All Fenced In: Feminism through Visual Metaphors in MY BRILLIANT CAREER
28 August 2011
Gillian Armstrong’s My Brilliant Career (1979), in part, is an aesthetic homage to the land of Australia (literally). From start to finish, the striking terrain becomes as much a character in the film as Judy Davis’ Sybylla Melvyn or Sam Neill’s Harry Beecham. In fact, with extreme long shots, stunning pans, and all-encompassing tracking shots that sweep the scenery, the question becomes whether this gorgeous landscape is more than just an obvious visual spectacle? Or, more directly, how is Armstrong’s deliberate, attention-grabbing inclusion of the land contributing to the story being told?
That story, briefly, is about a teenage girl, Sybylla, who resists conventionality; she’s a dreamer who instinctually evades the noose of conformity. Her resistance, of course, is defies social customs and expected standards; therefore, those around Sybylla, namely her grandmother, spend a large part of the film, ill-fatedly, trying to break Sybylla’s nature. These people hope to shape her into a “lady,” by 1901 upper-class Australian standards. This plot, in no small way, makes an overt feminist statement. And, one of the ways Armstrong is able to expand and sustain the film’s feminist stance is by utilizing the land. By giving into the beautiful distraction that is Australian scenery, Armstrong uses it as a metaphor in the film: the land is Sybylla.
Aside from its beauty, the land is also wild, powerful, and unpredictable. With the aim of a metaphor being to give a greater understanding of one thing through use of another, there is perhaps no better metaphor for Sybylla than the Australian terrain. The audience sees these qualities of wildness, power, and unpredictability in Sybylla based on her appearance and actions. (Sybylla literally runs wild (body and mind), her hair as untamed as the densest forest. Also, her power reveals itself when standing her ground in choosing, twice, to become a writer rather than marry Harry, which also attests to her unpredictability.) However, when metaphorically connected with the land, Sybylla’s might is subliminally reinforced and strengthened. As the land endures storms, drought, scalding heat, and severe hardship, the audience develops a greater, more nuanced understanding of Sybylla.
Sybylla’s free-thinking, unaffected nature presents a threat to society, just as the land’s might presents a threat to mankind. Sybylla’s family, desperately, tries to refine and restrict her, similar to the way mankind, inexhaustibly, tries to refine and restrict land. Building on this connection between Sybylla and the land is yet another of the film’s metaphors, which appears in numerous scenes: fences and gates. The fences and gates are manmade boundaries representing constraint and limitations imposed on the land. As the land represents Sybylla, the fences and gates represent society and the limitations it placed on her, and women of her time in general.
Armstrong pays nearly as much consistent attention to the fences and gates as she does the land, and one of the clearest examples is in a scene roughly half-an-hour into the film. A tracking shot moves with Sybylla as she walks outside along a fenced-in path. Included in the frame is the immense Australian land to her right and an animal pen enclosing a heard of sheep to her left. Stopping, Sybylla sits on the fence—always attempting to take a position of power over her boundaries. As she gaze out in awe at the immense land in front of her, Frank Hawdon (Robert Grubb), a suitor of Sybylla’s, enters the scene and, copying Sybylla’s lead, sits atop the fence to discuss his desire to marry her. Since Frank is, well, not Sybylla’s type, the conversation does not go as he hoped. Frank, frustrated, grabs Sybylla and she, in return, she pushes him over the fence and into the sheep’s pen. As Frank clamors to escape the pen, the camera, using a long shot, captures Sybylla hopping off the fence and departing the scene. A cut is made to an extreme long shot as the majestic land, once again, stands valiantly behind Sybylla and overwhelming the shot. The enormity of the land reflects its power and, by association, the power of Sybylla when she refuses Frank Hawdon.
The land is an incredibly loaded metaphor at play in My Brilliant Career; this argument only scratches the surface. Unpacking in further could mean looking at each instance of fences and gates in the film, of which there are countless, because each time a fence or gate appears the film seems to be saying something about Sybylla’s freedom, or, more broadly, women’s freedom. Moreover, to go rogue, looking closer at Harry and the land—a male character who, unlike Sybylla, is uncomfortable with the land and therefore removes himself from it— to unpack the equally difficult and complicated position of men at the time, specifically men who are not, at least initially, able to fulfill their role in society (financially or sexually). Additionally, because this film’s release comes only four years after Laura Mulvey’s groundbreaking article in feminist film theory, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” this argument could be expanded upon to look at the land as diverted female spectacle, opening up investigation into the storm, drought, hardship, and overall devastation the land weathers.
All that said, the land is still only one metaphor at work in My Brilliant Career, but it is one of the strongest and most striking. The overall statement the film makes in support of women’s liberation may be rather obvious, yet the way Armstrong brilliantly (pun intended) enriches the statement cinematically is much more complex and remarkable.