Unchained Melody: Accomplices not allies

By Melody Thomas

Melody’s other column, Wāhine, is a regular feature in print. Subscribe to get the real thing here.

Melody Thomas brings us her new monthly column, available exclusively on the Capital website.

To read her last column, Letters to our idols, go here.

The US Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v Wade has left women everywhere reeling in shock. But at least it won’t happen here in New Zealand right? Don’t be so sure. Melody Thomas reminds us of the need to be vigilant and makes the case for moving beyond allyship to something more meaningful. 

When I was 20, I  approached DJ Mu after a set and talked his ear off about how proud Fat Freddy’s Drop made me to be a New Zealander. I can’t even blame the substances I’d consumed in the bathrooms: even when stone cold sober, I was so proud to be from here.

In my defence, I lived in America as a teenager. Every morning we stood, hand to heart, and recited the pledge of allegiance. High school basketball games began with the national anthem, and though the Kiwis were not required to sing we were absolutely expected to stand. Once, for a photography assignment, I captured my best friend’s feet in various poses meant to represent emotional states: toes clinging to the wire net of a fence, nails painted black (“trapped”), feet planted peacefully in the grass beside a single rose, both flower and toenails sunshine-yellow (“peaceful”). For the grand finale, I went with varnish alternating blue, red and white, and positioned her feet atop an American flag, which we’d draped over some stairs behind the diner in town. “Patriotic” was the vibe, but when a man came roaring from the diner screaming at us to get that flag off the ground and show some fucking respect, we realised we’d been anything but (owning dozens of guns = fine, flag touching ground = unforgiveable).

All this to say, I’m not sure if my pro-New Zealand patriotism was a hangover from, or a reaction against what I saw in the US. I loved my little American town, my friends, and aspects of the culture ­ but back in New Zealand there was no racism, no religious fundamentalism, no stockpiling of deadly weapons for the possible overthrow of government. Sure, the internet was slow and we only had one roller coaster that went upside down, but we were the first country in the world to give women the vote! In the ways that really counted, we were ahead of the game.

But between then and now, every American thing I thought this place was free from has made its way to our shores: The yawning gap between the haves and have nots. The methamphetamine crisis.The racism, which was here all along but better at hiding, now grossly emboldened in comments sections, at town meetings, and on commercial radio stations nearing ratings time. The Christchurch terrorist attack, one of the world’s deadliest mass shootings, happened here. On this whenua.

In the wake of that attack, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said “This is not us”. It was a nice sentiment, one I wanted to believe, but increasingly I know it is us. The failure of the authorities to heed warnings from Muslim community members about a rise in Islamophobia and alt-right activity in Aotearoa before the attack was us. The horrific, hateful comments are us. The over-incarceration of Māori in our prisons, the 150,000 kids in poverty and the “tragically high” rates of respiratory illness among them, the polluted rivers, under-resourced schools and hospitals, unaffordable housing and food: Us, us, us.  

On June 24, the US Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, declaring the constitutional right to abortion in America void. It was harrowing to watch 50 years of progress upended in a moment, against the wishes of the majority. I have not been able to think about much else since.

In 2020, the right to an abortion in New Zealand finally became a health issue rather than a criminal one. But the 2020 Abortion Legislation Bill didn’t pass in a landslide – it was 68 votes to 51. At its final reading, 25 National MPs and 9 Labour MPs voted against. On the day Roe v Wade was overturned, National Party MP Simon O’Connor posted “today is a good day” to Facebook, surrounded by love hearts. The post was liked by his colleague Simeon Brown, before National Party leader Christopher Luxon asked for it to be removed, reassuring New Zealanders that our abortion laws would not be relitigated or revisited under a future National Government. These are nice words, but ultimately comfortless: there’s nothing to stop an MP putting forward a members’ bill on the issue, or a future National Party leader adopting a different position. It’s also difficult to trust Luxon on this one when he’s previously equated abortion with murder.  

What’s happened with Roe v Wade, Luxon says, is “an issue for the American people.” But we know that American issues have a habit of becoming our own. In 2021, when Trump supporters stormed the US Capitol building, many of us believed nothing like it could ever happen here. Less than a year later, like the budget Kiwi version of a US blockbuster, the “freedom convoy” flung bricks and set a children’s slide alight on our own parliament grounds. Being a little island at the bottom of the world doesn’t guarantee us protection from overseas influence any more: technology has closed the gap.

And so on abortion and many other issues, we need to be vigilant. To call out hatred and ignorance when we see it. To call in those we see dipping their toes into the rabbit hole, using connection and empathy to prevent them going under completely. We need to keep an eye on our leaders, holding them accountable when they go back on their word, fail to deliver, or pass legislation which entrenches pre-existing inequalities. We need to move beyond performative allyship – as in changing our profile pictures to the colours of the Ukraine flag and sharing timely hashtags – into being active accomplices.

And doesn’t that just sound sexier? Check out the ally waving their flag from the sidelines. Whoa! What’s that?! A flash on the periphery: It’s the accomplice! Ploughing through the sea of badly-dressed bigots and fear mongerers, their athletic muscles straining at the skin! See their teammates cheering them on!  Have you ever seen such a hot, smart, brave and colourful community!? Don’t you just wanna be part of it!

Picture this: An Aotearoa where every child has warm food and a warm bed. Where our awa and moana sparkle and thrum with life, prisons have been rendered obsolete, tino rangatiratanga for Māori is reclaimed; where our differences are celebrated as strengths sitting atop a solid foundation of shared humanity.

Where the idea we once had of New Zealand, as a fair and just society in which every person could participate, is made real.

It’s only idealism if we fail to make it happen, and we’ll never know if it’s possible if we don’t try.

 It’s not us yet, but who’s to say it couldn’t be?

What I’m watching

Bingeworthy shows for your sickbed

It seems like everyone I know is sick right now: if not with covid, then the dreaded flu or the tummy bug that returns just when you think it’s over. Here are some great shows for binging from the comfort of your sickbed:

If you haven’t seen Hacks yet, start now. Jean Smart (who you might have seen in the also-excellent Mare of Easttown) stars as a legendary Las Vegas comedian who forms an unlikely bond with a young writer (Hannah Einbinder) she’s forced to hire to save her career. It’s a comedy about comedy writing, generational divides, women and friendship­ but it’s sharp and cutting rather than sickly sweet.

Anna Kendrick fans will enjoy Love Life a romcom series following a New York woman through the main loves of her life. The new season of Stranger Things is deliciously silly and cheesy, and features possibly the best Metallica guitar solo you’ll ever hear. There’s a new season of Borgen on Netflix! Start at season one if you haven’t seen it before, it’s one of the greats.

Also if you want to be supremely stressed out for 90 minutes, The Rescue, about the rescue of 12 boys trapped in a cave in Thailand in 2018, is one of the most incredible documentaries I’ve ever seen. It’s also a wonderful reminder of what humans can do when we band together.

What I’m listening to

The Commune

The new Stuff podcast explores what happened at Centrepoint, the free-love commune founded by Bert Potter in Auckland, in the 1970s. It’s a true-life tale of sex, drugs, power and abuse, as told by senior Stuff journalists Adam Dudding and Eugene Bingham (the award winning podcast-making pair who – full disclosure – helped us make The Lake).

I’ve only just started but I’m already hooked.

What I’m reading

My favourite recent library reads include the darkly funny She’s a Killer by Kirsten McDougall, which was just longlisted for the Ngaio Marsh Awards. She’s a Killer is set in a dystopian Wellington which can feel a bit close to the city and times we live in now, and where the protagonist Alice – a near-genuis and possible sociopath – is drawn into radical action despite her slacker tendencies.

I devoured The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid. Evelyn Hugo is a reclusive Hollwood movie star, who decides to open up about her glamorous and scandalous life to a nobody magazine reporter (who turns out to be somebody after all). An easy read with just enough twists to keep things interesting, and queer themes to boot.

And Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson is one of the best books I’ve read this year, with the unlikely premise of a young woman taking care of two kids known to spontaneously combust when upset. Just give it a go, you won’t be able to put it down.


Sign up to our newsletter