Before I mired my self in the land that is PhD, I used to be active in the theatre scene, directing and acting. This is a little comic that I drew for the writer of a short play I directed in 2012, about the creative process. It might not have much to do with gender, but I do have it stuck up at my desk at uni to remind me of good times with friends. It keeps me going during the rough troughs of writing my thesis, so I thought I’d share :)
Not long ago my girlfriend and I went out to the movies together for a first date. We’d been seeing each other for a little while, but hadn’t had an “official” outing together, and a movie seemed liked a sweet pick. Now my girlfriend’s taste in film can be summed up thus: storyline about food/cooking, attractive older women (e.g. Helen Mirren), slightly progressive tone, feel good transformation of some kind, romantic. But with a dearth of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel on offer, we had to settle for the romance factor promised by Adam Sandler’s new flick, Blended. Having not read even a single blurb about the film, our exact decision making process was Drew Barrymore? Yes.
We were quite prepared for the heterosexual focus of the film – after all it is very unusual to find a mainstream romantic comedy that even includes LGBT side characters let alone central ones. We were not however, prepared for the barrage of homophobic insults included in the dialogue, the central messages of which were: it’s not okay to be a lesbian and it’s certainly not okay to be gendered differently. I guess that whole Adam Sandler continually making gender offensive films should have been a dead giveaway, but alas.
If you look up rundown of the film, you’ll get descriptions like this:
After a bad blind date, a man and woman find themselves stuck together at a resort for families, where their attraction grows as their respective kids benefit from the burgeoning relationship.
But an honest description would go like this:
A divorced woman with two boys and a widower with three girls are not very attracted to each other. They decide to shack up when they learn that they can actually teach each other’s children how to be appropriately gendered in society. The divorcee who cannot manage to control the freudian sexual impulses of her own boys, finds solace in applying makeup and hair extensions to the girl children. The widower who has managed to raise girls that are very successful at basketball and that dress in comfortable clothes, learns that he is also good at teaching boys how to “be a man” through sport and activity. They come together at a special camp for people struggling to learn how to build a normal family.
Sounds bad? It was. And that’s not to even mention the overtly racist tones in the “Africa” (country not specified) scenes, where dark skin = dim-witted servant status at the resort they find themselves at. As per usual the darker skinned men in the film were also overtly sexualised (that old trope where racist assumptions represent certain groups as closer to “nature”, “the body” and therefore sex).
The hardest thing for me was listening to the audience laugh at the openly anti-queer jokes, such as when Lauren (Barrymore) and her coworker are caught hugging and then make a series of funnies about how they’re not lesbians (not to mention they work at a wardrobe-sorting business called “Closet Queens” – hilarious). And then there was this beautiful scene, where Lauren approaches Jim’s (Sandler) eldest daughter who is staring wistfully at a boy that won’t acknowledge her existence:
Lauren: Maybe you should just go talk to him.
Hilary: Oh, no, no, I can’t.
Lauren: Have you ever considered changing your hairstyle?
Without blinking, the film gives Hilary a makeover from her “bad lesbian haircut” (as it is referred to) and she instantly gets the guy. Meanwhile Lauren teaches the six year old in the film how to apply makeup properly (unlike her father’s attempt, which makes her “look like the walking dead”) and Jim shows the boys how they can channel their sexual frustration into competitive sports such as boxing and throwing cricket balls at people’s crotches.
It was so unbearable that we were both quite hysterical with disbelief that such a film could still legitimately exist.
But what actually really worked for this film, was that it was so overt in its sexual and gender stereotyping, you could use it in any GEND1001 course as an exemplar par excellence of how heteronormativity functions in society. For example, here’s a few things I picked up from my viewing of Blended:
1. You have to work really hard at being heterosexual and monogamous. Most of the time people fail and become single, on the brink of slipping into gayness. In fact, most heterosexual couples have to go on training camps to really get their act together and make it work. If you don’t try hard enough as a woman, you might find yourself rejecting men altogether and spending too much time with your supportive best friend.
2. Being appropriately gendered is something you have to learn. One is certainly not born a woman and there are many skills about self-presentation you will need to acquire. Having short hair is not going to cut it for getting a man. Ditto being good at sport or wearing comfortable shoes. Similarly, makeup is not something to play around with, it is serious. If you use too much everyone will see your gender efforts, so hold back. Once you’ve got the skills down, they can be handed from generation to generation via same-sex familial relations.
3. To avoid everyone being queer, different or interesting in any way, every family needs a mother and father. The only way to keep a lid on everyone’s non-normative gender and sexual expressions is to keep the family unit together. Sure there might not be much attraction between the mother and the father, but at the end of the day they’re going to have to close their eyes and go in for the kiss for the good of the family, and for the good of the straight world as a whole. It’s a small price to pay to make sure that we don’t get queerly gendered and sexed kids running all over the shop.
So as horrendous as it was, the takeaway from the film is that it is a parody of itself. For all you queer kids out there, let this be something to hold on to: this film reveals the truly laborious and unnatural task that it is to be “normal”.
Recently, I’ve been getting angry. In May this year, the Australian Government announced a federal budget that will see the abolition of free health care, the elimination of the financial safety net for the unemployed and radical changes to the way in which education is funded. Unsurprisingly (since these changes will affect a majority of the population), people have been responding. At my own university campus, there have been a number of actions including a rally on May 21 that saw over 500 students descend on the Chancelry and occupy part of the building. People at the rally were angry – they banged on doors, chanted and held a speak-out where students could express their rage and frustration at the university administration who are in full support of the proposed changes. Since the rally however, there has been a huge negative backlash with students being portrayed in the media as violent, irrational and dangerous. In response, students have been taking to more pacifist actions to demonstrate that their concern is legitimate and debates are being held that request students to engage in “polite and respectful discussion”. It seems anger has lost its currency.
But what might the value of anger be in these circumstances and why should we be wary of the delegitimisation of this form of expression?
1. Anger, if seemingly uncontrolled, is coded as dangerous man or irrational woman.
There is an idea prevalent in society that anger must be controlled – those who don’t effectively control their anger are an unknown quantity, to be feared. This is also seen as something we ourselves should fear, lest we lose control. For example, Roman philosopher Seneca believed that “Anger, if not restrained, is frequently more hurtful to us than the injury that provokes it”. Unfortunately this assumption is heavily coded along gender lines and often equates to one of these two options:
The dangerous man: i.e. the Hulk. The Hulk represents the threat of a mild-mannered man losing control and become savage to all those around him. He is a destroyer of all that is in his path, sometimes for good, but often for bad – you cannot trust this man to do the right thing as he lacks self-discipline.
The irrational woman: i.e. the Crazy Cat Lady. The Crazy Cat Lady is a figure of the terrifying and inevitable evolution of a woman who expresses her anger. Alone, she is isolated from society, treats other creatures with both love and disregard and has lost touch with reality to the point that her speech is unintelligible. The Crazy Cat Lady serves as a warning.
2. Anger’s polar opposite is coded as rational thinking man or passive woman
The corollary to all this is that if we see anger as the ultimate negative, we end up heralding cool-headed, calm and collected as the modes of being par excellence. This avenue cannot escape the clutches of gendered expectations, where sensible debate and discussion is overwhelmingly dominated by men, while women are expected to listen from the sidelines. After all, who is more cool and calm than the rational thinking man?
The rational thinking man: i.e. man. Since Ancient Greece, men have been seen as the ones up for considered debate, nutting out the problems of the world. They are thoughtful, pensive, rational. Anne Cranny-Francis has described the figure of the male thinker as, “self-defining and self-sufficient. Coded as male, he is fully conscious to himself, in control of his actions, thoughts and meanings”. The rational thinking man has evolved from philosopher king to suave and well-dressed man of the year; always well presented, he is James Bond without a gun. Strategic, charming, independent, and not afraid to sit down and play poker with the bad guys.
The passive woman: i.e. woman. In contrast to rational thinking man is the woman underneath him – coded as passive, she listens to the rational man. Entrapped by her own bodily limitations (as she is more body than mind), she must take the role of the quiet seductress as she finds her own power to control rational thinking man through the only thing she has – her body. She learns the difficulty of sharing her own views – being told to be quiet, being talked over, being ignored. If she speaks up she is marked as overbearing – and well on her way to Crazy Cat Lady land, a lonely spinster life.
Of course, that is not to say that women cannot aspire to be philosophical thinkers (I did my honours in philosophy), but the gender coding in this realm is strong and women are certainly not expected to be part of this. Indeed, the discipline of philosophy itself has an awkwardly long history of marginalising women.
We can easily see these codings playing out in the media’s depictions of students. Following the May 21 protests in Melbourne, images emerged of a fifteen year old woman being carried away by police (obviously an attempt to save her from the ill-fate of the Crazy Cat Lady she seems destined to become). Unsurprisingly, those in power responded by stating that “if only” the young girl had tried a more sensible route, none of this would have happened. For example, the Herald Sun reported Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s remarks following the young girl’s protest: “If that young woman had sat down and from her honest perspective written directly to the PM to say ‘here’s what I think about your Budget, here’s why I don’t like it’, I would be much more inclined attention to pay attention to that to see her being dragged away from a protest”. In effect the young woman was told to quietly participate and join in a sensible discussion with those that hold the ultimate power over the fate of her education, within a system where she does not even have the minimum access to democratic expression – the vote.
Closer to home, The Canberra Times ran with an image of one of the female students who was leading the rally, screaming as a security guard attempted to stop students entering the Chancelry. The headline below read: “Students hole up vice-chancellor in day of anger”. Through the use of this image, the student was used as the “face” of anger. She spoke directly to the media afterwards, but remained marked as unintelligible and was not quoted in the article. Discussions circulated that students should avoid violence and this front-page image hovered in the subtext of these conversations. Anger we were told, was a violent response.
In stark contrast in the week following the rally, another student started up an imaginative and radically different form of protest outside of the Chancelry – a read-in – where people could come and study in front of the doors, to highlight exactly what was being threatened in these cuts. Men and women alike gathered every day, united in their vigil for education, sharing political philosophy texts and ideas with each other. However, when power (i.e. the vice-chancellor) entered this realm of debate on the three occasions he visited the read-in, he unsurprisingly promoted discussion that was on his own terms. Students attempted to engage him in their utopian vision of thoughtful debate, but an obstacle remained. He had no stake in actually listening to students apart from appearance, and he brought down his PR person who took photos to make sure it was successful. It quickly became apparent that the VC benefitted from the image of rational thinking man, where we all appear to figure it out together when in fact we don’t (as the CCTV they immediately installed above the read-in demonstrated).
This is not an argument against philosophy or considered thought (or men!). However, we need to be very careful about championing rational thinking man as the figure of success, as this becomes deeply problematic once we enter the realm of rational debate with those already in power. Though reasonable discussion might sound great in theory, issues arise when a minority hold power over the majority, and it is left to the powerful to dictate discourse and discussion.
Obviously there are huge benefits to students having discussions with each other about the ethics of how to tackle issues. But when those in charge come to play, it does students no service to accept the terms of their debate. Students should not accept their idea that anger = worst possible reaction. Why wouldn’t students be angry at being marginalised? Is that not anger-making? As I have outlined, we need to remain radically skeptical about the way in which these emotions are coded along gender lines. We also need to be extremely careful that in our encounters with authority we do not give more power to power, when we accept the figure of the rational man.
As for the utility of anger, it seems to me that the Hulk and the Crazy Cat Lady have a lot of potential – after all, things will need to be radically destroyed and a new language created before we can really get on with sensible debate.
I recently watched two movies - Frances Ha and Mean Girls (re-watched that is) – which seemed to me tales of unrequited or unrealised queer love. Admittedly I often have this problem, upon finishing a book or movie I’ll talk to my friends about “how gay all the characters were” or the “gay storyline” and appear quite mad (often because these stories end in heterosexual marriage). When I first meet people I also tend to implicitly assume that they are gay – which people pick up on and then “come out” to me as straight at some point. I enjoy this queer imagining of the world. This is perhaps an unfairly comfortable universe for me, from my privileged position as someone who “passes” as straight and therefore doesn’t have to face the daily reality of harassment based on sexuality (though I do definitely face street harassment based on my gender presentation…that’s another story).
But there’s another downside to this queer outlook: when the story line is your life and not just a movie, it can be sad if not downright heartbreaking when you find yourself pining for the straight girl. For me, this love of the unattainable woman has come in two major forms: the popular girl and the best friend.
The popular girl
There are popular leaders and then there are the popular sidekicks – in high school I found myself loving the latter. The ones who I thought why are you in that group, you’re so much better than that. The Veronicas of the world. Sure, sometimes these popular sidekick girls would be just as mean to me as their powerful counterparts, but I could forgive them with my imagining that they would one day break the shackles of their hetero crew. Because often these girls would be way more spunky than those they followed – tough enough to put up with the sh*t of their girl clan and generally sidelined because they weren’t as generic looking or acting as the top dogs. And you’d see them in PE class, with their awesome athletic skills (while you sat on the bench, pretending to feel sick with a note from your mum) and think damn girl, you don’t even know I exist… Years later you friend them on Facebook and find that they are just as hetero as ever, still lusting after the football-types and barely remembering who you are. *Sigh*.
The best friend
This one is the kicker. It’s a horrible cliche that queer people must be in love with their best friend of the same sex, but at least in my case I’ve often found it to be true. When you get so close to someone that you can practically finish their sentences and they’re the only person you want to spend all your time with, it seems strange that you don’t just shack up and live in a little cottage growing flowers and raising beautiful babies. Even when you constantly propose such ventures (e.g. text message “I want to have your babies”), if your best friend identifies as straight I’ve found there’s not much hope – just slow heartbreak.
It’s perfectly reasonable that perhaps for the popular girls and best friends I just wasn’t the right person for them. Nevertheless, you’ll still find me crying into my pillow about why Frances and Sophie never got together and why all Cady ever cared about was Aaron Samuels.
Recently, I found myself at a wine-tasting session with a friend, only to be confronted with the embarrassing reality that I had no idea how to act “appropriately” in the situation. The whole thing wasn’t helped by the fact that I was wearing an outfit much like Julia Roberts circa Pretty Woman, as I sometimes care to do (it’s a great look). Trying to “be myself” rather than affect a more refined countenance turned out to be quite the faux pas in terms of the disdainful/pitying/embarrassed looks I got from other patrons. While on the one hand I was rather “f*** you” about it, it also later resulted in me crying into my pillow.
Later, I came across this article about the UK’s Education Secretary Michael Gove, and his comments that working class children must learn to be middle class to get on in life. The basic gist of Gove’s sentiments is that upper-middle class kids are mostly the ones in charge and working class kids need to develop more refined cultural tastes so they can fit in with the elites and get a leg up. The whole thing reminded me of my wine-tasting misadventure. I thought, should I read the ancients, learn Latin, listen to classic music, learn what the f*** foie gras is, so I too can run the world one day? I’ve spent much of my life trying to dress and appear more middle-class than my background would suggest and I definitely understand the mobility that this has afforded me. This is not to mention the fact that the (relatively free) education system of Australia has allowed me to work my way up to doing a PhD and now I have the privilege of education giving me a leg up to even comment on all this.
Struggling with this issue, I showed the Gove article to my first year sociology classes yesterday. They rightly pointed out that while Gove brings to light the important issue of cultural capital, his solution reinforces the same hierarchy of inequality he’s talking about (<3 my students those smart little beans).
The idea of cultural capital comes from sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, and as this handy quote from McLaren (1994) suggests, cultural capital is “the general cultural background, knowledge, disposition, and skills that are passed on from one generation to another. Cultural capital represents ways of talking, acting, and socializing, as well as language practices, values, and types of dress and behavior.” So, the whole wine-tasting biz revealed my lack of cultural capital in this arena – probably owing to the fact that I was raised in a single-parent welfare-dependent family in a rural area and wine-tasting was something we had no access to, let alone interest in. But cultural capital isn’t just about etiquette, it’s about taste, as Bourdieu (1984) himself states, “…art and cultural consumption are predisposed, consciously and deliberately or not, to fulfill a social function of legitimating social differences.”
I talked about the hierarchy of taste with my classes and asked them what was at the top versus the bottom – i.e. if someone loved and knew lots about X what would make them seem really sophisticated, but if they loved Y would be looked down upon? People had some difficulty identifying what would be at the top – Mozart perhaps, Kafka? But when I asked them what was at the bottom, they all knew instantly – pop music, Justin Bieber, Miley Cyrus, basically anything that was seen as the stuff of the masses. I joked with my students that I decide what I like based on what carries the least cultural capital, because f*** that sh**. When I came across this article in The Guardian about how horrifying it is when “pop and rock collide” I couldn’t help thinking it might be because pop is seen as such a low art form that it contaminates all “true art” that it comes in contact with.
You may be thinking, well hang on, rock is also the stuff of the masses isn’t it? Why would rock be above pop in this crazy hierarchy of taste? Jimmy Hendrix ain’t no Mozart…right? Here we come to the gendered aspect of this culture war. I can’t help but see how within evaluations of “good” versus “bad” taste, often what is seen as of interest to women (or made by women) is way down the ladder. For example, what ridicule do writers or readers of romance fiction face compared to those of crime novels? How often have you heard someone bemoan how problematic Girls is, but how amazing Game of Thrones is? Or how Kanye West is some kind of genius and gets played on alternative radio stations, but Beyoncé stays within the realm of commercial radio (unless she’s featured by Kanye)? It’s as if something carries more cultural value if it’s seen as belonging to the realm of men’s taste, men’s stereotypical areas of interest like action-adventure, if it’s made by men or simply features men being awesome.
While Kanye is a world away from the cultural capital Michael Gove is talking about, the gendering of taste also plays a huge part in what counts right at the top of the hierarchy. The ancients, classical artists and musicians, the writers of classic texts and operas…predominately men (well, at least the ones we value/know about – the erasure of women from history in all this is another story). Feminists and cultural theorists have been fighting this for years, to try and turn the tables around. That’s at least part of the reason why you see university courses geared toward taking popular culture more seriously, particularly that which is seen as “women’s interest” areas (like romance).
Of course none of this means we shouldn’t critique popular culture for its downfalls and the way it reproduces other problematic norms around sexuality, bodies, consumption, race, ability, etc. But it does mean we need to hold ourselves to account when we’re critiquing these things. When we judge “popular” culture who are we judging along with it? The working-class? Women? The under-privileged? And we might also ask ourselves: what are we going to do about it?
Every year on March 8 International Women’s Day rocks around and each time I find myself deeply troubled by events being held in its name. I’ve written about IWD before (which, upon re-reading led me to the awkward realisation that keeping an academic blog means that any early or continuing naivety is laid bare before the world). To save you from reading it: I had attended a luncheon being held in my city that I found irksome for its ethnocentric focus on the foreign woman as “Other” – the (apparent) victim of sisterhood’s failure to go global. I also had a problem with the speakers’ general reinforcement of the binary man/woman given that there was no critical discussion of the concept of gender. Then (and this is the bit I feel retrospectively weird about) I went on to lament how bad it is to exclude men because we’re so busy shoring up women’s rights.
So a few of those qualms hold true: I still find the championing of “look how far we’ve come, let’s go save those women over there!” problematic, and I wish that there were more focus on debates about gender on this day. But I feel strange about my “what about men too” plea because I think that really missed the point of what I was trying to say – and it took an IWD event planned for 2014 to make me realise this. I won’t name the event, or who’s organising it, but basically they’re holding a IWD talk with two notable and powerful men and one less notable but still “successful” woman as the key speakers (does this not remind anyone of that episode of Parks and Recreation where Lesley Knope creates a committee for women and all of the people elected to it end up being men?).
Not wanting to prematurely judge this lineup, I called the event organiser to see what the reasoning was for these keynotes. The organiser told me that originally they had planned to have just one woman and one man, and then another prominent man had contacted them and they couldn’t say no. They told me that ultimately it was a great thing, because they are big names and are attracting lots of people for the event. I was also reminded by the organiser that men should be champions of gender too, and that the burden of change for women should be on everyone’s shoulders.
Now of course I agree that far too often in history the question of gender has been imagined as solely the domain of women. But let’s not forget that the women’s movement (at least in its second incarnation) emerged in part from men in the 1960’s New Left dismissing “women’s business”. For example, when Shulamith Firestone and Jo Freeman proposed that women be equally represented on the committee of the National Conference for a New Politics in Chicago in 1967, they were told to “cool down”. In other words, women became the spokespersons for gender issues because nobody else would take them seriously. So of course it’s great that men are taking it on board now, but does it not seem absurd that as part of this men would actually be allocated a greater amount of time to speak on a day when we should be challenging norms of representation?
And I’m not suggesting that this conundrum would be fixed by a 50-50 split: the problem is much deeper than that and at a fundamental level involves (from what I can see) a dominant picture of IWD as a day to celebrate “successful” women and consider how we can make other women “successful” too. The problem with this narrow raison d’être is that it then seems reasonable that men are the notable speakers – hell why not an entire panel of men championing women? If all we care about is promoting women to be successful, it doesn’t matter that we’re not hearing from women. It doesn’t matter that we’re not hearing about the lived experiences of gender from people in community. It doesn’t matter that the panel is all white, all straight, all “successful”. Who cares – all we want to talk about on IWD is getting women up that ladder.
What could we do instead of this same-old neoliberal IWD claptrap? Well, we could hold a range of talks or events that would actually apply some ideas from gender studies to IWD. Basically my ideal IWD would include discussion of these kinds of topics:
- The colour of feminism: intersectionality and feminism’s blindspots (e.g. different women of colour talking about their experiences)
– Queering feminism: where does LGBTQI fit in to the feminist movement? (e.g. LGBTIQ people talking about feminism)
– Why feminism is a radical idea (e.g. some second wavers and some young feminists talking about their perspectives)
– Genderism vs. feminism: how should we talk about gender? (e.g. some academic and/or community perspectives)
– Gender in the everyday (e.g. single mums speak out)
– Embodiment: how do bodies matter to gender? (e.g. trans women talking about their experiences)
– Gender roles vs. expression: what are masculinity and femininity? (e.g. trans people, femmes, academics, etc talking about different ideas)
This could include people of all different backgrounds and notoriety. You could have people with fiercely different ideas about what gender means, what being a woman means and what feminism should hope to achieve. The day would probably be full of severe debate as we realise our radically different perspectives on these issues and listen to people’s lived experiences. It may sound arrogant to propose involving people from across the community in some discussions which would be quite academic – but don’t forget, feminist writing has always straddled the popular/academic divide. And why not invite people from the community to speak instead of just women who have “made it”? Usually we only consider women who are earning lots of money and are well-known names to draw a crowd. And while men would be involved for sure, these might be trans men, gay men, young men in a new age of masculinity…men with diverse experiences of gender too. One thing’s for certain, the event would not be 2/3 old white guys.
As a slight departure from the usual gist of BinaryThis (i.e. critiquing dominant discourse and/or pictures of academically-themed cats) I’ve decided to do a music review. While considering music from a queer theory perspective is nothing new, it’s not often that we turn our lens from the pop culture machinations of the super-famous, to what’s being produced locally. So even though I know sh** all about music, I thought I’d take some time to consider a band from my hometown of Canberra, called Fun Machine and their newest album ‘Bodies On’. My feeling is that while we spend so long trying to recover interesting meanings from the big-name songs we hate/love, sometimes we might miss the very queer happenings right under our noses. Also I have a special place in my heart for this band- they did an ode to Skywhale (Canberra’s many-breasted whale hot air balloon) with Hannah Beasley last year, which is probably the best song OF ALL TIME (listen here!).
But before we begin, here’s a SUPER quick run down of what I mean when I say “queer theory perspective” (for a longer explanation of queer theory, see here or here). Questions I considered for this review are:
- How is the fixity of identity (such as sexuality, gender or human-ness) being challenged?
– What are the ways in which ideas of “normal” are being critiqued?
– Are there any other openings being made for ruptures/transformations of the way we usually understand the world?
As you might notice from those questions, though queer theory has its historical foundations in gay and lesbian activism, a “queer” perspective (though connected to questions of identity) can be about more than just gender and sexuality: doing queer theory involves challenging the way we think. In this sense, “to queer” can mean to make the familiar seem strange. While I have literally no idea how these guys identify in terms of gender or sexuality, that’s not what a queer perspective necessarily needs to involve – it’s about shaking things up. Having said that, sometimes queer is just about glitter – which incidentally, these guys are definitely into.
One thing that I really love about this band is the way they switch between different vocalists, styles, instruments and subjects…Listening to their new album in full for the first time, I had no idea what to expect from one track to the next. They’re also certainly not one of those bands where all their songs sound the same (as a side note here, honestly when the Lana Del Ray song ‘Young and Beautiful‘ came out last year, I genuinely thought it was a re-release of one of her earlier songs. Silly me). Point is, Fun Machine are far from boring. But what of their queer themes? Oh god get to the queer themes already! I hear you say. Okay, here goes…
The first song on their album, ‘Naked Body’, has a rather exciting clip filmed right here in Canberra, involving a crowd of sweaty, body-painted locals:
The clip is richly queer: a montage of skin fills the screen in an ode to hands, breasts, hair, feet and sequins. Blending voices, singers Bec Taylor and Chris Endry sing/shout the lyrics Girl it’s just my naked body/You’ll never touch my naked body/Get your hands off this naked body claiming freedom to nudity, and ownership of their own bodies. Then there’s some loud guitary-drumy bits (I said I don’t know sh** about music) and on repeat we hear Don’t trust unnaked bodies followed by orgiastic images of a dancing crowd smeared in paint and glitter. We see the words “naked”, “fun”, and “rock” literally written on their bodies.
The whole scene adds up to a reclamation of the exposed body as something to embrace, but “fun” is located in your own enjoyment and relationship with your body rather than becoming object to someone else’s desires. At the end of the video clip we see a “money shot” of glitter in an orgasmic rock finish. Transcending boundaries of gender and heteronormativity, music is the polyamorous lover that brings bodies to climax. Here, nakedness is not about being seen, but about being “true” to yourself and your own desires, not the expected norms of sexiness.
‘Shave’ is the fourth track off their album, which also boasts a locally made vid. This was obviously done on a shoe-string budget (I love how you can see the pieces of paper they’ve pasted together for the backdrop):
The clip starts with a colourful grid of local faces, a kind of modern-day Brady Bunch where “family” is no longer recognisable as the norm of mother-father-children, but rather the connections you have to your community and the people around you. The video involves these faces (also sporting neon makeup and jewels) lip-syncing Come back to me my love/And watch me as I shave. Faces are interspersed with surreal scenes that push the limits of reality: Barbie’s head has been replaced with the Hulk; a plastic wolf is bleeding from the mouth; a monkey mask is covered in candy bananas. The song finishes by asking Are you dancing/Gorgeous/Chaos/Hard Lust? More glitter bursts from a balloon, and a picture of Australia’s Prime Minister is smashed with an egg. ‘Shave’ opens up the limits of what we might take pleasure from and exposes a multiplicity of desire directed at rupturing “reality”. That the PM ends up with ‘egg on his face’ in amongst the scenes of multi-coloured surrealism, suggests that a different political future might be possible – things might be otherwise if we raise our voices up and shout Hey!
Other songs on their album are also strange and wonderful. ‘In the Jungle’ has helpful tips for what you might want to have handy in the Jungle: You need a hat cos it is sunny/And penicillin never goes wrong, just don’t forget your games console…But I like to play my way/Play Nintendo in the Jungle. With a melody that reminds me of a late 80s sitcom blended with nostalgic videogame tones, this song may seem frivolous on the surface. But I can’t help but think that one message in this is that in order to survive we need more than just the practicalities of life, we need to play. In other tracks we hear about zombie girlfriends (‘Set You on Fire’), how we change each other in relationships (‘Alchemists’) and the possibilities for change (‘Ready for the Fight’). I couldn’t quite understand all of their songs- I think ‘Souvenir Teaspoon’ might be about taking drugs with your grandma, but I’m not sure. The album drifts from gruff deep voices to the softest lilting melodies – this is a musical landscape of difference and transformation.
As a final point, we might note that amongst “80s german minimalist techno” and “pop” they also classify their musical genre as “gay punk” and “genres are weird”. To me, this sums it up: Fun Machine are queer as f*** because you can’t put them in any one box. I encourage you to listen to their new album or go see them if you can: you’ll probably end up dancing around naked and covered in glitter. And as we all know, you can NEVER have too much glitter.