Sexual violence and colonial anxieties in Australian literature: A comparison of John Hillcoat’s The Proposition and Kim Scott’s Benang: From the Heart

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Zoe A Smith

Keywords

Film, Literature, Indigenous Australia, Colonial Australia, Colonialism, Sexual violence, Gender

Abstract

The perpetration of sexual violence against both European and Indigenous women by white settlers has remained an unspeakable yet looming presence in recollections of the Australian frontier, and in representations of the frontier in Australian literature and art. Indeed, sexual violence throughout Australian history has often been intertwined with race relations and solidifying racial and gender distinctions, and consequently has reflected colonial anxieties over both masculinity and power. John Hillcoat’s 2005 film The Proposition and Kim Scott’s 1999 novel Benang: From the Heart both serve as works of historical fiction that draw attention to the relationship between the frontier, frontier violence, and sexual violence. Both texts investigate how the success of the fledging Australian nation—via the achievement of a culturally and racially pure nation that served as an embodiment of British ideals and values—was heavily intertwined with colonial masculinity, hence sexual violence both endorsed and threatened said idealised success. These works depict sexual violence as an expression of colonial anxieties regarding hegemonic masculinity, with female bodies represented as a means through which to exert said masculinity via the subjugation of the female ‘Other’, with race subsequently playing a vital role in whether said violence is criminalised or endorsed. By engaging with contrasting notions of race and the female body, both texts render sexual violence in Australian history speakable, as it should be.

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