By the time David Martin Jones’ article ‘A Political Melodrama‘ ran in The Spectator in August 2013, linking Kevin Rudd’s career with the title of Lionel Shriver’s novel We Need To Talk About Kevin, the joke was already stale – by then, it was at least three years old. But just as hackneyed was the reference to any given political melee du jour as a ‘melodrama’.
The enduring reliability of the ‘it’s a melodrama!’ cliché makes this tried-and-true chestnut of political journalism worth examining a little more deeply. In the Australian context at least, its conceptual potency is surprisingly rich and tells us more than throwaway platitudes such as Jones’ may initially indicate.
A useful starting point is Peter Brooks’ foundational book, The Melodramatic Imagination: Balzac, Henry James, Melodrama, and the Mode of Excess. Here, the author views nineteenth-century melodrama as a fundamental dramatisation of the interplay between moral signs. Its binary structure plots ‘evil’ (villainy) against ‘good’ (virtue), and it is upon these foundations that Brooks’ eponymous melodramatic imagination rests.
For Brooks, the French Revolution flagged a vital shift in the popular ethical consciousness, where the public’s faith in both the King and God had been destroyed by the brutal realities that were bloodily unfolding around them. Melodrama, therefore, came ‘into being in a world where the traditional imperatives of truth and ethics have been violently thrown into question, yet where the promulgation of truth and ethics, their instauration as a way of life, is of immediate, daily, political concern’.
Propelled by the violent force of the Revolution, ethics were suddenly in the domain of the secular. Here, melodrama blossomed: its dramatic play of ethical signs worked on a dual strategy of revelation and occlusion. Its defining excesses effectively constructed an ostentatious Trojan horse within which moral content could be effectively disguised.
Inspired by Brooks’ examination of melodrama’s political history, Linda Williams’ Playing the Race Card: Melodramas of Black and White From Uncle Tom to OJ Simpson explores the way race is constructed in contemporary news coverage along similar melodramatic lines, employing examples such as the 1995 OJ Simpson trial and the beating of Rodney King in 1991.
We find melodrama modernizing and renewing itself with new objects of sympathy embedded within new social problems, new contexts for pathos and action, and new media … though its roots are in the theater, melodrama exceeds the limits of the theatrical. Its genius lies in its protean ability to ‘leap’ across centuries and media, to make jaded readers, audiences and viewers thrill to ever new forms of pathos and action.
For Williams, melodrama is less ‘a genre, an excess or an aberration’, but rather ‘what most often typifies popular American narrative in literature, stage, film and television when it seeks to engage with moral questions. It is the best example of American culture’s (often hypocritical) attempt to construct itself as the locus of innocence and virtue’.
Williams’ translation of melodrama to the broader field of ideological discourse is focused explicitly on the example of the United States. But in terms of its crucial role in that culture’s vision of itself as ‘the locus of innocence and virtue’, it holds particular relevance to the way white Australia constructs and conceives its own identity, and how that is in turn positioned and disseminated in broader popular political discourse.
Nowhere is this more visible than in the enduring popular appeal of the ‘little Aussie battler’. This figure embodies one of melodrama’s central figures, that of the victim-hero, whose plight stands by its very definition at odds against villainy. For Williams, ‘the suffering of the victim-hero is important for the establishing of moral legitimacy’.
Etymologically, the ‘battler’ has not always taken the form of this noble victim-hero. According to Bruce Moore’s 2010 book What’s Their Story: A History of Australian Words, the battler now ‘refers to a person who works hard to make a decent living in difficult circumstances’, who ‘refuses to admit defeat in the face of great difficulties’.
Historically, however, it is a far more ambivalent term. Moore reminds us that in the work of Henry Lawson, battlers were simply people struggling to exist, ‘old, white-bearded, travel stained battlers of the track’. By 1895, in Australia a ‘battler’ was someone trying to live off betting on horse races despite always losing, and from the late 1800s through to the 1950s, it referred to a female sex worker who went about her business without a pimp. For Moore, then, ‘the battler was a person at the very lowest end of society, who struggled to eke out a very basic existence’.
It was only by the 1970s that the little Aussie battler manifested closer to its contemporary victim-hero, ideologically mobilised by John Howard in his anti-‘intellectual do-gooders’ stance during the heat of the history wars during the 1990s.
So while the figure of the battler has a long history in Australia, its close association to a distinctive white Australian identity is grounded in a reconfiguration of the term that is heavily influenced by a conservative political agenda.
This small-scale deconstruction of the historical meaning of the little Aussie battler is offered as a loose starting point to think through how this now widely held national image of self fits back into a melodramatic framework, specifically in terms of mapping some kind of secular, ethical landscape.
Even the most cursory reflection on the state of contemporary Australian politics brings us back to the discursive Ground Zero of ‘white Australians are just plain racist’. But while there is no denying that mainstream Australian culture is permeated with a casual xenophobia, I can’t help but think there’s something fundamentally … well, racist in declaring all white Australians are racist, considering that it’s a statement based on broad generalisations about race alone.
There is of course no denying that racism in Australia has been in large part normalised, and the increasingly bizarre rhetoric surrounding Andrew Bolt’s attempt to rebrand himself as a victim for his racist ideas being questioned is a perfect example of this.
But how – and perhaps more importantly, why – did this happen? While the answers are complex and manifold, they surely in at least some small way can start to be deconstructed by addressing the fact that our national identity and the figure of the victim-hero in the shape of the ideologically precision-crafted little Aussie battler plays a curious role.
To spell it out: if the idealised vision of white Australia is linked intrinsically to its status as a suffering victim-hero, then the suffering of others becomes less a source of pathos or empathy than it is an active threat to what is already a pretty tenuously constructed sense of national identity.
The thought that others may suffer more than we do means that their survival and endurance might place our own status as ‘battlers’ under threat. That dangerous mix of insecure chaos and blustering bravado that fuels white Australian national identity has allowed no space for little Afgahn battlers or little Sri Lankan battlers, so we turn desperate people into villains because we’re afraid they’ll step on our victim-hero ‘turf’. In doing so, white Australia has cast itself as the true villains, as children self-harm in detention and we imprison and torture asylum seekers.
The blanket national fetishisation of the little Aussie battler has been constructed explicitly along melodramatic lines, and it has blown up in our faces. The melodramatic imagination has done here what it has done throughout history: it has provided a secular, Manichean ethical language to distinguish heroes and villains. We’ve been so enamoured by our own assumed role as the victim-hero that we missed the point to critically evaluate whether such a simplistic binary is even particularly useful or relevant. By reducing popular political discourse to a good-guys versus bad-guys scenario, white Australia is undoubtedly on the uglier side of the equation. History will not be kind.