Growing Up With the Female Underdog Heroes of Australian Cinema

“You get into punch-ups with girls, you wipe your nose with your sleeve. You’re my kind of chick.”

Who could forget Josephine Alibrandi? The unapologetically fiery heroine in Looking for Alibrandi. The above quote, delivered by public school bad-boy Jacob Coote, has stuck with me ever since I first watched the film and read the book.

Reflecting on these characters specifically and those in other Australian movies and TV shows made in the late 1990s and early 2000s, I noticed that there were similarities in the personality traits and lives of the female leads. Featured with their quirky, struggling and slightly embarrassing families, these female characters were raw, crass and tough. They were always trying to push the boundaries in their lives, unapologetically going after what they wanted and falling for the boy they never expected to in the process. Although this formula is also commonly seen in American and British films, Australian filmmakers create these characters and storylines brilliantly because they incorporate the Australian aversion to class structure and glossy fantasy. Australian cinema is great at showing progressive young women fighting a world that they perceive to be continuously against them.

Josephine Alibrandi is a fantastic example. Her character is brought to life on screen – her emotions and anger at the world are even more prominent on screen than they are in the book. When Josie receives a scholarship to a fancy, private, Catholic girls’ school, she is faced with the challenge of proving herself to be the equal of her peers. In an environment of upper-class, young white women whose fathers give them everything, Josie must constantly prove herself in spite of her Italian heritage, socio-economic status, illegitimacy and lack of a father figure. Conversely, her arch-enemy Carly is the complete package of wealth, beauty and status. Carly is always one step ahead in the two girls’ battle for the affections of the handsome, melancholic school captain, John Barton.

The admirable thing about Josie for me is that she never tries to conform. Instead, she fights the social hierarchy and strives to achieve her ambitions. One of the most memorable scenes in the film features Josie’s reaction to racial discrimination in a church scene with Carly.

 Carly: “What is it with Wogs?”

Josie: “Stupid bitch!”

Carly: “At least I’m not a bastard”

After which Josie smashes Carly in the face with a copy of The Decline of the Roman Empire.

In reality, violence should never be the response to a bully’s comments. But to me, that scene is essentially a representation of the pent-up anger among those of us who have had to fight against bullies in order to make our mark in the world – particularly in instances of racial, gender, class and image discrimination. With the upper-class world against Josie, she is only able to find where she belongs when she lets go of the fantasy of being with John Barton and gives in to her attraction to Jacob Coote. Jacob is completely unpretentious and doesn’t come from an upper-class background like Barton, but he sees Josie for who she is and never makes her feel inadequate. Josie’s relationship with Jacob leads her to realise that there’s happiness in being who you are instead of being what deemed acceptable by society.

Similarly, in the 2005 film adaption of Hating Alison Ashley, there is an underdog female who competes with a stereotypical blonde, wealthy and beautiful female character. Erica Yurken fantasises about escaping her quirky family and grungy school to live in the wealthy suburbs with an ideal life, school, career and image. The new student in her class, Alison Ashley, has the life Erica wants and, therefore, soon becomes Erica’s nemesis. No matter how hard Erica tries, she can never reach Alison’s standard.

The story is essentially one of class warfare fuelled by jealousy and competition. Reading the book and watching the film as a teen taught me the difference between maintaining an ideal image and finding happiness. Unlike Josie, Erica fights to conform to an ideal image and faces some serious blows when she realises that she has not been her authentic self and that many of her friendships feel fake as a result. The failure to conform, however heartbreaking it is for Erica, allows her to see the authentic happiness and love she is surrounded by. Erica’s new clarity of vision makes her realise that she has been unfair to the lovely, harmless Alison because behind the scenes of her perfect life there are issues. It goes to show that appearances can often hide reality.

In Baz Lurhman’s gem Strictly Ballroom, Fran has ambition but it goes beyond belonging – she wants to make her mark. At the start of the film, Fran is a frumpy, timid dancer in the beginner’s class. Little do we know, she wants to advance her career in dance but is always held back by the professionals above her. Her ambition to become Scott’s partner is made difficult because she isn’t accepted by the ballroom authority figures. Compared to Fran, the other contenders to be Scott’s partner are blonde, tanned, fit, heavily made-up and receive validation from the authority figures. What makes Fran different, and a heroic figure, is her determination to experiment and breach the boundaries of ballroom regulation. She is an outsider, looking in with fresh eyes. Fran drills this into Scott’s skull when she tells him that he is “just really scared” to take a risk in his dancing career. An underdog hero, Fran wants to participate but not to conform. Although viewers are subjected to the typical ‘transformation’ of the female lead (Fran loses the glasses, uses Mrs Hastings’ apricot scrub and wears clothes that compliment her figure), the real Fran doesn’t change. The transformation here, although subtle, as it occurs on an emotional level, is marked. At the end of the film, Fran seems to feel empowered, confident at having risen above the limitations others imposed on her.

Finally, Miranda Gibson from Sea Change – the ABC show that we all secretly love – is the daughter of the shows female lead. Viewers see Miranda grow up, from 16 to 18 throughout the three seasons. Right from the first series, she reveals herself to be a tough, strong-willed, intelligent, eye-rolling underdog who doesn’t take shit from people. Her first encounter with Julianne Jelly (daughter of dodgy Bob Jelly) is a classic example. In the Jelly’s best-on-the-hill house, Julianne shows off her awards to Miranda – these include Pork Queen, Funk Queen and various dressage competitions. After Julianne declares that she is a natural in front of the camera, Miranda proceeds to record Julianne’s face, sneakily zooming in on her pores and pimples covered with foundation. Throughout the three seasons, sassy Miranda starts environmental protest movements, becomes a journalist and stops her mother from marrying a man she doesn’t love. All the while, she teaches Craig Jelly to be braver, ambitious and to care about the world around him, and eventually gives in to her feelings for him. For a character dealing with a tonne of family issues and struggles to fit into a small town, she uses her anger towards society and people to improve the world around her.

These characters on Australian screens are not like the archetypal characters who are so often played by actresses like Hilary Duff or Amanda Bynes. They are more real and closer to home – they experience the same challenges of belonging, discrimination and love that we do. The beauty of these characters is that they transform their anger into the driving force for their success and strength. They make fools out of the bullies that bring them down. And, instead of showcasing one all-inspiring moment of empowerment, these female characters are brave throughout the entirety of the story. Finally, the dudes that end up with our favourite female underdogs are often unexpected – either social expectations discourage their match or, the underdog fights him up until the end when she realises that his humble, daring and somewhat imperfect persona is exactly what she wants.

So, take note of these Australian leading ladies – their fights and frustration teach us that status and conformity is bullshit. They make us realise that we are capable of changing the system, and that working out where you belong sucks, but is achievable when you focus on the qualities and people who give you strength and empowerment.