Diverse local comedians are making institutional racism and sexism laughable, writes Liam McLoughlin.
A thin layer of sludge has settled over the stagnant cesspool of Australian public discourse. This frothing film of conservative white men is granted unfettered access to the airwaves above at the same time as suffocating those below.
Such men seem more upset by an invisible spear than the suicide of a 10-year-old Aboriginal girl. Such men perform more outrage at criticism of misogynistic “jokes” than the fact that each week in Australia, a woman is murdered by her intimate partner. Such men appear more perturbed by the advocacy of journalists at The Guardian than the torture of children in offshore concentration camps.
This toxic coating of our society rules as a tyrannical minority within the corridors of power and without. From the greasy deposits of media and government they leech their rhetorical venom down into all layers of Australian society. Their poisonous project is so successful, you’d swear the greatest challenge facing Australian society is not climate destruction, domestic violence, institutional racism, the hypercapitalist hijacking of politics, or the rampant inequality between the ruling classes and everyone else, but legal obstacles to hate speech.
Though what passes for public debate in this country is already a sick joke played by shock-jocks and right-wing politicians on the rest of the Australian population, there is resistance from a wide range of Australian satirists.
These satirists come in two main forms. There are day-to-day satirists who target these men directly. They lampoon the malevolent buffoonery of our political and media elites with often witty riffs on news headlines. The Onion and The Daily Show rule the American political scene, while here in Australia, The Chaser and The Shovel are prominent examples.
This is the kind of satire most Australians know and love. It’s funny, entertaining, popular, and an effective relief from the constant barrage of incompetent, ignorant, and dangerous political leadership and media reportage. In a neoliberal culture where the doctrine of individual responsibility reigns supreme, it’s easy to see why jokes about defective personalities are so successful.
There is a second, more radical type of satire which examines the conditions in which such men thrive. We can call this systemic satire: using the art of witty and ironic exaggeration to expose the social structures and political systems responsible for injustice.
The two main targets of systemic satire are what Norwegian sociologist Johan Galtung calls structural and cultural violence. Structural violence describes forms of oppression and injustice built into our society. For Galtung, structural violence “shows up as unequal power and consequently as unequal life chances.” It’s about the violence of extreme inequality and institutionalised forms of privilege, discrimination, racism and exclusion.
Galtung defines cultural violence as the attitudes and beliefs which “can be used to justify or legitimise direct or structural violence”. Religion, art, science, education, ideology, and the media are all tied up with cultural violence.
While day-to-day satire pokes fun at powerful individuals, systemic satire uses laughter as a tool to rail against multiple forms of structural and cultural violence.
When phony debates about a plebiscite and 18C dominate the media cycle, interrupted only by news of island prisons, child abuse, misogyny, and the latest blackface scandal, it does feel like the toxic sludge above us is only growing thicker and more oppressive.
Mercifully, systemic satirists are starting to clean up.
The success of John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight over the last three years has brought the systemic approach to prominence. His segments have investigated a vast array of issues of structural and cultural violence, including police militarisation, the gender pay gap, and LGBT rights.
Oliver’s popularity has made waves in Australia, influencing the development of The Weekly with Charlie Pickering on the ABC. Pickering’s monologues on the gross injustice of Indigenous incarceration, the sickening burden of blame placed on women for their own rape, and the ongoing horrors of immigration detention, were all worthwhile examinations of systemic problems and became news stories in themselves.
In one episode earlier this year, a segment featuring rapper Adam Briggs satirised the ongoing cultural and structural violence perpetrated by white Australia in its relationship with Indigenous Australians.
In a conversation about constitutional recognition, Pickering’s character adopts the breezy ignorance of white Australia about Aboriginal affairs.
“So, we just put in an acknowledgement [of Indigenous Australians in the constitution]and that seems easy enough, yeah, why not?”
Briggs mocks this simplistic form of white engagement in Indigenous affairs.
“Some people feel like recognition means nothing without reform. You can’t just recognise and move on. That’s like going, “Hey black man, I see you there, that’s good Indigenous.”
There’s tragicomedy when the tokenistic gestures of solidarity from white Australia (an Aboriginal flag Facebook filter) are contrasted with the serious structural change proposed by Briggs. He argues that true reform starts not just with a mention in our founding document, but the removal of racist powers of lawmaking and disenfranchisement in the constitution and the negotiation of legally binding treaties with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.
The main obstacle to such progress is the same as ever.
Briggs says, “The power is in your hands white people, you know, like always.”
We’re also seeing a spike of systemic satire in other types of Australian comedy. There have now been two acclaimed seasons of ABC show Black Comedy, billed as “a sketch comedy show by Blackfellas”. The show incorporates a wide range of comic styles, but systemic satire is one of its many successful modes.
Like the Briggs segment, a brilliant sketch called A Dollar a Day sends up patronising white attitudes to Aboriginal people.
As two wealthy heterosexual couples luxuriate in their white privilege, conversation turns to Janelle.
“She’s our Aborigine… We sponsor her, you know, sponsor an Aboriginal, a dollar a day.”
Whites render Indigenous Australians invisible, silent, powerless objects of charity, making themselves the heroes of their own morality tales.
“It just feels good to give back, you know?” the white male sponsor of Janelle offers smugly.
The conversation devolves into a nationalistic charity competition and ends with the couple currently supporting a child overseas deciding to sponsor Janelle’s brother Trevor instead.
“Maybe we should get our own Aborigine. What do you think honey?”
“I think I’ll call World Vision tomorrow and cancel,” she says.
“Cancel the Filipino child, let’s get ourselves a Trevor,” the husband enthuses.
It’s hard to imagine a funnier or more succinct pisstake of the deeply ingrained white supremacist outlook shaping relations between white and black Australia.
This relationship is well articulated in a paper called Tangled up in white: The perpetuation of whiteness in Australian national identity and the Northern Territory Intervention.
“Both historical and ongoing violence against non-whites in Australia are reframed as a form of helping, protecting and saving the ‘other’”.
It’s not just on nationally broadcast TV shows where we can see the rise of systemic satire; there are exciting developments at the grassroots.
Writer, director and performer Maddy Butler, who has a sketch comedy channel called VODville, is making some very sharp, systemic satire and is starting to receive the recognition she deserves. Prior to the release of the skit, If Only Girls Dressed Properly, the VODville Facebook page had garnered a few hundred Facebook likes. At the time of writing, this one video had over 18,000 shares and 1.4 million views.
You can see why it has struck a chord.
It’s a hilarious and pithy critique of multiple forms of structural and cultural violence against women; the policing of female attire, the associated victim blaming in rape cases, as well as cultural imperialism.
In correspondence with New Matilda, Butler wrote about her reasons for releasing the video.
“I’m sick of the double standards society holds for women’s appearances. Women are told to dress modestly in order to avoid assault and yet women who do wear more clothing are told they’re oppressed.”
The systemic approach is also gaining traction in Australian stand-up comedy. This year the Barry Award, the prize for the most outstanding comedy act at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, went to Zoë Coombs Marr for her show Trigger Warning.
Marr describes her character Dave as a “sexist beer-swilling caricature of the dregs of masculinity”. In his latest outing, feminist harassment on Twitter has forced Dave to give up stand-up comedy and try his hand at clowning. Training with Philippe Gaulier, Dave unleashes his inner clown: a “cranky lesbian in her 30s” called Zoë.
Fortunate enough to see the show in Melbourne, this is systemic satire at its peak. Author Dave Eggers’ phrase “staggering genius” comes to mind, and it’s been colourfully described by Gabrielle Jackson in The Guardian.
Trigger Warning “reflects the society we live in, and its many layers capture the complexity of misogyny, structural sexism and the current wave of popular feminism…”
“Coombs Marr is not just a female comedian (go with it, she would say) up there making funny jokes on stage; she’s a female comedian making funny jokes on stage about being a female comedian, while not being a female comedian, and making more funny jokes about the place of women in society, structural discrimination, being queer, and white men who feel marginalised by feminists. With fake blood pouring down her face and a banana in her pants.”
Another festival hit was Tom Ballard’s Boundless Plains to Share, advertised as a “comedic exploration of Australia’s fucked up immigration situation”. With extensive research, wit, and irony, Ballard tackles the history and hypocrisy of our asylum seeker policies. Using the disarming power of lols, he covers territory few Australian comedians would dare tread; not just the ongoing structural and direct violence of our offshore concentration camps, but the cultural violence which legitimates it.
Another important figure in these early days of an Australian satirical revolution is Aamer Rahman.
Back in 2010 when he was performing with Nazeem Hussain as part of Fear of a Brown Planet, Rahman’s clip called White People stood out as a satirical beacon for Whiteness Studies. Critical whiteness theory resists the invisible, central, neutral positioning of whiteness. It inverts the dominant pattern of white attacks on minority cultures and challenges the values and beliefs of white culture.
Rahman says, “When white people have a party, one minute it’s a party, and the next minute, it’s the Nazi Party.”
“When you and your friends have a BBQ and within half an hour that manages to mutate into a 5,000 strong Hitler youth rally, maybe there’s something wrong with your culture. Just putting it out there.”
And this: “When I first saw the Cronulla Riots on TV, I didn’t know what was going on; I just thought it was the season finale of Home and Away.”
Rahman has since performed brilliant work on reverse racism, Australia Day, the right to be bigots, and the treatment of Adam Goodes. Given his resistance to white hegemony, Rahman often experiences a backlash, seen in the outraged response to his discussion of Australia Day with Briggs for Vice.
The paper Tangled up in white also has a nice theory on a major reason for this response, beyond blatant racism.
“As critical whiteness theory is a refutation of this dominant discourse of Australian national history and identity, it is unsurprising that it is often met with rejection, denial or rage when articulated to students and/or the general public. Because “whiteness”, as propounded by Australia’s national identity, is discursively intertwined with ideas of protection, beneficence and mateship, this white Australian national identity must deny anything that contradicts these positive notions, such as the legacy of violence and dispossession.”
Earlier this year, Black Comedy writer and performer Nakkiah Lui told 7.30, “I think humour is our most powerful tool when it comes to actually creating some type of social change.”
Back in 1871, American essayist Edwin Percy Whipple said, “As men neither fear nor respect what has been made contemptible, all honor to him who makes oppression laughable as well as detestable. Armies cannot protect it then; and walls which have remained impenetrable to cannon have fallen before a roar of laughter or a hiss of contempt.”
Ruled by a Coalition government whose hateful propaganda sows the seeds for ascendant right-wing populism, the contemptuous nature of our politics is undeniable.
Thankfully, a diverse range of talented Australian satirists are not only making our noxious conservative overlords both laughable and detestable. They are also undercutting the structural and cultural violence which fosters this toxic bloom.