How to take the threat out of threatening women: make them fuckable

by Miska

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:

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Tilly Devine and Kate Leigh

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The Underbelly Tilly Devine and Kate Leigh

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Razor gangs: now with sex appeal

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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.

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Carl Williams, and the Underbelly Carl

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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.

37 Comments to “How to take the threat out of threatening women: make them fuckable”

  1. Thank you! I HATE the new Underbelly, for precisely this reason. But you articulated the issues far better than I have been able to.

  2. Glad you agree. I must say, I reckon underbelly has gone downhill with every series. But I was openminded about Razor because there was a chance they’d do something interesting with their first female-centered story.

    Ha! As if.

  3. Yes, this is a common tactic. Almost all powerful female characters – fictional or portrayals of historical women- in malestream media are thin, pretty and young. If she is a woman of colour, she will always have a lighter skin tone than the male characters are allowed to have.

    Even female *monsters* in videogames and action movies are more commonly pretty and pornified than actually scary!

    For a real life example, read Stacey Chiff’s Cleopatra: A life. Cleopatra was a powerful female ruler over vast territory, highly resourceful and intelligent, and an excellent speaker. The misogynist romans hated her and minimized her as a slut who used her beauty to get everything – but Cleopatra wasn’t thought of as beautiful, it was with her brain she succeeded. I heard they were going to film this book, with Angelie Jolie. It happens again!

  4. @Gunborg – Exactly. And I think this phenomenon is related to how in dramas and sitcoms, the wife is ALWAYS more conventionally attractive than the husband. Always.

    Cleopatra is an interesting case. For years she has been conceptionalized as the Elizabeth Taylor of her day, charming the pants off all the romans with her slinky moves and perfumed oils. But in more recent years there has been a backlash against this idea. With many people (including scholars, who should know better!) promoting the idea that “she was actually a really ugly woman”. And of course this is just as ridiculous as the roman myth. We can bet that she was neither incredibly beautiful OR hideous. She was just an average-looking woman who won friends and influenced people with her conversational wit and talent for languages (she could speak more languages than any other ruler of the time, in an age when this gave one an immense diplomatic advantage).

    But you know, “average looking woman” doesn’t exist as a category in the patriarchy. There are only beautiful women, and hideous women.

  5. But you know, “average looking woman” doesn’t exist as a category in the patriarchy. There are only beautiful women, and hideous women.

    Yes, absolutely. Women can never actually just look ordinary, human.

    Those of us who just look like *people* (and nothing wrong to look at) are considered the hideous ones.

    Even “beautiful” is almost always a plasticised, surgically altered, plucked and made-up monstrosity anyway.

  6. yes! being “fuckable” remove womens power and the threat of female power, by signalling to everyone that she cares what men think and that she values and performs male-pleasing (often extreme male-pleasing). actually, male-pleasing really only exists in an extreme form doesnt it? extreme and more-extreme. if you arent extremely pleasing to men, you are hideous. is that why there is no middle ground there? why there are no “average” women as you say?

    of course, actually being “fucked” removes womens power too. through trauma-bonding for example. being fuckable and being fucked arent necessarily related as we know (unattractive women have been fucked by men since forever, which makes their obsession with blathering on about womens “beauty” completely transparent). but its interesting isnt it? once a woman is fucked by a man and other men know about it, they all know she has “submitted” to a man and to all men, and very importantly, that she doesnt tend to injure or kill men who stick their dicks into her. they know it can be done, and that it will be done again, because this is how coercive PIV works.

  7. Ugh I’ve been watching that, despite myself. I live near where it’s set and am fascinated by the real story. What gets me about the program, as well as everything you’ve said, is how much it glamourises prostitution. The women in it (oh, and one of the characters who is a glamourous, cheerful, “sex positive” 16 year old…) seem to love being prostitutes – they’re raunchy, dressed in “classy” underwear, looked after ok by Devine, really enjoy their work and cheerfully flirt with clients etc – it all looks like a fun way to make a living! Which surprise surprise is exactly how men like to think of prostitutes – what woman wouldn’t want to be one?!? It’s all a bit yuck.

  8. “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.”

    I love the way you put that. Haven’t seen Underbelly and probably won’t (especially now) but most TV shows pass right over that reality. The one exception I can think of is Mad Men — Peggy is less attractive than any other woman in Don’s world, so he can focus on her work long enough to respect her and take her seriously. Sort of. Sometimes. When he feels like it.

  9. LOL, kuru. It’s depressing cause it’s true.

    The interesting thing about Peggy is that she is supposed to be the “plain one” (and she is compared to Betty and Joan). But by the standards of reality is she is actually really pretty. It reminds me of the show “Ugly Betty”, which is apparently about an ugly girl, played by an actress who is also really pretty.

    Where is the female equivalent of Christopher Walken? Or Robert De Niro (or countless other esteemed male actors?). NOWHERE. Cause the female equivalents would be deemed too unattractive. Instead we have to make do with Nicole Kidman, wearing a fake nose:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Hours_%28film%29

  10. @developing

    I’ve also lived where this is set for many years and have an interest in this story. A friend of mine and I were sharing the book which this underbelly is based on just before the series was announced, and we were really excited to hear they were dramatizing it. What a disappointment. Agree that the glamourisation of prostitution is really heavy-handed in this. Actually I have found each series of underbelly becomes more and more porny. I can barely watch anymore.

  11. @FCM
    yes! being “fuckable” remove womens power and the threat of female power, by signalling to everyone that she cares what men think and that she values and performs male-pleasing (often extreme male-pleasing).

    Yeah, and so much of being “fuckable” actually constitutes making oneself vulnerable – being thin for example, wearing delicate impractical dresses, perfect makeup where one can barely move for fear of ruining it etc etc

  12. God look at Kate Leigh’s eyes. Pure, unadulterated intelligence.

  13. That is disappointing. The real Tilly and Kate look far more interesting, you want to know their story, what made them tick. We pornofy women so much, they just become boring. The same scars and gray hairs that make male character’s interesting, also apply to women. Their appearance and war wounds tell a story about where they’ve been and who they are. When you take that away not only have you made a woman less threatening, you’ve erased her life experiences, her character, everything that made her an individual. All women become predictably the same, which I suppose makes it easier to keep them all in their place and avoid empathizing with them as individuals.

  14. Yes, you are right about plain looks being helpful to women who want lives of their own, rather than to hang like an atrophied arm off the shoulder of some man. I remember school teachers who said that plain and personable were the looks you needed to teach mixed classes, because however good a teacher was, the boys would not leave her alone if she was pretty.

    I ove the photos above, the women have so much character and life in their faces, The one on the left looks a bit like a young Richard Attenborough.

  15. I am always amazed, which I definitely should not be at this point, by how mind-numbingly boring patriarchy manages to make everything. I’m now definitely interested in the stories of these two women, but thanks to this profile I will never waste my time on the series. It’s just absolutely incredible how men never get tired of shit like this. They can watch the exact same thing in circles all their lives and never get bored. Dur dur durrr.

  16. @Miska- great point about Cleopatra- I recently read a biography of one of the Caesars- wow, I can’t even remember his first name now, that’s how fucking boring the parts about him were.. anyway.. what they said about her was that she was considered average looking to ugly for the time, but charming and sexy in the extreme- for her charisma and social skills and probably sexual skills. Also she had to put up with a lot of shit from Marc Anthony, who often “kept” her and his other women in the same compound, giving them lots of personal space. She was not at all considered gorgeous or treated regally.

  17. p.s. Augustus- Augustus Caesar

  18. Great points, all. They couldn’t possibly have told these women’s (the two and the women who worked for them) real stories (or the actual story of any woman, ever) — to do so would reveal what a woman had/has to do to survive in a man’s world and that would cause everyone’s head to explode. There’s a term for corporations pretending to care about the environment — “greenwashing” — we need a term for the intentional erasure by the privileged class of what the patriarchy does to women and how women respond to the patriarchy, all the while pretending to care about women’s actual stories and lives.

  19. “But god forbid a radical feminist should ever be satisfied with anything on TV”
    LOL. Yes. But then again, what would I have to feed my outrage? (Except for everything.) Also, fuckpuppet is going to be making regular appearances in my vocabulary from now on. Thanks.

    I remember when the movie Monster came out, about the serial killer Aileen Wuornos, and there was such a kerfuffle about how Charlize Theron had to make herself “ugly” (read: dykey) for the movie, and OMG how could she STAND it?!? The patriarchy is just afraid of what would happen if women were to de-scale the heights of patriarchal attractiveness.

  20. Great analysis, Miska. I’ve not seen that series, but I agree a more faithful adaptation would have been more interesting. But, hey, forget it in this culture. Womyn are not allowed to be themselves. They must pluck, shave and paint their faces, etc incessantly. Most womyn’s “role models” tend to be those they see on TV and in magazines. Those “role models” are mostly thin and “attractively ‘feminine'” womyn. Not to mention all the airbrushing that goes on in ads and magazines. Womyn try to achieve patriarchal ‘ideals’ of beauty that don’t even exist (e.g. airbrushed photos) or seldom exist (i.e. only one rare body type of womyn gets selected for modelling or acting).

    I am always amazed, which I definitely should not be at this point, by how mind-numbingly boring patriarchy manages to make everything.

    Goddess, I agree. How awfully boring life in patriarchy is. It’s very rare to find a good form of entertainment or show out there…

  21. @Amynomene

    I’m conflicted about monster. Cause on one hand Theron did a great job (i watched the movie and then the documentary about Wuornos, and Theron really nailed her mannerisms etc). BUT, it’s still a case of giving the role to a pretty actress. That’s what happens in the rare cases hollywood wants to make a story about an “ugly” woman, they take nicole kidman and give her fake nose, or charlize theron and uglify her. So it still upholds the same patriarchal bullshit.

  22. @noan

    There’s a term for corporations pretending to care about the environment — “greenwashing” — we need a term for the intentional erasure by the privileged class of what the patriarchy does to women and how women respond to the patriarchy, all the while pretending to care about women’s actual stories and lives.

    Love this idea!

    How about peenwashing?

    LOL

  23. omg peenwashing! LOL and, EW

  24. Thanks for posting about this, Miska, it is definitely a radfem issue. When I first saw the commercials I found them cringeworthy.

    I guess what galls me about the representations of the women, even more so than the pornification, is that a) it’s yet another example of the erasure of women’s history in this country, and b) it’s yet another example of the “bad woman” stereotype that grew up out of the context of colonisation and nation building, when the state was desperately trying to foster “family values” and distance itself from the “Imperial Whoremaster” era (see Anne Summers, 1975), when women were shipped here because the colony needed vaginas and uteri. My guess is that both Leigh and Devine have had a bit of Ma Barker syndrome imposed on them and that neither of them were as evil as the legend goes. Kate Leigh was a Parra Girl:
    http://www.parragirls.org.au/parramatta-girls-home.php meaning she was incarcerated as a child, charged with the offence of being “neglected”. Girls and young women were incarcerated in those institutions up until the 1980s yet most women today have no idea about it and that’s because it’s all been completely hidden from us.

    Tilly Devine was a former child prostitute of the London slums. Personal anecdote: my grandmother, born in 1899, lived in Devonshire St, Surry Hills during that era, and as a kid I sometimes heard her recall Tilly Devine with fondness. I don’t know what to make of that but I never got the impression that my grandmother was afraid of her in the slightest.

    Both Tilly and Kate must have experienced extreme abuses at the hands of men beginning at an early age. Then they married violent criminal men, and, big surprise, got caught up in crime, in much the same way the more socially-acceptable woman becomes involved in running her husband’s household and supporting his career. But they were really good at it so they must be painted as monsters in order to cover up the violence of men. That they were involved in prostitution during a time when it was considered a great social concern, is a clue to their notoriety. This is due to the “hyper-responsibilisation” imposed on women, and the expectation that they be the gatekeepers of social morality. For women themselves to actually be promoting prostitution gave the press a great excuse to ignore men’s role in it.

    Not only does Razor therefore cover up the violence of the state and individual men against girls and women, it justifies the criminalisation of poor women which continues to this day. The majority of women in Australian gaols have similar histories; poor, abused/violated/neglected as children, taken into state care, then formed relationships with violent criminal men. I worry that when people see distorted little snapshots of history on the screen like this, they take it as truth. They can rest easy that women are just as bad as men and when they get caught they deserve it. In a time elections are fought using “tough on crime” rhetoric and when the incarceration rates for women are quite alarming, a tv show like this can be really powerful in bolstering male hegemony.

  25. Peenwashing….perfect! Makes me think of Mary Magdalene, which adds another layer of great on top.

  26. Thanks Linda, for providing context and nuance. I completely agree that Razor erases Australian women’s history, for the reasons you mention. I had not thought about the “Imperial whoredom” aspect and the desire of australian men at the time to distance themselves from this history, hence why Devine and Leigh were so demonized. You know, it’s interesting how this particular aspect of Australian history is NEVER explored anywhere, popularly or otherwise. I’ve even taken several undergrad Aust history courses and never heard it alluded to. The only people who will go near it are feminists.

    For women themselves to actually be promoting prostitution gave the press a great excuse to ignore men’s role in it.

    And this is particularly pertinent, because it still happens now. the media will always choose to write about a “belle du jour” rather than the pimps, johns and traffickers.

    I too think that distorted histories like this influence people, mainly by reinforcing the (inaccurate) assumptions they already have about women and women’s history.

  27. I think that both the author and these commentators have missed the point. Tilly and Nellie were considered attractive in their youth and the former was given the nickname of ‘Pretty Tilly’. Kate Leigh was described as Handsome when she was younger. These women were considered attractive for their era. Casting these beautiful actresses actually makes the story more realistic; as it puts you into the mindset of the people at the time and provides insight into their motivations. If they cast someone who looks more like the real Nellie, the audience may wonder what all the fuss is about and it would make the storyline less credible. These characters need to be relatable to a contemporary audience for the story to understood and appreciated on a dramatic level. Underbelly: Razor is not a Documentary – Its a drama based on real people and events. Its entertainment not pure facts; and the Carl Williams comparison is too contemporary to compare to Razor.

  28. I watched it tonight, Miska, and I guess it wasn’t completely cringeworthy, not anything at all really which is sad when you think how good it could have been. Also insulting for the Forgotten Australians to have just had a national apology two years ago for the gross injustices of the childrens gaols, and then see those injustices reduced to a bit of comedic relief (that flashback scene where Kate meets her old gaoler). And yes, what a way to gloss over the reality of prostitution, the brutality, the syphillus, the dodgy abortions etc. in favour of the happy hooker fantasy.

    Just regarding this:
    “And when we do make TV we prefer to make reality shows about lifeguards who rescue clueless tourists from the Bondi surf.”

    This seems to be a growing tv genre that I think of as the Very Capable and Courageous Men Doing Very Important Work, genre. The thing that I find interesting about Bondi Rescue is that it’s about white men deciding which dark skinned tourists are entitled to use “our” beaches, and it suddenly just happened to appear the year after the Cronulla Riots.

    I’m taking out the link to my site to see if that stops all my posts going to spam.

  29. I didn’t watch tonight. And yes, that’s what it comes down to – besides the stuff which is outright offensive, my overall impression of this show is that it’s a completely WASTED opportunity. In so many ways! It could have been great. Only they needed Kate Grenville or someone to write it. Maybe if we wait long enough someone will eventually give the story the treatment it deserves.

    And oh, jeeze – Bondi Rescue. I’ve seen more episodes of this show than I care to admit (flatmate got into the habit of watching it every night, and I ended up watching it a lot too). A “cronulla riot” vibe pervades this show. From the gratuitous bikini-girl shots to the lifesavers and their southern cross tattoos. Ugh. I think the reason why its so popular is because it reinforces everything white australians (men in particular) want to believe about themselves.

  30. @jen

    The mugshots of Leigh and Devine were taken in 1930 and and 1925. That’s what these women really looked like when this story was playing out. And this wasn’t conventionally attractive for the time. Thiness/youth was the epitome of glamour and fuckability (just as it is now).

    Underbelly: Razor is not a Documentary – Its a drama based on real people and events. Its entertainment not pure facts

    Sure. And whenever dramas are based on real events, the producers will make certain decisions about what parts of the real story they will embellish or change, and what parts they will include. This article points out that producers always make the SAME decision when it comes to historical women (ie. turn them into barbie dolls), and questions the whys and hows of this phenomenon. It’s an analysis, geddit?

    If they cast someone who looks more like the real Nellie, the audience may wonder what all the fuss is about and it would make the storyline less credible

    LOL. One doesn’t make a character credible by pandering to the preconceived notions of 13 year old boys. One makes a character credible by hiring good writers.

    Good writing will make anything credible. And it will always make a story more compelling than resorting to cliche and lowest-common-denominator assumptions.

  31. The other issue which made me watch maybe … umm… the first 5 minutes of the show before switching off … is that the first women-only cafe in Australia was named after Tilly Devine:

    “Tilley’s Devine café Gallery is a well-known café (later expanded 5 times to pub/restaurant/live music venue) in the suburb of Lyneham in Canberra, Australia. It was named after Matilda ‘Tilly’ Devine, a gangster and madame from Sydney who lived in the mid-twentieth century.

    When the café first opened in 1984, it was intended as a women’s space, with men allowed entry only when accompanied by women. Popular with lesbian women, it quickly became an icon of Canberra’s Lesbian scene. Attempts to restrict or limit entry of men inevitably brought challenges, legal and illegal, violent and non-violent – most notably by a group of cadets from the Royal Military College, Duntroon who attempted to force their way in, instigating a brawl. Eventually the policy was dropped.”

  32. omg. same shit, different day. men are so predictable arent they?

  33. “If they cast someone who looks more like the real Nellie, the audience may wonder what all the fuss is about and it would make the storyline less credible.”

    Exactly, Jen. Why should women be acknowledged for anything other than inspiring men’s erections?

  34. In case any of us had a moment of relief from soaking in the patriarchy, here’s Jen to bring us right back to reality:
    conventionally “beautiful” women = credibility (and fuss, too!)
    all other women = not worth the bother

    Oh, and “audience” (like “people”) = men and the women who identify with how men see the world

    But by far your biggest tell as a funfem, Jen, is when you say:
    “beautiful actresses…puts you into the mindset of the people at the time and provides insight into their motivations”

    Yes, because prostitution makes so much more sense to “people” when it’s the “beautiful” women engaged in it, that we can easily imagine why these “beautiful” women would enslave other women, kill, steal, and otherwise engage in mayhem. It makes perfect sense!!

    Thanks for the reminder, Jen, you’re a peach.

  35. LOL, noan. Yep, pretty much sums up jen’s comment.

    And rainsinger – thanks for the info about the cafe. I’d never heard of it before. And it so predictable that men tried to force themselves in, as fcm says. Men started a BRAWL over this? That just demonstrates WHY women want space away from men in the first place, ffs.

  36. we just discussed humiliation on the chef boyaree post…theres absolutely something to it. i hadnt really noticed before, its just so normalized isnt it? and life is humiliiaitng, when you are female, as katieS says. its just so true.

    https://radicalhubarchives.wordpress.com/2011/09/15/radfem-ological-images-chef-boyardee/

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