“Rabbit Proof Fence” shows the struggle three Aboriginal girls, Molly, Daisy, and Gracie, face trying to get back home after being taken thousands of miles away from their families. They are removed from their old way of life and forced into what is basically slavery all because the Anglo-Australian government believes this is what is best for the half-caste children. I tried my best to analyze this film from an anthropologist’s point of view.
“Rabbit Proof Fence” shows ethnocentrism at its finest— a government that believes they are “saving [the Aboriginals] from themselves” by taking them from their supposed primitive, out of date lifestyle and bringing them to live in their culture. The Australian government believes their way of life is the best and everyone should have to live the same way. The half-caste girls are forced to speak only English, which luckily they already knew, say prayers for a religion they did not previously practice, and live a day-to-day life very different from their previous one. Yet despite being brought into supposedly such a better way of life, the children are living practically as slaves with the work they’re supposed to do, and can’t make decisions of their own. Because they’re half-caste, they are seen as of a lesser standard than the Caucasians in Australia and this is why they’re not living as well as the others. Although they were given new clothes to have to wear, the clothing was very primitive looking and looked poor. But I suppose this clothing is used to distinguish the half-castes from the Caucasians in terms of status. Since the status of these girls is half-caste, they are seen as better than full-blooded Aboriginals because they are half white, but they are not as good as whites because of their Aboriginal blood.
Near the end of the film, Neville says, “if only they knew what we were trying to do.” But would that really make all the difference if the girls did know? It’s likely the half-castes would still believe there was nothing wrong with their previous way of life (because there was nothing wrong), and they would also be very angry that the government officials were essentially trying to kill out their ethnicity and make them forget their previous cultural lifestyle!
The girls who have been captured are half-caste, and they will most likely have to bear children of Caucasians when they grow up so their children are only ¼ Aboriginal. In a few generations of breeding with only whites, eventually the Aboriginal genes will not be noticeable at all, and the culture will be completely gone as well. So not only does the Australian government believe their way of life is the best and only way to live, but they want any diversity to be eliminated altogether so there are only whites living here. This reminded me of the Holocaust in a way, because although the half-castes were not tortured and killed like the Jews were, the idea of eliminating a culture and ethnicity different from the government officials’ is still there (and their quality of life is very low: they can’t make any of their own decisions after they’ve been captured). The Anglo-Australian government has a desire to basically “whiten” the world. I had never heard about this issue happening in history after finding out it was a true story,
and it’s sad that this has gone unnoticed to many (or at least myself). The fact that this went on as long as it did—from the 1930s to the 1970s—is ridiculous. It shows a lack of cultural relativism on many Australians’ parts, as they cannot understand and accept the culture of the Aboriginal people without trying to acclimate them to their own culture. But at the same time, I have to step back and have cultural relativism and realize that the Australian government’s decision to do this was simply the outcome of their ethnocentrism.
There are some Australians, however, who do not agree with the government and don’t tell anyone where the girls are when they see them, despite all of the information about them being in the news. As Molly, Gracie, and Daisy make their trek back home they are helped by different strangers. One woman gives them food and jackets to wear. Another woman lets them spend the night at her house, although I believe she is Aboriginal as well. So not everyone who is white in Australia wants to remove the Aboriginal/half-caste ethnicity, which was nice to find out.
For the half-caste children who do not escape back home, I think it will take quite awhile for them to forget the culture that they grew up in, if they can ever adapt to their new way of life, that is. I think it will be especially tough for Gracie, since she was re-captured and will not know anyone there, and will also wonder if her cousins made it back or died somewhere. It has to be very scary to not know.
Relating to the “Turtles All the Way Down” article we read, the girls will not feel a sense of belonging here because the lifestyle is so different than what they’re used to. Their old culture is ingrained in them: their communitas included the language they spoke, the way they prayed (I believe it was prayer, at least, when the women back in Jigalong stood by the rabbit proof fence and chanted), and even the way they got their food as hunter-gatherers. Everything has changed now. How will the half-castes find their place here? It’s going to be hard, especially since where they felt they belonged is where they were heartlessly taken from. I don’t know if they will ever acculturate here since the cultural norms they grew up with are no longer normal in their new life. The girls feel alienated despite being among other half-castes.
In one of our readings on status Max Weber described status as a crucial part of a person’s sense of self in the world, based on identity, self-worth, accomplishment, and belonging. So in the case of the main characters (and all half-castes that this actually happened to), I imagine being taken away and given a new life to live will negatively impact their sense of self greatly. Their identity as an Aboriginal will essentially be erased, they feel no sense of belonging after being taken from their home, and anything they may have accomplished back in Jigalong is irrelevant to their new life. And Michel Foucault says, “we are only human in the company of others,” but will the half-castes still feel they are human despite being in the company of others? Since their sense of belonging was in Jigalong, I think they won’t feel a connection in their new place at all. Not having any self-worth or feelings of belonging in life can lead to a lot of problems in one’s life, but it seems that government officials either don’t realize this is an issue for the half-castes, or they simply don’t care. Looking at status the way it was defined by Max Weber and Michel Foucault, it has nothing to do with being “above” or “on top” of others in society, it’s simply about feeling content in life and feeling like a human. And in this case, the girls will probably not feel content in life at all. They just want to go back home.
I find it ironic that Neville, among others in the Australian government, thought the half-castes were of less intelligence than their “superior” ethnicity, yet two young half-caste girls were able to evade their white captors (and Aboriginal captor) as they tried to bring them back. Even at their young ages, they’re still smart enough to know how to hide their tracks. If only this would make the government rethink their plan to remove the Aboriginals from the world.
I also found it interesting that the idea of Animism is about “learning to act respectfully towards and among other persons,” with “persons” being more than
just humans: animals, bodies of water, and plants, even, which is an indigenous belief system that the Aboriginals have. Yet these government officials who practice other religion do not even treat all humans respectfully, and want to remove a culture that has such a spiritual and respectful belief system.
I believe that many Americans and westerners who don’t have any knowledge in anthropology will watch this movie and find the Aboriginal life in Jigalong as “outdated” or one that hasn’t changed for centuries simply because they’re living so differently than we are here in America. It is interesting to me that before I had enrolled in this class, read the material, and watched videos, that I too would probably call their culture “stuck in the Stone Age” when they are in reality a modern hunter-gatherer society! Seeing the absence of technology in a group of people will often make one think that their society is obsolete, but it really is only obsolete technology-wise if we compare that. But if we study the Aboriginal people from the beginning of their creation (which would be hard considering they’ve been around 60,000 years), I know there would have been plenty of modern changes to the way they have been surviving. In the “Cannibal Tours” video, tourists treat the Papuans as if they’re stuck in time or as if they’re not even human, and I think that shows how a lot of outsiders see cultures different than our own: we tend to look at them as different, but in a bad sense of the word. The way they observe them reminds me of how people observe animals at the zoo! The fact that the tourists refer to the natives as “untouched primitive tribes” is horribly degrading and they don’t even attempt to see where they’ve come from. If people could step back and look at cultures and see how far they’ve come, rather than comparing them to what it’s like right now in their own culture, it would make a world of difference. I’d be interested in seeing how tourists react to visiting Aboriginal cultures like Jigalong.
To find out that the Aboriginals are “the longest continuous ethnic group of people who have occupied the same land mass” shows that they have been through a lot, and it makes me glad that they are still around to continue their way of life today. Knowing they have been around for so long, they also probably hold on to a lot of traditions or customs that the Aboriginal culture was based on, like their language and belief system of Animism. But they have also modernized in a lot of ways to live better, so they can blend the two together to have syncretism.
After watching and analyzing “Rabbit Proof Fence” I am inclined to research other cultures throughout the world. It was very interesting and even fun to think about why everything happened the way it did. Luckily for Molly and Daisy, they got to make it back home without further pursuance by the Australian government. If it weren’t for ethnocentrism, I bet none of this would have ever happened.