’t say anything chauvinist, because she’s a feminist’ (Garner, 2004: 92). For Garner, Rosen and Singh exemplify the ‘femme fatale’; as Maryanne Doane argues, the femme fatale is a figure of ‘certain discursive unease, a potential epistemological trauma…she harbours a threat which is not entirely legible, predictable, or manageable’ (Doane, 1991: 1); such women are a ‘symptom of male fears about feminism’ (Doane, 1991: 3). This representation of the vengeful woman needs to be considered, as Rita Felski argues, in the context of ‘a long-standing tradition of presenting female power as inherently evil, dangerous, and worthy of punishment’ (Felski, 2001: 109).4 Given this characterisation, in a paratextual sense it is clear why an apple appears on the cover of Joe Cinque’s Consolation (see Dever, 2004). Although their ‘vengeful’ actions towards vulnerable men are remarkably different in kind, in Garner’s rendering both Rosen and Singh represent embodied threats to the patriarchal symbolic order and to masculinity itself.

The phallocentric moral at the centre of The First Stone and Joe Cinque’s Consolation has a long history: that men should fear women, as the first love object (see Chodorow: 1978), and the vengeance they can enact their lives, their careers, their very selves and, in its most extreme form, their bodies. Despite the colossal difference of a literal and a figurative annihilation, for Garner these masculine victims and feminine oppressors exist on a continuum. In this sense, her mobilisation of a series of gendered tropes – particularly that of the destructive, powerful woman – attempts to undermine much feminist work that has exposed the politics of such hetero-patriarchal representations. Given that they appear in a genre claiming a more privileged relation to the Real than many other forms of writing, these ‘non-fictional’ gendered representations of The First Stone and Joe Cinque’s Consolation need to be exposed as contestable ideological fictions.
Anthea Taylor

Bagnall, D. (2004) ‘Murder she wrote’, 17 August, The Bulletin.
Benedict, H. (1992) Virgin or Vamp: How the Press Covers Sex Crimes, Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Chodorow, N. (1978) The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender, University of California Press, Berkeley.
Cossins, A. (1995) ‘On Stone Throwing From The Feminist Sidelines: A Critique of Helen Garner’s Book, The First Stone, Melbourne University Law Review, Volume 20.
Davis, M. (1997) Gangland: Cultural Elites and the New Generationalism, Sydney, Allen and Unwin.
Dever, M. (2004) ‘Hanging out for judgement’, Australian Women’s Book Review, Issue 138.
Doane, M. (1991) Femme Fatale: Feminism, Film Theory, Psychoanalysis, Routledge, NY.
Flax, J. (1998) The American Dream in Black and White: The Clarence Thomas Hearings, Cornell University Press, Ithaca.
Felski, R. (2000) Doing Time: Feminism and Postmodern Culture, Routledge, London.
Garner, H. (1995) The First Stone, Pan Macmillan, Sydney.
Garner, H. (2004) Joe Cinque’s Consolation, Pan Macmillan, Sydney.
Grant, L. (1993) Fundamental Feminism, Routledge, NY.
Hanrahan, J, M. Lake and G. Little. (1995) ‘Three Perspectives on Helen Garner’s The First Stone’, pp.25-29, Australian Book Review, September.
Leser, D. (2004) ‘A date with death’, Women’s Weekly, August.
McMahon, A. (1999) Taking Care of Men: Sexual Politics in the Public Mind, Cambridge University Press, Melbourne.
Maher, J., J. McCulloch and S. Pickering. (2004) ‘[W]here women face the judgement of their sisters: review of Helen Garner, Joe Cinque’s Consolation’, pp.233-240, Current Issues in Criminal Justice, Vol.16, No.2.
Morrisey, B. (2003) When women kill: questions of agency and subjectivity, Routledge, London.
Pybus, C. (1995) ‘Cassandra Pybus reviews Helen Garner’s The First Stone’, pp.6-8, Australian Book Review, May.
Walkerdine, V. and L. Blackman. (2000) Mass Hysteria: Critical Psychology and Studies, Palgrave, London.

1. Maher et al (2004) emphasise that such a good/evil binary structures Joe Cinque’s Consolation.
2. Of The First Stone, Helen Garner remarks that ‘the parallels between that story and this one [Joe Cinque’s Consolation] were like a bad joke’ (Garner, 2004: 13). When Joe Cinque’s Consolation was published in August 2004, journalists commonly invoked The First Stone and its author’s supposed ‘persecution’ at the hands of dogmatic feminists. For example, see David Leser’s article in the Women’s Weekly (August 2004) and Diana Bagnall’s in The Bulletin (17th August 2004).
3. ‘Nicole Stewart’ (as Garner names her), the other complainant in the Ormond case, receives less space in the narrative as Garner focuses more on establishing the ‘bad girl’ credentials of ‘Elizabeth Rosen’. In Joe Cinque’s Consolation, Madhavi Rao (Singh’s alleged accomplice) features prominently and is represented as Singh’s passive victim.
4. In psychoanalytic terms, such fears stem from ‘metaphorical fears of castration developed during the duration of the Oedipus complex, and from men’s enormous discomfort with their early dependence on the mother for survival’ (Morrisey, 2003: 26).

Anthea Taylor’s PhD thesis was completed under the English/Women’s Studies programme at UNSW where she taught and worked as a research assistant. She is currently a full-time policy advisor for the NSW government.

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