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Funny mummy slaps patriarchal Australia


What Women Want, Nelly Thomas, Random House, Random House


Cover image of Nelly Thomas' book 'What Women Want' features Thomas smiling and with her hands on her hips

Anyone picking up Nelly Thomas' What Women Want expecting to find a Birkenstock-wearing feminist-lite read will feel sorely ripped off. Born in WA and based in Melbourne, Thomas is a comedian, award-winning performer, a self-confessed 'funny mummy' and one of 'Australia's most innovative thinkers'.

And she has a bone to pick with modern-day Australia.

Of course, Thomas knows she's being a tiny bit facetious with the title of her book. I mean, considering that women, like men, come in all shapes, sizes and political persuasions, how can anyone profess to know what half of the population wants? Thomas addresses this fully and with candour in her punchy introduction.

What she has in her sights is the chiaroscuro backdrop of our society, which is progressive, yes, but also patriarchal; a land of choice and opportunity as well as the tall poppy syndrome. And if you're a woman, then climbing the ladder means invariably coming face to face with your own reflection in the glass ceiling.

Thomas is at her most witty and whittling when talking about the male-dominated comedy circuit, something she knows a thing or two about. While the degrees of misogyny vary, the worst, she writes, are 'those places where you'd expect gender equity to be on the agenda'.

Sex and relationships also duly get the Thomas treatment. Discussing the former, the author adopts her best teacher voice (she has written sexual health DVDs for teens). Aside from navigating the twists and turns of a young woman's burgeoning sexuality, she writes with some authority — and plenty of conviction — on the rise of the raunch culture and its awful grip on young women (and some men).

And for someone caustically agnostic Thomas gives the 'big three' religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam a surprisingly good rap. 'At least they have thousands of years of robust intellectual tradition behind them, texts that they can be held accountable to,' she writes, one can safely presume, sans tongue in cheek.

Sure, you might need to pardon her French, as they say, and for this reason I'll probably not be recommending the book to my 78-year-old mother, but there's such raw honesty, probing reflection and solid research that it's hard to take much offence.

I don't know about you, Barry, but I'm ashamed to say that I'd never heard of Thomas before picking up this book. Her 'comedic star' began to rise when she won the national Raw Comedy competition back in 2003 — certainly in (my) living memory. A decade later and Thomas is telling us what we women want. How audacious. But guess what? I'm all ears.


True, Jen, books offer everlasting surprises; Nelly Thomas was a welcome stranger to me also.

Tackling life's meaning, for one gender at any rate, ain't easy. Thomas laughs off her ambition to do so as 'a woman who grew through one of the greatest periods of change in history for women'. Her sometimes glib, sometimes passionate take is always engaging and disparagingly self-aware (ineffectual problem solvers such as bureaucrats and policy people are 'where we arts students go to die').

So, what do women want? Apparently, not necessarily in this order, they want: safety, fun, friendship, nutrition, aspirational and empowering Pixar flicks, and financial independence. Ultimately, she declares, 'I want women to have it all ... to be valued and respected'.

Respect and a valuable status in life. Too right. Having it all? Not necessarily a realistic or achievable desire.

My concern, Jen, is that by playing for laughs and revelling in her own idiosyncrasies, Thomas ignores or dismisses inequities. For her, happiness is a warm mop. But is housework truly a girl's best friend? The confession that she loves 'to Ajax a bath' is accompanied by the dismissive nod that, yes, Thomas does more domestic labour than her Lachlan because he 'has a real job (as opposed to show biz), and like most men, he earns more'. A real job? Rimshot, please. Maybe I've missed the punchline.

It's not always clear when Thomas plays for laughs. Perhaps the stage works better than the page.

Her experience of motherhood is given earthy credibility by adding 'politics and guilt' to her expectations of 'some fear, joy, sleepless nights, love and a sore vagina'. For me, she's most effective in her tackling of sexualisation of girls, and the body fascism women stare down every day. Re-living her own struggles against negative body-image (she was described as 'big-boned', which is 'code for fatty boombah'), Thomas rails strongly and intelligently against the unthinking acceptance of elective plastic surgery, especially among the young.

As a fellow parent of a boy, Jen, I was concerned by Thomas' experiences doing 'sexual ethics theatre performances'. She recounts negative responses from teenage boys to one scenario dealing with pubic hair — the lads assuming that 'any girl with pubes would be so self-conscious about them that she'd avoid sex altogether', and that malekind is disgusted by non-exfoliated women.

Thomas, rightly, describes that bit of vitriol not as a culturally-learned response but 'full-on hatred of the natural female form'. It's serious stuff, from a comedienne with chutzpah.

Thomas cuts a swathe through wannabe exploiters of young girls and women. She believes that, among the would-be dissers of my ten-year-old daughter, such as lunky chauvinists, are women pretending to be girl power role models (take a bow, Spice Grannies and Beyonce etc.) who talk a good game while they 'teeter around on nine-inch heels in catsuits ... I can't see how lip synching in lingerie is empowering'.

Non-predatory development of sexuality. Equitable work opportunities. Valuing of labour, regardless of gender or roles. Supportive partners.

No, Nelly, it's not too much to ask for.

Jen Vuk and Barry GittinsJen Vuk is a freelance writer and editor whose work has appeared in The Herald Sun, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian, The Age and The Good Weekend. Barry Gittins is a communication and research consultant for the Salvation Army who has written for Inside History, Crosslight, The Transit Lounge, Changing Attitude Australia and The Rubicon.

Topic tags: Jen Vuk, Barry Gittins, Nelly Thomas, feminism



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Existing comments

This may be the time to suggest that the advertisement at the bottom of the right hand part of the page may be reinforcing some of those body image problems.

ErikH | 20 September 2013  

As a 75 year-old-feminist grandmother, I think it's a pity that such a well-written article about sexism includes Jen's ageist barb about her grandmother. Time for us oldies to rise up in protest. We want to be included in a better society, too!

MH | 20 September 2013  

The issue of boys reaction to pubic hair reflects the influence of pretty-freely available e-pornography on our teenagers. Porn has strongly affected youngsters` attitudes to what is expected of their own sexuality and sexual behaviour.

Eugene | 23 September 2013  

ErikH, the photo at the right of the bottom of the page is currently of the Anglican Archbishop of Melbourne. I wouldn't say he's stunning but neither is he responsible for many body image problems, I assume. (-:

Penelope | 24 September 2013  

What I find rather weird and sad is that women try to look pre-puberty by waxing and that they obviously think that boys/men are looking for this too. What image of ourselves are we trying to portray? or feel pushed to portray?

Mary Hoban | 26 September 2013  

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