Editor’s note: This piece contains mild spoilers for the current season of SeaChange.
A few years ago, my sister and I revisited SeaChange (1998–2000) when it became available on a streaming service. I only had vague memories from when it originally aired; I remembered the song at the start, Sigrid Thornton’s skirt-suits and being surprised by the way the show made my Grandma laugh. More than anything, I simply remembered the feeling of the series. During the time we were watching the show, my sister was working a tough grad position and I was slogging through the final semester of my degree. We were both tired and tense. Under a blanket on the couch we consumed all three seasons in quick succession, like comfort food. Raymond Williams, one of the first cultural studies academics to concentrate on television, introduced the word ‘flow’ to describe television broadcasting. He argued the medium is characterised by ‘pre-emergence’: information which he describes as being ‘not yet fully articulated’. In the process of becoming or emerging, pre-emergence is felt rather than consciously cognitively processed.
There is something undeniably soothing about the flow of SeaChange. In the wake of the series’ success, producer Sue Masters commented that the writers ‘hit on the zeitgeist…there was a yearning to return to a better quality of life’. But was this a yearning to return to a better quality of life, or to forge a new kind of life altogether?
In a 1979 essay, Tania Modleski argues that the serial format of soap opera tantalises female viewers with the possible resolution of all women’s issues, but never satisfies this desire because the complications that plague protagonists of soaps are ceaseless: as one drama is resolved, another commences. Thus, soap operas invest in the ‘exquisite pleasure in the central condition of a woman’s life: waiting’.
The study of soap opera in the 1980s was considered radical and subversive because it took women’s pleasures seriously, and proposed that television offered spaces of intersection into traditional discourses of gender. While SeaChange isn’t strictly soap opera, it certainly borrows from the genre. And while Laura Gibson (Thornton) is not the first female television character to have been granted professional success, her soap opera equivalents were usually penalised in their private life for their public achievements.
Laura has autonomy as a mother, a sexual person and a professional, and is thus afforded an identity far more complex than that of her televisual predecessors.
Feminist television academic Laura Mumford observes that in soap operas, ‘women who in the real world would be seen as highly successful (such as prominent doctors and lawyers) expend all their emotional energy sorting out their marriages, and seem to get little satisfaction and no public acclaim for their hard-won careers.’ As SeaChange’s first season begins, Laura’s private life has been suffering as a result of her professional success. Her teenage children feel her absence when she works late. Her husband Jack is simultaneously embroiled in a corruption scandal and conducting an affair with her sister. When Laura confronts him about his wrongdoings he blames her lack of attention, arguing her professional ambition has resulted in their destruction. However, this narrative is swiftly subverted – she leaves Jack, quits her job and takes the kids to live in their former coastal holiday rental. The series’ founding premise is a result of Laura exercising her privilege and agency.
SeaChange writer Deb Cox explained that she was motivated by a desire to see new types of women on television, women who were allowed to both succeed and fail:
[at the time] it felt like women had been cheated: it was too hard to have it all. Everyone knew about men and their mid-life crises and I thought, if women can be high achievers, why can’t they have mid-life crises too? I was bored of perfect, heroic women.
Laura has autonomy as a mother, a sexual person and a professional, and is thus afforded an identity far more complex than that of her televisual predecessors, many of whom were confined to the sphere of domesticity or punished for crossing its boundary.
Part of what is so satisfying about the original series, and one of the aspects I am most concerned may not successfully carry over in 2019, is the way it examines change. In one of the few academic essays written about the series, Rebecca Pannell argues that ‘utopia, an Australian ideal, is necessarily the dystopia of Pearl Bay’: the Gibson family migrate to a fictional town which has a fairytale quality. Amongst beautiful scenery we see people suffering under Mayor Bob Jelly (John Howard)‘s patriarchal system of governance. Jelly accepts bribes from property developers, has parking signs altered and moved overnight in order to issue revenue-raising fines, and uses the system of governance to bully townspeople who oppose him. Despite these circumstances of inequality, the coastal setting of SeaChange positions the littoral – the space between sea and land – as a liminal vista of possibility, moving and changing with the tide. Pearl Bay is in a constant state of change – both physically, as a result of the frequent freak weather events, and socially, as the effects of modernisation gradually seep down from the city.
Laura is both a newcomer to Pearl Bay and a new female protagonist on Australian screens. Her character is threefold: she is a single mother, a lover and a successful professional. The narrative pays keen attention to each of these aspects of her lived experience.
I call this figure the ‘Career Woman’ – a product of what cultural theorist Angela McRobbie describes as the post-feminist media’s preoccupation with themes of female success and individualisation.
Pearl Bay is in a constant state of change – both physically, as a result of the frequent freak weather events, and socially, as the effects of modernisation gradually seep down from the city.
SeaChange may offer the epitome of soap operas’ utopian woman-centred fantasy because, rather than diminishing over time, the fantasy gradually increases in potency. Heather Jelly (Kerry Armstrong) is positioned in stark contrast to Laura – an archetypal housewife, a caricature of former representations of women in television drama. She runs the household, hosts a book club devoted to reading cheap romance novels and teeters by the pool in a gaudy dress to serve Bob and his colleagues pikelets and homemade jam. Heather’s character is gifted complexity when it is revealed that local publican Meredith (Jill Forster), Bob’s nemesis, is her long-lost mother, forced to give her baby up for adoption in the 1950s.
This plotline is a neat inversion of the paternity plot, a standard soap opera plotline wherein a female character might keep the identity of her unborn baby’s father a secret. Even though soap opera takes the lived experience of female characters seriously, a widespread fascination with paternity inevitably results in an assertion of patriarchal dominance – the father is revealed and he assumes his role as head of the family. Conversely, Meredith’s revelation compromises Heather’s allegiance to her husband, and she grows more outspoken, gaining confidence to address issues of gender inequality within her household. At one point, she stops doing the housework to draw attention to the value of her unpaid labour within the home.
This is not to say that equality is accomplished within SeaChange. Typical of Australian television at the time, there is a distinct lack of diversity within the original cast. But in its own way, the unfolding drama challenges the behaviour of the community, not just individuals. When Laura assumes the role of Magistrate in Pearl Bay, she disrupts the patriarchal hegemony of the town. Her predecessor, Harold, is a white, ageing alcoholic who is no longer fit to serve. After a humorous adjustment period, Laura presides as magistrate with intellect and careful judgement. Her work is taken seriously, the courthouse not simply a backdrop before which her personal life is exhibited. The narrative of each episode is constructed around a new case before the court, and the ripple effect the crime or incident has had within the community. The townspeople come to value and respect Laura’s judgement, and consequently the town’s culture begins to change.
In 2019, post #MeToo, the Career Woman format is commonplace, and narratives about female success continue to proliferate. Where previously audiences were impressed by a female character given an opportunity to exit the domestic sphere, now that privilege is a basic expectation. The Australian film and television industry is under increasing pressure to employ more female creatives and provide opportunities for women and gender diverse people to have their experiences represented on-screen. Recent Australian women-centred dramas Wentworth (2013–), Love Child (2014–2017), Offspring (2010–2017)and Janet King (2014–2017)place the Career Woman in a variety of personal and professional contexts. However, these narratives do not necessarily disseminate the same ideology. In Offspring, for example, despite frequent use of the hospital as a setting, the narrative treatment of Nina Proudman (Asher Keddie) focuses almost exclusively on romantic and family drama. The audience are rarely permitted to see her performing obstetrics because Nina’s anxiety about the wellbeing of her family and romantic partner is paramount. The resulting domestication of the typically masculine medical environment comes to serve as a reminder that for professional women, the distraction of family and romantic life will always pollute the workplace and minimise their contribution. Nina is rewarded for making sacrifices for her loved ones. Thus, the transgressive potential of Nina Proudman’s character – the Career Woman – is brought under control.
Where previously audiences were impressed by a female character given an opportunity to exit the domestic sphere, now that privilege is a basic expectation.
Female characters are scrutinised by the audience according to their ability to make the ‘right choice’. The freedoms associated with the women’s liberation movement become a new mode of social constraint. Angela McRobbie argues that the assimilation of feminist ideals into popular culture alongside neoliberal politics ‘undoes’ feminism; cultural texts representing this political moment are referred to as ‘post-feminist’. Within these texts the feminist movement is represented as having run its course and having purportedly liberated women, there is an emphasis on individual responsibility. Individuals, not communities or social structures, must take responsibility for the conditions of their existence. Perversely, narratives about professionally successful women that focus on independence and freedom of choice have the potential to pose a far more insidious threat to negotiations of gender and power within Australian society. If television is concerned with the common lived experience, and if popular feminist ideas are re-configured within television drama to conform with patriarchal order, this re-configuration becomes the ‘ordinary experience’.
As the Australian screen industry endeavours to improve the diversity of experiences and identities represented on our screens, and as we examine a new iteration of an old favourite with the release of SeaChange, we must remain insistently critical of the characters and narratives most familiar to us. In the first episode of the new season it becomes clear many of the narrative tropes from the original are being re-used with mixed success. A narrative interest in maternity rather than paternity is established when Laura’s now adult daughter Miranda (Brooke Satchwell) gives birth to a baby whose father is unknown, and her best friend Anna (Katrina Milosevic) takes over as mother. Meanwhile, the current Magistrate, Clara Russo (Ling Cooper Tang), is reminiscent of a younger Laura – intelligent, well-dressed and recently separated. But things swiftly turn sour. Clara’s ex-husband Ben (Dan Wylie) vandalises her boyfriend’s car in order to be brought before her court. The Magistrate’s personal life compromises the professional sanctity of the space, and the comical treatment of Ben’s actions trivialise what is essentially an act of domestic violence. Shaken and infuriated Clara attempts to proceed with the ruling. From across the room Laura advises Clara to excuse herself from the case. Instead, exhausted by the collision of her professional and personal stresses, Clara announces her resignation. When Laura is reinstated as Magistrate, her success comes as a result of another woman’s failure to perform ‘the juggling act’.
Serial melodrama tantalises women with the fantasy of a solution to the problem of how best to live, only to quash that hope with the next episode. Perhaps part of the fantasy of SeaChange, and the beauty of where it was left 20 years ago, is that after three seasons we were deprived of the exquisite, agonising pleasure of continuing to watch a cast of characters we care about fumble in search of the good life. We imagined them where we left them, protected in the liminal space of Pearl Bay, relieved from the anxiety of the present, and unable to let us down.
SeaChange Season 4 currently airs on the Nine Network.