A question of understanding
Can a show like ‘You Can’t Ask That’ make us a more decent society?
In Australia, demons can be summoned from the underworld to harass public figures with only the merest drops of poison on a keyboard. Waleed must renounce … Yassmin cannot be … this is defamation ... from whence burst a morass of words, a waggling flurry of teeth and claws, spitting and hissing and sucking the air from the invisible chamber, pushing its victim up against the edge of the abyss and forcing them to submit to the ancient peasant superstition of the pub test. The only way to make the demons disappear: to cower, to condemn, to concede.
Myths are constantly being reimagined and retold, but this discourse is a vortex as dull as it is violent. Being a public figure is a bittersweet thing and it seems that, in the current climate, the more a marginalised voice is given platform and prominence, the more power is simultaneously subtracted from them; they are subjected to a life in the crosshairs of surveillance and ritual humiliation, meted out by people who appoint themselves as cultural custodians. It is remarkable then, that into this world, the ABC TV show You Can’t Ask That has emerged.
Touted as a program that “asks groups of misunderstood, judged or marginalised Australians the awkward, inappropriate or uncomfortable questions you’ve always wanted to know the answers to, but have always been too afraid to ask”, You Can’t Ask That represents a new era of what we are doomed to call “factual programming”. The cheerful, accessible tone of each 25-minute episode feels like social media has come to television, without its worst impulses, or as though someone made your Google search history public, without the shame.
After a successful first series, the second series of 12 episodes takes on more diffuse topics, including S&M, suicide-attempt survival and facial difference. The season opens with a discussion about blindness, a fine illustration of the utter charm of the show. “It’s a rite of passage. You haven’t lived life until you’ve fallen down between the train and the platform,” says the gregarious David Saxberg when he and other participants are asked how many times a day they walk into things or get lost. Others laugh about the groin-height poles that councils seem to put up everywhere, and apologising to trees for walking into them.
When asked about the one thing in the world they wish they could see, they answer with the admirable honesty that encapsulates the series: nothing; a printed page; sheet music; to ride a motorbike a couple of hundred kilometres an hour. It’s only as a second thought that a number of the participants say their loved ones, but there is a consensus that vision is not vitally important to a rich and fulfilling life.
Indeed, this current of unflinching, unclichéd honesty runs through all of the episodes. Trucker Taz in ‘Ice Users’ says he is still going after getting on it the previous day (“you should see me after half a gram, it’s like talking to a machine gun”), while Liam Clark in ‘S&M’ opens with “This is going to be the first time my dad knows about any of this. My dad loves this show.”
Is it dressed-up voyeurism? There’s probably something of the voyeur in us all, whether it’s in the knowledge of fortune or overt curiosity, but there is much warmth within the savvy production, and plenty of space to breathe in the awkwardness. Season one’s ‘Transgender’ has the delightfully curt Rosie heaping scorn on questions she finds distasteful, while ‘Down Syndrome’ sees its subjects, after some edging around, talk candidly about sex.
The final episode on facial differences is perhaps the most compelling to date, with the participants discussing their rare disorders and experiences with extraordinary candour. Disability activist Carly Findlay details her physical pain with the skin condition ichthyosis, as well as the psychological trauma of daily insults and questions – yet a number of the guests, including Findlay, say that if they could make it all go away, they wouldn’t.
Critically, we, the audience, cannot make what we have seen go away either. With its subjects talking directly to the camera, the show is an adaptation of Antonin Artaud’s theatre of cruelty, a French surrealist movement that emerged between the two world wars, promoting theatre as more than entertainment; something that “wakes us up: nerves and heart”. Stripped of theatrical accompaniments like sets and props, You Can’t Ask That is a call to action for its audience – who are inherently participants – not just to our better angels, but for something transformational.
You Can’t Ask That whispers a hope that we can speak to each other over the ugliest tenets of our society, forming a habit of decency and a public square where doing outweighs saying, and improving our world outside of conventional politics. Perhaps this is a utopian vision, but conversely, without the bonds and understanding we develop among ourselves at a time of such intense rupture and division, it cannot be long before the demons establish a bilious home inside of us, sucking the souls out of more and more marginalised and vulnerable people, including the tentative public figures that the series’ participants have become.