This text was first published in June-July 2014, in The Lifted Brow 23 – The Ego Issue.
1. IN WHICH WE ARE INTRODUCED TO DAVE
Dave the Comedian was an everyman; which is a tautology, because every man wants to be a comedian, and there is very little space in Australia for a comedian who isn’t an everyman. The space of stand-up comedy is defiantly masculine in the most traditional sense. Adrienne Blaine compares the stand-up comedian to the personification of erection: the man conquers his audience with laughter the way he would sexually subsume a woman; it is “a social area where patriarchal promise of dominion can be easily realised.” Comedian Pete Holmes compared the daily challenge of stand-up comedy to the ongoing work a man puts into confirming his masculine, non-homosexual, non-effeminate identity in these, crude, words: “you have to keep doing it and keep proving it every day — get your comedy dick hard every day and fuck audiences.”
Every woman who has spent time with comedians off-stage has felt the terrifying, laborious pressure to find them funny, to laugh, to let them feel that they are strong, victorious, alpha—even though the affirmation of women is never as valued as the respect of other comedians, other men. Comedy, like politics, is patriarchy condensed. Christopher Hitchens, who always seemed to identify with the alpha male, and uphold the values of patriarchy, wrote in Vanity Fair in 2007 that women could not be as funny as men, because they did not evolve with the constant, evolutionary need to impress females at all cost. The ones who were funny – he conceded some existed – were “hefty or dykey or Jewish, or some combo of the three.” In other words, too masculine to fit neatly into patriarchal gender roles, sorry.
“Dying on stage” is that exactly: a strangely mesmerising witnessing of someone’s social power crumbling entirely into nothingness. Dave the Comedian died on stage in the first five minutes. His jokes about finding clitoris were terrible. He kept asking how much time he had left (much). He berated the audience for not laughing. He vomited, fell, and started bleeding. He got confused and repeated his act twice. He made fat jokes, rape jokes, gay jokes, Julia Gillard jokes, and made it abundantly clear how much he was trying to impress Wil Anderson. In terms outlined above, according to which stand-up comedy is the world order, the comedian pure erection, and the audience a vagina to be conquered, Dave the Comedian was a spectacle of emasculation.
But Dave the Comedian was the joke itself, woven together out of gunk of masculinity by Zoe Coombs Marr, member of Sydney-based female performance collective post and apparently excellent in drag.
Coming from the intellectually rigorous and mature culture of performance in Sydney – where, unlike in Melbourne, the link between independent performance and academia is strong and fruitful – post had created a body of work that made elaborate formalist jokes about what is supposed to happen in theatre, deconstructing formal devices of traditional dramaturgy and stage design, of character and text. In Gifted and Talented in 2006, they improbably blended over-ambitious mothers’ programs for their daughters enrolled in a variety of appropriately feminine activities with the torture routines at Guantanamo Bay. In Shamelessly Glitzy Work in 2009, they overlaid a conversation recorded, seemingly, during an acid trip, with every device of drama and illusion that theatre had, making a bizarre variety show that had an undeniable and persuasive, if entirely artificial, dramatic force. And in Oedipus Schmoedipus, at Sydney Festival 2014, they staged every important death in the Western dramatic canon, one after another. Coombs-Marr’s solo work, on the other hand, emphasised extreme awkwardness, of which Dave must have been the pinnacle of possible.
It was hard to pinpoint what made Dave feel like a work of genius. Coombs-Marr’s feeling for pacing, tone, and structure destroyed Dave’s masculine ego in every way possible – he was even revealed to be gay – without once coming across as mean. If anything, Dave accumulated sympathy as he accumulated failures. It was hard to tell if a woman could not bring the kind of hate to her drag that a man could, or if the audience, given a portrait without overt commentary, defaulted to pity instead of ridicule, a gesture of generosity they would not necessarily have extended towards failure of femininity. However, it was the exuberance of the ridicule that seemed significant: because Zoe Coombs-Marr herself was a small, queer woman who nonetheless filled the stage to the brim, Dave and all the men he represented were never the centre of the piece, but simply a pretext for dressing up, for play-acting. The more that the show departed from garden-variety awkwardness into bizarre, the more inventive Dave’s questionable comedy choices became, the more we were settled into watching a woman take the piss out of masculinity. Paradoxically, it was precisely in the act of drag that Zoe Coombs-Marr asserted a female voice in the room, a voice that became all the more distinct, the more accurately she was pinning down the image of the unsuccessful male comedian. Unlike much of feminist comedy playing around Melbourne Comedy Festival, the flavour of this show was not oppositional, not angry, not pushing against a narrowly defined female role; instead, it was as if it swallowed a narrowly defined male role and showed how much a woman can encompass. It was this generosity, ultimately, that resonated. It seemed premonitory and indicative: this is what feminism 4.0 would look like.
2. IN WHICH BEING A WOMAN IS IN ITSELF A PROBLEM
There had been an undeniable rise of a new feminist aesthetic in Australian performance: a more confident, more autonomous, more politically engaged female voice had emerged where, for a long time, it seemed like the culture could only accommodate a lot of promising young boys. In 2010 and 2011, the theatre community was still arguing about whether women artists, like women comedians, were not getting programmed because they “just weren’t very good.” In 2014, these women were everywhere, roaring.
Some of it must have had to do with the political reverbrations of the previous years. The three years Australia spent under a female prime minister revealed the sexist underbelly of the country and its political culture in a way that left every Australian woman in a state of at least moderate shock. Relentless attacks on Julia Gillard saturated the media: it was impossible to open a newspaper or turn the radio on without hearing something about a witch, or a bitch, or a sandwich thrown, or too much cleavage, a dropped shoe, a shrill voice. It became apparent that the women were horrified and many men did not understand why. After all, politics, like stand-up comedy, was patriarchy incarnate: a politician is criticised for whatever flaw he has, the commentariat repeated. Being short, being tall, being gay, being female. That the safest thing to be was a rich white man, this they seemed to find unproblematic. Christopher Hitchens would have probably found an evolutionary explanation for why women are not suitable to politics either, but the man who would replace Julia Gillard as the new prime minister needed no help with that.
Rebecca Solnit, the woman who in 2012, wrote an essay titled “Men Explain Things To Me” sparking the creation of the term “mansplaining” said recently: “I feel like I’ve been waiting all my life for women to be talking the way we are right now.” A global new feminism had emerged in the past few years, invigorated by the internet. Gillard’s famous parliament speech, in which she accused Tony Abbott of misogyny, became a global sensation before it was picked up by the domestic media. Nonetheless, the professional harassment of Julia Gillard left a feminist imprint on Australia that was wider, broader than elsewhere. It would take years to fully understand the effect of those years, which radicalised the Australian politics, but it was undoubted that it made feminism mainstream again.
3. IN WHICH WE DANCE
In the months that followed, a number of women made performance works that, like Julia Gillard, did not fight, but stood still. It was a slight, but interesting shift. Natalie Abbott made MAXIMUM, a dance piece in which Abbott performs a simple but extremely taxing, sports-like routine with a body-builder. While much smaller and young, Abbott is clearly the stronger of the two, but that is beside the point: she is not fighting him, but gravity itself. Rebecca Jensen and Sarah Aiken made Overworld, an exquisite dance piece in which they enact the beginnings of life, dress up, take selfies, comment on the ubiquity of rape in mythology, and guide us through meditation. While extremely intelligent, Overworld was unabashedly feminine, unserious, friendly and immersive – its structure as far away from the penis-measuring context of stand-up comedy as it could possibly get. Bryonny Kimmings, a British performance artist, made amends to all her ex-boyfriends in a show called Sex Idiot, somewhere between comedy and performance art. Instead of berating them, Kimmings apologised for not being very nice – and moved on.
These works, which seemed to appear with an increasing frequency, found their strength not in attacking the enemy, but in standing their own ground. They were friendly works, non-combative – but through them, the artists claimed the right to exist for a universe full of dress-ups, kindness, self-reflection, freedom, and femininity. It felt like women artists were suddenly playing their own game, rather than someone else’s. Just like Zoe Coombs-Marr used Dave to be bigger than the patriarchial game he was playing, these artists simply ignored the roles they did not want to play: the shrill, the angry, the disappointed. Instead, they stood still, but they stood their ground. It seemed like the beginning of something.