Libbi Gorr is optimistic. She’s got the t-shirt to prove it. The delightfully sharp-witted Australian broadcaster, author, and comedian who is currently shaping the weekends of the ‘chronically flawed and eternally optimistic’ via Weekends on ABC Radio Melbourne, has recently turned her focus to the (often highly charged) debate on female empowerment and how men and women should be collaborating to bring gender relationships back into balance.
As the Host and Producer of the ABC’s Annual International Women’s Day multiplatform event, this year’s theme, ‘we are more powerful together’ struck a personal chord with the 54-year-old, who is currently balancing the demands of a media career and shared parenting responsibilities of two school-aged children with her partner, Producer and Director Stewart Burchmore.
‘Sometimes we look at our family set up and think we’re real trailblazers,’ Libbi laughs, ‘But there really are so many people like us now where the Dads are also juggling work and home. And I think that women also have to change their attitudes towards men to accommodate that shift, so that they too can have fuller lives.’
‘What was exciting about (Women’s Day) this year is that the UN hashtagged it #balanceforbetter — Better the balance, better the world — with a view to getting men more involved, because there’s no point us just talking about it amongst ourselves, we need to embrace men into the cause,’ she explains. ‘That’s the thing that I’m focussed on and encourage.’
‘Which is logical right? I don’t think you can split the world up into genders anymore. It’s too simplistic. I think it should be tribes. Are you this kind of person, or are you that kind of person? Are we like-minded or are we not? I don’t think your dangly bits have got much to do with it.’
We chat for a while about her stint as an articled clerk at Melbourne law firm Phillips Fox, and how even though the law had not been a great fit, the firm’s partners were quite progressive in encouraging her non-billable endeavours during the formative years as television persona, Elle McFeast. ‘I was interviewing footballers and they were all mad fans!’ she laughs. ‘But they were all incredibly generous men, and they shared their stories with me’.
She discloses the details of her final departure from the firm, marked with a memorable letter from her supervising partner, the late Paul Duggan; Libbi laughs, ‘all his previous articled clerks had been Supreme Court prize winners.. And then he got me. His card to me when I left, read, ‘Dear Lib, piss off! Love, Paul.’
During her time as Elle McFeast, Libbi first appeared on Andrew Denton’s Live and Sweaty, before going on to host it in her own right for another two years post Denton. Libbi became Australia’s first female LateNight Tonight host, canvassing sport, politics and relationships and making internationally acclaimed TV specials. She was even the subject of an Archibald Prize finalist portrait by Australian painter, Margarita Georgiadis.
Somewhere in there Libbi also found time to author two books, The Bedtime Poem for Edible Children (2012), and the prolific A–Z of Mummy Manners: An Etiquette Guide for Managing Other Children’s Mothers and Assorted Mummy Dilemmas (2011) a guide for new Mums on how to negotiate the maze of unsolicited opinion and moral guidance that comes from dealing with other children’s mothers, a challenge often just as complex as rearing your own child.
I ask Libbi about her experience of motherhood and managing the etiquette of other children’s mothers as a woman over fifty. ‘What I’ve learned is that age doesn’t make any difference, it’s the age of your children. You’re as old as your children’s age dictates, because that’s where your head’s at,’ she states.
‘There’s this generation of us, Gen X, and we’re kind of like a jam sandwich in that, it’s not just the physical aspect of managing small children and ageing parents simultaneously, it’s also that we’re in the middle of our careers, at a time when the Baby Boomers were already looking ahead to retirement.. We’re not. It’s not going to be like that for us, and I wouldn’t want it to be. It’s all changed.’
She pulls her most serious face for a moment, and it is a brief moment, as she affirms ‘Though my parents would not like to be referred to as ageing.. They are active and well. Yes, they have accumulated some years, but they don’t consider themselves ageing.’
‘But we did get free tertiary education, and it made a huge difference! You had access to University without having to think too much about the consequences, except for being more learned. I got 2 degrees. And in the allotted time too,’ she reflects.
‘But a lot of us did — Magda Szubanski, Tom Gleisner, Rob Sitch, we all got degrees, completely free! So we are ratbags. But we also got to grow up thinking everything was possible, that you could have a voice, that you could be a bit of a larrikin. You could be an individual thinker.’
‘We had really strong leadership around us. The 80’s and the 90’s were about character. Bob Hakwe, Paul Keating.. even John Howard, retrospectively — I used to call him the ugg-boot of Australian politics — he knew leadership. He knew how to present himself and be true to his values.’
Libbi tends to a rigorous schedule of Mummy Manners talks at Melbourne schools, her ‘community service’, and says she is still surprised at the amount of women her age with young children. ‘I notice each year that there’s a growing raft of older parents,’ she remarks. ‘But also, I have seen a shift where it seems like people are coming to their senses and having kids at 32 again, which seems more sensible.. You know, we all thought we could have kids in our 40’s and get away with it, and some of us did. We all thought eggs just went on forever.’
‘What I am also seeing is that some of girls I’m working with — and they’ve got maternity leave remember, we didn’t have that — are more and more frequently choosing to get their families done by 40. And we started at 40! Women these days are electing to have children earlier and make use of progressive laws that support them in order to get back into the workforce and not actually lose too much time.. And money.’
‘But that’s what I’m noticing, that shift in thinking around when you’re meant to do things to get the most out of being an empowered, liberated woman. What you have to do, if you want to do it, and how you actually plan those life stages, because, you know, it was actually a man who said ‘you can’t have it all at once, where would you put it?’
‘And really, that’s the truth. So that’s what I’ve noticed about living a ‘younger life’ having accumulated more years. I thought I could go on forever being a national television star,’ she laughs, ‘but honestly I couldn’t do that and have my children. Number one they would be embarassed, even more than they already are.. But number two, how could I raise them and be in their lives if I was going off to hair and make-up at 7 in the morning, and travelling around the country? I just don’t want to do that.’
‘Sheryl Sandberg said to ‘lean in’, you know, go back to full-time work, it doesn’t matter about the kids, you can get help and everything, but there seem to be more and more women, and men saying, ‘well if we’re going to try and do the family thing and work, why would you want to miss out? Why would you make such a huge emotional investment and not want to reap the rewards? Why would you not be there?’ asks Libbi.
And she’s in good company with this sentiment. Women across all disciplines, from journalists to CEO’s, and most famously, Michele Obama, are increasingly rejecting the ‘having it all’ fallacy. Or in the former first lady’s case, more bluntly, ‘It’s not always enough to lean in, because that shit doesn’t work all the time.’ Refreshing to say the least, that one who we would all assume to have it all figured out; how to balance the job, the kids, the marriage, the self-imposed expectations (and has the means to do so), simply hasn’t.
We circle back on the mindset of chronically flawed, yet eternally optimistic. ‘When it was put to me that the Sunday Morning Show was going to evolve into a body and soul style, health and wellness program, I immediately thought that particular manager was calling me fat. I thought, what are you trying to say??’ Libbi laughs.
‘So I thought about it and realised that there was really nothing out there for me that made me feel empowered, just as I was. That I was enough. That you were enough,’ she explains. ‘Because I’ve got enough good friends to know that we all try, but we also fall off the wagon with a block of Cadbury’s occasionally.
‘But that doesn’t mean that you don’t want to feel inspired, and feel like you’re winning from time to time.. so that was the inspiration for the program. I insisted it was to be a kale free zone.’
I ask Libbi if there is anything she isn’t finding funny currently. ‘What genuinely worries me is realising that I’m older than the Prime Minister,’ she responds, with a laugh, before adding, ‘but mostly it’s this climate of having to be careful all the time, careful that you don’t offend someone unintentionally.. You know, I used to wear it as a badge of honour. But these days, it’s so precarious, the landscape is so flammable. You never know where the next ‘bushfire’ is going to pop up.’
‘An innocuous comment that was made with the best of intentions, taken wildly out of context.. So I make sure that I am always careful to look for the best of intentions.. I have to! I don’t want to spend my time walking around wondering ‘how on earth could you have said that?’ There’s a lot of reckless and wilful misinterpretation out there.. Mischievously interpreting something in its worst possible light, to either cause trouble or win favour. Whatever, I get that’s showbiz.. But I don’t do it.. Unless I’m feeling like attention seeking,’ she winks..
‘Humour is a default mechanism for life. A sense of humour is crucial to resilience.’
Tune into Libby’s health and wellbeing show for the chronically flawed yet eternally optimistic on ABC Radio Melbourne.
Libbi’s books, The Bedtime Poem for Edible Children (2012), and the prolific A–Z of Mummy Manners: An Etiquette Guide for Managing Other Children’s Mothers and Assorted Mummy Dilemmas (2011) are both available online from Booktopia and The Book Depository.