Our queer and women comics have been charging ahead and spotlighting its issues with gender and sexuality. Dejan Jotanovic writes.
Something huge happened last month. We did it. We won. We took home the mighty trophy, prompting an encouraging Instagram post from our humble PM. Rose Matafeo (Funny Girls) won ‘Best Comedy Show’ at the 2018 Edinburgh Fringe, the world’s largest arts festival. Matafeo is the first Kiwi to take home the crown in the festival’s almost 40-year history. She officially joins comedy heavyweights Dylan Moran (1996), Steve Coogan (1992) and Hannah Gadsby (2017), whose own show, Nanette, has quickly collected universal acclaim and many a hot-topic think-piece since its Netflix debut.
Congratulations New Zealand, we’ve officially been certified funny.
But we’ve always been pretty funny. Foreigners love talking about Flight of the Conchords. Taika Waititi single-handedly saved the Thor movies with Roflnarok. Sheep too, they’re kinda silly looking. New Zealand has a rich and diverse history of bringing the laughs and punching far above its weight where comedy is concerned. We’re daggy, endearing, and our jokes seem to roll out quite nice because of those clipped vowels that form the backbone to our accent.
Funnily enough, our comedy doesn’t really take the cake in terms of national identity or iconography. Ever since we were just tiny sausage rolls in primary school, we’ve been fed the narrative that boys play rugby and girls play netball and also watch the boys play rugby. It’s really no surprise then that most of the coverage of Rose’s epic Edinburgh win was overshadowed by the All Blacks beating the Wallabies on Saturday night. A real testament to our national priorities.
It’s easy to think of ourselves as progressive though: we were the first country to give women the vote and we’ve had three women so far steer our nation’s ship. We legalised marriage equality without the need of a dumb and wasteful public vote (don’t talk about the flag) and we’re home to Georgina Beyer, the world’s first openly transgender mayor who then became the world’s first openly transgender Member of Parliament. We’re one of the only places in the world where sex work is completely decriminalised.
But when it boils down to it, we’re actually pretty traditional in the way we negotiate our day-to-day politics around gender and sexuality. Earlier this year, Gender Equal NZ published its Gender Attitudes Survey, “a snapshot of how New Zealanders think about gender at home, work and in the community.” Results were somewhat scattered. For example, when asked if “being funny” was more important for men or women, 9% of respondents said men, 3% of respondents said women (hey Rose), 56% said both, and 30% said they were ambivalent. ‘Being sporty’ saw similar results: 15% voted men, 1% women, 48% both, and 34% neither. When asked if it was okay for boys to play netball, 75% were chill with it, 16% didn’t really care, and 8% were like ‘nah’. Flip it over to girls playing rough sports like rugby and you’ll notice a pretty similar skew (81% yeah, 12% neutral, 6% nope).
None of this is too mincing.
But consider that 23% of respondents said it was more important for women to “be able to cry in front of friends” compared to the measly 1% that voted men. Only 58% disagreed that “a man who doesn’t fight back when he’s pushed around will lose respect as a man.” Answers around consent and violence were pretty fucking whack – 24% agreed that “rape happens when a man’s sex drive is out of control,” only 26% disagreed that “false rape accusations are common”. When asked whether “hitting out is an understandable response for a man when his wife/girlfriend tries to end a relationship, only three-quarters of the sample disagreed.
What the fuck?
Questions also poked at attitudes circling gay/lesbian/bisexual women and men. Again, pretty grim results. One in every four people wouldn’t be comfortable playing sports with a gay/bisexual man, and around 35% weren’t gunning for a lesbian/bisexual women as their doctor or for them to even become a parent. So basically, even when queer people do comply with traditional gender roles (men playing sport, women in health/parenting) a good chunk of the larger populace doesn’t want a bar of it. Gotcha.
“I remember one time being backstage just before a show – Janet Jackson playing, purple tinsel glistening against the stage lights – and suddenly hearing loud blokey laughter coming from the audience. I completely froze,” says Chris Parker (The Male Gayz, The Breaker Upperers) whose own show, Camp Binch, premiered at the 2018 NZ International Comedy Festival in May. “When I’m out on stage performing I’m in complete control of my environment, I actively choose to make the set bright, gorgeous, sparkly, flood the stage with warm, campy lights… all these choices support me when performing, but there’s still that tiny part of me that needs acceptance from the entire audience… so when I hear something that sounds aggressively masculine – all those men laughing loudly – I resort back to my high school insecurities.”
Parker says there’s almost a PTSD feeling a lot of queer people carry from childhood into adolescence and further to adulthood. It’s a deep discomfort with being in steeply heterosexual spaces, the way we downplay “atypical” behaviour, perhaps morph our voice to be a little more “mannish”. But these are all defence mechanisms – ways of ensuring our emotional and physical safety – in spaces that have historically been sites of trauma. “My mind tells me I’m in for a rough show, but that it’s just for an hour and I’ll get through it… Of course, I’m never in danger out there thankfully, but those past experiences can’t help but come flooding back when it’s triggered like that.” While we can all sleep a little better knowing that times have changed and most straight people don’t hate our guts, it’s still difficult shaking those base feelings away.
Camp Binch is focused around four photographs which played timeline to Parker’s childhood in Christchurch. Peppered with personal anecdotes and confessions, the show morphed into a proud rally against the need to conform, hide and shy away from his own sexuality. The rhythm of the show was disrupted with a series of heckles, as Parker donned a number of wigs to personify thoughts from imaginary audience members dressed as your typical heterosexual Kiwi bloke and housewife. Anyone identifying as queer would immediately recognise the tune of these imagined observations: ‘It’s totally fine if you’re gay! We accept you, tolerate you, but do you have to be so… loud?’ In these moments Parker interrogated the shallow levels of acceptance that many New Zealanders approach queer politics and people: be gay, but don’t be too gay… play rugby, but don’t play rugby with me.
But the most interesting facet of Camp Binch was that its climax came less as a punchline and more of a punch to the gut of how our current system might be failing us. Here, Parker made his audience consider the spaces that keep queer youth safe. The 2011 earthquake devastated the Christchurch Boys’ High School’s theatre building, and with no initial intention for its restoration, Parker feared the next generation of queer kids and others who didn’t quite belong would have their health and safety deeply compromised, “I don’t know how I would’ve survived school without it.”
“You do the most you can in your own backyard,” says Parker. “I don’t like this idea of people washing their hands clean from responsibility because of [their] privilege… for me [Camp Binch] was a personal investigation into saving Christchurch Boys’ High School’s theatre but that interest or passion will look entirely different on somebody else.” Comedy is inherently political; a way of turning heads towards our base stereotypes, values and behaviours, all to the beat of thigh-slapping fun.
Even the greatest tragedies are threaded with humour to ease tension. King Lear is probably Shakespeare’s most depressing play: a narcissistic king thrown from riches to rags by his bloodline. An eye’s gouged out, the future of the kingdom’s in jeopardy, and basically, everyone dies. But even Lear has his trusty fool, a character architected to churn chuckles and become the reflection of our title character.
“Who is it that can tell me who I am?” bellows Lear. “Lear’s shadow,” the Fool quips in. At this point, Lear is but a shadow of the man he once was: crying, pleading, maybe naked at this point (it’s all very symbolic *thunder cracks*). But the Fool is also the King’s shadow character. It’s therefore the Fool that can tell Lear who he is. Because the Fool, through comedy, speaks truth to power. This all harks back to the historic way jesters were used in the king’s court, both as entertainment and in providing the king with news that no one else would dare say.
We don’t have to look that far in our own history to see how comedy has played weapon against shifting political climates. “The history of New Zealand’s comedy is two lesbian sisters” offers Parker. Indeed, Jools and Lynda Topp have been entertaining kiwis across the nation since the early 80s with their country music stylised singing and comedy. The late 90s saw the birth of their own TV show, as the duo played satire to a number of kiwi characters: camp mothers, the bowling ladies, and most notably, Ken and Ken, where the pair performed in drag as “typical kiwi blokes”. Step back a bit and consider how radical this is: two queer women performing in drag, scrutinising traditional conceptions of masculinity against the backdrop of rural NZ, and at a time in our history when our politics around gender and sexuality were much less developed, at least legislatively.
Their political legacy has extended beyond comedy: the sisters were part of protests and organising movements around nuclear energy, homosexual law reform, Māori land rights and apartheid. They’ve simultaneously helped shape dialogue around gender/sexuality with their own art while lending their voice to progressive moments throughout history. Their personal is political, and they’ve come to make the political deeply personal. In 2004, Lydia and Jools Topp became Members of the New Zealand Order of Merit, and in 2018 they were appointed Dames for their services to entertainment as part of the Queen’s Birthday Honours.
The Topp Twins paved the way for greater representation. In 2018, this takes shape in projects like The Male Gayz, Chris Parker and Eli Matthewson’s hot takes on New Zealand’s gay male culture. But where our favourite lesbian twins used comedy, satire and parody to expose the absurdities of our country’s ideas of masculinity and femininity, The Male Gayz gives Parker and Matthewson comedic licence to just be: be unashamedly themselves, be camp, be two gay Christchurch born icons who just happen to be funny. Parody and satire are undoubtedly important tools for speaking truth to power, but it’s encouraging that our queer comedy can now take different shapes and sizes.
The advent of new social platforms and avenues has also seen New Zealand comedy bloom more wildly in the diversity of its talents and tales. The New Zealand AIDS Foundation has recruited comedian Tom Sainsbury to help educate people on HIV. Madeleine Sami (actor, director and writer of The Breaker Upperers) is set to co-host The Great Kiwi Bake Off. National treasure, Anika Moa, has unleashed her own interview series. But there’s still a bunch of work to do if we’re going to reshape our not-very-funny attitudes about gender and sexuality. Hannah Gadsby explained that comedy isn’t the cure – stories are. Comedy is merely the honey that makes the medicine go down better. With Rose Matafeo’s mighty win in mind, it’s looking like New Zealand storytelling will continue to smell just as sweet.