NOW that footy is finished and the cricket season yet to hit its stride there is an unsettling emptiness to Saturday mornings. Yes, horse racing is filling front and back pages, but that won’t suffice, its principal appeal being neither the Caulfield nor Melbourne cups but Oaks Day, when thousands of gussied-up gals descend on Flemington and get themselves thoroughly pissed. By the fourth race or so, it will have dawned on most that other women’s praise for their outfits has no more substance nor sincerity than an air kiss, so it will be to the available men they turn for appreciative words about silly hats, picturesque necklines and shoes with heels designed not to be planted in the Birdcage turf so much as pointed at a beau's bedroom ceiling. For the XY set it is a locked-in-the-lolly-shop opportunity. Any fellow who owns a comb and can clean his fingernails yet goes home unaccompanied will be either gay or a writer on social issues for the Fairfax press, those two categories being increasingly hard to tell apart. That feminine touch, it is a wonderful thing when the last race has been run and intoxicated nuzzling is leaving damp spots on the back seats of so many cabs. In a newspaper, and in many other fields of human endeavour, that rising gush of girly wetness has been a disaster.
What inspires this observation is not a wish to see women hip-and-shouldered from their career paths. As the then-unreconstructed Malcolm Fraser once told the House, a salting of women will brighten any fusty, formerly male domain, which the Silly and Phage must have been in the distant past. But at some point the balance tipped and the consequences of that institutionalised feminisation are eye-glazingly apparent. Take Good Weekend, for example. Once upon a time the magazine boasted some very good writing, features like Andrew Rule’s wonderful profile of a Korean War sniper, for example. These days, as the current edition demonstrates, it is page after page of air kisses.
Yesterday’s cover was devoted to an adoring, uncritical profile of Bob Brown. True, it was written by a man, but the gender slip shows time and again. There are no hard questions about the consequences of Brown’s blackmail of our PM, about the cost of his feel-goodism or the impracticality of those nostrums’ implementation. A male sensibility would have raised those issues; instead, the profile proceeds from the point of view that Brown is an inherently decent bloke whose minor flaws must be overlooked or forgiven. Sound familiar? Many wives of drunks, bashers, philanderers, wastrels and poor providers make the same excuses for their men, whom love protects beyond reason from scrutiny or recrimination.
On another page, author and blogger Mark Dapin ruminates on his coming 49 candles. There is no mention of hot flashes, but apart from that, no indication either of anything but an eagerness to speak of stereotypically feminine concerns – relationships, his mum, and how grimly fascinating he finds the business of growing older. He even touches on visits to the doctor, a favourite topic with associate members at the Professor’s golf club. One guesses his medico was sorely tempted to pop Dapin into the strirrups.
Flip the page and there is a pair of first-person profiles of two women who have been friends all their lives. Then comes the Bob Brown’s pleasuring, followed by another Dapin article, this one nominally about his visit with a snake catcher, but equally about the disquiet snakes inspire in the author’s querulous heart. After that, four pages about a leading milliner and his creations, then a good 1,500 words about another male author’s emotions about his dog and how their relationship came to an end.
The feminine mind puts immense stock in such narratives, and anyone who witnesses the action at Oaks Day will understand why. Women are so often courted by suitors feigning interest in the most vapid chatter about mums, other women and the latest fashions’ frivolities, many take such concern as sincere. When offered the same content on the printed page, where there is no chance of conjugating anything but a verb, many male readers will turn to Wheels or Wooden Boat for their pleasure.
Fairfax has lost sight of many things in the decades of its decline, and the commercial opportunities to be garnered from 50% of the reading population is certainly one of them, and not just in Good Weekend. One guesses that Mike “Butch” Carlton continues to be published not for thought or insight but solely on the strength of his mean-girl bitchiness. On matters environmental, coverage is warm and fuzzier than a brushed nylon housecoat, emotion and empathy inevitably trumping the traditional – OK, stereotypical -- male emphasis on the analytical and clinical.
No doubt the hope at Fairfax is that the coming media inquiry will do it some good, chiefly by chilling the Murdoch dragon which has singed it on so many fronts. Faith in the handsome rescuer is, of course, a favourite female fantasy, but the company would be ill advised to remain passive and patient, doing no more than fluffing the pillows and primping the pink-themed decor in the tower of its cultural captivity. As the Oaks Day ladies can attest, a vigorous injection of testosterone often will be the best possible medicine for restoring a healthful flush to the cheeks.