Comedy

Kath and Kim: Restricting the Female Suburban Image

In what ways do the characters Kath & Kim represent a female paradox? How have Kath & Kim reified the Australian female type? How do they differ from women represented in early Australia? What is it about their characters that make them Australian? How do they imply the female national type to international audiences? Moreover, what is the Australian way of life in terms of Kath & Kim? How does the US version of Kath and Kim differ from the Australian version? Is Kath & Kim exportable or a specifically Australian format?

Audiences from Australia, Britain, New Zealand, and the United States love Kath & Kim because its provides a comedic and unique insight to the contemporary lifestyle of women in Australian suburbs. The question is, however, are Kath and Kim’s televisual female roles accurately presenting the suburban female types to global audiences? I argue that Kath and Kim as Australian female national teletypes represent a problematic paradox. On one hand, Kath & Kim are perceived as independent, sexual, and unruly women, and on the other and they are depicted as domesticated. materialistic and emotionally dependent women. This paradox underscores the historically passive and ambiguous roles of Australian female television types. Through a close analysis of two episodes from season 1, Old and Money,  I will show how Kath and Kim appear to be independent, but ultimately rely on men for their happiness. This paradox, thus, reveals the Australian female type as incapable and unsuccessful. Furthermore, with a discussion of the recent American copycat version of Kath &Kim, I argue that Kath and Kim’s “Australianess” and “in-betweenness” is untranslatable to American female types.

In “Money,” episode 6 in season 1, Kath stresses about coming up with the money for a down payment on the pumpkin patch carriage for her wedding. Kim tells Kath that she should not stress and just have Kel pitch in money for the carriage, but Kath is adamant about paying for the wedding herself.  Kath tells Kim, “I’m paying for this wedding for myself…I’ll I know is that if I can’t pay for a really ‘ritsy’ wedding for myself then I won’t get married at all” (Money). Before Kath said this, however, she mentions how she should not have bought the expensive boots she was wearing. The reason why Kath cannot afford the pumpkin carriage is because she spends money on frivolous items. Therefore, Kath’s self- determination contrasts her ability to make rational consumer decisions. Thus, this opening scene underscores the Australian female paradox. On one hand Kath sets herself up as an independent women paying for her wedding, and on the other hand, she appears to be materialistic and lacking sensible shopping budgets.

To help raise money, Kath holds a lingerie auction. The space where Kath conducts her independence is in her own living room, a domesticated space. Kath never enacts her agency in public work spaces. Sue Turnbull notes:

Kath doesn’t appear to work. Is she unemployed or independently wealthy? Is she at the top or bottom of the economic ladder? There is a remarkable lack of attention in Kath and Kim to the economics of Kath’s lifestyle… (Turnbull 9).

We see Kath buying goods and preparing an expensive wedding, but where does that money come from?

Kath’s lingerie sale ends up a failure and she falls short for the payment on the  carriage. Kath’s inability to come up with money reveals that Kath is unsuccessful at being independent. Moreover, it shows that she is powerless even within the feminine “space” of the house.

At the end of “Money”, Kath mourns the loss of her carriage on the couch when Kel “magically” appears at the front the house with her pumpkin patch carriage (See Figure 1). The way Kel got the carriage is not mentioned, but his success reveals that Kath, as a woman, needs her husband to be able to afford her “dream” wedding. Thus, Kath’s strong determination at the beginning of the episode is reversed by her dependency on Kel for happiness. Although Kath’s ridiculous fantasy of having a pumpkin coach for her wedding is entertaining and funny, the larger implications of her failures render Australian females as incapable drongos.

In “Old,” episode 5 of season 1, Sharon tells Kath that she needs to calm down and not stress about the wedding. Kim tells Kath that the stress is making Kath look older. The conversation plays out like this:

Kim: “I’m not surprised your exhausted mum! You’ve gotta slow down! I have to say…You look 100 at the moment

Kath: “No Kim! I actually look very good for my age. You should see the looks I get!”

Kim: “Bakirrk!

Kath: “What?!”

Kim: “Bakirrrkk mum! You Chooky!”

Kath: “What!? Don’t be a fool Kim!”

Kim: “You’re not as young as you used to be you have a cooky neck!”

Throughout the rest of the episode, Kath keeps running into situations that make her look old. In the final scene of the episode at the club, Kel reassures Kath that she is a “top” girl. The scene plays out like this:

Kath, “So you don’t think I’m too old for you?”

Kel, “What?? Come here! And get set for the ride of your life!”

Kel’s affirmation of Kath’s “good” looks turns Kath back into her confident self. In other words, Kath relies on Kel’s approval for happiness. Similarly to Kath, Kim depends on Brett for her happiness. Although Kim appears to be in control of Brett’s emotions in terms of their relationship, her binge eating and chat-room habits reveal that Kim constantly needs other things to satisfy her independent happiness. Furthermore, if Brett was not constantly calling her and trying to get her back, Kim would have nothing to do. (I would also like to note that I am aware that the men depicted on Kath & Kim are not particularly “masculine,” and are dependent upon the women for their happiness, but this journal is only looking at the female roles)

What concerns me is that it is precisely Kath and Kim’s lack of independence and cultural capital that makes the show funny. In other words, audiences laugh at the way Kath and Kim fail at being strong independent women. Sue Turnbull notes,

She [kath] defines herself through her house, her clothes, and her possessions, at which we are invited to laugh because they are so clearly intended to represent failure in terms of an implied good taste” (Turnbull 24).

Although this is show is intended to be a satire at the Australian suburban way of life. The popularity of Kath & Kim, has given them international fame. Thus, their global recognition has given international audiences an image of Australian women as distastefully materialistic and dependent.

Furthermore, audiences also laugh at the way Kath and Kim butcher the english language. One commentator in the documentary Outrageous Characters, said, “I think its just the way she talks thats hilarious.” Their Australian vernacular , “Look at Moiye!”, “yumour”, and “noice,” underscores the show’s Australianess.Furthermore, part of the humour for Australian audiences is recognizing the local words Kath & Kim use in their everyday lives. Although the vernacular contributes to the show’s popularity, it also reifies the image of Australian women from the suburbs as “drongo.

Laura Waters, one of the producers of Kath &Kim said, “What makes Kath & Kim funny is not its Australianness. It’s because its very specific and truthful” (Dun 3). I argue, however, that what makes the show funny is the Australianness. Kel Knight’s sausages, Kim’s “Bickies” (Yummy Snacks), the Australian suburb of  “Fountain Gate, and Sharon’s netball gear are all icons that signify a specific Australian suburban way of life. These icons, thus create an Australian context for comedy to develop within. The reason why the Australian Kath and Kim is successful in the united states is because this Australian context is very well set-up. In a way, American audiences become ethnographers studying and appreciating a comedic Australian way of life.  Due to Kath & Kim’s ‘fly on the wall’ documentary aesthetic, however, many American audiences misrecognise Kath and Kim as “true” Australian female types. Therefore, the satire reifies the national image of an Australian woman as “drongo” and limits the suburban female to one type.

In 2008, NBC bought the Kath and Kim format and made a US version of Kath & Kim starring Selma Blair as Kim and Molly Shannon as Kath. The producers of the show, as well as the actors themselves, were highly confident in the success of portraying the “typical” American way of life. On Channel 7’s, Today’s Tonight, Molly Shannon said:

This is a ‘typical’ American family. A mother and daughter that struggle with typical things, typical frustrations things that you worry about with your kids  and that’s what I like about it. I like that its funny, but very honest” (Dunn 5).

But, how honest is it? And how typical is it? The show is copying two Australian female types, something that I argue is impossible for American women to fulfill. It is impossible because the success of Kath and Kim’s humour relies on the way it sets up a specific Australian way of living. Adam Hills, host of music trivia show Spicks and Specks, in an interview with Amanda Dunn said, “Australians have a really strong sense of being Australian…American comics wouldn’t talk about what it’s like to be American” (Dunn 3). Hills underscores the fact that Americans do not have a strong sense of what it is like to live the American way of life in the suburbs. To try and copy a “bogan” cultural way of life and transpose it upon an American way of life is a difficult task. The cultural rules that are broken in Kath & Kim specific to being Australian, not American.  According to Susie Purdie, audiences laugh when cultural rules are broken (Turnbull 7).  If the American Kath & Kim are trying to break Australian rules, American audiences are not going to find it funny.  Sue Turnbull wrote:

If some rules of behaviors are culturally and linguistically specific, then this helps to explain why certain kinds of comedy do not travel (Turnbull 7).

For example, on the US show the women are not as “culturally” impaired as the Kath and Kim in Australia. Kim, played by Selma Blair, is beautiful and thin and does not portray the loss of self-respect that Gina Riley evokes.  Furthermore, the house that Kath owns in the American version is quite large and extravagant compared to the little suburban town house set in Fountain Gate.  Furthermore, the “American way of life” which is built upon a grand success story differs greatly from the social failure displayed in the Australian version of Kath &Kim.

As a result of this inaccurate cultural translation, the US version of Kath & Kim, was cut from Channel 7 after the second episode and the series only made it through season one. Sue Turnbull  notes that she has a difficult time watching and laughing at the way the Australian female characters failure. As an American I feel the same way about the American re-make of Kath and Kim. The difference is, however, that the US Kath & Kim, is disliked by both American and Australians audiences. At least the Australian Kath & Kim, was decently written and culturally valid. Therefore, it can be said that Kath & Kim’s television format fits the Australian way of life. But it is important to note, that the “way of life” portrayed on the show is not culturally accurate to all of Australia. Furthermore,  the success of Kath & Kim, has constructed the national Australian female type as dependent, materialistic, and cultural failures. Although Kath and Kim are the protagonists of the show, the implications of their paradoxical roles reifies Australian television types as lacking social capital as well as social independence.

Works Cited:

Dunn, Amanda. “Funny That.” The Age. 27 November 2005. Web.  12 May 2010.

“Money” Kath and Kim. ABC, Melbourne. 20 June  2002.

“Old” Kath and Kim. ABC, Melbourne. 13 June 2002 ABC.

Outrageous Characters. Channel 9 Network, Australia. 2006.

Turnbull, Sue. “Look at Moiye, Kimmie, Look at Moiye!’ Kath and Kim and the Australian Comedy if taste.”  Media International Australia Incorporating culture and policy 11. 3 (2004): Print.

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