Nakkiah Lui On Who Gets To Be Bad

nakkiah lui who gets to be bad all about women

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From the roles and responsibilities women have to play to the socially acceptable levels of power they can access, it’s no secret that First Nations and women of colour in Australia are held to a different standard than white women. But for this year’s All About Women festival, Nakkiah Lui wants to know why only some women are allowed to be perceived as rebels while others have that same rebellion used against them. 

The ‘Who Gets to be Bad’ panel, with Barkaa and Steph Tisdell, moderated by Rudi Bremer, and co-curated by Nakkiah, is an exploration of why complex female characters are only limited to white women. It’s true that in recent years we’ve seen an explosion of female characters, both in fiction and real life, who are “bad”. Think the conwoman, the girl-boss, the sad girl, the femme fatale avenger, and the complex female villain, all of whom have been liberated from the one-dimensional box their (mostly male) creators put them in. But as Nakkiah points out, those characters are more often than not white women who leave women of colour out of the narrative. 

Junkee chatted with Nakkiah about the concept of who actually gets to be bad, breaking down the burden and constraints of Indigenous excellence, and how First Nations women can embrace their mediocrity. 

Ky Stewart, Junkee: What drew you to the idea of the ‘Who Gets to be Bad’ panel?

Nakkiah Lui: It’s quite selfish, really. My identity and journey as a First Nations woman is very impacted by how I’m perceived by my race or gender and all these things that make me who I am. There’s always this memory I have and it was when I started writing and I was having an article written about me for a newspaper and the photographers would ask me to do this particular thing, which was look up to the sky as if you can see your dreams. Like looking up at the clouds and having hope. Then I remember when I did my first play This Heaven at Belvoir Theatre and we were doing press for it, we went out to Mount Druitt where I grew up, where I lived at one point in my life, and the photographer said, ‘This isn’t rough enough, we need to make it look rougher’. So I find a lot of the discourse surrounding equality and equity, especially for First Nations people, it’s very much about this idea of replicating ideas of success and the power structures that exist and what we value. I think in that way, oppression can also quite simply place you in the gutter or place you on a pedestal. That gaze on you makes you feel like a one dimensional person. You have to be excellent and successful and you have to mirror these ideas of success to be even considered human. You’re not allowed to have vices, you’re not allowed to sin. 

So this idea of who gets to be bad is so incredibly political. I’ve always been interested in that idea of Indigenous excellence. What about a little bit of mediocrity? Why do we have to be excellent in order to be considered people? I think it’s really interesting when looking at things like All About Women, how we define women and then who gets to practice what aspects of womanhood and who gets to be bad. Blak women constantly have to be strong, we can’t really be sad, or we can never really have melancholy. It’s just depression because of the politics surrounding how we’re viewed. So I just wanted to interrogate humanity and why so often, when you are from a marginalised group, your humanity is measured by how successful you are.

Where do you think the notion that Indigenous women aren’t allowed to showcase the full breadth of their emotions stems from? 

I want to recognise that there’s some really serious consequences in particular when it comes to First Nations women when they are in public spaces and they are perceived as being ‘bad’. Their behaviour is very much judged alongside their race and those things go hand in hand. From my experience, the way that people use words to describe you, like strong or angry. We saw in the last couple of years there’s been a reckoning in regards to female anger within Australia and things around discrimination, sexual abuse and the MeToo movement. We see a lot of white faces [and] that’s called a reckoning [but] we’re black women and we’re a problem. We’re angry and our anger is seen as a flaw. Where you look at little things like auditions, you don’t really get many, but how many representations of First Nations women are there where they’re able to talk about things like their sexuality or be sexual or be desirable when so much of Australia’s past media has reduced First Nations women’s sexuality to that of being a vice. 

When First Nations women were to talk about their experimentation with drug use people then link it to it being a problem because there’s very little room for people to be seen as individuals and their own humanity and experience to exist in a way that includes their race while still maintaining autonomy. So this idea of ‘Who Gets to be Bad?’ was me trying to unpack these ideas around equity and success. For myself as a First Nations woman it feels like even though your race is integral to how you see the world, your autonomy when speaking about it is so often impacted by how people perceive you and their own racial bias.

How do you think First Nations women can embrace their mistakes and celebrate their mediocrity and the simple everyday successes?

It’s just the ability for someone to make choices and live a life that is not necessarily impacted by other people’s perception of your worth. I feel like the democratisation of social media and the ability for people to have conversations outside of traditional storytelling, [especially when] TV shows and films take a lot of time and money and within Australia it’s somewhat a small industry, has really been fantastic. You feel like you’re not alone. There’s audience building there where you see people like, comment, or share. 

I always feel like I’m never measuring up. One of my big struggles, and I think my racial experience as a First Nations person plays a huge role in this, is I just don’t feel good enough very often. I don’t think Australia really has a lot of value for First Nations people and I’m still feeling that from the fallout of the Voice Referendum not being successful. I realise there’s a whole heap of reasons why it wasn’t, but when your history becomes a political thing, where do you try and find worth? When it comes to ‘Who Gets to be Bad’, these things that I consider, I guess, failures, have really defined big chunks of my life in a really positive way.  When you feel inherently like you don’t have worth and you’re trying to come up to these markers of success and a huge chunk of that is just because you’re born a Blak woman, you don’t have a lot of control over that [feeling]. So [say] fuck off to the markers of success and leave those behind and look at what your values are and what you want to see and have validity in the path you’re walking feels like a bit of a breath of fresh air. 

I’ve always felt like I’m carrying a burden of being the best queer First Nations person or I’ve failed somehow. 

Perfect people aren’t interesting. If you go to a dinner party… I don’t really go to any dinner parties. I don’t know why I’ve used that as an example. But you don’t want to know all about someone’s successes. That’s kind of boring, right? How we relate to each other is through the mistakes that we make. I think when you look at First Nations people and First Nations women who are super successful and excellent, they still get hit with the same racism and sexism. Racism doesn’t go away, no matter how successful you are, so how do you find solidarity outside of that?

Speaking of people who others perceive as being the epitome of Blak excellence… Steph Tisdell and Barkaa. They’re on the ‘Who Gets to be Bad?’ panel, and they’re two very iconic people — how does it feel to have them bring your idea to life?

I screamed when I found out they were able to do it. I was so happy. This is my first time ever curating anything. So it was like, ‘What do I do? Will they do it? How do I ask? Oh, my God, what if they don’t do it’. All of my anxiety and insecurities were at the forefront so I can’t believe that they’re doing it. I am such a big fan of both of them. For very similar reasons, even though they’re incredibly different. 

The space that Barkaa has created, and this is what I think the epitome of what a really excellent storyteller does, is that your voice creates room for other people. Where they can feel ‘I relate to that’ or feel their experience is validated. I think it’s the honesty and the no apologies Barkaa has in sharing stories and a lack of compromise with their history — they have  such compassion for other people. Even just existing within the genre that Barkaa does and the history of that I thought would bring a really interesting lens to ‘Who Gets to be Bad’. I just fangirled so hard.

Steph Tisdell is just incredibly funny and charismatic as all hell. My comedy has always been something that has lacked nuance at times. I really love satire and I’m a big believer of, if you’re going to poke it, fuck it right? I love how Steph has such a charm with her stand-up and the way in which she so generously shares her stories. And coming from a comedy background where it’s a lot of cis white guys there’s stigmas in that world of who gets to be funny so I’m really curious to hear how they engage with it. I’m really excited but they both offer so much incredible insight. 

You’re on the panel for the ‘Feminist Roast’ — what can we expect?

Can I just say I’m super fucking excited? I think having done the All About Women festival for a couple of years now, I’m someone who struggles with the identity of a feminist and the movement of feminism. As a system of values and tools to try and create change is really effective, but it’s incredibly flawed as well. At times it lets people down. For example, my mum never really identified as a feminist growing up and I wonder if she would even today. That’s not because she doesn’t have feminist values, she’s fucking amazing, but it’s because she never felt like feminism included her as a First Nations woman. 

In my experience, I’ll do a panel at this festival and I’ll be the Indigenous voice. So the feminist roast is wanting to basically be able to engage with that criticism of feminism, and the complexity of it, the history of it, and what it could look like in the future and it is today in a way that’s funny. Comedy can be like holding a mirror up and then going in for a little bit of a sucker punch and making someone laugh.

Ky is a proud Kamilaroi and Dharug person and writer at Junkee. Follow them on Instagram or on X.

Image: Supplied