Mean Girls (and other patriarchal nonsense)

21 Jun Mean Girls (and other patriarchal nonsense)

First published in the NZ Woman’s Weekly 21.6.21


There was a moment of panic shortly before my daughter left home (this was many years ago) when I realised there were a million things I wanted her to know, but hadn’t yet got around to telling her. The solution then, as far as I could imagine it, was that I needed to place her head gently on the kitchen table, put a funnel in her ear, and pour all kinds of ideas and advice into her brain so she would Be Ready For the World.

Crazy, right? But it is a natural instinct to want to impart wisdom, to at least attempt to “put an old head on young shoulders” – a favourite phrase of my great-uncle Frank, who was given to a) offering advice but also b) doubting it would do anyone any good. Pretty sure he would be delighted that I remember many of his pearls of wisdom, filed away in that part of your brain where you put things “for future reference”. I think of him each time I am asked to go visit a school and try to say wise or useful things to young students, like recently in Hawkes Bay.

Woodford House has a wonderful mentoring programme for its students. Local women with all kinds of business and life skills spend time with the senior girls – listening, asking and answering questions, sharing their stories. They invited me along to talk about “kindness” – about positive energy beating negative – and it was a joy to spend time with them.

The stories it made me think of from my own life (and who knows which bits of it stuck, but you can only hope that something got filed away) were to do with the worst bits of life advice I was ever given. The first was when I would have been maybe 12 years old, and sad about some girlish spat in my friend group, and someone’s mother had said something along the lines of, “Girls are so mean to other girls – honestly, no one will ever be as mean to you as your girlfriends are.” It felt wrong even when I heard it then, and any time I’ve heard it since. Also, everything in my life has proved the opposite.

Looking back over the decades now, I can tell you that every tough moment in my life has been survived through the friendship and kindness of my women friends. Heartbreaks, parenting challenges, career slumps, family stresses, personal and professional disasters – none of it has been fixed by a white knight galloping in on a steed. The cavalry riding to the rescue has always been a loyal bunch of ladies armed with wise words and snacks.

It is crazy how often women are pitted against each other. I’ve been reflecting a lot recently on something that started at the very beginning of my comedy career – early 1990s – when a producer told me in the van on our way to a series of gigs up north that it was a pity really that I’d never make a career out of it because, although I was good, there was only room in New Zealand for one female comedian and it wouldn’t be me because there was one other woman and she was younger and prettier and “the whole package”, so she would take that spot.

I took two things from that conversation – one good, one bad. The good thing was that it lit a fire under me to carve out my own place in the industry, and to stick around. The bad thing is that it encouraged me to think of the other woman as a competitor, and drove a wedge between us. It’s a wedge that lasted for a long time – even after I’d worked out there was actually plenty of room for all of us, and that my favourite way of performing was alongside other women.

It is useful to work out who benefits most from pitting women against women. My observation is that what it mostly does is create more space for men to fill. Tell women there is only room for one of them in a line-up of seven and leave them to compete for that, and you can quietly get on with filling the rest of the spots with six men. Look around the place and you can see how that works – not just in comedy shows, but on boards, in management, in politics and in all kinds of leadership roles.

But happy endings. It is one of the joys of my life that, thirty years later, it’s not just me who is still around, but so is the other woman I was told was my nemesis. There was an honest conversation a long time ago and I count her as one of firmest friends. She is amazing, and I adore her and love any chance we get to work together.

No idea where that producer is now, though. He didn’t stick around.