Pick up a copy of last Saturday’s Weekend Australian (actually, don’t, you’ll regret it) and you’ll see Kate Hanley Corley on the front cover making a wide-eyed “shush” motion.
Who is being shushed? Kate. Because she’s a comedian. And political correctness has gone mad. Because of hysterical PC tyrants like me who cancel everything. She features in the leading article, called ‘Is call-out culture killing comedy?’. It mentions me several times, saying I’m the ‘social activist comedian’ who led an ‘online boycott campaign’ against Kate for her cancelled 2019 Melbourne Fringe Festival act, Aisha the Aussie Geisha.
Others, very fairly, demanded that Melbourne Fringe stop hosting the act. But I boycotted nothing, and nor did I ask anyone else to. I merely pointed out how wildly cringe-inducing and racist Kate’s material was. Still, it’s important to understand that neither of these approaches constitute part of the inflated “call-out or cancel culture” bogeyman that right-wing columnists and shit comedians excitedly insist is coming for them.
Aisha the Aussie Geisha told a love story of an Aussie woman from the country who goes to Japan and dresses up like a geisha to win her man back, as an excuse to perform a series of “musical comedy” numbers (already things are looking grim, even without the racism). The people at the excellent online Asian-Australian magazine Liminal first noticed the act and shared it, pointing to its reliance on the belittlement of Asian cultures through puns and stereotyping.
I was delighted to share Hot Tub Geisha because while it warranted questioning for its naff racist content, I also knew that nobody would defend Hot Tub Geisha on its artistic or comedic merits. It had none. We all left behind the parochial racism of bland characters like Ted Bullpitt on Kingswood Country in the 1980’s, just as we were also abandoning shit comedians like Kevin Bloody Wilson to berate the gays and the blacks in front of his dying crowd of RSL relics.
Those seem like two extreme examples now, but they weren’t once: they got on our TV screens and occupied our spotlight. Their gradual disappearance demonstrates changing standards over time in an Australia that has been pushed, by activism and the call for better representation, to cater to its diverse and multi-ethnic audience.
Kate describes the feeling of getting a few comments on her Facebook page about her bad comedy: ‘it’s a tsunami of hate and it really opened my eyes to the power of the online mob’. I was part of the same Melbourne Fringe season, performing a run of shows with comedian Sean Bedlam for our part-time anti-racist action collective, part-time comedy group ‘Yelling at Racist Dogs’.
At one point during the run, far-right idiot Avi Yemini incited his following of 350,000+ YouTube subscribers to flood our pages with fuzzy-headed patriotic boomer comments and to crash our show. I wish Kate could experience that so she’d know what a real online mob is. But Avi’s not “the left”, so I suppose that doesn’t count as “cancel culture”.
In the contrived anti-political correctness martyr world of right-wing columnists, acts like Kate’s somehow become fresh and counter-cultural, and we of the left howl for the cancellation of all humour so that society might bend to our rigid standards. Thus, an ‘online boycott campaign was being spearheaded’ by me, even though I said nothing about a boycott, and only joked about ‘cancelling’ Kate because I know that the right-wing think every condemnation is a ‘cancellation’.
Not only do right-wing columnists fail to discern the difference between my approach and Liminal’s open letter, but in fact, it benefits them to obfuscate that difference and lump us all in under the umbrella of ‘cancel culture’. So allow me to explain the difference.
I spend some of my time doing comedy and the rest taking part in anti-fascist activism. In part, I try to use plain speech and laughs to identify and reject racism in the hopes of building a popular consensus against it. It takes work because I battle uphill against a very well-funded right-wing apparatus that tries to convince everyone that I am a part of an “elite” for trying to point out when racist people are being a bit racist.
I try not to assist in the process of giving further evidence for their cultivated fantasies about activists like me – so I rarely if ever ask for governments or institutions to intervene in my anti-fascism. I won’t create petitions asking for racists’ visas to be banned, or demand that the government legislate against fascists, or even ask for Melbourne Fringe to stop Kate from killing everyone with her awful yellowface drivel.
My desired outcome is a culture where Australians intuitively and collectively reject racist, sexist, homophobic or transphobic rubbish, en masse, in solidarity with a broader community who don’t necessarily look like them. We won’t need the State to intervene for us: we’ll do it ourselves.
But I’m white Australian, not Asian-Australian. I don’t personally stand to suffer, or to watch my family suffer, as direct targets of the re-platforming of Kingswood Country-era subpar mockery of Asians. I can stand in solidarity with them, but I’ll never experience racism in the way they do. This is why I acknowledge the importance of the open letter that Liminal Magazine released. They are trying to defend the integrity of spaces that say they welcome Asian-Australians, by taking institutions to task for what would otherwise be the hollow misuse of corporate language about “diversity”. They asked Melbourne Fringe to take their commitments seriously.
These two approaches – let’s call them the “open letter” approach and the “dear God, Hot Tub Geisha is the worst thing I’ve ever seen” approach – are often positioned as opposing each other in a linear debate about the merits of “de-platforming” in left or progressive spaces. You’re either a hardline libertarian or willing to use all the bureaucratic tools at your disposal, and never the twain shall meet.
But in truth, we worked together towards a shared outcome here. Who’s to say that the response to the open letter would have been so decisive if people hadn’t seen the content of Kate’s show and laughed at how terrible it was? Who’s to say that Kate would have cancelled at all if all she received was mouthy folk like me poking fun at her bad comedy, instead of a firm open letter from people far better positioned than I to speak about racism against Asian-Australians?
“Anti-politically correct” media outlets, columnists and comedians miscategorise all social justice activism and discussion as a left-wing campaign to silence dissent. This is itself a deliberate, coordinated right-wing angle, meant to drown out criticism by portraying it all as totalitarian censorship.
But let’s be honest. The “victims” of this contrived phenomenon are its commercial beneficiaries. Dave Chappelle does million-dollar Netflix specials whining about how everyone “cancelled” his last million-dollar Netflix special. Meanwhile, Kate (who is really benefiting from being included in the same paragraph as Chappelle) opened her website for tickets to her new 2020 Melbourne International Comedy Festival show just four days before the publishing of the Weekend Australian article. What luck!
‘After scandalising last year’s Fringe Festival, Kate Hanley Corley throws off her masks to be herself’, says the breathless event description she herself wrote. Good luck with the show, Kate! It’s interesting to note how artists with no personal responsibility or creativity left in the tank compensate for their obsoletion by tapping into the lucrative value of “anti-political correctness”.
Kate is fortunate that she was able to cancel Aisha the Aussie Geisha and then complain to the Weekend Australian about how mad political correctness has gone because now nobody gets to see how ordinary it was going to be.
The rest of us are fortunate that activists and artists are willing to push back against racist content in the arts space as in any other, even though they’re unfairly portrayed as the proponents of “cancel culture” for doing so, because they help keep those spaces safe for all Australians, no matter what they look like.
Tom Tanuki is an online satirist, social justice commentator, writer and comedian. He has worked in anti-racist political comedy, most notably through his satirical group the Million Flag Patriots and anti-racist group Yelling At Racist Dogs (Y.A.R.D.).