“I want to be effluent, mum!”
“You are effluent, Kimmy! You have a half share in a unit, a Hyundai, a DVD player…”
My husband and I recently binge-watched all four seasons of Kath & Kim. A lethal dose, I know, but somehow we survived it. He’d previously revealed his K&K virginity to me (shock horror!) and I felt it could not stand.
In my view, Kath & Kim is the number one show about cultural cringe; it’s a self-deprecating tour-de-force of Aussieness which invites the audience to simultaneously ridicule and sympathise with its central characters. It is the type of show that is perfectly suited to a cult following; bizarre, context-specific and infinitely quotable.
Having said that, I am not blind to the show’s major faults – not least of which is that it is essentially one extended joke. Here are some kooky people living their lives with kooky self-assurance, and aren’t they funny? The answer is – of course – yes. They are hilarious. But true to the established form of the sitcom, these characters are never allowed to be truly successful in their chosen paths. The brunt of the joke comes from them being knocked back, continuously, by a combination of their own incompetence and societal circumstances beyond their control.
While considering this pattern, I was reminded that Kath & Kim, for all its silliness and banality, is also a great allegory for the oppressive nature of capitalism. If we run with this interpretation, we can move away from viewing the characters with amused contempt and instead see them through the more sympathetic lens of Marxist philosophy: as victims of a society which systematically limits their social agency at every turn.
Kath & Kim is obsessed with the notion of consumerism. Kath is a product of her surroundings – the suburban heaven/hellscape that is Fountain Lakes – and she is indoctrinated to believe that happiness is synonymous with the acquisition of material possessions. A new flatscreen TV, new clothes, a spa pool, a bigger house – all of these symbols of wealth help to firm up Kath’s fidelity to the dominant economic system. Consequently, Kath spends a laughable amount of time at her local mall, Fountaingate; the epicentre of consumerism. Although most of her onscreen purchases are effectively meaningless, the transaction process is anything but – in fact, buying stuff endows Kath with a perceived sense of power, an illusion of self-determination, which then appeases her inner doubts about the system.
Material objects are not only emblematic of one’s status, but they possess restorative power. When Brett cheats on Kim, he need only deliver her the right ‘guilt present’ (hideous gold grills, in one episode) and all is forgiven.
Unlike Kath, Kim is forced to work an unfulfilling job in a call centre as a result of her precarious financial position. Her sense of accomplishment, while also being fed by small material purchases, is emboldened through the diminishing of her ‘second best friend’ Sharon. This is a classic example of policing within the system. Rather than directing her resentment towards the governing forces (which are out of sight and well-fortified) she targets those with even less privilege than herself. Survival of the fittest. In this respect, Sharon is a stand-in for those on the bottom rung of society. She is the struggling single mum, the welfare-drawing refugee, and the escape-seeking drug addict. The Sharons of the world are trod-on while the Kims feel temporarily secure in a system that owes its very existence to insecurity; to a model of winners and losers.
In Fountain Lakes, true fulfilment is always in sight but never in reach. No amount of botox can make Kath truly comfortable with her aging, and no amount of paint in the vestibule can save Kim’s marriage. Consumerism is discredited again and again, yet the characters of Kath & Kim never break free from its hegemonic influence. Which is not to say that we should never buy anything – lord knows I hoard books, eat out regularly and trawl ASOS like every other person. The message of the show, I would argue, is not to cut out stuff altogether (which is unrealistic), but to simply be wary of capitalism and the hollow promises it makes us. There are no silver bullets.
…or maybe it’s just a frivolous show about Aussie stereotypes. Either way, I enjoyed my foray back into Fountain Lakes. Frequent fat-shaming aside, I must say the show holds up really well a decade later.
If anyone is still keen for a spot of cheeky consumerism, I thoroughly recommend the Kath & Kim boxset: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Kath-Kim-The-Complete-Series/dp/B002652UDM