Our insatiable appetite for women’s tragic stories

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.



Sydney Festival 2016 Reviews


La Verità

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.

The Events

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.

Tomorrow’s Parties

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”.

The twinned story of journalism and feminism

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.


Suffragette: review

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.

Gender equality: are schools leading girls down the wrong path ?

First published by Women’s Agenda, 8 December 2015

At this time of year school communities across the country are assembling to hand out prizes and hear end of year speeches from departing school captains and leaders. They will also be welcoming the newly elected students who will take on leadership roles from the first day of school next year.

Six years ago, on my son’s first day of kindergarten, two of his school’s year six leaders took my uncharacteristically terrified five-year-old by the hand. They reassured his close-to-tears mother that his hysterics were a “normal” reaction to the first day of school, all the while smoothing his way to class. The girl student leader in particular (I won’t say her name to avoid unasked-for identification, but let’s just say it was the word for ‘a tumultuous weather event’) knocked me over with her preternaturally calm and self-possessed manner.

Last week, as my son and more than a dozen year five students rose to speak in front of their school to make a pitch to become school leaders next year, many recalled those first encounters with school leaders as their inspiration to put up their hands this year. Equal numbers of boys and girls stood up in front of hundreds of fellow students, equally confident. And, in a system that guarantees gender parity each year, there were separate ballot papers for the boy and girl candidates.

This kind of recognition of school leaders from both the male and female student body is, of course, a great thing. Yesterday the Sydney Morning Herald reported the no holds barred end of year speech given by Ravenswood school captain Sarah Haynes, who criticised her school for being “more like businesses where everything becomes financially motivated,” – more proof, if it was ever needed, that girls can be brave, honest, smart and forthright as any boy (whatever the complex story behind her words).

A quick glance at the selection procedures for school captains and leaders in NSW comprehensive public schools will show you that most aim to select equal numbers of male and female students for leadership positions. But this official approach to equity only highlights the huge disparity between what we’re teaching children at school – where a gender utopia of sorts is in place – and what happens once children leave school. Of the 18 heads of government and opposition parties in Australia today, you’ll find just one female: Annastacia Palaszczuk. We can’t hold schools to account for what goes on as children become teens and then young adults who graduate from school – this slow and steady chopping away of girl’s belief that they can be leaders as they age. But lately, I’ve been wondering if we’re letting girls down by not talking to them more honestly, and earlier, about how the world will shape their lives in a thousand different ways to the boy next to them.

Public schools routinely celebrate NAIDOC week, they ask students to wear orange shirts to celebrate cultural diversity, and they set assignments where student’s study the plight of refugees. And so they should. But when it comes to gender discrimination, there is a comparatively deafening silence.

The best possible way to interpret this silence is that there is a well-meaning, but naively positive, emphasis on a “you go” girl rhetoric. One designed to boost girls’ confidence and belief that they can do anything. This message of personal empowerment might be the right kind of personal psychology in a neo-liberal world, but it’s not a truly honest description of the world girls are entering into. So I’m thrilled to hear that Fitzroy High, in inner city Melbourne, has developed what is said to be the country’s first accredited subject in the Australian curriculum to look at gender inequality.

Fitzroy High School’s Feminist Collective, along with teacher Briony O’Keeffe, have developed classes that explore the term “patriarchy”, and examine statistics on the gender wage gap, violence against women, and female representation in sport. Of course, it had to be Fitzroy High: the school where a rookie school teacher called Helen Garner was booted out the classroom for discussing sex with students back in the 1970s.

Predictably, the new curriculum has faced opposition in the playground and from the usual frothing online commentators. Male students have apparently said they should form a “men’s rights collective” to protect themselves against the feminists, The Age reported. And some have expressed fears the course might addle women’s brains and turn them into either victims or man haters: Ms O’Keeffe said some people had assumed the resources provided would promote misandry, or distort other forms of discrimination, the ABC reported.

Discussion about sexism always seems to attract a high level of vitriol and fear, which shows how deeply held some people’s notions of gender are, and how insecure any questioning of gender can make people feel. Perhaps the closest parallel is any discussion of gay marriage, which continues to be plagued by an insistence that we have to consider the feelings of, and impact on, the world’s straight population.

Along with her comments reassuring readers that her resource “would address how boys and men also suffered some effects of sexism through stereotyping and the perpetuation of gender norms”, Ms O’Keeffe was careful to say the course will look at how race and sexuality intersect with gender. That’s great, awesome really. But it’s also just reminder of how naturalised sexism is: how women need to be always inclusive and accommodating, always looking out for any possibility they might be causing offence. No doubt there’s a module there. I’m sure Sarah Haynes (and a girl named after a ‘tumultuous weather event’) could help them out with that.

House Husbands: less mad men, more dad men

First published by Daily Review, 24 September 2015

Another Monday night, another hour thrashing out the issues de jour: gay marriage, IVF, the privatisation of public assets*, all delivered with cleverly scripted lines. No, I’m not referring to Q&A: I’ve tried watching that program lately, but I usually end up passing out on the couch, thankful I’m not poor flu-afflicted Simon Sheikh, slamming my head down on the panel mid-show with no one but Sophie Mirabella as my first responder. No, I refer, of course, to the much better use of a televisual hour: the delightful House Husbands.

For those who haven’t been watching, here’s a quick cheat sheet. House Husband’s fourth season kicked off last month with two parallel storylines, both involving triangles of two men and a woman. In one story, a widowed, disgraced former football star is raising three children alone. As the season opened, he discovered his daughter might be the product of a liaison his late wife had with his former manager (really, it’s not as tragically hilarious as it sounds).

In the second storyline, a gay couple discuss plans to have a biological child (they are already raising two non-biological children). But things get off to a bad start when one of the pair secretly arranges to donate his sperm to the single lesbian who runs the school tuck shop, a woman on the wrong side of 40 who wants to satisfy her own biological yearnings.

So far, so soap opera. But what’s so interesting here is the almost casual way the show is turning inside out arguments about nature, nurture and what makes a family. The heterosexual father, previously so sure of his children’s provenance, realises everything he thought about his family might not be true (not that he loves his daughter any less). The gay couple, once they move past their inept first attempts at child bearing, decide to go down the IVF route with tuck shop lady and a surrogate. They are choosing to have children in a more deliberate and thoughtful fashion than many straight couples can claim to (and by involving a lab and a battery of medical tests every step of the way, they will, not incidentally, have more certainty about any eventual child’s biological origins than many straight families).

While gay dad no. 1 has been a natural parent from the very start – he’s the one parent on the show who intuitively understands the learning difficulties of one of the show’s children – the football star, meanwhile, comes to fatherhood via a rockier path: through a history of drugs, strippers, separation and, finally, his wife’s death. Functional and dysfunctional families have nothing to do with sexuality or biology, the show implicitly seems to say. In fact, it’s making such a cogent argument for gay families surely it’s only a matter of time before the NSW education minister declares a fatwa on Channel 9 and production company Playmaker.

We’re used to our soap operas dealing with matters of life and death. But male characters’ relationships to life and death are usually carried out at one step removed from their personal lives: in their roles as doctors, policemen and emergency workers. There’s a tradition of family dramas featuring widowed fathers (My Three Sons, The Nanny, Diff’rent Strokes): fathers thrust into nurturing roles normally reserved for mothers. But a show like House Husbands, where men have intensely ticking biological clocks, where they are at the centre of all the life stories, and where they are the emotional and social lynchpins of their communities – running the P&C, patching up the small broken hearts and bruised skin – is a new thing entirely. While the mothers of House Husbands aren’t exactly peripheral, they’re not exactly central either.

The show didn’t start off so promisingly. Season one seemed to be playing the idea of dad at home mostly for laughs and eye rolling, look-at-what-goes-wrong-when-dads-are-left-in-charge-moments: in early episodes children left in care of fathers went missing, or ended up behind the wheels of a runaway bus. The show’s working mums bore the other end of the cliché: too busy to notice her daughter is being bullied/falling badly behind at school/her husband is about to have an affair with their child’s teacher.

But as the show has aged, the clichés have given way to some complexities. By the fourth season the four friends have had tiffs and reconciliations, they’ve bought and sold a pub together, they’ve helped each other through separation, death and court appearances. These guys are close. They don’t just lend their tools to each other, they lend each other their partners’ uteruses (and what makes that more sweet is that it’s the most old school dad, Lewis, who gives his blessing for his wife to be a surrogate for the gay dads).

Sure, it’s still mainly a white middle class world, where the families live in bungalows a bit nicer than ours, with public school-going children who look a little bit better groomed than yours or mine. But such criticisms are picky in a show that is funny (Lewis mansplaining breastfeeding to his middle daughter’s mothers’ group) and cathartic for the working mother (who can watch Mark supplicating himself to his horrible boss for paternity leave). And it’s poignant: when disgraced footballer struggles with a shared custody order, his mates wait with him in a day-long vigil outside the house where his daughter is on an access visit. Lovely. Just lovely.

In a year that has been dominated by weekly news of the after effects of the most murderous consequences of male violence, a show where men are the central life forces, where gender roles are upturned, feels exactly like what we need. It’s become the fashion lately to point to male disadvantage to explain male violence – the evidence is, at best, inconclusive, and it doesn’t explain why privileged men are perpetrators, while disadvantaged women, by and large, are not. You don’t need to be Andrea Dworkin to realise that it’s persistently rigid and unequal gender roles, the unequal power relationships between men and women, not men and men, that are at the heart of the problem. And as much as you might want to airily dismiss the power of a TV show to transform culture – and you might be justified – there’s also something undeniably compelling about the opposite idea: that you can’t be what you can’t see – even if that does sound more than just a little bit naff (and yes, of course it’s been used before, by a White House campaign to encourage little girls to become leaders – I checked).

House Husbands lets us see a fantasy about new men that also feels more than a little bit true. And on a Monday night, after another day of the work-life juggle, watching Firass Dirani run a team of kids through an exercise training session while Gyton Grantley hands out home made meals to mums, House Husbands functions as a kind of cultural crack for stressed out mothers.

After Karl Stefanovic’s recent year-long feminist performance art piece – wearing the same blue suit every day to see if anyone noticed (it seems no one did) – Channel 9 is almost starting to look like the go to institution for some of the most incisive cultural commentary going around. Who would have thought it? The world has turned upside down.

*I refer, of course, to the privatisation of a school canteen.


Ricki and The Flash covers a mother of a problem

First published by Women’s Agenda and Daily Review, 27 August 2015

Our belief in the mother-child bond is so elemental, so taken-for-granted, it’s hard to imagine a more monstrous female figure, culturally speaking, than the mother who walks away from her children. So how does Hollywood make a film about a mother who has not only abandoned her brood, but is a woman well into her 60s – a demographic that leads a Hollywood film about as often as Cory Bernardi leads the Sydney Mardi Gras.

Director Jonathan Demme (Silence of the Lambs, Married to the Mob) seems to have figured out the only possible way to make it work is to call in Meryl Streep – an actor of such greatness and inherent likability that she can pump warm blood into even the most unattractive character (see her titular editor in The Devil Wears Prada).

Here Streep plays Ricki Rendazzo, a musician who in her youth might have been the next Chrissy Hynde or Bonnie Raitt, but is now fronting her band The Flash in a residency at a forgettable LA pub. She left her husband and children years ago, and as she introduces her band, including her guitarist boyfriend (Rick Springfield, playing Peter Pan as a rocker), it’s clear they have become her substitute family.

Ricki can’t parent in part because she’s an eternal child – she still dresses like it’s Saturday night in 1986, and she’s always broke – but also because she’s still chasing the success she tasted briefly years ago. She’s got that streak of bloody single-mindedness you see in some of the older contestants on The Voice. She’s the mother who wasn’t satisfied with Woolf’s room of one’s own: she wanted a life of her own.

In narrative terms, the early loss of a mother has dramatic consequences for children – it’s the spark that sets off classic plots. For daughters in particular the loss of a mother is followed by privations and romantic hurdles (Cinderella and Snow White) fear of commitment to the right man (Anne Elliot in Persuasion), or dangerous attractions to dark men (Cathy in Wuthering Heights).

Here, the plot gets moving when Ricki is on a break from her checkout shift at a grocery store, eyes still bloodshot from the gig the night before, and her ex-husband calls to say her daughter (played by Streep’s real life daughter Mamie Gummer) is in trouble: her husband left her for another woman and she can barely get out of bed.

Ricki flies to her ex’s stately compound – it’s in a gated community, with security to keep the evil outside at bay, but inside the family is struggling with their internal demons. Ricki’s daughter Julie all is unwashed hair and pure rage, and her family want to blame her. “You’re the reason she’s crazy,” someone spits.

Pete, her businessman ex, is beautifully played by Kevin Kline, and it’s a pairing that’s believable, in an opposites attract kind of way. Last time we saw them together was Sophie’s Choice, where Streep played a mother whose miserable fate was to choose between her two children. Here, her choice is between her children and following her dream.

“I couldn’t have two dreams!” she protests to Pete. “I thought we were your dream!” he replies, as sad and wounded as the day she left. He still loves her – it’s all over his face – in the inexplicable way we can continue to love those who cause us no end of pain.

At the family home Streep is like an alien who’s just landed on another planet – alone she slides her fingers over the gleaming surfaces, she can’t quite believe the plentiful fridge, the opulent bathroom. You can feel her being simultaneously repulsed and attracted by the retentive order and bounty of it all.

Pete’s second, younger wife Maureen (Audra McDonald) returns full of benevolent superiority: “That dressing gown looks great on you. You should keep it.” While Ricki is all id, leaking guilt at not being the perfect breakfast cereal ad mother, Maureen is all superego, full of just repressed rage at all the thankless years she’s spent filling Ricki’s shoes. They’re the embodiment of the dilemma that women aren’t supposed to have it all: they must choose family or career, they can do one or the other well, but not both.

The monster question hangs over the movie, and it’s a relief when Ricki tackles the double standards head on towards the middle of the film, in her version of the misogyny speech. Men like Mick Jagger can leave families and go out and have sex with whomever they please and still have respect and love because “you’re the man,” she lashes her stunned audience between songs. “But if you’re a woman, god forbid, you’re the monster.”

The script (by Diablo Cody of Juno fame) attempts to complicate the story by making Streep’s character a troop-loving republican, one son gay and the other a bleeding heart liberal. It feels like a clunkily imposed detail, but then you realise it stops the film descending into simple opposites of good and bad, progressive and conservative. And her sons’ hurt and anger highlight how deep our expectations of the “good” mother are, no matter what our politics.

For a while the movie seems to get stuck in a loop of airport, taxi and pub scenes that eventually start to blur – ok, we get that the stage is where Ricki comes alive, her real home (Streep sings and plays guitar here very well – and all the numbers are perfectly fine if you’re a Springsteen and Petty fan, less so if you’re not). The evolution in Ricki’s character, when it comes, occurs in sudden bursts, and at times seems depressingly equated with learning to behave like a good woman. After she returns from part-rapprochement with her family we see her back at the supermarket, where her young black male manager nods approvingly at her sudden willingness to smile and be nice to customers. To do that emotional labour that’s expected of women.

After meandering for a while, the end seems to come in a rush (warning: spoilers ahead – though no plot twists come as any great surprise). The story that starts with one child’s divorce ends with Ricki attending another child’s wedding. Penniless, her gift to her son is her music. A moment that guests fear will end in a train crash ends with catharsis, as the monster is well and truly slayed and Ricki and her band of band of misfit minstrels take to the stage to mend everyone’s hearts. As Ricki sings Springsteen you can glimpse the mother who once must have surely sung lullabies to her children, sending them to sleep feeling soothed and safe.

Ricki has learnt how to love a little, and her family have learnt how to let go and live a little. The mother wounds and the mother heals. She’s the problem and the solution. The wholeness of the person, the film seems to say, depends on wholeness of the family. It’s a heavy load for mothers to bear.

Ending with a wedding suggests hope that the next generation might do things differently. And as the groom and bride take to the floor to dance to Ricki’s impromptu song, the bridesmaids and groomsmen join them in what looks like a more free-form version of the wedding dance moves they planned earlier. But the women are still on one side, men on the other; they look like they’re mostly working over an old script, but they’re moving forward, ever-so-slightly.

Read the story on Women’s Agenda or Daily Review.

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