Magda Szubanski, Reckoning (2015)

With Magda Szubanski’s memoir Reckoning (2015) many readers would be expecting a typical celebrity memoir dealing with her rise from obscurity to fame as a television star in Australia.  However, while covering her rise from the outer eastern suburbs of Melbourne to national television stardom, she provides an account of her lifelong moral struggle as a politically correct feminist lesbian pacifist with the legacy of her father who was a patriotic resistance fighter in Poland during the Second World War who assassinated ethnic German collaborators and German soldiers with decisive and ruthless efficiency.  She is unnerved by what he did, and worries that she inherited what some would see as his sins and what others would see as examples of his courage.  The memoir explores the philosophical question of whether the guilt of a father, and the trauma of an oppressed nation (the Poles), is passed from one generation to the next.  In addition, her memoir also presents a daughter who loves her father, and who struggles to win the approval of this strong man who values courage and a relentless determination to prevail despite the odds.  Magda Szubanski often feels she falls short, but then again, she also feels that her father fell short of occupying the moral high ground that she wanted him to inhabit.  The memoir features Magda Szubanski’s psychological struggle to achieve a reckoning between her father’s past and her present. 

Magda describes a complex relationship with her father. She sought her father’s approval but found him to be a tough taskmaster regarding her school and university studies as well as in her attempts to succeed at tennis, her father’s favourite sport.  Magda’s father was fastidious and disciplined while Magda was chaotic and disorganised. Magda’s father had the killer instinct to win at what he did, while Magda had a long history of quitting her endeavours.  But Magda eventually did win her father’s approval and respect by becoming a successful entertainer.  This was gratifying for both of them.     

Magda’s story is also an immigration story that deals with differing approaches to migrant settlement: assimilation versus multiculturalism.  Magda emigrated from England with her family when she was five.  Her father, a patriotic Pole who put his life on the line as a resistance fighter during the Second World War, had escaped to Britain and chose to fully assimilate, learning English, getting a tertiary education, marrying an English woman with a Scottish and Irish ancestry, and establishing a family whom he chose to raise as British.  When he came to Australia with his family in 1965, he enthusiastically chose to assimilate into the Australian culture.  Meanwhile, Magda chose to identify with her Polish ancestors rather than her Scottish and Irish ancestors or her Australian neighbours.  She wanted to perceive herself, and be perceived by others, as multicultural.  This contrasted dramatically with her father’s assimilationist attitudes and, at times, this generated some friction between them.  Magda’s father shed his Polish heritage as Magda sought to embrace it. 

Magda’s memoir is also the story of her involvement with radical left-wing politics.  She embraced most of the politics of the politically correct Left, but she regarded herself as first and foremost a radical feminist and she became involved with radical feminist political groups.  Despite her awareness of the restrictions imposed by the stringent dictates of political correctness on those who were part of this left-wing political milieu, Magda felt she belonged, and from the political talk she heard, she found an ideology that made sense to her.  It was neo-Marxist and feminist, with elements of what would come to be known as postmodernism.  She had found a safe haven.  She liked the political types she met.  In her opinion, they were misfits like she was.  However, conversations with people who fled communism and her visits to communist states in Eastern Europe during the Cold War exposed her to the oppression and privations brought by communism.  This made her harbour doubts about socialism but not enough for her to change her beliefs.  Despite her exposure to some harsh political realities, she remained a left-wing idealist. 

A major theme of Magda’s memoir is her account of her gradual teenage discovery of her lesbianism and eventual ‘coming out’ to her parents and the public, which happened much later in her life.  Her memoir seems intended to help others in similar circumstances find the courage to be true to who they are.  Magda grew up at a time, in the 1970s and 1980s, when homosexuality was widely frowned upon and discriminated against.  Eventually, in the early twenty-first century, Magda came out to her parents and then to the public and felt more comfortable with her identity as a consequence, but this was at a time when the mainstream culture had changed and homosexuality was widely accepted.  To Magda, her secret lesbianism was a major contributing factor to the decline of her academic performance in school. It was also a major motivator for her involvement in radical left-wing politics at university.  

As well as being a lesbian, Magda had a lifelong battle with obesity. At times she lost weight but put it back on later.  She provides several genetic and other health reasons for her dilemma.  She is descended from fat people on her father’s side, with all of her female Polish relatives being overweight.  When Magda lost weight, her slimmer self did not last. She came to feel that she was truer to herself by being fat. Rather than struggle endlessly to lose weight, Magda chose to accept being overweight.  In a sense, her memoir serves to encourage other overweight people to be more accepting of their condition. 

Magda’s memoir also tells the story of what made her famous, her success as a performer and writer of comedy.  Magda’s memoir tells the story of her gradual realisation that her vocation is to be an entertainer. It then tells the story of her discovery and rise to success to become a star of high-rating sketch comedy shows, like Fast Forward, and a smash hit situation comedy series Kath and Kim, as well having a major acting role in the hit film Babe.  Magda was part of the comedy boom of the 1980s that was consolidated in the 1990s.  It was a time when Australian comedy shifted from being considered, with few exceptions, second best to being considered world class and enjoying high ratings on Australian television and packed houses in comedy venues.  As a female comedian and comedy writer, Magda also contributed to raising the profile of female comedy in Australia. 

Student resources by Dr Mark Lopez

© Mark Lopez 2023 All RIGHTS RESERVED

The purpose of the concise notes of Dr Mark’s The Meaning in a Nutshell is to provide much needed help to students seeking to unlock the meaning of the texts with which they have to deal.  (More elaborate notes are provided in lessons as part of my private tutoring business.) 

Subject: Reckoning meaning, Reckoning themes, Reckoning analysis, Reckoning notes