Secondary navigation

Postcards aside, Aussie beach life can be gritty as well as pretty

Postcards aside, Aussie beach life can be gritty as well as pretty

Published:17 July 2017

TOP: Dr Liz Ellison. BELOW: Crowded beach image courtesy Martin Varsavsky via Flickr Creative Commons.

While our iconic Aussie images are often linked to the Outback, the reality is that most of us live near the coast.

That’s why CQUniversity Noosa academic Dr Liz Ellison is planning to unpack the beach landscape for a ‘more honest than usual’ presentation at the forthcoming Sunshine Coast International Readers & Writers Festival, in Coolum on 12-13 August.

“The beach isn’t quite the wholesome or beautiful image we see on postcards,” she says.

"So often we think about the beach as a place that’s beautiful, sunny, and stunning. But it’s also been the site of some darker moments in Australian history, perhaps most notably the racially charged riots that took place in Cronulla in 2005.

"And really, the beach has never been devoid of this type of more challenging history – ever since it was the site of many early moments of violence between Australian Aboriginals and the British colonisers.

"The Beaumont children disappeared from a Victorian beach back in 1966, and even our former Prime Minister Harold Holt vanished into the ocean in 1967.

"It’s still a male-dominated space. Consider, for instance, the dominance of male lifeguards and there still remains a pay disparity between female and male surfers and their commercial opportunities.

"Tim Winton’s work is celebrated but female voices on the beach aren’t heard as often, with perhaps the exception of now cult classic Puberty Blues."

Dr Ellison’s interest in all things sandy started with her PhD, completed in 2013, that examined how popular fiction and film represent the Australian beach.

“It’s always worth remembering that many of our iconic images are associated with the Outback – consider the classic Picnic at Hanging Rock or even the recent success of The Dressmaker,” Dr Ellison says.

“But in reality, the majority of our population lives on coastlines and are much more likely to be familiar with a beach or coastal location. Surprisingly, though, we don’t always pay very serious attention to the beach – perhaps because it’s a place of leisure and pleasure rather than work.”

Dr Ellison says that, beyond the pretty postcards, there’s a lot of tension about beaches in our country.

“On one hand, our beaches are beautiful and many people use the beach as a place to rest, relax, and recuperate during the holidays.

“On the other hand, there is a significant risk of skin cancer, or getting caught in a rip. And even though the actual threat of a shark attack is rare, it’s a story we hear often in our media.

“There’s this idea that the beach is quite egalitarian. And while in Australia beaches are free to access, unlike in the US for example, there are still markers of difference between beaches and the people who use them - what they look like, what swimwear they wear, what they do on the beach, and so on.”

Dr Ellison’s talk is also going to examine how Australian authors write about the beach – including one of our most successful and popular authors, Tim Winton, who has never shied away from his love of the beach and the ocean.

As a Lecturer in Creative Industries at CQUniversity Noosa, Dr Ellison researches Australian beaches, beach culture, and how beaches are represented in our national literature and films. She is interested in the ways beaches play a part in Australian identity.  She completed her PhD in 2013 at Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, and has worked at universities for over eight years. Until her recent relocation to the Sunshine Coast, Dr Ellison used to run a theatre group and book club in Brisbane. She is passionate about the arts, creative industries, and community and university engagement.