Celebrating and Satirising the Suburbs in Kath & Kim
For me, the topic of "women and television" sparks a string of associations. Firstly, my brain travels to women in television (and by this I mean women appearing in and making television). Then it takes me to women in Australian television, because that is the television that has shaped me as a critical thinker and spectator. Then I travel to my favourite era of Australian television: the 1990s. This is the decade of my childhood, a decade when sketch comedy infiltrated Australian screens through series such as The Comedy Company (1988-1990), Fast Forward (1989-1992), The Late Show (1992-1993), Full Frontal (1993-1997), Big Girl’s Blouse (1994-1995) and Something Stupid (1998). As critics have commented, these series "adhered to the following basic formula: a moderately absurd premise, an increasingly silly escalation of said premise, then a capper."1 Representing Australian culture through this formula, this era of television was scathingly funny.
It was through sketch comedy that I came to know and love the now iconic faces of Gina Riley, Jane Turner and Magda Szubanski. Through the vehicle of Big Girls Blouse, Riley and Turner devised three of the most interesting female characters to have graced Australian television. In the early 2000s, Riley and Turner developed these characters further into Kath & Kim, a full-length series and later a film. It spanned 4 seasons, airing on ABC from 2002-2004 and Channel 7 in 2007, and told the story of a suburban trio: Kath Day-Knight (Jane Turner), a vivacious middle-aged woman, her moody daughter Kim Craig (Gina Riley) and Kim’s "second best friend" Sharon (Magda Szubanski).
Kath & Kim has been described as a "hybrid comedy" because it employs certain aspects of the soap opera, the sitcom, the documentary, and reality television.2 The series consistently manipulates the established television genres, and the first episode demonstrates the particular way in which this is achieved. The opening credits read like a traditional soap opera in every way – Kath and Kim are dressed extravagantly in evening gowns and pant suits, they have lavish hair, make up and jewellery. This aesthetic, borrowed from iconic soaps like The Bold and the Beautiful (1987-) and The Young and the Restless (1973-), is contrasted with Sharon, Kel and Brett, whom all sport their regular attire: sportswear and casual clothing. The contrast serves to add humour to the sequence whilst highlighting the absurdity and excessiveness of both Kath and Kim.
In this sequence, characters are framed within an entirely white background, which allow them to act as the ultimate focal point. Zooms and pans are also employed, capturing the characters from various angles (close ups to long shots) as they appear and then disappear from the frame before returning in new outfits or replaced by a different character. A wind machine is also evident as the characters gaze pensively and swish their hair, performing before the camera. The sound is crucial – a demanding rendition of "The Joker," a song by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley, from the 1964 musical The Roar of the Greasepaint – The Smell of the Crowd. Notably, it is Gina Riley who sings the theme. As the credits conclude, Kath is seated with Kim to her right. Kath looks angelically, proudly almost, into the camera, then looks up at Kim who meets her gaze. She smirks at the camera with a look of positive smugness as she slides her hair over her shoulder. We see a crane shot of the suburbs and the sequence finishes.
Following these credits, the first episode of Kath & Kim begins. It opens with a shot of a television playing the popular breakfast program Good Morning Australia with Bert Newton, Australia’s favourite television host. There is a distinct squeaking sound in the background, and a swift pan reveals Kath on an elliptical trainer, dressed in tight grey bike shorts, runners and a fluorescent pink G-string leotard with a scooping low back (revealing a silk, cream bra). It is this shot that captures the essence of the series. This is because, in a matter of moments, the series has already established that it will (in some manner) concern itself with suburbia, women, mediocrity, and a kind of "everydayness." Kath’s daggy, out-dated exercise attire also signals a particular aesthetic and attitude that permeates the series.
Kath’s "enslavement to fashion" sees her don an assortment of garish items: hand knitted jumpers, fluorescent, tight fitting exercise gear, hand crafted earrings of animals, off the shoulder mesh tops, matching couple jumpers purchased at her honeymoon at the airport with Kel, safari themed leather jackets with matching accessories, coordinated velour tracksuits, floral blazers, high waisted acid wash jeans, amongst a plethora of other "stylish" choices. As Wendy Davis argues, "Kath follows her idiosyncratic taste without fear or favour," resulting in a positively grotesque rendering of a middle-aged suburban mother.3 Yet there is something to be said about Kath’s unwavering dedication to said fashion. Davis argues that this allows her to effectively "critique the desire to conform to such cultural values by displaying the sense of the ridiculous inherent in this process."4 The series seems to invite us to celebrate in these images while casting our memory back a decade or so to an aesthetic known as the suburban grotesque, a spectacle of ugliness and excess that dominated our box office through films like Muriel’s Wedding (P.J. Hogan, 1994), Strictly Ballroom (Baz Luhrmann, 1992) and The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert (Stephan Elliot, 1994).
However, it is significant that Kath & Kim also draws on suburban tropes and caricatures for much of its humour, utilising a somewhat anti-suburban politics to critique Australian suburban culture. The suburban imaginary has the power to highlight, expose, inform, and reconfigure Australian identity, however the image of suburbia in Australian popular culture is fraught with contradictions. When one thinks of suburbia, many facets spring to mind - the suburbs as idyllic, maintained, and ordered. As Graeme Davison argues, the contemporary Australian dream often hinges on the suburban ideal – "the owner-occupied, single-storey house standing in its own quarter block on the fringes of the city."5 This mythology points toward a yearning for family, nourishment, nature and virtuosity and renders the suburb as "ideal;" something that fosters privacy and tranquillity. But as Margaret Henderson notes, this depiction of the suburbs can also "represent a particular set of problems for their female inhabitants, a specifically female anomie of isolation, frustration and alienation."6
In opposition to this, there exists an image of the suburbs as dangerous, deviant, and unorthodox. The anomalous underbelly of suburbia has been played out in the Australian screen industry for decades, with notable examples such as Alexandra’s Project (Rolf de Heer, 2003), The Boys (Rowan Woods, 2005), Suburban Mayhem (Paul Goldman, 2006), Noise (Matthew Saville, 2007), Cedar Boys (Serhat Caradee, 2009) and Snowtown (Justin Kurzel, 2011). These films are linked by their representations of the treacherous potential of suburbia; each film hones in on a specific transgression that occurs within the confines of the suburb.
In Kath & Kim, the double-edged nature of the suburbs is treated with humour. Ian Johns noted this in an article published in The Times which he (fittingly) titled "Strewth, it’s Daggy Down Under." Johns describes the series as "Neighbours performed through Dame Edna Everage’s megaphone with everything from speech patterns, snack foods and sexual partners getting a roasting."7 Through satire, the seediness of the suburban underbelly is replaced with a hollow superficiality. The transgression is no longer violence; it is the sight of a fluorescent pink g-string on a middle-aged woman. Because of this, Kath & Kim appears to be saying that life in the suburbs is not exactly like the idyllic, picket fences of Neighbours; it is also materialistic, shallow, cringingly daggy, crude, and (perhaps most significantly) self-righteously ignorant of its circumstance.