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Big Girl's Blouse: Australia's short-lived feminist comedy masterpiece

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Gina Riley and Jane Turner’s Kath and Kim is one of the defining institutions of Australian comedy. The colourful suburban battlers with their own unique dialect reflected Australian suburbia so sharply and so consistently that the series quickly became one of our most beloved sitcoms.
Australia’s middle class fell in love with this spoof of themselves, while Australia’s upper-middle (or mobile middle) class fell in love with what they saw as a spoof of their wacky suburban aunts and uncles (although it actually more closely reflected their own fears about their place in this society and constant striving to become affluent — or “effluent” as Kath and Kim would say).
But just eight years before the series premiered in 2002, Riley, Turner and their Kath and Kim co-star Magda Szubanski created what is perhaps the defining show of their careers — the short-lived but seminal Big Girl’s Blouse. 
Riley, Szubanski and Turner had all become recognisable faces from their time on sketch series Fast Forward, the creation of Steve Vizard and Andrew Knight. Amidst the largely male team of comedians writing and appearing in the series, the trio (along with Marg Downey) had some of the most memorable characters and sketches, but it wasn’t until they were given their own series in 1994 that they carved out their own voice — the subtly subversive voice that would go on to be at the core of Kath and Kim.
The three comedians had to work hard to convince Vizard and Knight to give them their own special on Channel Seven, which was eventually turned into a series. That series struggled in the ratings — it was scheduled up against the first season of ER — so was cancelled after just one season. But the eight episodes were released on DVD in the early 2000s (after Kath and Kim became popular) and many of the sketches and characters have taken on a cult following thanks to YouTube.
Szubanski stated in her recent autobiography Reckoning that the trio wanted to create something that was “genderless”. But looking back at the series, 21 years after the fact, it’s clear that almost every sketch has some level of redefining, exploring or challenging gender stereotypes and the authoritative male voice of comedy. It was basically inevitable that their gender would colour every choice, even if it’s not immediately obvious (as it certainly wasn’t to me when I first watched the series as a 14 year old). As Szubanski writes of the creation of Big Girl’s Blouse:

“To begin with the writing was terrible. We couldn’t find our way in. The history of comedy had all been from the male perspective. Who were our role models? Apart from Phyllis Diller, Lucille Ball and Hattie Jacques I couldn’t think of any. The boys could rely on tried-and-true comedy tropes. They could build on pre-existing structures — the work of Monty Python, Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor. The list goes on and on. All great art movements are a reaction to what has gone before. That is what gives them energy and impetus.

“We faced a void. We had to answer primary questions. What constitutes a genuine female voice? What did we want to say?”

From the opening sequence of each episode, it’s clear that the trio are grappling with those questions. The three comedians are planning their TV show at a sleepover, all dressed in young girls’ pyjamas and shot in a pink, dreamy, soft focus. They’re playing with the idea that women’s comedy is still in a soft and awkward adolescence (or at least that’s how it’s seen by their male colleagues).
On their bookshelf is a big book titled “How to Be Funny”, and Szubanski opens a scrapbook to a title page “Very Funny Ideas for Our Own Show by Gina, Jane and Magda”. Turner tries on a red nose and Riley stares lovingly at a photo of the Two Ronnies. The camera then pans out the window to a garage across the road where the trio are dressed as a garage band of teenage boys, freely, loudly and obnoxiously rocking out.
The whole series is asking one big question: what is it to be a funny lady? Even the title of the series is taken from a British pejorative, sexist figure of speech.
The sketch “Funny Lady” takes aim at the stereotype of the apparently desperate-to-be-loved female stand up comics of the early ’90s. In it, a comedian who is “not so pretty” but “tries to make up by being witty” ends up snapping and murdering her hecklers.

The “Michael Douglas” sketch, which pokes fun at the Hollywood star’s tendency to be cast as an irresistible victim of female stalkers, has become one of the most famous segments from the series.

In the Liberal Women sketches are the aesthetic beginnings of Kath and Kim characters Prue and Trude, but the “Midweek Ladies” sketch is an absolute masterstroke. A parody of the ABC documentary Labor in Power, the sketch relocates the political machinations of Labor in the ’80s to a middle-aged ladies’ tennis tournament.

It’s also true that Big Girl’s Blouse was a remarkably consistent series in a way that Fast Forward and many of its contemporaries never were. We tend to remember shows like Fast Forward and The Comedy Company for their greatest moments and forget the flat points, but there are very few sketches in Big Girl’s Blouse which fall flat or fail to win laughs.
And ironically, the Kath and Kim sketches — which run across all eight episodes in the lead-up to Kim’s wedding day — are nowhere near the funniest segments in the series. They are sharply observed and the characters are much darker than the Kath, Kim and Sharon audiences fell in love with in 2002, but I can’t imagine it would’ve been easy to see the potential for a consistently compelling full series. That required a major stylistic reframing of these characters and a slight softening of their tough edges.
Riley, Szubanski and Turner all went onto a variety of diverse projects over the years since Big Girl’s Blouse and recently appeared in the (too) large cast of Foxtel’s sketch show Open Slather which, after a generally strong start fizzled quickly. Their sketches were, again, the highlights of that series and it would be exciting to see these ladies again given their own sketch comedy platform with full creative control.
Big Girl’s Blouse broke ground for women taking creative control over TV comedy in Australia and played with gender in a way that we saw much more of in the following two decades. What would this trio do with the sketch format, post-Absolutely Fabulous, Bridesmaids, Amy Poehler, Tina Fey and Amy Schumer? I’d love to find out.

6 responses to “Big Girl's Blouse: Australia's short-lived feminist comedy masterpiece

  1. I’m that rare human bring who thinks that Kath and Kim is as funny on dog shit on your tennis shoes. And I’d forgotten Big Girl’s Blouse. Fr better, more rooted in life and less in caricature.

    1. You really need spellcheck! What a sad life when one isn’t amused at simple pleasures and needs to voice their badly spelt disdain.

  2. Great article about a great series — but what about their follow up, Something Stupid? That was just as good as BGB, in my opinion.

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