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Funny mummy slaps patriarchal Australia

  • 20 September 2013

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


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