Summer of the Seventeenth Doll explores the intersection between gender and work, showing, in particular, how work informs the characters' ideas of masculinity. For Barney, Roo, and Olive, cane cutting—backbreaking manual labor in the Australian bush—is an undeniably masculine job that allows for a freeform, untethered lifestyle. However, when it comes to light that Roo walked off the job after being humiliated by the physical limitations of his age and must then get a job in the city to support himself, the characters grapple with their biases about gender and work. Despite being confronted with the downsides of clinging tightly to their preconceived gender roles, they struggle to create new definitions, which shows how entrenched their biases about gender are.
Critics have noted that Summer of the Seventeenth Doll is classically Australian in the way it styles masculinity. All three male characters—Barney, Roo, and Johnnie—perform backbreaking manual labor for the seven months they work cutting sugarcane, and then for the five months of the layoff season they get to enjoy the fruits of their labor in the city with beautiful women. Olive's comment to Pearl that Roo and Barney are "real men" suggests that she defines masculinity in terms of how and where men work. She quotes Nancy and explains that the men who live in the city are "soft city blokes," and in comparison to Roo and Barney, they look like "a bunch of skinned rabbits." This shows that location itself is gendered: the bush is masculine, while the city is feminine. Notably, when the men are in the city to have a good time, they don't forfeit any of their masculine qualities. This is exactly because their time in the city is temporary, which suggests that their masculinity both benefits from and isn't threatened by occasional forays into a feminine setting. However, when Roo insists on getting a job in the city, his companions struggle to see him as a "real man" because "real men" work in the bush and absolutely do not work during their hard-earned layoff season.
Though both Olive and (at least until the seventeenth year) Nancy work in the city year-round at an appropriately feminine job as barmaids, they too get to share in Roo and Barney's masculine lifestyle during the layoff season. They get to drink, dance, and have sex—activities they don't get to enjoy for the rest of the year, and activities that Pearl considers "improper." What Pearl truly means, however, is that the behavior is improperly feminine. It's also worth noting that though Olive and Nancy participate in the layoff season, the season is not the same for them as it is for the men. It's not a vacation for them; rather, it's an extension of their everyday lives, just with the addition of their male partners and the privileges they get to enjoy by associating with them. This suggests that while the bounds of masculinity are well-defined and restrictive, femininity arguably grants women more freedom to choose exactly how to be a woman—as long as what they choose affirms their male partners' masculinity. In this way, Nancy's marriage to another man, for example, is a refusal to affirm Barney's masculinity. He is emasculated because he "couldn't hold her."
The play's ideas about gender crystallize when Roo asks Olive to marry him and Olive refuses. Olive doesn't see marriage as a different iteration of their present relationship; rather, she sees it as an emasculating choice for Roo (as he'd remain in the city full-time) and as a threat to her freedom to decide how she can appropriately perform femininity. In this way, Olive selfishly denies Roo the freedom to defy the gender norms that constrict him, which is the very freedom that she covets for herself. By outright refusing to change, Olive denies herself and Roo the opportunity to redefine how gender and work function within their relationship. The general unhappiness among all the characters at the end of the play suggests that refusing to redefine gender roles doesn't just hurt one gender or the other: everyone suffers.
Gender and Work ThemeTracker
Gender and Work Quotes in Summer of the Seventeenth Doll
That's what the lay-off is. Not just playing around and spending a lot of money, but a time for livin'. You think I haven't sized that up against what other women have? I laugh at them every time they try to tell me. Even waiting for Roo to get back is more exciting than anything they've got.
All round would be the regulars—soft city blokes...and then in would come Roo and Barney. They wouldn't say anything...there'd just be the two of them walkin' in, then a kind of wait for a second or two, and quiet. After that, without a word, the regulars'd stand side to let 'em through, just as if they was a—a coupla kings. She always reckoned they made the rest of the mob look like a bunch of skinned rabbits.
Not as good as Roo when he's fit, mind yer, but he could run rings round the best of us. And this time he even made Roo look like a has-been. I never seen Roo git so mad, in no time at all he made it like a running fight between 'em, tryin' to git the better of this kid.
Olive: You didn't go with him?
Olive: Why not?
Barney: I dunno. It was all messed up. You know what Roo's always been to me, a sort of little tin god. I've never seen him in the wrong before.
...We come down here for the lay-off, five months of the year, December to April. That leaves another seven months still hangin'—what d'yer reckon Olive does in that time? Knocks around with other blokes, goes out on the loose every week? No, she doesn't, she just waits for us to come back again—coz she thinks our five months is worth all the rest of the year put together!
You and Barney are two of a pair. Only the time he spent chasin' wimmin, you put in being top dog! Both of you champions! Well, that's all very fine and a lot of fun while it lasts, but last is one thing it just don't do. There's a time for sowing and a time for reaping—and reapin' is what you're doing now.