Cabaret feminism

Adelaide has a nice buzz at the moment, around the Festival Centre at least. The annual Cabaret Festival has begun, bringing in some top-line acts from around the country and the world. Friday night was the grand opening, and we were there.

Before the show we came upon what seemed to be a sort of members-only event, with glamourous people serving Pol Roger champagne to other, mostly older, glamourous people. The door was well guarded so we could only look on wistfully at first. Then Charmaine suggested we look for another way in, which we found. We slipped quietly amongst the throng as all backs were turned, because the Premier of South Australia was giving an opening speech. I must say it seemed a little bizarre to see our newly-minted conservative party leader breathlessly extolling the whole burlesque scene, essentially a range of shows celebrating swearing, nudity and fluidity of gender, along with very good singing, dancing and music. I’m not sure if he actually risks attending the Festival other than to open it.

Anyway, it took us quite a while to sidle around to where the Pol Roger was running out fast, but we made it in time for a glass or two. So there we were, surrounded by the well-heeled and very nicely dressed, sipping very superior bubbly, with not a single suspicious glance coming our way. It was delicious to be a bit naughty and get away with it. To add to the surreal, I met an old colleague, who is cleaning many things with high pressure water; driveways, houses, old pipelines in the Outback and whatever else people will pay him to make it like new again. It was a surprisingly interesting conversation. Whatever pays the mortgage is good I guess, but this guy just loves his work, his team, and his success in a niche market.

Last night was the first headline act, and I didn’t see the Premier. I’m not surprised—it was definitely not from the conservatives’ playbook, at least what they do in public. It was basically about how the star, Em Rusciano, was in trouble because she called the media a ‘pack of c—ts’, the dialogue interspersed with drinking from a bottle of what looked like rose until she seemed to me to be a bit drunk.

So to the show. It was a new scene for me. I’ll get to the excellent music later, but first other matters. Em has a huge Facebook following in Australia, I think nearly 300,000 people, who she says are mainly women 18 to 50 and gay men. She played to them, and it became clear most of the audience were from what she calls her ‘movement’. The core theme is not being hesitant about being ‘difficult and noisy’ women when facing unequal treatment, and the crowd roared their agreement whenever asked. It felt more like a political rally more than a stage show at times.

Of course it’s great to see such large numbers of people getting on board with a bolshy, take-no-prisoners attitude to confront sexism. She is clearly reaching an audience much wider than a more theoretical approach will appeal to. That’s exciting and much-needed in an age when so many younger women are not identifying as feminists. But (you just knew there was a ‘but’ coming) I had two misgivings. One was that it’s not necessary to be difficult and noisy all the time, as she seems to be. In fact she repeatedly said she was. Clarity and bravery in the face of oppressive behaviour is one thing; highly desirable and still in short supply. Demanding to be the centre of attention and to get your own way most of the time is a whole different thing, and to my ears, she chooses to ignore the difference.

My other issue was the personality cult she is clearly comfortable to be the star of. We heard all night about how much she needed her fans’ support to get through difficult times, as if her battles were emblematic of every woman’s struggle. She called on them to ‘grow this movement with her’, and then gave the example again and again of how people in the media are angry at her right now, because she responded to some negative reporting by saying they were ‘all a bunch of c—ts’. ‘We can beat these c—ts if we stick together’. To me, it seems like a shaky foundation, a questionable cause, if it is essentially about a very highly paid radio announcer having the right to talk like this in public. OK, I gather her ‘difficult woman’ persona has been developing over time based on a wide range of issues. But last night it was all about her. Her ratings have been falling, which is why there was media analysis, possibly unfair, about the causes. It left me uneasy, impressed that she is at an important battlefront, but not sure it is for all the right reasons.

But back to the music. Em Rusciano is a sensational singer, and her backing group was sublime. She belts out cabaret numbers with a thrillingly strong voice, and includes the band and backing singers with generous praise and solo opportunities. A class act all round, showing great teamwork between some very fine musicians. The range of material was just right, ending with a hard-driving version of Nina Simone’s ‘I got life’ that had everyone standing and cheering. This is what I came for, and I got more than my money’s worth. We have five more shows this week. What a lifestyle!

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