Alex Casey talks to Hanelle Harris, creator of Baby Mama’s Club, about changing the face of New Zealand television.
New Zealand has never seen women like the ones in Baby Mama’s Club before, and it’s about bloody time. The TVNZ web series, created by Hanelle Harris, follows four Māori and Pasifika women in Auckland whose lives are pulled together into one messy rat king by a mystery man named Johnny. There’s Sophia, who has just found out she is pregnant with his baby; Kowhai, a single mother juggling her young daughter and a music career; Shan, a nightclub owner from whom he stole a chunk of cash; and Malia, who is in the throes of raising his infant.
Although it features extremely memorable lines like “let’s have a little talk about this penis between us,” Baby Mama’s is not really about Johnny at all. Every episode, collaboratively lifting inspiration from each of the actor’s own lives, follows a different woman as they piece together their part of the puzzle. Dealing with everything from fuck boys to cultural appropriation to shady mums at the school gate, Baby Mama’s runs the gamut of experiences that don’t normally make it onto any local screen, web series or not.
I talked to creator Hanelle Harris about bringing the Baby Mama’s to life, and how Mihi from Shortland Street quietly changed the representation game.
I read somewhere that Baby Mama’s Club is the first time that New Zealand has ever seen a show led by four brown women, is that true?
It’s definitely the first time that we’ve seen a web series led by four brown women. I don’t know whether it’s the first time that we’ve seen it on screen ever, but I’ve asked a lot of people and nobody can quote anything else to date. I think some people have touted it as the female version of Sione’s Wedding. I could be wrong, but a lot of people seem to think it’s the first time they’ve seen anything like this, so we’ll go with it.
The fact that people have to rack their brains to try and think of an example at all is emblematic of a much bigger problem, isn’t it?
Totally. I think it’s half the reason why our audience is so passionate is because it does feel revolutionary. It’s not until you watch it that you realise we actually haven’t really seen a cast of brown women like this before. It’s definitely something that’s voiced by our audience, they’re like ‘wow, it’s so amazing to see all brown women leads’. It’s something that the general public have picked up so that in itself is indicative of where we’re at as an industry. For decades we’ve had the same kinds of stories from the same kinds of people, and I think New Zealand is getting a bit tired of that.
Did you feel a sense of responsibility to get things perfect? How did that come through in the way that you wrote the characters and told the story?
I definitely felt like I owed it to the audience because a lot of Māori and Polynesian women have felt they’ve never been justly represented. There was always that wanting to chase authenticity, and our audience is the best kind of bullshit meter for that. If they see themselves on screen and it’s not relative to who they are or who they know, they’ll call you out on it. The great thing about an online audience is that they’re incredibly honest. To see comments from people like ‘this is the first time I’ve seen relatable Māori or Pacific Island characters’ really validates the work, and you know that you’ve done your best to make sure that they’re authentic and truthful.
When you were growing up, where did you feel represented in New Zealand pop-culture?
The only characters I’ve ever felt were like me were Shavaughn Ruakere on What Now? and Mihi on Shortland Street. They were the two brown female characters that I’d see and realise ‘oh, wow, they’re Māori women’. I remember being obsessed with Power Rangers growing up and going to the hairdresser because I wanted a haircut like Kimberly, the power ranger who had that really straight fringe. I remember the hairdresser saying “no, you can’t have that kind of haircut because your hair isn’t like her hair” and me not understanding what she meant. She explained that it wouldn’t look the same but I still wanted it, and I ended up with this fluff ball on my forehead.
It was the same with the Spice Girls actually, Baby Spice was my favourite. As a little girl, I saw beauty as women who didn’t look like me, as young as five that was my whole perception of beauty. Now that I’m a mother and there are things like Moana on screen, I think it’s amazing that my daughter has her own Disney princess, you know? I still really never felt truthfully represented, but I clearly remember seeing people on TV like Shavaughn Ruakere and thinking “wow, she’s really beautiful.”
There’s that party scene where a horrible guy comments ‘you’re pretty for a brown girl’. Where did that line come from?
The characters were all inspired by the actors themselves and thematically, they’re all going through a bigger societal issue. For that particular character Sophia, being a half-caste woman means that she constantly changes the mask between living in a world where she’s not white enough to be white and she’s not brown enough to be brown. Luciane (Buchanan, actress) faces that quite a lot herself. People will say “oh, you’re Tongan, but you’re so pretty for a Tongan” which, for her, has always been like the hardest thing for her to hear because it almost invalidates her own mother’s beauty.
You do have to always pull yourself up on your own prejudices, but I don’t think people are actually aware of their prejudices until people are confronted by them. I know that particular line is really hard for people to hear. That’s something that Luciane has experienced a lot, people have told her more than once that she’s “pretty for a Tongan” as a compliment, like she should actually feel flattered that someone finds her pretty at all. So that’s where that line came from, and sadly there’s a lot of truth to it.
How close is Baby Mama’s to your experience as a young solo mum? Are there particular things in the series that are lifted from your life as well?
Kowhai’s storyline is about society’s perception of what a good mother is and the fact that she’s the solo mum facing that type of attitude that she didn’t do life the right way. There’s also that perception that once you choose motherhood you shouldn’t be dating, you definitely shouldn’t be sleeping around, and you shouldn’t be pursuing a career that’s not going to provide some sort of stability for your child. It’s almost like society expects that once you become a mother you should give up on your dreams.
My character Shan’s whole storyline is basically the struggle of being a career-oriented woman and how the other side of that is that she can’t be there for her family. As a creative entrepreneur, I have to sacrifice so much time with my children. I’ve missed out on both of my kids walking for the first time because I’ve been working. The trade-off is that we don’t have the liberty to pursue careers the same way that men do after kids. I think those two storylines are definitely inspired by my own life, but all of the actors that play the lead characters very much inspire their characters.
The content warning at the start of the show is in a different language every time, which is such a simple idea but kind of speaks to what the whole show is trying to do. When did you decide to throw that in?
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I came up with the idea around the time that the pilot came out. I was thinking about how a lot of people in the Samoan and Tongan, the Pacific Island community are actually really conservative, so I wanted a warning upfront that there was going to be coarse language and sexual themes. Like I said earlier, I think we have that responsibility to our audience and I think people assumed that we’d be these great role models who would act and talk and behave in a certain way.
We have that up front so that our audiences knew that this isn’t going to be a PC show, but it was also about finding places where we can promote our languages – especially when a lot of them are dying. We don’t have a Niuean or a Tokelauan in the show, but it was just about the Pacific Island people being proud that other Pacific Islanders were on screen, whether there was a character that represented your culture or not. You know, we just want people to feel like the show was made for them.
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