20 September 2010

Weak Women in Powerful Professions: a review of Spirited and Offspring

I love a good Australian drama.  A few years ago I adored Love My Way.  The two main female leads of Love My Way were played by Claudia Karvan and Asher Keddie.  Now they are each appearing in television shows that have recently debuted on Australian screens.  Karvan stars in Spirited (W on Foxtel, Wednesdays at 7.30pm) and Keddie in Offspring (Channel 10, Sundays at 8.30pm) . 

In Spirited Karvan plays Suzy Darling, a dentist who secretly plots and executes leaving her husband by purchasing the penthouse apartment near her dental practice.  The character is portrayed as a strong woman merely on the basis of her profession and decision to leave her husband.  Otherwise she appears socially awkward, vague and a tad insane.  She seems completely oblivious to her patients’ feelings and when everyone goes home she talks to a picture of her deceased father sitting in the dental chair.  This is exacerbated by her developing relationship with a ghost, whom only she can see.  This ghost becomes the focus of her life who she converses with constantly and the professional dentist becomes increasingly distracted and unprofessional. 

The support cast of Spirited are just that, support.  The husband is an egotistical shallow bastard (hammed up by Rodger Corser of Rush fame), the sister is a bimbo counsellor wanting to be his new love (Belinda Bromilow) and the dental assistant’s sole role is to stop Suzy from making a complete fool of herself every minute of the day. Suzy’s lack of sensitivity for her patients and the mistakes she makes upon the ghost entering her life makes one wonder how she ever had enough patients to afford the new apartment.  The twist to this soap drama, and perhaps its saviour, is the quest for finding the ghost’s past and thus the reason for his ghostly existence.  Upon meeting Suzy the ghost has no memory and does not even realise he is dead.  It turns out he is Henry Mallet (Matt King), a punk rock star from the band The Nerve who mysteriously disappeared in 1982 at the age of 35.  Matt King balances the comic with the serious and the arrogance with the tenderness quite nicely.

Offspring similarly has a professional woman, Nina Proudman (Asher Keddie), at the centre of its drama.  Nina is an obstetrician, recently divorced from a guy with a penchant for blowing things up, which was mildly amusing for a while, but now she is completely obsessed with the new paediatrician at work, Chris Havel (Don Hany).  Like Suzy, she is easily rattled and often socially inept.  The support cast have a little more to work with in Offspring than they do in Spirited and are performed by more experienced actors.  Again, it is very much a soap opera with all its dramas.  Nina’s friend, Cherie (Deborah Mailman) had a fling on a boat cruise not knowing her lover was Nina’s father, Darcy (John Waters), and conceived a child from the encounter.  Cherie and Darcy now live together as co-parents of their child, but not as romantic partners.  Darcy still pines after his ex-wife, Geraldine (Linda Cropper).  Nina has a love-hate relationship with her sister, Billie (Kat Stewart), who is the antithesis of the supposed smart and intelligent Nina.  Billie is a hopeless real estate agent (for her Dad’s agency) because she lets her on-again-off-again relationship stand in the way of success. 

One seductive part of Offspring is its modern approach to editing.  As Nina imagines and analyses possible outcomes of various scenarios, or mentally replays her particular perspective of a past event, the viewer also sees them played out in all their cringe worthy imagery.  For instance, in this week’s episode Nina is still recovering from seeing the paediatrician heart-throb, Chris, in a minor state of undress with the midwife in a storeroom.  When Nina spies each of them for the first time after this incident her mind plays a very sexual version of the paediatrician and midwife together, a gross exaggeration of reality.

Both of these shows are pretending to break stereotypes by having their leading women in professions traditionally dominated by men yet making all other aspects of their lives unsuccessful and pathetic.  For instance, in Spirited Suzy forgets to collect her daughter from school and loses a tooth performing cartwheels in her new apartment.  Her husband then ridicules her in front of their friends for being a dentist with a missing tooth. 

Nina’s voiceover in Offspring keeps lamenting about her personal inadequacies and doubts regarding her ability to establish and maintain a love life, often imagining her dire thoughts played out.  She is treated as a doormat by her family who call upon her to fix their problems and run after them.  Occasionally I may share Nina’s  perspective on life but I don’t find it funny and I don’t like women being portrayed as constantly feeling inadequate.  I’d rather watch a character who I’d aspire to be like, not one I’d rather not be.  It’s like watching Bridget Jones’s Diary repeatedly.  It’s time to move on from such caricatures as Bridget Jones and Ally McBeal.

Joss Whedon recently visited Australia and spoke at Melbourne Town Hall for the Melbourne Writers Festival and at the Sydney Opera House a couple of days later.  He is a scriptwriter and director most famous for Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel and Dollhouse.  When Whedon was honoured by Equality Now, a women’s rights advocacy group, he provided possible answers for interviewers who are constantly asking why he writes strong women roles.  One response included “Why aren’t you asking a hundred other guys why they don’t write strong women characters?” and he concluded his short talk with “Because you’re still asking me that question”. 

Suzy and Nina are not strong role models for women.  It is appropriate for characters to be multi-dimensional with flaws and all, but Suzy and Nina are given a ridiculous range of insipid characteristics. Women may be prone to the self doubt that these characters portray but there is no need to take it to this extreme for the sake of a few mediocre laughs.  It is rather disappointing to see such talented female Australian actors performing in these shows.  I live in hope of some massive character development that will redeem their current shallow lives and focus on achievements instead of inadequacies.

Information about Spirited

The Internet Movie Database (2010) “Spirited” retrieved 5 September 2010

Foxtel Management Pty Limited (2010) Spirited retrieved 5 September 2010 <http://www.wchannel.com.au/spirited/>

Information about Offspring

The Internet Movie Database (2010) “Offspring” retrieved 5 September 2010

Network 10 (2010) Offspring retrieved 5 September 2010 <http://ten.com.au/offspring.htm>

Joss Whedon’s speech

Equality Now (2006, May 15) On the Road to Equality: Honoring Men on the Frontlines[video] retrieved 5 September 2010 <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cYaczoJMRhs>

American Rhetoric (2006, May 15) Joss Whedon: Equality Now Tribute Address [video and transcript] retrieved 5 September 2010 <http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/josswhedonequalitynow.htm>

A Party in Time: a review of the Fitzroy Inn in Mittagong

I am 40 years old.  I am 40 years old.  No matter how many times I say it, or write it, I don’t actually feel 40 years old.  To help me adjust to this new number, this new decade in my life, I decided I needed to party in style.  So I did.

We first stayed at the Fitzroy Inn earlier this year for a weekend away and fell in love with the history of the property.  The original building commenced as an inn in 1836 and currently offers six suites to the public for $240 per night.  The other main building was Oaklands School  from 1871 to 1888 and is now referred to as the School Master’s Cottage.  It offers four suites, slightly larger than those in the main house and thus at the slightly higher price of $260 per night. 

The owners and managers, Paul Lovell and Maria Aloi, are very welcoming hosts.  They originally bought Fitzroy Inn with their spouses who have since passed away.  Plaques can be found in the gardens to commemorate their lives.  A freshly cooked meal with your choice of eggs, bacon, sausages, tomatoes and mushrooms is included in the price of accommodation.  The mushrooms were the real hit with my husband who is naturally a fan but was particularly enamoured with the buttery alcoholic touch. Stewed fruit is also on offer with an array of cereals, this batch of fruit had the flavour of star anise and cinnamon and a splash of alcohol. 

After breakfast we were treated with a tour of the cellar.  But this is not merely a cellar.  This was the original kitchen built from sandstone with a well in the floor, carved out of the shale by hand during the convict era.  Even more enthralling were the old cells that once held criminals on their way to Berrima Gaol.  A few years ago the Fitzroy Inn also operated a restaurant and these cells were filled with racks of wine.  The racks are still there but they are mostly empty.  Maria talked of the wedding receptions they had hosted which started in the cells beautifully lit by candle light.  I had to have my party in this place.

* * * * *

The party started in the cellar with sparkling wine, simple canap├ęs and candles lighting the room, just as Maria described, and as can be seen in the brochures and on the website.  Guests wandered through the rooms exploring the history it contains.  We then moved to the function room which is a large elevated platform of floorboards surrounded by more sandstone and with thick solid wooden columns through it.  One wall consists of cedar-framed glass bifolds looking out to the School Master’s Cottage and tennis court. The fireplace was lit and candles surrounded the long table inviting my guests to a feast. 

The dinner started with delicious warm and creamy pumpkin and kumera soup.  Then, like a wedding, alternate meals were served. Some received lamb backstrap with a spicy plum sauce and mashed potato and green vegetables, others received stuffed turkey.  Arguments broke out over the lamb but I was very happy with my turkey.  The filling held together well, flavoured with crunchy pistachios and served with cranberry sauce and vegetables.  All plates were practically licked clean.  The desserts alternated between a pear poached in rich red wine with home-made vanilla ice cream and a delicate cherry strudel served with custard and ice cream.  My husband and I went halves in each and I was unable to select a winner, both just melted in my mouth.

We barely noticed the waiting staff as they delivered meals and collected empty plates.  There were no extensive delays between courses, making the night flow smoothly.  Before I knew it there were only four people left and it was past midnight.  Soon everyone was fast asleep in their luscious beds of lovely white linen in simply but elegantly decorated cream and white bedrooms.

The suites are mostly generous in size although some of the bathrooms are small and quaint.  The rooms on the top floor have sloping ceilings on the edges which adds to the historical feel of the place but tall people who forget to duck may receive a painful reminder.  Each room in the School Master’s Cottage has a sofa bed, TV, DVD player, bar fridge and tea and coffee making facilities.  The rooms in the main house don’t have these facilities but instead have a shared formal lounge with a large screen TV, fireplaces, comfy couches and loads of games.  Numerous games of Scrabble and chess were played during our stay.  The tennis courts were also in constant use by our group on this gloriously sunny weekend.

Maria and Paul also live in the main house so the lounge is also theirs.  Tea is freshly made by Maria or Paul, with real leaves, and delivered on trays with a generous serve of biscuits.  The only tea bags I spotted were in the School Master suites.  Maria owns two small fluffy white dogs who seem to be constantly present, particularly when there is food around.  There is a towel over one of the couches which they call home.  My children adored Max and Mimi.  Others may not.

Generally it was a pleasure dealing with Paul and Maria.  They are not great at returning phone calls and may miss some patronage as a result.  Maria’s friendly chatter reveals a genuine person who obviously loves hosting guests.  Paul is a little more reserved and although he was delightful as we organised this event he dampened our enthusiasm slightly at the end with a few snide complaints to some about how late the party went and as we paid the bill he called it “a fiscal pleasure”. 

Overall, I highly recommend the Fitzroy Inn for its historical charm and as a great venue for a function.  It acts as an ideal gateway to the delights of the Southern Highlands and I am now much more comfortable with saying I am 40 years old.

Fitzroy Inn
1 Ferguson Crescent
Mittagong  NSW  2575.
Phone (02) 4872 3457