Not Just for the Boys: The Female Journey in WALKABOUT
Generally, a walkabout is a journey, both physical and spiritual, in which adolescent Aboriginal Australian boys venture alone into the wild, untouched Australian outback. During this journey, each boy is tested by the elements and must fend for himself, doing whatever is necessary to survive, but always remaining true to his culture. Along the way, the boy evolves into a man. However, Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout, in part, explores a suburban girl’s walkabout into womanhood. Although there is also an Aborigine male on walkabout (David Gulpilil), the film primarily investigates the unconventional walkabout of the girl, played by Jenny Agutter.
A walkabout takes a young person out of society to grow as an individual. After a period of time, the individual will rejoin society wiser, with a greater cultural understanding, and better equipped to contribute to the community. The girl in Walkabout has this exact experience. After the unexpected suicide of her father, while in the outback, the girl and her considerably younger brother (Luc Roeg) are forced to survive in the Australian terrain. Displaced from the upper-middle-class Sydney society, the girl’s walkabout tests her ability to remain true to her culture, survive, and find her place in her community.
Initially, it is easy to look frustratingly at the girl. When forced to accept help from the Aborigine boy, she is indignant to change, stubborn, close-minded, and cold. Yet, by walkabout standards, that is exactly how she should behave. Her cultural foundation was laid by society in her childhood. Although that society is momentarily removed, that girl must adhere to the culture it provided her. Her unwillingness to communicate with the Aborigine boy reinforces her tie to her own culture, the one she aims to return to. His presence tests her, just as her presence tests him, and their lack of communication allows both to remain true to their foundations.
Her walkabout into womanhood primarily tests her domesticity. Through her journey, the girl develops resourcefulness to stereotypical womanly duties, such as washing clothes, dressing, and cleaning. Additionally, the film links womanhood with motherhood, and the girl’s walkabout develops her maternal instincts, which is why the young brother is present in the film. This is not the walkabout of the brother; he is too young and unable to care for himself. On this journey, the girl, as mother, must survive so she can care for the young child that is depending on her.
Moreover, the journey also supports the girl’s understanding of herself, physically, as a woman. The scene in which the girl goes swimming naked is an important part of her walkabout. During most the film, the girl keeps her body covered. Often she is wearing her school uniform, and even keeps some clothing on when bathing. This swimming scene contrasts that and exposes a moment where the girl embraces her body, which is no longer the body of a girl, but now the body of a woman. After this scene, she does return to wearing the uniform, but she more freely exposes herself, such as when the Aborigine boy, doing his farewell dance, catches her topless. Her new-found comfort with her body, in part, supports her journey into womanhood.
Ultimately, the girl’s walkabout is successful, evident by two scenes serving as bookends in the film. Toward the beginning, there is a brief scene in which the girl’s mother prepares food in the kitchen; the mother stands in front of the kitchen window moving around delicately and orderly listening to a portable radio. The radio is significant to the film because the girl ends up carrying it with her during her walkabout. The radio is her connection back to society she is displaced from. Eventually, the girl leaves the radio behind, mistakenly thinking it is broken. This step away from the radio is a step toward the completion of her walkabout. The girl grew away from her dependency on society; in leaving the radio, the girl is able to stand alone, and, on her own, she finishes her journey.
During one of the final scenes of the film, after a significant period of time has elapsed and the girl has returned to Sydney from her walkabout, she stands in front of the window of her own kitchen—which happens to be in the same building her mother lived in—delicately slicing food. Visually, the girl has now stepped into her mother’s domestic role. Her experience on walkabout successfully prepared her for her intended role as woman in society.