In Australia, we love our criminals and we love our criminal history. One of the most popular TV shows here in recent years has been the Underbelly franchise, which has dramatized several Australian gang wars and received critical and popular acclaim. It’s considered by many to be “high-brow” TV, like The Sopranos.
The latest series of Underbelly covers the criminal scene in 1920s Sydney. In particular, it explores the phenomenon of the “razor gang” (which is exactly what it sounds like). Back then, criminal Sydney revolved around the usual 1920’s gangster activity – illegal alcohol trade, cocaine and prostitution. What makes the Sydney version interesting is that it was dominated by the two gangland rivals Tilly Devine and Kate Leigh. Yes, that’s right. Our most notorious 1920’s gangsters were women.
By all accounts Tilly Devine and Kate Leigh were tough, intimidating and really quite fucking scary. They weren’t heroines by any stretch of the imagination. Certainly not feminist heroines (both ran brothels as part of their criminal enterprises). But they are significant female figures in a macho culture which acknowledges or remembers very few women.
So, you know. The prostitution aspect notwithstanding, I was still looking forward to this series. We don’t make many TV series here to begin with (we buy most of our TV from the US and UK). And when we do make TV we prefer to make reality shows about lifeguards who rescue clueless tourists from the Bondi surf. (Please. If you get caught in a rip one day, swim parallel to the shore). So to have a locally made, historical drama which also centers around not just one, but TWO women is rare and exciting.
But god forbid a radical feminist should ever be satisfied with anything on TV:
Just for comparison’s sake, here is the casting choice for Carl Williams in the first Underbelly series, which focused on the Melbourne gang wars of the 90s.
Not only did they not cast some TV hunk for the role. But they also went out of their way to choose an actor who even looks kinda sorta similar to Williams. And this was one of the things which gave the original series an air of authenticity.
An authenticity which is completely lacking in this series. Arguably, one of the reasons why Devine and Leigh were able to exert their reign of terror over 1920s Sydney is because they were not fuckable, by any conventional standard. Unattractive women are monstrous in this society. And monsters are scary.
In the words of a woman I know, who also declared she wouldn’t be watching after the first commericals for the show were making the rounds: “Wow, they’ve really managed to take all the threat out of those women!”
And that’s the point, isn’t it? This phenomenon is not restricted to Underbelly. On the contrary it’s near universal. The first rule of making any film version about any historical woman is to turn her into a barbie doll. A fuckpuppet.
And this literally erases these women, and puts in their place a patriarchal stand-in. They are rendered completely non-threatening in every sense of the word: non-threatening as characters, and non-threatening to the patriarchal order.
Most importantly the phenomenon is also a reversal.
If Kate Leigh had really been the willowy, man-pleasingly pretty flower as depicted in Underbelly, would she have become a notorious crime boss? Probably not. She probably would have charmed a banker or something and married into the middle class.
The way a woman looks will alter the course of her life. Often dramatically so. If she is not conventionally attractive, then that is significant to her story.
So, Underbelly: Razor can go to hell. For taking the easy, unchallenging, predictable, male-sanctioned, boner-worshipping and IRREDEEMABLY BORING route when they had a chance to do something interesting.