This International Women’s Day, remember our victories.

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The other night, at my feminist book club (yes, I am a Portlandia stereotype, what of it), we were discussing Clementine Ford’s Fight Like A Girl. While many of the younger women in the room felt galvanised by Ford’s treatise, the eldest woman in the room – one of the few seniors present – had a strong reaction to the contrary. “It made me feel terrible,” she said. “I have been working on this for so long … And it sounds like my generation achieved nothing.”

The room shifted uncomfortably. So many were new to feminism and shining-eyed, just beginning to laugh at #NotAllMen and shout back at street harassers. Here was a battler from the second wave, still eddying at the shoreline with the rest of us, a reminder that the work of social change is hard and long and cyclical. The gender wage gap has actually grown. Our first woman prime minister was treated to spectacular misogyny by the public, media, and her fellow ministers (chief of whom became her successor and the Minister For Women). In Queensland last week, even an attempt to decriminalise abortion was blocked. We have to keep fighting the same fights over and over.

Julia-GIllard

At home, after book club, I read this quote from Rebecca Solnit’s Hope In The Dark: “We need a litany, a rosary, a sutra, a mantra, a war chant for our victories.” If we forget our successful milestones and focus only on how far we have to go, she urges, we risk despair and the paralysis of inaction. A huge, important part of the feminist project is identifying problems, whether it be measuring the wage gap or giving women the language to describe mansplaining. It’s important but we can’t get amnesia about how much our foremothers achieved. We need to protect ourselves from the inaction of despair.

I, personally, have gorged enough on despair lately. Last year was ridiculous, and it seems like each day of 2017 some new low is being established by the Trump administration. I need to remember how far we’ve come despite current circumstances. This International Women’s Day, I want to chant our victories, like a hopeful, non-murderous version of Arya Stark muttering a list of names to myself.

Since sometimes feminism’s successes can feel distant and intangible, I’m going to focus on just what’s happened in the past twelve months.

In November, I voted for a woman for President of the United States of America. Even her loss to a misogynist, or her flaws as a candidate, can’t erase the power that casting that ballot had for me.

Out of that horrific US election came some positives for women: Kamala Harris, California’s attorney general, became the first Indian-American and the second Black woman ever elected to the Senate; Catherine Cortez Masto became the first Latina elected to the Senate; Tammy Duckworth became the first female senator to have served in a combat zone, and the second Asian-American woman ever elected to the Senate; Stephanie Murphy became the first Vietnamese-American woman to be elected to Congress; Muslim woman and former refugee Ilhan Omar became America’s first Somali-American legislator; and Pramila Jayapal became the first Indian American woman elected to Congress. In her victory speech, she called her victory “a light in the darkness”.

Lemonade happened. Never forget.

rs-238714-Beyonce_Lemonade00

Last year, Pakistan passed strong anti-rape laws and finally closed the legal loophole that allowed perpetrators of so-called ‘honour killings’ (the colloquialism for families murdering girls and women who have married someone of their own choosing or some other ‘shameful’ act) to avoid conviction. This progress was largely thanks to Sughra Imam, the former senator who first introduced the bill proposing the new law, and film-maker Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy with her Oscar-nominated documentary A Girl In The River: The Price Of Forgiveness. And Obaid Chinoy’s subject, Saba Qaiser – the girl whose father shot her in the head, put her in a bag and threw her in a river for marrying without his consent. But she survived. Obaid Chinoy said of Qaiser, “she was very open to telling her story because she believed very strongly that she didn’t want anyone else to go through what she had.”

The US Treasury Department announced that Harriet Tubman would replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill. Tubman, born into slavery in the 1820s, escaped Maryland and then immediately turned around to go back and free her family. She made around thirteen missions to rescue enslaved families and friends, in the secrecy of night, and was nicknamed ‘Moses’. Andrew Jackson was alive at the same time as Harriet Tubman; he owned hundreds of slaves. He is known for passing a law that forced First Nations Americans off their lands. Tubman’s face will replace his.

On the first day of Donald Trump’s presidency, at least five million people joined a global protest called the Women’s March, with half a million of those people marching in Washington DC. I was one of the 5,000 people marching in Melbourne, and feeling the press of bodies and seeing the signs women had made with their own hands to protest white male supremacy – it blew away the cobwebs of despair for me, for a day.

Remember that, at the Sydney Women’s March, a few Trump supporters paid $4,000 to skywrite “TRUMP” above the protest. Above the 10,000 protesters. They may have money, but we have the numbers.

Nevertheless, she persisted.

Remember our victories; build on them. Stay in solidarity with all other women, that we keep pulling each other forward with each success. Make your reproductive rights language inclusive of trans and non-binary folks; make your protests accessible to disabled people; decolonise your feminism; think beyond what the movement can do for you. What can you do for the movement?

In 2016, for many women, the world moved sharply towards a dystopia. (For many, it was already there.) In 2017, let’s imagine the kind of world we want to march towards. And persist until we get it.

 

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The view from six months in

Posts, The Other Movie Project

It has been six months since I started The Other Movie Project. On New Year’s Day, 2015, I vowed that I would watch every movie released near me that did not revolve around a white guy. Most movies we see here in Australia are about a white male character; I was interested in the stories about everyone else – the other movies. At first, it was an easy gig; January was quiet. There was only one movie that really qualified for the project: Reese Witherspoon’s Wild. Slim pickings for women and people of colour who wanted to see stories about them (and this one movie was about a white woman, so, really not great for people of colour). But Wild was so vibrant, so different to the storytelling I was used to seeing at the cinema, that I couldn’t wait for the rest of the year.

I’m interested in representation. For two years, I spent every Sunday co-hosting a feminist radio show on community radio. I’ve been writing intermittently about women in film for some time. But I wanted to challenge myself to see more films, gather more intel on what is available to movie-goers. And then I read this article on Colorlines: ‘Study Finds White People Don’t Watch Black Movies. Who’s To Blame?’

Dear White People (2014)

(Hint: it’s white people.)

The article notes that people of color are underrepresented across all aspects of the film industry. It’s notoriously hard for non-white actors to find roles, let alone good roles, let alone the kind of starring roles that kickstart a successful career. Studio executives get nervous that casting non-white people in important roles will put audiences off – because, y’know, the white experience is universal and everything else is niche. Right? Well, it turns out this bias may not be (just) a top-down cultural conspiracy, but the market responding to consumers. The study featured in the Colorlines article found that “‘minority cast members’ do in fact lead white audiences to be less interested in seeing certain films.”

Like, holy shit. That’s pretty damning. The industry exec’s are shovelling whitewash down our throats because we are kind of asking for it. And when I say “we” I do mean white people.

I realised that I was guilty of this bias, too. How often did I seek out movies about characters who were Black, Asian, Middle-Eastern? Yet how often could you find me searching “Anne Hathaway movie” on YouTube late at night, yelling “take my moneyyy”? I am a white person, comfortable in an entertainment culture that is insanely whitewashed. (I don’t even want to talk about The Last Airbender.) OK, so maybe I’m not that comfortable with it anymore. Some things can’t be unseen. I dearly hope that means I’m growing.

Geena Davis, whose Institute on Gender and Media is collecting critical data on the disappearance of women on screen and behind the camera, has said:

[M]edia images exert a powerful influence in creating and perpetuating our unconscious biases. However, media images can also have a very positive impact on our perceptions.

Before this project, I’ve self-imposed filters on the stuff I watch before, to great positive effect. There was the year I cut out all romance narratives from my life. Movies, books – if they were in any way classified as ‘romance’, I was out. It drove one friend of mine crazy (sorry Tiff), as she tried to introduce me to The Lizzie Bennet Diaries. But LBD is a Pride & Prejudice adaptation, which is kind of romance, so I refused. (As soon as the year was up I binge-watched that puppy, all 100 episodes, and hooo it is good. I was pleasantly surprised to find it is mostly about the relationships between Lizzie Bennet and the women in her life, and has a bunch of non-white actors who are just there, no big deal, just acting, just not being white.) Cutting out romance was just what I needed to purge some toxic gender-role bullshit about relationships from my mind and soul. After 12 months without any exposure to Matthew McConaughey shushing women, I felt better able to engage with romantic narratives without letting their sinister voices get inside my head.

At the end of last year, I realised – with the help of people smarter than me explaining it to me on the internet – that I would need to actively seek out movies with better gender and race representation. Movies like Jurassic World and Ted 2 (good god) would be thrown in front of my eyes on buses and billboards all the time, but I’d need to work a little harder to filter out the white-dude bias.

Which brings me to The Other Movie Project. I wanted to have a regular film writing project, while challenging some internalised bias and hopefully making my feminism more intersectional. So I thought I’d try filtering out the white guys for a while. Of course you can’t get rid of them completely, because they’re everywhere (again, The Last Airbender), but I decided to avoid narratives where the point-of-view character was a white man. I’ll talk about the practical difficulties in doing this in a moment. The Other Movie Project was designed to road-test industry statistics about film, in my little pocket of suburban Brisbane, Australia. Would the line-up at my local cinema be a vanilla sausagefest?

It’s the beginning of July and results are mixed. January saw just one movie that was actually about a woman, 14 movies about white men, and zero about people of colour. February, the ratio was about even (that is, “white men” to “everyone else in the world”). In March, things got bad again, with only five films qualifying for the project, and 19 films about white dudes going unwatched by me.

Since then, though, the number of films about (white) (usually blonde) women has been skyrocketing. I have not been able to keep up with my viewing quotas. And unfortunately, foreign-language films and movies about anyone who isn’t a white man or woman don’t seem to get many sessions at the cinemas, so if I miss a couple of days, I miss the film. A lot of what I watched during busy months ended up depending on what was showing on the days I did feel well enough to go to the cinema. (I live with a chronic medical condition, more on that over here if you’re interested.) Since movies like Pitch Perfect 2 were given plenty of sessions, I was more likely to see them. Movies like Salut D’Amour, however – a South Korean romance-dramedy about two older people re-learning how to date – seemed like they flitted through the cinema on a breeze and were gone.

Salut D'Amour, 2015

The worst, the very worst thing about doing The Other Movie Project – that has been researching people’s ethnicities to find out if they are “white”. Or, “how white they are”. Oh, it is awful and I regret this parameter. On one hand, people have been helpful in alerting me to actors whose non-white ethnicity is often erased in pop media (case-in-point, Vin Diesel, who identifies as a person of colour, which I did not know until Twitter told me). This has given me a better understanding of how racial identity is constructed (and, tangentially, a better appreciation for the Fast franchise, which I plan to watch asap). On the other hand, nothing makes you feel like a gross person so much as typing “What is Carl Barron’s ethnicity?” into Google. (The only results were from white power forums.) All I can say is that my reading for this project (along with the zillion think-pieces I’ve read on Rachel Dolezal, because internet) have helped my thinking become much less … no I’m not going to say “black and white”. But, that.

When I set the terms for this movie filter six months ago, I knew that I might not be able to meet all of them. And I haven’t. April is completely missing from the project as I was directing/co-producing a play and everything else kind of fell by the wayside. June is gone too, as I spent half of that month being too ill and the other half staying somewhere with no cinema. And there have been movies I thought qualified that, upon watching them, turned out to be about white guys, as well as movies that probably qualified but promoted their white male lead like it was going out of fashion (it is, heh).

Thank you for (still!) reading this. We’re at the halfway mark now, so I will regroup, gather my cinema coupons (one wonderful Twitter friend sent me cinema coupons! How great are people), and hit the cinemas for July. Wish me luck. I’ll see you for next month’s blog post, when we will be back to our regularly scheduled program of non-white-guy movie reviews.

 

 

February: The Second Best Jupiter Ascending Over Selma And Alice

Posts, The Other Movie Project

Whoa! February actually achieved parity in white-dude and non-white-dude movies released near me! I didn’t even manage to watch all of the films that qualified for my project, for reasons I will explain further on. What is my project? I have challenged myself to watch every movie released at a cinema near me that is not The Story of A White Guy. I am interested in how intersectionality affects my movie-going choices, so I am watching every movie available that is about a woman and/or a person of colour.

Still Alice Twitter screen shot

1. Still Alice

I put on my pinkest pants and my most mentally healthy head and made sure I was exposed to plenty of sunshine and put chocolate in my purse and then I went to see Still Alice.

I needed every self-care strategy I had.

Still Alice is the story of Alice (Julianne Moore), a linguistics professor who finds out she has early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. We watch her deteriorate on-screen. It is brutal. Thank goodness the cinema was nearly empty and I was sitting up the back because I wept from credits to credits. Yet the film is gentle, elegant. Not only is Julianne Moore the queen of everything, but the film direction makes sure the story is told from her character’s perspective. I didn’t notice until the end of the film that none of the action takes place out of Alice’s presence; it is entirely her experience of the disease. So often, stories about devastating illness focus on the experience of the people who must care for the ill person, but Still Alice never stops being about Alice.

Kristen Stewart is wonderful as Alice’s youngest daughter, who steps up to play a major role in her mother’s care. “Thank you for asking,” Alice says to her daughter when asked what Alzheimer’s feels like. Still Alice shows us the creativity with which Alice manages her condition, and her determination not to lose herself. It asks, What is it like to live with this? As someone with a debilitating and poorly understood disease, I was grateful to this movie for asking.

2. Selma

The first movie released near me this year to be about a person of colour, and, unbelievably, the first theatrical movie ever to feature Martin Luther King Jr as a main character. No, really. The first. And it took Oprah Winfrey and Ava DuVernay to push it through.

I knew this movie was about Martin Luther King Jr, but I’m going to have to step up right now and admit that I thought Selma was the name of a female character. My US Civil Rights’ Movement history is sorely lacking. But you don’t need much prior knowledge to be affected by the significance of the film’s events. It is narratively tight; the movie opens in the town of Selma, at a time when King is already an influential civil rights leader and African-American people have won the legal right to vote. But legal rights haven’t translated into equal rights, with black people still being blocked from voting by systemic racism. King fights to raise support for the Voting Rights Act through a historic march from Selma to Alabama’s capital. The opposition to something as simple as the equal right to vote is violent, ugly and all too familiar, with scenes reminiscent of Ferguson.

Let’s go back to the thing about Selma being the first MLK film. I found out while researching this post that most films about the American Civil Rights era have accessed the events through a white character (for example, The Help). David Oyelowo, who plays King in Selma, has said:

“There was a study done around the police in a certain state in this country, and they admitted that there is an inherent fear of the black male … So subconsciously or consciously, to have black powerful men driving the narrative as protagonists is frightening for America. And frightening for Hollywood. Subconsciously there is an allergy to it.”

It is indicative of my blind spot as a white person that, although I’ve always admired MLK, I had no idea that he’d never been the main character in a movie about him.

Selma contains breathtaking moments of violence, all the more shocking because they jump out between talky scenes of bureaucracy and strategy meetings. The movie also features a particular moment during which I punched the air and shout-whispered “WINFREY!” Oprah is so, so good in this, and she also co-produces. Selma cements its feminist cred by being directed by the first African-American woman to be nominated for a best director Golden Globe, and by passing the Bechdel Test with flying colours (thanks to one of my favourite scenes, in which one African-American woman speaks at length to another African-American woman on why she is proud of her ancestry).

If this is still showing near you, go out and see it.

3. The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

Alternate tag lines I suggested to no one:
‘The Sequel That’s Keeping It Dench’
‘The Dames Are Back In Town’
‘Downton Abbey Lost Its Money And Moved To India’

the-best-exotic-marigold-hotelI was charmed by the first Best Exotic Marigold movie, and the sequel did not disappoint. This is sweet comfort viewing, dripping with fairy lights and even a couple of dance breaks. The sequel builds on the first movie’s already large ensemble cast, adding Richard Gere, Black Books‘ Tamsin Greig, and a bigger part for the formidable Lilette Dubey. Sonny (Dev ‘I’ve Been In Love With Him Since Skins‘ Patel) wants to open a second hotel before his wedding, with the help of reformed racist Muriel Donnelly (Maggie ‘Dame By Name, Dame By Nature’ Smith), but his myopic ambition is threatening his relationships. Will he learn his wedding dance in time to save his marriage? Will they find out who is the mysterious spy sent to appraise their hotel? Will Bill Nighy make it through a complete sentence? It’s all adorable and I love it.

There were quite a few moments in the movie where I balked at what seemed like blithe colonialism: white gentry moving in and taking Indian jobs (leading regional tours even though they have to have a local child feed them information). But I thought there was poetic justice in the way Sonny gets his second hotel in the end (spoiler!), and the property he takes over is the Viceroy Club – a leftover of British colonialism. The last we see of the ‘White People’ Club’s romanesque columns, they are being decked out for an Indian wedding reception. It seemed right.

I enjoyed watching a movie that represented younger and older generations without resorting to ageist stereotypes or confected intergenerational warfare. It just avoids progressivism, however, by falling into the sequel trap of attempting to tie up all their stories with neat (hetero-normative, monogamous) bows. I note with interest that the franchise’s only gay character (played by Tom Wilkinson) died in the first movie after a lifetime of unrequited love. But look, the straight people are dancing!

Look, the main thing for me was that The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel begins and ends with the Dowager Countess Maggie ‘McGonagall’ Smith, and you can’t go wrong with that. I found it genuinely uplifting, and frankly I needed that after Still Alice and Selma.

4. Fifty Shades of Grey

The movie adaptation of the book that reportedly romanticises an abusive relationship. I wondered if Fifty Shades would even qualify for this project, since the title refers to its white male protagonist (antagonist?), Christian Grey. But a quick skim of the internet showed that the story is about Anastacia Steele’s emotional journey/’erotic awakening’. I don’t know how true that is, because I have not seen the movie. I am not going to see this movie. At least, not at this time. I am sorry – to the people who said they were looking forward to my review, and to consistency for breaking it – but I just cannot. Not for political reasons, although I have those; I’m avoiding Fifty Shades of Grey for personal reasons. At the top of this post I talked about self-care, and this is me doing that. However I would like to note that this is not a stance against BDSM or erotica or romance – or even Twilight fan-fiction – in any way. I just don’t have the spoons to watch something that potentially dresses up abuse as romance.

5. The Wedding Ringer

I also missed this Kevin Hart comedy, not for any reason other than I was travelling and did not have time to catch it. I will try to watch it soon and include it in a later post.

6. Jupiter Ascending

Fuck, this was bonkers. Channing Tatum was a dog person? Mila Kunis nearly married her grown-up son? Eddie Redmayne was trying to be Gary Oldman in The Fifth Element crossed with Richard Roxburgh in Moulin Rouge if both of them had had lip implants?

I almost didn’t watch Jupiter Ascending for this project because, based on the trailers, I’d thought it was about Channing ‘White Guy’ Tatum, with Mila Kunis as his romantic interest/trophy to save. In fact, most of the marketing made it seem this way. I didn’t even realise until I was watching the movie that Jupiter is the name of Mila Kunis’s character. The movie is all about her: she is the title character; she has the main arc; she is in nearly every scene; she even narrates the introduction! Channing Tatum is her helper friend. And yet, this is how the billing was listed wherever I looked:

From Wikipedia

From Wikipedia

From IMDB

From IMDB

From the trailer's YouTube description

From the trailer’s YouTube description

From the poster

From the poster

… And please don’t tell me Tatum is the ‘bigger name’. Mila Kunis was in Black Swan, people. BLACK. SWAN.

Anyway, I didn’t hate this film. It was fun. They went BIG. Mila Kunis is endlessly watchable and got a few good laughs from the audience. (Eddie Redmayne got the only other laugh, unintentionally. Sorry Eddie.) The cast was diverse, for Hollywood, and it was exciting to see Gugu Mbatha-Raw (from the seriously underrated 2013 film Belle) pop up. In fact, instead of watching Jupiter Ascending, maybe you should go find a copy of Belle. Belle is great. Watch Belle.

If you’re still not sure whether you are someone who would enjoy Jupiter Ascending, it is easy to find out: does the following phrase appeal to you? ‘AMERICAN-AUSTRALIAN SPACE OPERA.’

My answer was yes.

Number of movies released near me during February that were about white men:

Five! Not bad, world.

The Other Movie Project: Here we go!

The Other Movie Project

For 2015, I have challenged myself to watch every single movie released in a cinema near me that is not a story about a white guy. Is the movie about a woman, or a man who is not white? I must watch it. Is the movie about someone who does not identify within the gender binary? Heaven help me, I must watch it, because it would be wonderful to see.

I’ve noticed how many movies (and TV shows and books and articles and narratives in general) centre around a white guy. If a woman or a man of colour does occupy a leading role in a film, they are almost always an offsider or partner to a white guy. They’re the love interest, the villain, or the best friend. They’re the other character. I am pushing myself to challenge this internalised bias, that stories about white men are inherently more valuable. I feel like I’ve watched plenty of movies that follow the emotional journeys of white men. I want to watch the other movies.

So I’m putting my money where my mouth is. If a film is released in a cinema near me, and the narrative centres around a woman and/or a person of colour, I will go buy a ticket and watch it. Movies about women of colour? Bonus points!

By seeking out movies about non-white-guys, I’ll have to actively notice how many movies are about white guys. At this point, I’m not sure what the stats are. I might end up watching hardly any movies for this project. I might end up spending heaps on movie tickets (I kind of hope so). How do industry statistics translate into session times at Australian cinemas? I’m going to find out, at least for Brisbane.

After each month is over, I’ll blog about the movies I saw (and the ones I didn’t). First post coming soon. Here we go!

Take me to your money

Posts, Selected Posts

Being an artist in Australia feels a lot like that time I was a tourist in Pompeii: none of the fucking maps look alike. Seriously, there’s a road marked here on this one, but it’s not on any of the others. And I’m standing in a courtyard that eight out of the ten maps claim does not exist. Where the hell am I? How do I get back to the food court? (I swear I remember a food court in Pompeii. In Pompeii. Under the shadow of Mount Vesuvius, among one of the most remarkable archeological finds ever, I ate a dodgy parma.)

ABOVE: Pompeii postcard, made thanks to art

Pompeii postcard, made thanks to art

Aside from the fact that I rarely get heckled in Italian during tech rehearsal, the Pompeii metaphor stands up pretty well. I entered the creative industries the same way I entered that ancient Roman city: in awe, seeking culture and history and something bigger than myself. Then two street dogs started fighting near my leg and I got scared. But this is not a rant against life as an artist, or Pompeii (one of the coolest historical sites ever). This is more of a generalised puzzling. I’m that lost idiot wearing a bathers top as clothes because my campsite doesn’t include a laundromat, gesturing emphatically at my street map and saying “HELP? WHERE GO?”

Basically, in artist, all of this translates to: my project didn’t get funded.

Bummer.

OK, so, if you’ve seen my bio, you may know that I am one of the three Hack Residents at The Edge, State Library of Queensland. I started my residency in January and I have to say, The Edge is awesome. One of Brisbane’s better kept secrets. I actually resent telling people about my residency because then I’ll have to tell them about The Edge, and I want to keep all of its wonderful resources for MYSELF, ME, JUST MEEEE HAHAHAARR. Other Brisbane artists I’ve spoken to have expressed a similar annoyance that people are starting to know where that cave-like corridor between the Art Gallery and SLQ leads. It’s like Fight Club: it’s an open secret now. We used to just find each other by chanting “His name is Daniel Flood”* until someone else knew what you were talking about. (*That is a very specific Fight Club reference that only makes sense if you’re familiar with The Edge’s programming staff, so sorry to everyone except the three people who laughed at that.)

ABOVE: Yes, this is that concrete hallway you’ve been avoiding because you weren’t sure if you were allowed down there. YOU ARE. DON’T TELL ANYONE.

My residency project is a live event where people can interact with stories from marginalised communities. At the moment, I’m recording interviews with women who work in male-dominated industries – people who have ‘hacked’ (eh?) into workplaces where they would traditionally be excluded. It is fascinating work. I am a nerd for analysing work practices and gender studies and storytelling, so this is pretty great. But I have a problem: not enough funding.

The Edge is supporting my project with in-kind support, for which I am grateful and stoked. One of the wonderful things about the team there is their understanding that creative practice needs space and time for experimentation. The thing is, it also needs money. I was counting on additional streams of funding to make this project go. When two grant applications came back ‘negatory’, it was a blow. I’m not proud of how sad I got. Failing doesn’t come easy to me, as I’m sure it doesn’t to most. Plus, I had no idea what to do next. No map. Without funding, the project was stalled.

I am continuing anyway, because I love this project and I’m crazy-passionate about it, but I cannot afford all the hours of work, the resources, or the fees for additional artists without being paid for them. I will keep applying for further grants and funding avenues, but sometimes it seems like most of my life as an artist is spent writing applications rather than working on my art. And those applications need me to have already spent a lot of time figuring out the art part and getting really good at it and justifying why I should get the money to work on it further. I had hoped that this was just a symptom of me not managing my time properly, but from reading Justin Heazlewood‘s memoir/self-help book Funemployed: Life as an Artist in Australia, I gather that it’s not just me:

“Being an artist means running a business; a tiny one, sure, but as valid and high-maintenance as any other. Only when you are a few years into your practice does this dry reality begin to dawn. Like an extended practical joke, you look around from your desk to see if the cameras are rolling. All this time you’ve been a contestant on Admin Idol, duped into your own temping job by the faceless men at Officeworks.”
— From Funemployed (2014), p. 75. Seriously, buy it, read it, it’s good.

If I’m sounding a bit strident and self-justifying, it’s because I’m fighting against a lifelong conditioning that the arts are inessential. You don’t think about artists doing piles of admin for their art, because you don’t think of art as a job. Like, that sounds fun, but what do you really do?

This isn’t a hobby; this isn’t hanging out after work on the weekends. This is my career and I need to be paid at some point. It’s no coincidence that this period of reflection on my career path comes immediately after I filed my latest tax return. I’m barely treading water here. As a society, we can’t expect to benefit from everything that art brings to our culture and make artists pay for it all out of their own pockets. I was extremely gratified by Charlie Pickering getting shouty on The Project tonight, half-jokingly telling news outlets to stop covering art. Because, Pickering said, the news covers art and they talk about how much it will cost and then people get all “What’s the point of it” and – he yelled – “It’s ART! What’s the point of it? IT’S ART!” Cheering studio applause, echoed by my spraying of nachos at the TV: “Go Charlie!”

So, I’ve had my sulk, nailed my rejection letters to the wall and pulled myself up by my bootstraps. This project has hit a speed-bump but we’re still going to get there eventually. I don’t have a reliable map but I have the same things I had in Pompeii all those years ago: blind optimism and an unshakeable belief that I look awesome in this tankini swim top, no I don’t care that we’re standing in a museum, gimme another parma per favore.

On dream jobs

Posts, Selected Posts

I have been sitting at my laptop for the last few hours, staring at a script, calculating syllables and syntax and subtexts. I savour every word changed, every minute I spend thinking about the craft of saying things. Sometimes it seems crazy that I get to do the same thing my heroes have done for years. This work somehow brings me closer to them.

I keep thinking about how it is a pleasure and a privilege to work on something you love. I feel very lucky indeed, but I do hesitate over the word “privileged”: it feels like a dangerous allowance, a concession to those who look upon creative careers as a luxury. In an Australia where our Prime Minister says that if you do not currently have a job, you have “no right to hold out for the job of [your] dreams“, yeah, I feel nervous about doing work I love. Enjoying my work somehow makes it feel illegitimate, unless I were making heaps of money from it (… I’m not).

Privilege is a peculiar benefit which is given to some people and not others. I feel privileged to be working as a writer and performer because I know that some people are not able to do this. Sometimes I am one of those people. When I’ve been too poor and sick to buy groceries or to get down the stairs, I’ve asked myself: “Who do you think you are, to want to make art? What gives you the right? You’re struggling to make ends meet and you want to write poetry?”

ABOVE: Pro-tip – having the State Library as your office is free and gets you dream views.

The Prime Minister is purportedly only targeting unemployed and underemployed Australians with his exhortations to stop “holding out” for a dream job, but we’re all only one piece of bad news away from unemployment, right? One dismissal letter, one crisis, one Budget axing our funding, and it could be us queuing at Centrelink. Then we, too, would have to stop “holding out” – holding out, as if we’re in a negotiation. Is Abbott saying that we don’t have the right to negotiate the terms of our own employment?

The problem with the phrase “dream job” is that its meaning is negligible. I would guess that Abbott means it as “one’s most ideal job”. But most of us know that we have to do many other jobs on the way up to the ideal. In the creative industries, it’s generally accepted that you’ll have to put in hours of study, training, practice, unpaid internships, portfolio-building, work experience – none of which pays the bills. If we, as a culture, only value the hours for which you’re being paid, then we dismiss all those hours you have to put in to become skilled. And research shows that these hours are definitely not wasted, as an article published at The Conversation yesterday demonstrated – although people in the creative industries struggle initially to find employment post-graduation, they go on to earn very comfortably later in their careers and report high levels of career satisfaction.

When the Government talks about unemployment, it sounds like it is imagining the worst possible version of un(der)employed people – spoiled, entitled brats. People who will avoid lifting a finger wherever possible (perhaps preferring to be “leaners”). The Government’s paradigm seems to be, “It’s easy to tell if what you’re doing is worthwhile: if it is, someone will be paying you a living wage for it.” By this mode of thinking, I was contributing more to society when I was handing out Haribo samples in the Woolies confectionery aisle than when I was writing a show about gender and identity in Australia. Lollies are an important part of a balanced diet (the very top of the pyramid, indeed), but the people ignoring me and going over to the Lindt lady instead didn’t seem to appreciate my civic duty.

What is my ideal job, anyway? Am I doing it now? I don’t know. In high school I told people my dream job was to “somehow monetize blinking”, whether in a salaried position or paid blink-by-blink. Now that I’m 28 and (only slightly) less of a smart-aleck, I would say that my ideal job is one that gives me opportunities for autonomy, mastery and purpose. (This Dan Pink talk really had an impact on me.) I would like enough income to be comfortable and to do the things I enjoy. I would like to feel that I am contributing to society in a way for which I am particularly equipped. That is, I would like to make full use of my strengths. You could put me in a field picking strawberries, and I guess I’d be superficially contributing to our nation’s agricultural industry, but I’d be freaking horrible at it. First of all, I’m over six feet tall, and I understand that the strawberries are quite close to the ground. But most of all, I’m physically the equivalent of a sentient noodle. There are other things that I’m much better at, and I think I could be put to better use than being shoved into any job going.

A lot of our Government’s rhetoric is underpinned by the idea that work is inherently moral. I’m not necessarily refuting that – it is an idea I’m still unpacking – and the American blood in me fervently believes in the value of hard work. But what type of work – that is what interests me. The harsh unemployment policies and their supporters are saying that any work is better than “no work”. (By the way, anyone who has been unemployed (and unpaid) for an extended period knows that it is not “no work”.) But what do we want for Australia? Do we just want a country where every single citizen (abled or otherwise) is toiling somewhere, anywhere? Personally, I want more for my country. I dream bigger for us. And I think the Government does, too, since they’ve proposed to invest billions of dollars in a Medical Research Future Fund, to make sure that Australia will “advance world leading medical research projects“. They want Australia to achieve autonomy and mastery in the medical research field, and all this in the midst of a “budget emergency“. Clearly it’s not enough for Australia’s medical bodies just to work – they must be globally competitive.

If more people in Australia were able to work towards their “dream job” (read: dream lifestyle), I have little doubt that we would have the kind of culture that other countries hold up as an example. We could be one of those smug Scandinavian countries! Do we want work satisfaction to be a peculiar benefit only afforded to a few? Or could we all dream of a job where we are employed to the best of our abilities?

I will continue to feel lucky doing work that I love. But I wonder whether it should be considered a privilege rather than a right.

BELOW: Following some dreams.

 

 

My Wicked Week

Transports of Delight

This week, I road-tested a form of transport that I’ve been hanging out to try for years – a Wicked campervan. Man, I couldn’t wait. I’ve wanted to hire one of these ever since I first saw one on the highway, trailing the fumes of exhaust and embarrassed parents.

You know, Wicked campers. Backpacking institution. Painted with crazy artwork, break down at the drop of a hat? Anna Bligh called them racist? You know the ones.

Wicked vans are awesome for their cheap price and rebellious paint jobs. But the thing that really struck my fancy was the handwritten graffiti all over the inside of the van. It seemed like every backpacker who’d passed through that van had scribed something. There were at least five quotations signed by a Pouick, and my boyfriend and I seemed to keep finding more. For the whole week, one of us would be firing up the barbecue or doing the dishes, and the other would yell from inside, “I FOUND ANOTHER POUICK!”

Pouick and Pouick-related graffiti.

This Pouick was clearly a backpacking epigrammatist of the highest order, whose wisdom has been immortalised on the ceiling of the van. Sage advice such as: “Rain is not a camper’s friend.” “Slow down camper, you will see that koala.” And perhaps the most enigmatic of Pouick’s quotations: “No, Meaghan, don’t look at me. Look away. Don’t look at me!!!”

The inside of the van was patchworked with doodles and scribbles. It was like the walls of a ladies’ toilet in a university arts building – but less insane (Pouick excepted). Instead of diatribes or weepy confessionals about sexually confused boyfriends, Wicked campers wrote heartfelt messages of love, advice on cool places to visit, and personal jokes from their trip. After a week, it felt like my boyfriend and I were travelling not just with each other, but also with a gang of cool new friends who had shared their memories with us. It was a beautiful and warming thought … Until my boyfriend started wondering aloud if Pouick might actually be living secretly inside the van somewhere. After all, we kept finding new Pouick quotes that we could swear weren’t there before. Then I wondered if those scratching noises we’d heard all night weren’t really possums, but the sounds of Pouick’s ghost trying to get back in. It was hard to sleep after that.

But still, I had a great time in our Wicked van.

Home sweet van.

So, here’s to the ghostly crew that kept us company during our Wicked week. To Major Jiggle, the three English girls, Jeffy + Jilly, Team Boobies, and the prolific Pouick, thank you for your words. The boyf and I have added our own, so that future campers can travel ensconced in our fond memories. And thank you, Wicked, for such a fun camping experience. I don’t care if your vans rattle and the mattresses are so thin that I couldn’t lay on my side for fear of bruising my bony hips. We paid for an experience, and that’s what we got. (We also got to and from our destination without breaking down, so BONUS!)

Since writing that last bit, I’ve found out more about our campervan. Some of the graffiti informed us that it was used in the shooting of an upcoming Brisbane indie film called Dark Are The Woods. Guess we were sleeping inside a former movie prop! It was exciting to think of seeing the van we hired in a movie, but that was before I looked up the movie online. I’m really glad I didn’t see the teaser while I was still spending nights in the van. It turns out Dark Are The Woods is some kind of B-grade torture porn flick, all about backpackers getting killed and eaten by incestuous bush-dwelling cannibals. And there are strippers, for some reason. Uh, yeah. I’m glad I didn’t know I was ensconced in the memories of those minds.

Hmm. Maybe next time I’ll just ignore the graffiti.

Skaters Gon' Skate

Transports of Delight

Apologies for the quietness lately. I started a new job, which has been taking up much of my time. This job is a bit special, because one of its perks is limitless ice skating. That’s right, ice skating. In the middle of Brisbane, Australia. Ice.

At first I was terrified of setting foot on the slipperyness. I’m not the kind of person who is known for their grace. I trip over thin air. So, I figured I had no chance at all on ice. But, dammit, I was going to give it a shot.

And I did not fall over! Not even once!

Granted, I was leaning heavily on a sled (a sled designed for toddlers who are still learning to walk).

But I kept my balance! And eventually I graduated to skating without any kind of crutch. It was a proud moment. I wish my parents could have seen me.

I actually do wish that, because my folks grew up in America and always had their own ice skates; some of my earliest memories are of family holidays in the States, with my parents trying to convince me to enjoy sliding around in the snow. I was a child of tropical north Queensland – I did NOT like this cold stuff. Wearing all those layers confused me; why couldn’t I walk around in my underwear all the time? We did back home! Cold climes were not for me.

But luckily, people change. Now I quite like the ol’ ice rink. Sure, it still feels unnatural to strap blades to the bottom of your feet and skitter around on them, but I’m learning. Perhaps this will be my new favourite way of getting around.

In some places, ice skating could be a legitimate mode of transport. In Holland, for example, they all seem to be born with their feet on the ice. I was in the Netherlands a few years ago, visiting a friend for a week. I just happened to arrive in the midst of headline-making Dutch weather. The canals had frozen over for the first time in 12 years. For over a decade, no one had seen that much ice. Then, suddenly, EVERYTHING was frozen!

Edam, Holland. 2009.

That’s a lotta frozen.

All the locals in Edam, where my friend lives, were ditching work and grabbing their skates. People were skimming along the narrow waterways that run through the fields, their hands clasped behind their backs. My friend and her family kitted me out with some spare skates and dragged me to the nearest lake.

I was terrified. That thing about me not liking the cold? It was kicking my ass. If my friend hadn’t pulled me bodily along the ice, I would have just crouched in the middle of the frozen lake until it melted. Images of terror-stricken people falling through the ice were tearing through my head. Even the mental vision of Bear Grylls doing naked push-ups to demonstrate how to survive in arctic wilderness wasn’t doing it. And that image usually solves any problem.

After a while, my friend suggested we skate to the riverbank for a rest. (She was probably tired out from pulling my dead weight up and down the lake.) The ice looked much thinner near the shore. I nervously hung back and watched her casually glide to the edge of the frozen part. Under her weight, the sheet of ice we were standing on suddenly plunged downwards, and water whooshed up from underneath, spilling across the ice and the riverbank. I whimpered in fear. My friend merely prodded the dark ice with the tip of her skate blade and said in her charming Dutch accent, “Okay, here is good.”

She walked right off the ice and sat down on the grassy bank. I quivered after her. Other Dutch people were watching me while they unwrapped their lunches. They were smiling slightly, as if I was the weird one. They were picnicking on a snowy riverbank! Meanwhile, children and toddlers skated dreamily past me.

I didn’t understand the Dutch fascination with ice skating. I thought it was a terrifying and needlessly dangerous leisure activity. But now that I’ve had some more practice, I can appreciate how beautiful it is to glide around on an expanse of glittering white.

Now, if Queensland ever experiences some inclement weather and the Brisbane River freezes over, I’ll be ready.

I’ll be ready.

Edam, Holland. 2009.

Standing completely still with no help: An achievement.

This Banana Has Gone Bad

Transports of Delight

I always feel safer on a bus, don’t you?

I mean, when I’m driving, I feel the burdensome weight of responsibility. It’s just me, my frail body locked inside a thin metal shell, hurtling at unnatural speeds through chaos. If I lose concentration for even a second, I could cause immeasurable damage – to myself, to my passengers, to unwitting strangers. Car accidents are horrible, life-altering, and everywhere.

But riding the bus is fun!

I mean, buses just feel safer. They’re bigger, for one thing. There’s something comforting about riding in the biggest thing on the road. And they have have their own lanes. Everything about the bus has this “get outta my way” attitude. They cruise along at their own pace and don’t make room for anyone else on the road. Being on the bus is like being friends with your school’s biggest bully: you’re untouchable.

I used to tell myself that bus drivers are trained and therefore better drivers, but I can no longer follow that particular rainbow. If you’re still holding onto that misty-eyed illusion, just look at this photo again:

(I think they left “don’t read the paper while driving” out of the bus driver exam, because it should be bleeding obvious.) Nonetheless, I love riding the bus. Sitting high up in the back seats, I feel a little detached from everything that’s whizzing by my window. It’s as if all that traffic out on the road is happening to someone else. If I sped around corners and swung dangerously close to traffic light poles in my own car, my passengers would be justifiably anxious. When my bus driver does the same thing, I just think, “WHEEEEE!” Like it’s a fairground ride.

And when I was a kid, the best public fairground ride of all was THE BANANA BUS. Oh, the times we had! I used to love riding on the bendy buses, with the turntable in the middle that would creak and rotate when the bus went around a corner. I remember class excursions on the banana bus, when only the coolest kids would stand in the bendy bit. It was a crazy feeling, like being inside the accordion of an insane accordionist.

But my rosy memory of banana buses has been compromised. While perusing brisbanetimes.com.au this week, I found this:

BANANA BUSES TAKEN OFF THE ROAD

A safety check has ruled 300 articulated buses off Australian roads after a Queensland Transport and Main Roads-ordered audit.

… The bus order followed a dramatic crash on the Pacific Motorway on March 30, when an articulated bus abruptly turned and ended up facing oncoming traffic.

What? Crash? No! This is no good. Another layer of my childhood memories, peeled away like so much banana peel.

It’s as if catching the bus was a large, delicious-looking banana, its perfect yellow skin assuring me of the sweet fruit within. But when I went to peel it, I discovered that this banana was rotten. (Yes, the banana peel was my childhood memories in the last paragraph, but now it represents the act of catching the bus – it’s as if this change in metaphors is a metaphor for the dramatic change in my feelings when I realised that buses are not as safe as I thought.)

If banana buses (the funnest buses!) aren’t safe, then I might have to rethink my entire attitude towards bus travel. Gone are my comfortable illusions of safety. I will now ride the bus with an appropriate sense of barely-contained terror, ready to wedge myself under my seat at the first sign of danger. It’s a mad world we live in. A mad, mad world.

Helpful Men

Transports of Delight

Maybe I’m paranoid. But I don’t like sharing all the details of my journey with strange men on the train. And yet they seem to expect it.

I especially don’t feel like talking when I’m fresh off the plane in Melbourne, and I’m struggling along the train platform with my big red Samsonite that weighs two thirds of me. I despise both the suitcase and myself. Why do I always feel like the ‘expandibility’ zipper is a challenge to shove in more crap? Why did I pack two hairdryers? I have a problem.

So I’m pulling along my obese luggage, yanking it up the platform, and then the train arrives. And here’s the thing I never think about when I’m at home, packing my entire personal library (just in case I get the urge to re-read The Obernewtyn Chronicles again over the next two weeks) – I never think about the gap. The goddamn bloody gap between the platform and the train. It stymies me every time! The last time I went travelling with this suitcase, I was in London, heading to Heathrow. I had to change trains at Clapham Junction. Have you ever been to Clapham Junction? DON’T DO IT. It’s a train station that hasn’t been upgraded since the Edwardian era, and there are no elevators. Or escalators, or travelators. Nothing that ends with ‘ator’. Just miles and miles of stairs, and me with my obese suitcase and puny stick-figure arms. I have replayed the same scene many times over, in train stations across the world: me heroically trying to lunge into the train carriage and hoping the momentum will get my case across; my case getting inevitably wedged in the gap; some person reaching a meaty arm forward and hauling both the suitcase and me aboard. It’s humiliating.

But that is what happens to me, again, in Melbourne. Stuck in the gap. Someone hauls me aboard, and we’re away. I trundle into the train carriage, where there are plenty of empty seats. However, access to those seats is being blocked by two middle-aged women who are facing each other and chatting. Their legs are criss-crossing the aisle like they’re lounging at a cafe table by the seaside. I stand there, haggard with my bags, until they notice. They move their legs in a fraction, so I have just enough space to awkwardly lug my suitcase along sideways. As I pass, huffing with effort, one of the ladies remarks, “THAT’S a suitcase.” And they laugh, rawk rawk rawk. I smile and reply, “Yep, it’s a suitcase and a half!” The ladies’ eyes instantly narrow; I wasn’t meant to share in the joke. They turn away, back into their conversation.

I relax for the rest of the train journey, one hand resting on Big Red so it doesn’t wheel away. Using Google on my phone, I try to figure out how I’ll get to the backpackers’ hostel from Southern Cross Station. (I can’t remember a time before I had Google Maps on my phone, even though that time was less than three months ago.)

At Southern Cross, Big Red and I trundle out to the street and find the tram stop. The hostel’s website says “catch the tram line that runs to St Kilda,” so I wait for the tram that says “St Kilda”. The tram pulls up, I repeat my famed performance of Stuck In The Gap, and finally haul my luggage aboard. Once on the tram, I realise that the ticket machine is wedged further down the tram, hidden behind crowds of passengers. I can’t possibly get my suitcase down there. So I think, fuck it, I’ve suffered enough today; I’m riding outside of the law.

The tram skims through the city, and I gaze out the window while trying not to let my suitcase fall and crush anyone. After about twenty minutes, I start to get suspicious. I check my location on Google Maps. Ye gods! I’m miles away from the hostel – I got on the tram going in the wrong direction. Sigh. I thump off the tram at the next stop.

So now I’m standing on a tram platform somewhere in the wrong part of Melbourne, feeling pretty pissed off. All my wrongs are rising up to engulf me. I pedantically crosscheck the tram timetable with Google Maps, making sure the next tram I get on will be the correct one. Aha, I am on the right tram line, just going the wrong way. At last, I feel that I’ve got a handle on the situation. At this very moment, I am approached by a man.

He is not a young man. He is not a clean man. He is not the kind of man by which I would like to be approached at any time. He is, in fact, the kind of man you would see standing at the traffic lights wearing sweatpants and talking to himself. The expression on his face can only be described as a leer, and I am suddenly very aware that I am a young woman travelling alone with unmanageable amounts of luggage. The man walks towards me with a sort of stagger.

“What tram are ya looking for? Where are ya going?”

I straighten up to my very tallest and gently show him the flat palm of my hand, in a gesture that says “everything’s okay” and simultaneously “don’t come any closer”. I tell him with all confidence, “Thanks, but I’m fine.”

There it is, again. A strange man has approached a girl on public transport, trying to establish a rapport, and she has refused his advances. (Similar to my run-in with the Bogan on the Bus.) If he were genuinely an altruistic soul seeking to help, he would understand and back off with aplomb. But Sweatpants Man shows his true colours.

“Fine,” he spits angrily. “Just trying to help.” He stomps off, up the platform, growling under his breath.

Whenever I travel, I frequently second-guess my attitude towards strange men. Am I being unkind? Are they justified in being pissed off when I don’t respond to their advances with rapturous gratitude? But then I ask myself, why does he get so angry? If his motive in approaching me was really concern for my welfare, then he would be relieved to hear that I’m fine. If his motive is something else entirely … then I’m better off staying away from him.

The unknown men who help me haul Big Red onto trains – the meaty-armed saviours – they never need to know anything about my life. They never ask me questions. These men are the genuine altruists, the men who see a person who needs an extra hand, and provide it. Sometimes they offer help when I don’t need it, or when I’m determined to struggle with my bags alone. When I wave these men away, they don’t turn nasty. They don’t get angry, because they had no vested interest in helping me. They were – literally – just trying to help.

So maybe I am paranoid. I don’t like telling strange men where I’m headed, or what my plans are. But hey, at least I’m safe. And I know that if help is genuinely offered, I can accept it without fear.