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Queen of popular culture


Brigid Veale
5 February 2008
With a career spanning the army, the theatre and film, fashion and literature, Karen Brooks is not what you’d call a traditional academic.

Described by former Queensland Premier Wayne Goss as the ‘grunge queen’, Karen has established a national and international reputation in the area of popular culture and is a regular commentator in the media on issues ranging from youth culture to parenting.

Karen, who comes from the University of the Sunshine Coast, has taken up an appointment as Associate Professor in Southern Cross University’s media studies area in the School of Arts and Social Sciences.

“Southern Cross University has a great reputation, with high-calibre courses, staff and students – and the beauty and friendliness of the region is just a delightful bonus,” Karen said of her decision to move to the Northern Rivers region.

“I have a number of goals I hope to achieve. Foremost I would like to help put media studies at SCU on the national and international map by extending the already fine offerings and experiences available to students even further and creating even broader post-university employment opportunities.”

Karen’s own career path has taken numerous turns. She grew up in Sydney, living with her sister and mother – an Israeli immigrant who spoke very little English. She started a degree at Sydney University, but dropped out and had a number of jobs before joining the Women’s Royal Australian Army Corp as an officer cadet.

“It was, I now realise a moment of intense madness," she said. "Training to be an officer started in 1980 – it took 12 long months. At the end of this period I was posted to Bendigo – to the Army Survey Regiment – as a cartographer. I was the only female officer among 300 men and 21 women. I spent five long years in the army. And still, to this day, I cannot read a map.”

Karen’s stint in the army was followed by a period as a theatre company director, a dress boutique manager and drama teacher. She also married, had two children, and completed a humanities degree with first class honours. In 1990 she played the female lead role in a feature film spoofing the Rambo movies.

After remarrying in 1993, Karen moved to Wollongong with her family to complete a PhD titled ‘Odysseus Unbound and Penelope Unstable: Contemporary Australian Expatriate Women Writers’.

She has also had a long-held fascination with mythology and has written a number of novels including the Caz Klein series, which follows the adventures of Cassandra Klein through the land of Morphea. The first book of a new fantasy trilogy is due out in September and a non-fiction book, titled ‘Consuming Innocence: Popular Culture and Our Children’, is about to be released.

“I love writing and do it whenever I can,” she said. “I had an amazingly rich fantasy life as a child. The person who always encouraged me to feed my imagination and told me about fairies and witches and dragons and introduced me to the delights of Hans Christian Anderson, Grimm's fairytales and Aesop’s fables as well as Greek and Roman mythology, was my wonderful grandmother. She used to take me fairy-spotting in the woods near her house in Lane Cove in Sydney.”

Karen said there had been significant changes in youth culture over the past 20 years.

“The biggest change has been the saturation of commercial culture and its steadily rising influence on young people’s identity and self-esteem. I also think the notion of ‘youth culture’ has been, to a great degree, hijacked by adults in particular and corporations and marketed back to older people as something they can access but without legitimating young people’s voices or acknowledging their rights.”

Karen said the media had also undergone significant change, in particular with the introduction of the internet.

“The web has created what’s referred to as citizen journalism – the average person on the street being able to have their voice and opinions heard and enabling them to reach all sorts of like-minded or opposed people simultaneously,” she said.

“We ignore it at our own peril, or as some politicians who were unprepared for digital power experienced, embrace it with the same kind of risks.”

Karen started at Southern Cross University on January 28.

Photo: Associate Professor Karen Brooks.