I have an 11-year-old boy, and it’s next to impossible to imagine him running away from home to sell counterfeit whiskey on the streets of Cairo. But that’s what George Catsi’s father did*, and the fantastical tale is one of many in Catsi’s one-man show, Am I Who I Say I Am? Eleven-year-old Emmanuel would ply customers with a small sampler, and once they agreed to buy his wares he’d pull out a bottle of “whiskey” he’d prepared earlier: but it wasn’t whiskey, it was tea. And then he’d run. Emmanuel Katsivelakis was a life-long runner. And a trickster. This small story early in the show is just a short vignette, but it’s important in setting up the themes of Catsi’s father’s life: a chronic tendency to desert family, and a sucession of ever-more elaborate business scams.
It can’t have made for an easy childhood for Catsi, but it does make for a great story. And a great show. It’s family memoir by a performer who is part serious dramatist, part hilarious stand-up comedian, a story about growing up with a mostly absent Greek father who is always spinning epic stories.
It’s also a show that taps into some of the great dramatic themes of Greek drama: sea voyages, battles with monsters, betrayed wives and lost and abandoned children. Like a less-heroic Jason, Emmanuel was just 16 and back living with his family in Alexandria, Egypt, when his mother marched him down to the docks and signed him up to the merchant navy. A few years later he landed up in LA, where he convinced his restaurant employers he was French and seduced Catsi’s mother.
The couple moved to Detroit, and then she followed Emmanuel to the new home he seized upon in Sydney, Australia. Sailing to Sydney on one of a number of journeys following his father between the two countries, Catsi, along with his mother and siblings, ended up in lockdown in their cabin when a partying Parramatta league team embarked on a violent, days-long rampage (there’s your giant sea monsters). And once settled in Australia, it becomes clear there’s been a great Medea-like betrayal, as Emmanuel leaves Catsi’s mother for another woman.
Those are the bare bones, the eternal, mythological nature of the stories. But it’s the details – a family fancy dress party where his father dresses as an Indian chief and invites his lover to come dressed as his squaw, a little boy’s bewildering/thrilling ride in a police car in Detroit – that make the story new again. It’s shocking, appalling, but it’s all leavened with moments of humour and even affection. There’s a particularly hilarious scene where the grown-up Catsi, by this time working in a special needs home, tries to take control of a minibus full of his clients that is hurtling down a main street of Cooma.
Catsi doesn’t make any excuses for Emmanuel Katsivelakis (the evolving surname is an entire subplot), but he does show us both the comedy and the tragedy of his life. And in the end, after spending an hour with this fascinating, scheming character, we’re seduced a little too. And against our best judgement, we even warm to him a little. That’s the trick of the play. Which makes you think: as another spinner of captivating tales, perhaps Catsi really is his father’s son after all.
*At least, that’s what Catsi believes happened. What his father told him happened. But it’s hard to know for sure. His father was, remember, a born trickster.
The most recent season of Am I Who I Say I Am?, at the Petersham Bowling Cub, finished on July 31.
First published by The Conversation, 5 July 2016
In Maggie’s Plan (2015), Rebecca Miller’s (The Private Lives of Pippa Lee (2009)) new film, Ethan Hawke plays John, an adjunct teacher at a New York college and “the bad boy of fictocriticism”. For my money, he’s the middle-aged version of Troy, the philosophising musician Hawke played in Reality Bites (1994). He’s still a man-boy, but the angry young man has softened and he’s made some concessions to the establishment.
John still has a few commitment issues though. He’s married to the tenured Georgette, a woman more driven than he is, but he finds himself attracted to Maggie (Greta Gerwig), a woman from the administrative class – she helps students “bridge art and commerce” – when she agrees to read the novel he’s writing.
Julianne Moore plays the wife Georgette as a neurotic who is as psychologically coiled as the towering hair sculptures she wears night and day. She takes study trips to observe “Icelandic maternal techniques”, and we learn “family dynamics” is one of John’s specialties. Which is hilarious, considering how clueless they both are about their own disintegrating family.
Writer/director Miller lays on the academic stereotypes thickly. And it’s hard to know whether it’s the genuinely affectionate ribbing of a bookish class she knows well, or all an elaborate revenge for the C someone gave her years ago for a paper.
Whatever the motivations, her sketches of academic life, while drawn large, do ring true: Georgette’s absorption in the minutiae of choosing publishers, John dispensing wisdom in the campus cafeteria (avoid the word “like” he tells his students, it’s “a language condom”).
It’s a world where telling someone “no one unpacks commodity fetishism like you do” counts as foreplay. And where an academic panel is really just a thinly disguised and brutal game of more-radical-than-thou one-upmanship. It lampoons mercilessly, but there is bound to be an audience for this movie: after all, this must be the first film (surely the first mainstream movie) where name-checking Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek is a plot device.
So this is satire. But it’s also a screwball comedy with a triangle at its heart – which is why we need the titular Maggie. After John and Maggie’s “meet-cute” in the college pay office, there’s another hurdle to their affair beyond John’s relationship: the single Maggie has enlisted a sperm donor, a man who happens to be an artisan pickle entrepreneur (the imagery is nothing if not heavy handed). She’s even set a self-impregnation date: March 23 (wait, let’s just calculate that… oh! A Christmas present. It might not be a virgin birth, but the conception will turn out to be a mystery).
Of course love – and sex – gets in the way. (It always does.) Maggie and John fall for each other and into bed. John devotes himself to his novel, cannibalising his own life for plot points. Maggie devotes herself to John and their blended family. Georgette, meanwhile, writes an autoethnography about her spurned wife experience, giving overwrought readings in bookstores as fans queue for signed copies.
Scholars, Miller seems to suggest, are not immune to the modern demand to create a narrative from one’s life, and to turn one’s personal life into a commodity. They might, in fact, be experts at it (and whether that’s narcissism or merely an honest acceptance of the hopeless subjectivity of everything, is a debate best left for the ethnography journals).
John, meanwhile, becomes so lost in his novel’s plot he can’t see another relationship falling apart. Here the film takes a Midsummer Night’s Dream turn, in a development that’s loudly signalled in its first minutes. And while this film might be ground zero of movies that have failed the Bechdel test – I mean, this is a story about two women sharing one guy – it scrapes through on another kind of feminist test: if you count women plotting to sprinkle metaphorical love dust in a hapless man’s eyes as empowering.
But why do these women bother? Maggie is supremely domestically competent (John is like another child), and she can self-impregnate, remember. Georgette’s career eclipses his. If a man isn’t necessary, then why is Miller persisting with the centuries-old marriage plot? You could read the story as an indictment on the female characters. Or you could read it as an indictment on patriarchy.
But Miller wants to ask some more interesting questions about fate and free will. The film suggests the real gods, the real power, can lie elsewhere – in our genes, for example. John and Georgette’s children are testimony to that: manipulative, clever, occasionally truth-telling mini-mes of their parents.
Despite the characters’ furious efforts to plot their lives, they’re not nearly as in control as they might like to think. Miller, following Freud and friends, suggests we’re defenceless in the face of our childhood-based neuroses and desires, the tensions between our need to parent and be parented, to be separate and together.
And our desire to be authors of our own plot is constantly doing battle with our desire to surrender ourselves to somebody else’s plot. As John says, kneeling at Maggie’s feet: “I can’t help it, I’m in love with you”.
In the end, as a screwball Maggie’s Plan requires some kind of restoration of domestic order. And just as Georgette tells John that too much theory, his over-intellectualising, has killed his novel’s story, we could take her lead and surrender ourselves to the movie’s plot. And to the perverse pleasure of three people making more of a mess of things than we are. At least, that’s what we hope – as we squirm in our seats, hands covering our eyes, watching the characters through the slits between our fingers.
Maggie’s Plan opens in Australia cinemas on July 7.
Not so long ago, the ABC’s Q&A turned the tables for a bit of self-examination: why, the show’s producers asked, don’t we have more women on the panel? Trying to understand the show’s gender trouble, series producer Amanda Collinge cited women’s reluctance to put themselves forward compared to men’s self-promotion, the trolling and online harassment of women who do join the show, and the fact that the show reflects the relatively blokey composition of our parliaments – a key source of guests.
This ongoing absence of women from the public sphere in numbers approaching anything like gender parity is not just Q&A’s problem. The Global Media Monitoring Project, which maps representation of women and men in news media worldwide, found women make up less than a quarter (24 percent) of subjects interviewed or reported on, while only 37 percent of stories in newspapers, television and radio are reported by women. When they are reported on, women are more likely than men to be portrayed as victims or eyewitnesses, and much less likely than men to be sought out as expert commentators.
While women are still notably absent from the authoritative, expert voice of the public sphere, there’s another sphere where we women excel: women have no trouble speaking out in blogs, websites and magazines that are aimed at women readers, and that feature highly intimate and personal, sometimes joyful, but oftentimes sad and painful real life stories. It’s as if we’ve said to men: “Move over guys, we women have got this whole first-person business covered.”
In an opinion piece I wrote for the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age last month I raised some questions about our appetite for telling, and hearing about, women’s personal stories. Particularly women’s stories about traumatic events. I said we’d created an attention economy that tells people, particularly young and female people, the most interesting thing about them is the worst thing that has ever happened to them.
And I suggested we shouldn’t forget the lesson of second wave feminism: that telling personal stories was the starting point for building social movements. My piece struck a chord with some people, including many writers and authors and editors who contacted me to say they’d been thinking some of the same things. The piece also deeply offended many other people.
I linked to some stories I’d recently read that I thought illustrated certain aspects of a cultural pressure, particularly on young women, to reveal all. The authors – not entirely unfairly – took exception to my article’s suggestion that traumatic personal stories were now being used by artists and writers to meet a market for certain kinds of narratives and to build their profiles. Some people have called this phenomenon the ‘first person industrial complex’. I suggested we needed to rename it the ‘first person traumatic complex’.
I didn’t choose the stories I linked to for any particular reason other than that they were just the most recent examples I’ve read of the types of stories I was starting to notice everywhere. And yet: people were hurt or offended to varying degrees, and so I asked Fairfax’s opinion editor to remove the links and references to particular stories in my piece. The idea we’re now editing by Twitter is a worrying development, but I never intended to offend or hurt anyone, nor single out any particular writers for particular criticism, either. If I’d thought through the implications of linking to specific stories more completely, I don’t think I would have included those links in the first place.
Anyway. The rest of this essay is an attempt to clarify what I said that has been misrepresented, and to add a couple of things I would have liked to have said, were the opinion piece format a 2,000-word format. The following are observations I’ve made about aspects our media, arts and literary culture that sometimes concern me. And no one – absolutely no one – should take them as a specific reference to them.
I think there was a lot of value in the second wave feminist’s tradition of telling personal stories, and I certainly see the consciousness raising tradition being carried on in the way many women still talk about their personal lives publicly. But one of the strengths of second wave feminism – which I think we can sometimes lose sight of – is the way their personal stories were always used to connect to a broader social theory, and a broader movement to change the world.
Of course, not all personal stories have to be attached to a social movement or a theory of how to change the world: sometimes there is simply consolation, revelation and value in telling personal stories that explain what it feels like to be in the world. It can be empowering for the author and enlightening for the reader. But sometimes (and I say sometimes, not all the time) what happens with the personal story – if it’s not done with an eye on broader social issues and theories – is all that’s left for the author to change is herself.
Recently, in an excellent piece in Meanjin, Eleanor Robertson wrote about – much more thoroughly and articulately than I can or will here – many things I (and many others) think about the way contemporary feminism is often expressed as an overly individualised form of politics, without an eye to systemic change and collective forms of organisation. (While I think Robertson at times overstates second wave feminism’s essentialism – second wavers also frequently argued gender was socially constructed – I agree with her essay’s fundamental argument).
In my opinion piece, I was also pointing to a culture where the expectation that we will reveal our most innermost lives is almost taken-for-granted. We see it everywhere: in reality TV shows, in newspapers and magazines and in social media – social media is, really, the sine qua non of this selfie phenomenon. We see it in Ted Talks, where speakers are encouraged to document their personal ‘journey’, and in the way celebrity life is conducted.
When my piece was published writers contacted me and tweeted to admit they recognised this self-revealing phenomenon with a kind of cringing recognition. One friend, a fiction author, told me she resented the expectation when she marketed her books that she should reveal her own personal stories – particularly the more traumatic ones (she’s a fiction author). In an astute piece in the Saturday Paper Brigid Delaney wrote that the ultimate privilege, one now reserved for the über wealthy, is the right to complete privacy, to power obliterate your presence online.
It’s illuminating to read critiques by theorists who’ve done some deep theoretical thinking about contemporary capitalism, and its tendency to turn everything into a commodity. Even our selves are becoming commodities, claim some theorists. And if you work in the creative industries, our personalities and lives and creativity can be turned into goods to be parcelled up and sold.
It’s nothing new to say it’s a system that turns us all, to a greater or lesser extent, into brands. There’s barely any escape from this system. I’ve also frequently written about my own life, and continue to do so. But a feminist critique has to note how unequal this process is: it’s women whose personal lives are most often exposed and written about.
I certainly don’t want to argue that women who do freely choose to talk about themselves and their personal lives should stop doing so posthaste. Or that if they do so, they have no agency. While first person accounts of all experiences, including traumatic experiences, are absolutely necessary and valid, I think we need to think through how they are told in a context where women’s personal lives tend to be held up to excessive scrutiny, and in a context where we almost seem to expect to hear women’s voices speaking from a more personal and confessional position (just look at the righthand side of any news site. Or just speak to Julia Gillard).
We women dominate the personal essay market. And I think there’s a troubling intersection of issues here: women’s right to tell stories, and an attention economy that seems to expect women to tell personal stories. I don’t have all the answers, but I do think we need to ask questions about how this process plays out. Helen Razer, in an article prompted by my opinion piece and the response to it, suggested that the function of the personal essay is now to provide diversion and entertainment. It’s a suggestion I think we need to consider (and her essay is well worth reading).
When I wrote in my article* that young women keen to break into the literary magazine scene would “be advised” to write about topics such as eating disorders or sexual abuse, I certainly didn’t mean that the specific women whose articles I referred to were being manipulated by some kind of cunning and exploitative editor. I was thinking of the advice I might give to media students I’ve been teaching lately if I threw out all the usual instructions about the inverted pyramid, about news values and objectivity, about keeping themselves out of the story. If I was honest and said: “You know what, there is this huge market for personal stories about your suffering”.
It’s a new development, you could say, of the “if it bleeds it leads” rule. I’ve worked as both a journalist and an editor, I’m keenly aware of the calculation that goes on, about what stories are sold and told. We need to be able to talk openly about this.
Young writers and students really don’t need any particular encouragement to go down this personal path. Speak to any university creative or non-fiction writing teacher and they will tell you their students’ first instinct is often to explore their most traumatic experiences. The trick is to help “steer them towards the bigger point” they might be trying to make in their story, as one teaching friend put it to me recently.
If my students feel inclined to explore the personal essay, that’s for them to decide to do. But I do think we have a duty of care to those who are willing to expose their personal life in the public sphere. A personal story can come to define you. It can take you down career and creative cul-de-sacs, not to mention political cul-de-sacs. And continually writing about your own life can be both exhausting and exhaustive.
Editors and websites waiting for their inbox to ping with the latest explicit or sorrowful tale are the modern day miners, turning these raw resources of someone’s life into the fuel of content. But writers offering up their own life – often for $50 a pop, or sometimes, simply for “the exposure” – are selling a finite resource. Digging it up may be cathartic and liberating, there’s no doubt. But it can also be depleting, a move that leaves one with no energy left.
If, knowing all this, young women do consciously choose to go down this path, then all power to them. They may have suffered, but if they can craft a narrative and release it into the world I see them as strong and in control of their life (as much as any of us are). But if they choose to enter this system, they also need to expect people to ask questions about their works, just like critics do of any other text.
Questions like “what sort of cultural environment produces certain kinds of genres and modes of speaking?” Or: “Do these stories work as art or literature and, if so, how?” Or: “Why do we seem more interested in hearing women’s very personal stories than men’s? And is this unbalanced interest always helpful to the project of equality?”
And if texts or artworks claim to speak in the tradition of a movement such as, say, feminism, then they are inevitably going to be judged by how their stories work as texts within that tradition. Not to ask these questions, to seal off such stories from such discussion, is patronising. It is treating the authors not as strong, but as on-going victims.
There’s one point I didn’t make in my opinion piece (because it seems like a somewhat longish bow to draw) but let’s try it out: could our interest in hearing harrowing and traumatic individual stories be a proxy way of (not) reckoning with the harrowing future we are handing to the younger generation. It seems to me we are happy to hear the distress of individuals. But we’re not so up for dealing with the distressing inheritance, economically and environmentally, that we are passing on to a generation. I’d like to hear an all-women Q&A panel debate that.
- Before I asked for it to be edited
First published by the Sydney Morning Herald, 24 May 2016
There’s a scene from an early episode of Girls where the editor of Hannah’s e-book presses her to write about her most personal, shocking and sexual stories to make her book more compelling. “Did your hymen grow back?” her editor complains after reading a draft of Hannah’s too-tame exploits.
I thought about this scene again recently while reading about a new artwork, Are you ok Bob?, a three-minute video installation that shows artist Sophia Hewson’s face while she is “raped” by a stranger in her apartment. Hewson describes the work as a “self-orchestrated rape representation”: to make the artwork she invited a stranger, whom we only see by his arms, to come to her home and “rape” her. The 31-year-old claims the work is a “militant feminist” piece she hopes will “dismantle male power”.
If a measure of an artwork’s success is whether viewers can’t avert their eyes from a work, then Hewson’s piece seems to be working on all counts. But it’s also hard not to think this piece was as much a product of “militant feminism” than it is of a thought bubble that asked “what can I do for my next art project that will get the most attention?”.
We live in an age that has an insatiable appetite for the salacious, the scandalous, or simply the unbearably sad: last year Slate’s Laura Bennett coined the term the “first-person industrial complex” to describe the rise of online sites such as Jezebel, which publish harrowing and dramatic tales, most dramatically illustrated by Natasha Chenier’s essay about sleeping with her biological father.
I think we should re-name this phenomenon the “first-person traumatic complex”. These days a reality TV contestant can’t sing her first note or slice an onion without first doing a piece to camera revealing a decades-long battle with depression, or the loss of a parent to cancer. And if you’re an aspiring writer looking to break into the newspaper market, a tell-all story about your life as a sex worker is a guaranteed way to secure a byline.
The same arithmetic applies to literary magazine scene, where young women would be advised to explore battles with eating disorders or anxiety. Or if you’re a former reality TV star with a new show to plug, talking about your sex addiction or fake six-year online relationship is almost compulsory.
In this era of baring all, to gain attention one must disclose tales that are either titillating, traumatising or some messed up mix of both. We’ve created an attention economy that tells people, particularly young and female people, that the most interesting and valuable thing about you is the worst thing that has ever happened to you. It’s no surprise then we were all willing to go along with the tragic story of “wellness blogger” Belle Gibson, whose false claims of terminal brain cancer fooled not just her thousands of followers, but the tech giant Apple and publisher Penguin. The only surprise is that there aren’t more Gibsons fooling us.
This was on my mind as Gloria Steinem spoke to a full house as part of the Sydney Writers’ Festival. Steinem is one of the most prominent leaders of second wave feminism, the movement that gave us the slogan the “personal is political”, and naturally people are curious about Steinem the woman. And she politely answered Jennifer Byrne’s questions about her personal life – what influence did your father have on you? Tell us about the time you were sitting between Saul Bellow and Gay Talese and Talese dismissed you as a pretty girl. But while Steinem good-naturedly offered up each anecdote, she also valiantly kept trying to bring the conversation back to everyone else in the room: a movement, or the world, is not about individuals, but relationships and connections between people who are “linked, not ranked”, she reminded us.
Steinem told the audience she was more interested in listening to other people’s stories than in answering questions about herself, and she asked the audience to make a new friend before leaving. She invited activists to come up to the mike to make announcements.The difference between Steinem’s feminism and the kind of feminism now played out in the media and cultural industries is that where once telling a tragic personal story was just a starting point to building a movement, now it has become the whole point and the way to build a personal brand.
What’s most interesting about Hewson’s “rape representation” video is not that it’s a “militant feminist” piece challenging “patriarchy”. It’s that it is an artwork that speaks of a culture where performing terrible stories has practically become the default speaking mode for young women in the public eye. Turning the cameras onto yourself and your suffering may momentarily subvert the male gaze, perhaps putting it through some kind of feminist correction filter. But sometimes, turning the cameras on yourself simply just creates a harrowing house of mirrors. One that looks like nothing much more than a canny marketing strategy.
First published by Daily Review, 10 January 2016
Acrobats climb and fly in physics-defying movements through double helix ladders suspended from the sky. Dancers on crutches vault and sail over the stage without their bodies touching the floor. A rhinoceros plays piano while his twin tries to capture floating tissue sheets of music.
Inspired by the surrealist worlds of Salvador Dali, the Sydney Festival show La Verità takes you into a dream space that is, in turns, funny, sexy, nightmarish – and sometimes simply just gloriously baffling. That great father of the surrealists, Dr Freud, would no doubt approve.
Created by the Swiss-based company Compagnia Finzi Pasca, the show is built around a backdrop Dali painted for a ballet Tristan Fou (“Mad Tristan”), performed in 1944 by New York’s Metropolitan Opera. When Dali’s work was recently found packed away in an old box, director Daniele Finzi Pasca saw an opportunity to resurrect it for the otherworldly space of the theatre; a chance to celebrate the superhuman bodies of contortionists, acrobats and performers who slip in and out of characters like magicians. Beings who live in an alternate world where the normal rules are bent, turned upside down and inside out.
While there is beauty and awe aplenty, the show is also a reminder of how the dream language of surrealism has bled into the everyday world wherever you care to look: from the visual language of Dr Seuss, to drag and mardi gras floats, to the language of advertising, where surreal images are now part of the vernacular. Although the surrealist movement began with revolutionary ideals – and connections to communist parties in Europe – Dali himself was notorious in his pursuit of wealth. He worked with advertisers and, along with Warhol, he appeared in commercials for Braniff International Airways. Perhaps this explains the running joke throughout the show about money and poor struggling creatives, and the auctioning off of his painting to fund a retirement home for “decrepit old artists.”
These spoken word moments take us out of the dream and provide some interpretation. But sometimes you just want to be left to dream. Particularly for highlights such as the one that comes midway through the show, just before the spell-interrupting interval. A procession of regal figures bearing giant dandelions and acrobatic sprites leap and parade as a shower of what looks like champagne corks rain down – as if the partying gods above are holding their annual bacchanalian get together.
La Verità might not be the revolutionary art the first surrealists dreamed of, but it asks us to remember that the creatures and the things that exist in the world always hold the possibility of being arranged in ways that looks completely different to the one we know now.
First published by Daily Review, 14 January 2016
The Granville Town Hall is an intimate setting for The Events. The lived-in ordinariness of the space, the cups of tea and an urn out the front, are a good stand in for the play’s main setting: a church hall where a choir has assembled for rehearsals. “Join the big crazy tribe”, urges the lesbian church minister Claire (Catherine McClements). It’s the kind of banal place where a mass murder – the play’s subject matter – is never expected to occur, but one day just might.
The production notes say the show, by Scottish playwright David Greig, began as “an investigation” of the mass killing in Norway by Anders Breivik of 69 people on the island of Utoyo. The details of the shooting are left vague though, and this Sydney Festival version is sprinkled with some Australian references and locations. The Boy of the play could be any killer: Anders, or Martin Bryant, or one of any growing number of disaffected outsiders who’ve exploded one day in a deadly rage (and there’s a real, if unstated, poignancy to the fact that in the neighbouring suburb of Parramatta, just a few months ago, 15-year-old Farhad Khalil Mohammad Jabar shot and killed police force employee Curtis Cheng).
McClements does a finely tuned job of conveying a woman whose deep need for resolution drives her to madness, rage, and moments of mania and fantastical delusion. Her acting partner, Johnny Carr, has a strong stage presence; but he plays each of the many characters he portrays – ‘the boy’, ‘the father’, the ‘school friend’, ‘the psychiatrist’ etc – in such a similar, fairly flat, register it can be hard to distinguish where some characters start and end. Perhaps that’s deliberate, as Claire’s obsession with “the Boy” inflects her view of everyone she interacts with.
In one scene the choir (a nightly-changing cast drawn from local community choirs wherever the play is performed) become the audience of what seems to be a perverse reality television show. They take turns asking Carr, playing a “tribal warrior” (the murderer?) questions: from his favourite song, to what he likes to eat. It seems to be a comment on both the banality of the media’s attempt to make sense of the inexplicable, to find reasons for that which is beyond reason, as well as a comment on the way we can make celebrities and cult figures of people with deadly intentions.
The play, as my theatre date noted, could be a “little confusing at times”. But perhaps that is the point: “The sheer horror, the scale, where it came from. It bewilders me,” Claire says. Such tragedies can never be fully explained. And so, sometimes there’s nothing left to do but sing. And Clair’s community chorus – the “one big crazy tribe” – lifted the show out of relentless darkness, finding a beautiful harmony we so desperately need.
First published on Daily Review, 21 January 2016
Will the future be so full of people everyone will be squashed together, shoulders jammed up against each other as if they are on one long peak hour train ride? Or will there be just five lonely people left on earth, each with an entire continent to themselves? Will the future be a world of “push button democracy”, or a return to feudal times, where everyone is allocated two weeks each year to live as an aristocrat, spending the balance living as a peasant? The Sydney Festival About an Hour show Tomorrow’s Parties doesn’t leave too many future scenarios unexplored.
The staging is simple: a man and a woman back-lit by naked coloured globes. It’s as if they are in the dying hours of some low key celebration marking the passing of another year. They don’t move from their spot as they engage in an inventive and playful back and forth dialogue about the way the world will look at some unspecified future date.
Who are these two? They are a curious and beguiling mix of nerdily creative, unhinged professors and childlike simpletons. Is this an elaborate first date flirtatious tease? Or are they reciting verbatim the reveries of stoned undergraduates (and that’s not a swipe: some of the most mind expanding conversations can occur between stoned undergraduates). Or, are they low level marketing assistants at a firm of futurists? It’s a fun guessing game to play as you watch this pair: the woman (Cathy Naden), initially seems to be a low energy performer, but she proves to be a captivating story teller and conjurer of alternate worlds. The man (Jerry Killick) gives his character a playful, wicked edge, the kind of fun guest you want at every party.
Exploring the future is an interesting experiment for theatre – unlike, say, books and movies, where science fiction is an established genre, theatre is an art form usually more occupied with the present (or the very recent past). Maybe that’s why some of the most moving moments occur when the pair ponder that the future will be much like the present: there will still be big arguments over map reading and Christmas arrangements, people will have affairs and fall in love with exactly the wrong person at the wrong time. There will be corruption, sadism, child abuse. People will still write bad poetry. What will the future think of us? It’s a question posed late in the play, and one that’s about as interesting as the question of what the world will look like, “in the future”.
First published by Women’s Agenda, 12 January 2016
Betty Friedan. Gloria Steinem. Germaine Greer. Anne Summers. Naomi Wolf. Susan Faludi. What do these women all have in common – apart from writing some of the key texts of 20th century feminism, that is? They were all, of course, at one time or another journalists.
There’s a bitter-sweet irony to the drama that has ensnared Samantha Maiden (called a “mad F#@*ing witch” by a government minister Peter Dutton), Mel McLaughlin (propositioned on air by cricketer Chris Gayle) and, now, the Chanel 7 reporter Monika Radulovic – hugged by her male colleague Hamish McLachlan on her first day on air, of all things. It’s largely thanks to the writings and analysis of these women’s professional sisters that we can now so swiftly call these men and their behaviour to account.
Friedan was writing for women’s magazines when she noticed something wasn’t right with women in the middle class suburbs of America: she couldn’t get her investigation published by a magazine, but her work famously became The Feminist Mystique. Steinem donned a Playboy bunny outfit for an undercover investigation for Show magazine before making her name as a leader, along with Friedan, of second wave feminism. When Greer published The Female Eunuch she was already writing columns for the radical magazine Oz, and she was founding, and stripping for, the underground magazine Suck. Media-savvy Wolf has worked as a columnist, journalist and as a media advisor to Al Gore’s fated presidential campaign, all while churning out always provocative books, from The Beauty Myth to a biography of the vagina. Summers, of course, published the epic Damned Whores and God’s Police, and then later took on arguably the top job in feminist publishing: editor of Ms. Magazine. Faludi was a New York Times and Wall Street Journal writer before she wrote the influential 1992 book Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women.
Feminism owes a great debt to these women – and many others, including Mary Wollstonecraft, who was a journalist of her time and author too. These are women who’ve straddled feminism and the world of activism, academia and the media.
Look closely at their work – particularly The Feminine Mystique, The Beauty Myth and Backlash – and you’ll notice it is this last world, along with the world of advertising, that they’ve identified as so much a part of the problem. And if you just scoured Hollywood or popular TV for representations of female journalists, you wouldn’t know these great writers and thinkers ever existed. The popular image of a journalist (as Hadley Freeman has already noted) includes women using their job to find a man: think Amy Schumer in Trainwreck, or Sex and the City’s dating columnist Carrie Bradshaw, or Drew Barrymore’s undercover reporter who goes back to school and finds romance (Back to School), or Kate Hudson’s magazine writer in How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days.
Then there’s the reporters who are incredibly both incompetent and lovelorn: think Renée Zellweger’s eponymous turn in Bridget Jones’s Diary. At the other extreme, we see female reporters swapping sex for leaks and using their bodies to get information: see House of Cards (the young reporter who tries this dies, the older one is banished to the boring academy – nice). In an episode of the British TV show Black Mirror, a female reporter dashes into a toilet cubicle in the middle of a working day to sext a nude pic to her source in the PM’s office.
In between the choice of being a feminist icon, or a reporter more intent on getting the man, not the story, or a vixen who just can’t keep her clothes on, most female journalists in real life try to find a middle ground and the quiet life where they can just get on with their job. A space where they don’t make an issue of the sexism they confront, nor where they try to use their own gender or sexuality to personal advantage.
In recent days many have argued the fact that the three journalists at the centre of the most recent affairs have all attempted to shake off their incidents as just banter, as not worth getting worked up about, is evidence that the incidents don’t matter. Rather, I’d say it’s simply evidence that, for most female reporters, drawing attention to sexism is to be avoided because it would mean turning into the kind of reporter who, like Steinem or Friedan, is only able to talk about sexism and feminism forever after. And not everyone wants to be remembered as a feminist icon.
Chris Gayle should be condemned for his actions – and so should Hamish McLachlan (although I’m keeping an open mind that this more recent incident was a creepy and cynical set-up, as Lauren Rosewarne suggests). But much more importantly, we should also condemn a system which values men for what they do and what they know, and women for not just what they know and what they can do professionally, but also for how they look. But a reporter such as Mel McLaughlin can’t feasibly continue to do her job while simultaneously launching into a total critique of the system she works within. Few manage to consistently launch a running commentary on sexism whilst continuing to report and write on other topics. Annabel Crabb is perhaps a notable exception, in part because her wit, charm and intelligence is also exceptional (incidentally, Crabb’s 2014 book The Wife Drought deserves a place alongside the books mentioned at the beginning).
For female journalists to report on and expose sexism invariably means being willing to put their own lives and bodies on the line, to turn themselves into the story: to make a point of the very thing we are asking men not to make a point of. The roll call of writers and journalists at the beginning of this piece came to prominence by doing what reporters are taught not to do, but which feminism has taught women to do: to investigate their own lives, to expose and put their own bodies through public experiments. To make the personal political. A recent article in the New Republic noted a trend for aspiring young female journalists and writers to make a name for themselves by documenting their lives – turning their personal battles with food, rape, sexuality and love into the story, keenly serving themselves up to a media hungry for confession and intimate exposure. I don’t think that’s necessarily what earlier feminists had in mind. And not every woman wants to go to work and wage a war against sexism every day or talk about herself all the time. Nor should we have to.
First published by Daily Review, 11 December 2015
Social movement movies — films about pivotal moments in the race, class, gender and sexuality wars — all have a tricky problem to overcome. They need to create a central, believable character the audience can invest in, without over egging the character’s place in a story that is always a collective one.
Suffragette (notice the singular) does a half successful job of getting around this problem, in part by not focussing on the woman history remembers as the British movement’s leader, Emmeline Pankhurst. Director Sarah Gavron (Brick Lane) could easily have chosen to go down that path, but Meryl Streep as Pankhurst appears for just five minutes, loftily speaking from a balcony high above the movement’s foot soldiers. In any case, frequent references to Pankhurst throughout the film give her plenty of credit for being one of the movement’s driving forces.
By zeroing in instead on the fictional Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan), an ordinary laundress, it does a reasonable job of showing the every-woman nature of the movement, the interchangeability and shared grievances that produced such solidarity between women. Maud is only swept up into the movement’s heart when she is frogmarched into parliament as a last minute stand in for Violet (Anne-Marie Duff), an activist and Maud’s co-worker, who turns up black-eyed and beaten up by her husband the day she’s due to testify about women’s working conditions.
Flung into the witness seat, a trembling Maud tells the roomful of male legislators that she followed her late mother into the steaming, laborious business of laundering sheets and pressing shirts as stiffly as those worn by every man in the room. In an earlier scene, we see her interrupting her manager as he sexually abuses a young employee, and she sees her younger self, when she was his victim. Near the end of the film, the sense of a lineage of women is most literally referenced by the list of women’s names written on the title page of a book handed from one suffragette to the next.
“There’s another way of living this life,” she tells the assembled law makers, and Maud is understandably elated when her speech seems to press all the right buttons. But she’s soon radicalised in the space of an afternoon: when a parliamentary delegation tells rallying suffragettes they’ve decided not to give women the vote, the picketing women are ready to riot. But the camera shows them beaten and pummelled with blows from police batons and – in a prophetic echo of what’s to come – almost buried under foot by police horses.
The movie’s trailer makes much of the violence the radical wing of the suffragette movement resorted to – blowing up letterboxes and the Surrey home of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, David Lloyd George – but the truly shocking (and original) violence depicted in Suffragette is the violence inflicted on women from every quarter.
A simplistic story often told of feminism is that the early suffragettes were concerned with civil rights such as getting the vote and equal pay at work, while the most recent wave of feminism has been preoccupied with bodies, and the harm done to them by both men and women themselves. In its almost central concern for the physical violence done to women, the film does feel quite modern. But Suffragette continually draws some pretty explicit connections between public and private lives of women; how they were caught in a violent pincer between the home and the wider world.
Women’s bodies here are not just abused by men: there are the self-imposed hunger strikes of the suffragettes in prison (and the brutal force feeding conducted by guards), there are bodies constrained in corsets and underwear that pop up strung on clothes lines in every second scene, and there’s Maud’s scarred arm, burnt from the hot water at work. Then there’s Emily Davison (Natalie Press) who makes the ultimate sacrifice of her body when she dies stepping in front of King’s George V’s horse at the Epsom Derby.
Another modern-sounding note is the way women’s bodies are also constantly under surveillance in the film: Brendan Gleeson plays a police chief whose job it is to follow and pore over photographs of activists. Cameras are even set atop the prison walls, in scenes that suggest screenwriter Abi Morgan has at least skim read her Foucault. The women aren’t completely passive victims of surveillance though: in the fatal racecourse sequence, as the scene cuts between Maud and her soon-to-be-martyred friend and the assembled media’s cameras, you’re acutely aware of their plan to turn the power of the camera around and gain the world’s attention to their cause.
Suffragette alludes to political tensions within the movement, particularly over the question of violence. It also suggests working class women were the foot soldiers of a war where middle class women were pulling all the strings. But it mostly glosses over some of the more interesting political questions in the service of giving a human shape to the story: we see Maud losing her son as the price of gaining a political voice, and watching the maudlin scene where she dances in the rain outside her former home on his birthday, it’s hard not to add to downpour with tears. But you don’t get a really deep sense of rounded lives, or a sense of the complexity of politics and strategy either –both of which were, by contrast, portrayed excellently in Pride,surely one of last year’s best films.
You do get a sense of a movement: suffragettes pinning medals on each other as hunger strikers are released from prison, women organising actions and working the presses in head office. Mulligan is good, but she can come across like the polite girl who stumbled into the women’s room at university. When she takes to living in a church towards the film’s end, the suggestion that she’s been elevated to sainthood is a little overdone. Helena Bonham Carter, meanwhile, as a politically committed pharmacist, was clearly born to play a suffragette, and you wish the film told more of her story.
Those who would like more Streep will be disappointed. But our desire for a movie star to be at the centre of a feminist story is a reminder of how much feminism (and the culture at large) has changed over a century. Where once a feminist who wrote impassioned words or made great sacrifices would become a celebrity, now the trajectory is almost always reversed: you become a celebrity first and then — if you’re Lena Dunham or Tina Fey or Sheryl Sandberg — you publish your feminist tract and become the movement’s new flag bearer.
The collective has largely been replaced by the individual, and personal success is now the first — and sometimes the only — proof of one’s feminist credentials. Ideas and analysis are now secondary to a life story, which have become the main event, albeit dressed up in a feminist bow. Insofar as Suffragette focuses on the heroic personal story of one young woman, you could say it’s a pretty modern take on one of feminism’s earliest origin stories.