BY MIA FREEDMAN
Several years ago, I was asked to be on Q&A. Even though I was nervous – I adored the show but had watched people far smarter than me be flayed alive on social media – I agreed and we set a date.
Three days before my scheduled appearance, Julia Gillard rolled Kevin Rudd and as the rumours ignited Twitter, my first thought was for
Kevin Rudd myself. “I’m so going to get dumped from Qanda,” I tweeted. And by the morning I had been.
I never went back. Not because I was having a tanty (I save those for when there’s not enough goat’s cheese in my salad) but because the more time went on, the harsher I saw the treatment dished out to panellists on Twitter.
Why put myself through it, I reasoned. I’m happy watching from the couch.
The next time the producers called and tried to book me for a particular date, I thought about it carefully before saying no. Still too chicken. Several weeks later when that proposed date arrived, it turned out to be the day of the first ALP spill where Kevin Rudd challenged Julia Gillard for leadership of the Labor Party.
A year later, another call from Q&A. This time, the lure of a special women’s panel with Germaine Greer was too much. I said yes straight away. And within 48 hours of me agreeing, there was another ALP leadership spill.
THIS SHIT BE GETTING TOO WEIRD.
Agreeing to go on Q&A is a big deal for me, I won’t lie. Being in the company of Germaine Greer (no matter how hard I disagree with her on many subjects) and the other fiesty, intelligent and accomplished women on the panel is supremely daunting.
So I thought the best way for me to deal with it all, might be to write some of it down to share what goes on behind the scenes. Well, my scenes anyway. And here we go.
3 WEEKS BEFORE THE SHOW
I’m told my fellow panelists are Germaine, former sex worker ‘Belle de Jour’ (Brooke Magnanti), indigenous opera singer Deborah Cheetham and anti-Muslim activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali.
I’ve already read Brooke Magnanti’s book about the 18 months she spent doing sex work. MM editor Jamila lends me Ayaan’s book, Infidel.
I read it concurrently with Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In and give myself the best kind of whiplash. Two more different feminist works I could not imagine. Both have me gripped.
Before I can finish Ayaan’s extraordinary book, I’m told she’s not able to do the show. Conservative columnist Janet Albrechtson will be on the panel instead.
I begin Googling like a crazy person to try to get myself up to speed on all of the things. ALL OF THEM.
2 WEEKS BEFORE THE SHOW
Many of my girlfriends have been on Q&A. I’m sorry if that sounds wanky. It’s not meant to. But after 20 years working in media, I do know a lot of journalists and social commentators and a few politicians and they’re the kinds of people most often invited to sit on the panel.
Naturally, I went to these friends immediately for advice.
They were sage. In fact one or two of them could easily start a side business as a Q&A consultant, preparing nervous panelists before the show.
Here is some of the wise advice I received, verbatim, mostly by text:
– “Speak in a low register, calmly and slowly. No screeching.” “Don’t interrupt.”
– “Look at the audience, not Tony.”
– “Don’t be freaked out if Tony seems to be writing on a piece of paper instead of looking at you when you talk. He’s trying to get you to look at the audience.”
– “Call Germaine ‘Dr Greer’ – that’ll unnerve them.”
– “If things get back, start winking at Germaine. It will buy you time.”
– “Wear neutrals. Maybe pearls.” “No Mia, you can’t wear your Sass & Bide sparkly harness”
– “Don’t say vagina under any circumstances.” “Or labia, penis or testicles.”
– “Don’t stay for drinks. Leave immediately saying: babysitter. Keep gin in the car.”
– “No dangly earrings. Keep it simple.”
– “You will hear from people tomorrow you haven’t heard from in 20 years. The reach is MASSIVE.”
Ok terrific. No pressure then. At all.
1 WEEK BEFORE THE SHOW
I start biting my cuticles while I simultaneously step up my reading of all things feminism. I finish Lean In and begin to compile notes. I haven’t made notes since school.
Also: what am I going to WEAR.
3 DAYS BEFORE THE SHOW
A quick look at the news cycle throws up some possible topics. North Korea. Superb. Superannuation. Unreal. Everything will – I imagine – have to link back to women.
I madly read everything I can find online that’s been written about feminism, the gender pay gap, the quota debate about women on boards and female circumcision.
I’ve never been great at studying. I hope I’m absorbing while I read but who knows what I’ll be asked.
The producers don’t give you the questions. It’s live and dangerous. I delete the Twitter app from my phone in preparation.
THE DAY OF THE SHOW
Driving my kids to school, my son asks if I’m nervous. “You know, I really am,” I reply.
From the backseat, my inquisitive daughter pricks up her ears. “Mum, wait, turn down the radio. Why are you nervous?” “Because I’m going on a big, important TV show tonight and I’m worried that I’m going to say the wrong thing or come across badly and it will be on TV and everyone will see.”
“So what will happen if you say the wrong thing?”
EXCELLENT QUESTION COCO. That was a bit of an ah-ha moment. My daughter is Yoda. What actually AM I worried about? What some people on Twitter might say? Well, yes. To be honest, that’s one of the reasons I haven’t wanted to do Q&A before – fear of flaming.
And how dumb is that. Live in fear, change your behaviour and the trolls win. What’s the worst that could happen? I make a fool of myself, stumble over my words, say something stupid and…..what? Nothing. As one of my friends wisely pointed out “It’s just a TV show,” and she’s right.
This realisation is liberating.
But Coco has another question.
“Will there be food there?”
I spend the day at work pretty much as usual but with my phone bleeping occasionally with a steady stream of good luck texts from some of the incredible women (and men but mostly women ) in my life.
I head home around 4pm to start reading in earnest and I last about an hour before I decide I need time for all the information to ‘settle’ and sneak off to watch E! for a bit of mental McDonalds. I used this justification to great effect when I was studying for school exams. “I need to just switch off and do something totally unrelated to study to let the information rise to the surface.”
Jamila arrives and we do some verbal debriefing before I go and get dressed in a top I may or may not have bought specially yesterday from Country Road. Despite all warnings, it has a bit of sparkle. I can’t help it.
Coming with me to the show are Jamila who used to work for Kate Ellis and is a Q&A veteran and Luca, my 15yo son. I pretend – even to him – that I’m taking him with me as a learning experience for him; seeing what it’s like behind the scenes of a big national show and being exposed to some stimulating ideas and debate around feminism and women’s issues.
But in truth, I want him there for me. He will keep me grounded in my other reality – home – and remind me what’s important (and it’s not what people think of me on social media).
He makes good use of the green room buffet, helping himself delightedly to several plates of Lebanese food while I go and get my make-up and hair done.
Surprisingly, it’s silent in the make-up room. None of the panelists talk to each other.
I did not know this.
I’m sitting next to Germaine and she is chatting away to the make-up artist doing her face while I listen to the sound of my stomach churning.
I haven’t eaten since lunch time. Too much adrenaline. Someone tells me I can take in a piece of paper with notes on it if I want but I decide not to. What would I put on the page? And I know I’ll obsess about trying to memorise what’s on it.
I think my strategy has to be just listen carefully and respond authentically, honestly and calmly.
My microphone is inserted through my bra-strap and down and around my boobs before being clipped onto the back of my jeans by two lovely female sound engineers. I’m used to blokes doing that. It makes a nice change to be respectfully felt up by women.
After huddling with Luca and Jamila in the green room and then having a chat with Tony Jones (our sons used to play on the same sports team at school), I notice the other women standing together chatting so I take a breath and go over to introduce myself.
I walk up to Germaine first, “Hi Germaine, I’m Mia,” I blurt. “I know,” she says drily.
We all chat slightly stiffly at first but with growing warmth and candour about everything from the snakes on Germaine’s property to the size of a certain politician’s bottom – not a woman I might add.
Then it’s time to go on set. I sit at my designated spot and scan the audience until I see the Mamamia team and immediately poke out my tongue and pull a face at them.
The show starts and then it’s over.
It really feels that quick. I’d made the decision to stop stressing and enjoy it and I did my very best. I got thrown a couple of curly questions and I tried to hit them back with a straight bat.
Not sure if I succeeded and I kept editing my answers afterwards in my head, re-wording how I’d said things and improving my answers mentally until they were far wittier, pithier and more concise. Oh well.
And then Margaret Thatcher died! I definitely wasn’t prepared for that.
Did I accidentally say if be fine if my daughter chose to be a
prostitute sex worker? No! I meant I would kidnap her and hold her captive in an Amish community.
I feel like we barely touched the sides. Tony Abbott, fertility choices, women on boards, the politics of the burka, female genital mutilation, the Steubenville rape case, victim-blaming, slut-shaming, Sheryl Sandberg and Lean In, porn culture….there was SO MUCH TO DISCUSS.
Afterwards, I inhaled the Turkish pide in the green room. It’s like all my hunger from the day roared back at once and I couldn’t get those carbs into my face fast enough, frankly.
I took the advice I’d been given and didn’t stay for drinks. Luca really was exhausted and I wanted to stop somewhere on the way home for a Magnum which I also inhaled.
My phone said 29 text messages which Luca read to me while I drove us home. I spoke to my Mum and to Jason and I began to exhale.
Yep, I got through it. And it was mentally stimulating and enormously exciting and bloody terrifying and who knew you could consume that much pide in such a short period of time. And also, I agreed with Janet Albrechtson much more than I expected to.
Germaine was her wonderful outspoken, out-there self and I found Deborah Cheetham such a strong, centred, powerful presence. Brooke Magnanti took us off track a bit and we spent longer than I would have liked talking about
prostitution sex work.
But hey. There was a lot to get through.
I felt incredibly close to my Mum tonight. And my daughter.
And I look so forward to watching the next women’s panel- from my couch.