Women We Love: Catherine Deveny
Posted by Clem Bastow on July 2, 2008
Welcome to the first in what will become a regular feature on The Dawn Chorus, Women We Love: interviews with women we find inspiring, be they trailblazers from back in the day, or those just now rising up the ranks. We hope that, you, too will be inspired by their stories and their fine work, no matter what field it’s in.
Catherine Deveny is one of Australia’s most noted columnists, and has also written extensively for television, and for her own stand-up comedy, as well as having published a number of books. The pieces she writes for The Age‘s Opinion page and Saturday’s A2 are frequently polarising and often controversial, but always delivered fearlessly and with a scythe-like wit. She is not afraid to attack the Government, the upwardly mobile, those who drive bigger cars than she does, or anything and anyone, really.
But what’s most remarkable about Catherine’s work, apart from its regularly sidesplitting hilarity, is that she isn’t simply a ‘shock hack’, penning up-yours columns to keep the lefties happy and the conservatives ropable – perhaps her most “shocking” attribute, in a market filled with cold and objective copy, is her heart. In pieces like ‘To everyday heroes: Just. Keep. Going‘ [The Age, May 28th 2008], Catherine imbues her writing with feeling and empathy, and you can’t help but be moved.
Catherine very kindly let herself be The Dawn Chorus’ inaugural interviewee, and attacked our questions with her trademark wit, always with that big heart beating just behind it – just the way we love her.
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TDC: When did you decide writing was going to be “it” for you?
CD: “I have always written. Journals, letters, graffiti. I was never one of those kids writing their own fabulous adventure books. I was just writing letters to nana thanking her for the chocolate biscuits and the hand knitted jumper that looked like an abortion made of wool. I actually always wanted to be Magda Szubanski. But I can’t act. So writing it is. I never have a term with the label ‘writer’. For me it’s like girl, boy, short, tall, gay or straight. You either are a writer or not. There are people who write and there are writers. Big difference. Writers have to write. It’s like having a shit. And some of it is shit. Exhibit A: Every column I’ve ever written.”
Were there any women who were a particular influence on your formative days?
“Carol Burnett, Judy Garland, Mary Magdelene, microbiologist Lyn Howden, Judy Davis in the movie High Tide, Judith Lucy, Ruby Wax, Rachel Berger, Cynthia Heimel, Marieke Van Geloven, Kerry Armstrong…”
What was the biggest obstacle you had to overcome to get to where you are, career-wise, today?
“Being a shit writer. Who can’t spell.”
You’ve also worked in the comedy industry, both in front of and behind the camera; it’s often seemed as though one of the ways in Australia where women who don’t fit the media’s preferred stereotype (i.e. those who aren’t thin, busty and blonde – though women with those attributes are welcome, too) can succeed is in comedy. Do you think this is a fair assessment?
“Look basically it’s this simple for me. The bottom line is that attractive smart nice people never have to develop personalities so they don’t; Exhibit B, Livinia Nixon. Fat, loudmouthed, plain girls do. And we do. Exhibit C, Jo Brand. And we laugh at ourselves because we have to. And I think it’s a much healthier way to live live.”
Of all your work, what piece are you most proud of?
“Footy Show or McLeod’s Daughters. You choose.”
And which one did you receive the most criticism for?
“Women Changing Their Names When They Get Married [‘Why do some wives still change their names?‘ The Age, September 5th 2007]. Interestingly I also received the most praise.”
In a moment of delicious irony, Andrew Bolt called you a “hateful columnist” last year; did you crack out the champagne?
“Never heard of him. Oh, maybe… is he one of the dads down at the school? Was he the Yellow Wiggle?”
You’re a mum, and your kids have regularly featured in your work (both in columns and books); did you find motherhood affected your outlook – did you see things differently than you might have a year or five before?
“Yes I do. It has really blown the cobwebs out of my head. Let alone destroyed my vagina. Kids give you your childhood back. All the good and all the bad. You are a parent, your own parent, your child and yourself as a child at the same time. If that makes sense. Get me another drink.”
Amongst your recent pieces, you’ve discussed the return of the deb ball, International Women’s Day, women taking their husbands’ names after marriage, and the myriad issues relating to childbirth (natural, Caesarean, etc) – what do you feel are the most important issues facing Australian women today?
“What to cook for dinner tonight. What shoes to wear. How to reconcile how they want the house to run and how it gets run when their partner does it. Being a parent or not. And if so the juggle of self and family. Giving and recieving. Eating or feeding. Can we have our cake and eat it too? Will we get fat? If we have our cake and eat it too just that just make the whole inside us bigger? And how to get one kid to Cody’s birthday, the other one to Taekwondo and look after the kids from over the road at the same time.”
The debutante piece [‘I’m all for dressing up, but this is one ball that should be dropped‘, The Age, March 5th 2008] in particular struck a chord with me, especially since – despite being a proto-feminist aged 16 – I argued that I wanted to do mine “because it’s a good excuse to dress up”. Why do you think we are seeing such a strong throwback to such conservative/ old-fashioned-in-a-bad-way traditions like the deb ball?
“The shrinking of church and traditional family in our lives has some of us, particularly the unimaginative ones, clutching even tighter at the anacronistic traditions that should have been the first things to be thrown overboard.”
It seems to have become somewhat “unfashionable” for young women to say “yes, I’m a feminist” these days – why do you think this is?
“The term for some, is too loaded. Loaded with what? I don’t know. I think it’s about getting laid. Or something. Labeling is problematic, but necessary at times. There is this train of thought that says we atheists shouldn’t call ourselves atheists but rather rationalists arguing that we apply rational thought to all subjects and religion is no exception. Maybe we should say we’re Equalists not Feminsist so the blokes don’t feel like we are out to get them. I love blokes. Some of my best sons are blokes.”
What advice would you give to women who want to make a career out of being a writer?
“Do the writing before the washing. Do the writing before the ironing. Do the writing before making the dinner. It is better the kids eat Weet-Bix and you have the writing done that for the kids to eat some organic vegetarian flan that they will probably hate and for you to not have written.”
What is your hope for women of the future?
“That fat chicks shit everyone but they are running the world. And the food courts.”