Michelle (Michelle Law) and Chloë (Liv Hewson)

Mirth and Malady

Homecoming Queens and Depicting Chronic Illness

With screen representations of people living with disability or chronic illness still disappointingly rare, it’s heartening to see an Australian series foreground the experiences of a person who has received cancer treatment and someone with alopecia – and do so with skill and conviction. In conversation with showrunner Chloë Reeson, Kylie Maslen delves into the sometimes-dark humour and deeper significance of this SBS web series.

The majority of storylines about illness and disability on our screens go something like this: a healthy person gets sick or injured, that person grapples with the sickness or injury, then they either lose the battle or get better and return to their previous life with nothing but a renewed vigour and perhaps a small scar. A nice, neat storyline that boosts ratings and adds drama. But, in real life, rarely are things so neatly wrapped.

SBS On Demand’s seven-part series Homecoming Queens looks at the reality of chronic illness that such storylines often shy away from. Co-created and co-written by Michelle Law and Chloë Reeson, the show is inspired by the pair’s own experiences with health and how it has informed their friendship. Each short episode centres on the fictionalised versions of Law (played by Law herself) and Reeson (Liv Hewson of Santa Clarita Diet fame), who navigate life as twentysomethings adjusting to adulthood post-diagnosis.

I speak to Reeson about how the show came to fruition, and they explain how heavily friendship informs Homecoming Queens. Law had developed alopecia – an autoimmune disease that leads to hair loss – as a teenager, and the pair fostered a closeness after Reeson was diagnosed with breast cancer. ‘We felt isolated,’ Reeson explains. ‘We didn’t exactly feel old, but we didn’t feel young, either.’

Michelle with Sadie and Eddie

Reeson’s background as a writer and editor, combined with Law’s as a screenwriter and playwright, led to the idea to create a series telling their story. Reeson recounts that they were inspired by the early content for web series Broad City as well as the ‘DIY YouTube and Vimeo format for storytelling’ used in shows such as High Maintenance. In 2015, when the pair were beginning work on the show, the web-series format was ‘gaining legitimacy’ – and Reeson recalls feeling excited to explore the form.

Indeed, Broad City is a perfect parallel to Homecoming Queens, particularly with respect to the dark humour of both shows’ central characters and their explicit revelations about their bodies and experiences. Like that of its predecessor, the SBS series’ online release also speaks to the age of its characters and target audience. According to Screen Australia CEO Graeme Mason, citing the ABC’s Cleverman as a case study, viewer behaviours are changing: ‘A certain demographic watched [Cleverman] as it went to air on the channel each week while a much, much younger [demographic] watched it online, on [iview], in one go.’[1]Graeme Mason, quoted in Shannon Molloy, ‘Virtual Reality, Personalised Content, More Local Shows: This Is What Australian TV Will Be Like in 2020’, The Daily Telegraph, 2 October 2016, <https://www.dailytelegraph.com.au/entertainment/television/virtual-reality-personalised-content-more-local-shows-this-is-what-australian-tv-will-be-like-in-2020/news-story/b1173b2673f93b8fed24d434c0b7fd43>, accessed 16 May 2018. Coincidentally, the ability to bingewatch Homecoming Queens captures something of the experience of chronic illness: hours and hours of bed rest, needing entertainment to stave off the boredom. At the same time, with the longest being just sixteen minutes, the episodes also address any difficulties with concentration that illness may cause.

Throughout the series, inventive framing techniques are utilised to highlight the Othering lens through which the healthy and able-bodied see illness as well as the loneliness it generates in those living with it. In Episode 4, ‘Party’, Michelle’s first instinct is to hide from people she knows at a party they’re attending; Chloë, armed with her ‘reverse bucket list’ of things she wants to tick off post-cancer, embraces drugs and lust. In due course, the pair find themselves on a couch; around them, the party continues – emphasising the inaccessibility of these ‘normal’ lives to our protagonists.

‘Their sickness is a new aspect to their identity … When you’re young, you’re big into dreaming and projecting – and, for these two characters, they had the biggest spanners thrown into their lives.’

CHLOË REESON

‘I was the first person to go through something like that,’ Reeson tells me, speaking of their circle of friends. They describe chemotherapy as isolating, particularly during a period in life when – as they put it in an interview for The Sydney Morning Herald in March – it’s ‘necessary […] to be selfish because you’re still figuring out who you are’. In the latter, they added that ‘there’s no blueprint for how to respond to this sort of trauma [at a young age] and that’s the really lonely thing about it’.[2]Bridget McManus, ‘Free-to-air Pick: Homecoming Queens Ticks All the Boxes’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 30 March 2018, <https://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/tv-and-radio/m07tvfta-20180302-h0wx2r.html>, accessed 16 May 2018.

While they and Law were writing the show, Reeson says, ‘there was a conscious effort from us to not be afraid to really show what these characters were going through’. The series unapologetically depicts ‘the loneliness of being sick’ and ‘the frustration of not being able to make other people understand what you’re going through’. But, as Alistair Baldwin has written for ACMI, the narrative of Homecoming Queens goes beyond depicting a dichotomy between ‘healthy’ and ‘sick’:

[E]ach friend exists at a different point in accepting and owning their diagnosis/prognosis. But even for these tensions, the shared experience of otherness connects the pair in a way that centres their perspective on illness, rather than a healthy person’s.[3]Alistair Baldwin, ‘Why Homecoming Queens’ Nuanced Portrayal of Chronic Illness Is Vital’, ACMI website, <https://www.acmi.net.au/ideas/read/why-homecoming-queens-nuanced-portrayal-chronic-illness-vital/>, accessed 16 May 2018, emphasis in original.

Chloë and Michelle

The authentic portrayal of chronic illness in Homecoming Queens is critical when analysed in light of statistics around the representation of disability on screen. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, 18.3 per cent of Australians – just under one in five – had a disability in 2015.4 Yet, as Screen Australia’s 2016 Seeing Ourselves: Reflections on Diversity in Australian TV Drama report reveals, only [4]Australian Bureau of Statistics, ‘4430.0 – Disability, Ageing and Carers, Australia: Summary of Findings, 2015’, 18 October 2016, <http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/mf/4430.0>, accessed 16 May 2018. per cent of the 1961 main characters in Australian TV dramas broadcast between 2011 and 2015 – 71 characters in total – could be identified as having a disability.[5]Screen Australia, Seeing Ourselves: Reflections on Diversity in Australian TV Drama, 2016, p. 15, available at <https://www.screenaustralia.gov.au/getmedia/157b05b4-255a-47b4-bd8b-9f715555fb44/TV-Drama-Diversity.pdf>, accessed 16 May 2018. These figures become all the more significant with the revelation that small talent pools aligning with specific backgrounds ‘means roles are sometimes cast from outside the particular group’. In fact, of the surveyed screenwriters who had written one or more TV drama characters with disability since 2011, 91 per cent reported that a character ‘was ultimately cast with an actor of a different background from the one they’d written’ – the highest figure of any minority covered in the report.[6]ibid., p. 30.

That Homecoming Queens was co-written by two people with chronic illness underscores its importance. Speaking to The Guardian about the power of personal narratives, Law stresses her belief that ‘the personal is political’: ‘although I don’t set out to tell my own personal story specifically, I always see it as quite an interesting “in” for people when we’re looking at wider sociopolitical issues’.[7]Michelle Law, quoted in Stephanie Convery, ‘Homecoming Queens: Friends Turn Chronic Illness into Comedy Script’, The Guardian, 15 April 2018, <https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2018/apr/15/homecoming-queens-friends-turn-chronic-illness-into-comedy-script>, accessed 16 May 2018. And, while Hewson doesn’t live with chronic illness, they ‘did seek [Reeson’s] input whenever [they] had a question about the experiences described in the show […] There was no trace of any patronizing, sensationalism, or melodrama in the telling of these characters’ experiences.’[8]Liv Hewson, quoted in Baldwin, op. cit.

‘We didn’t want to shy away from showing illness and different bodies,’ Reeson tells me, especially because, as they point out, body diversity is so often ‘spoken of in terms of “hotness”, not ableness or [having been] scarred by life’ and opportunities for honest visibility are rare. Certainly, there are moments that unflinchingly portray what it’s like living with chronic illness, such as at the start of Episode 5, ‘Sexual Healing’, in which Chloë is seen injecting herself with medication while Michelle applies fake eyebrows, her bald scalp prominent. And Homecoming Queens looks deeply at body image and the anxieties surrounding it. Michelle, whose alopecia has left her mostly bald, actively attempts to hide her scalp by wearing hats, beanies and wigs – ‘I just want to get in, grow some hair, get out,’ she says in the first episode, ‘Backyard’.

For Chloë, the effects of breast cancer provide opportunities for her friend to laugh and accept herself. In Episode 1, she quips, ‘You’ve got a good noggin for alopecia. When my hair fell out [from chemo], my skull looked like a bag of rocks.’ The same episode shows the two throwing Chloë’s breast prosthesis – which she has been using following her mastectomy – back and forth like a beachball. This type of humour is integral to the effectiveness of Homecoming Queens’ narrative. Rattling off items on her reverse bucket list, Chloë admits she wants to ‘try some lady sex’ and subsequently reveals that she’s never had an orgasm. In Episode 2, ‘Work’, Michelle sees Chloë take a number of large tablets and asks rhetorically, ‘You know that vitamins are a scam?’ Chloë replies, ‘It’s an oestrogen blocker for my cancer, ya fuckin’ bitch,’ adding, ‘What are you taking for your disease?’ And later in the series, while experimenting with masturbation, Chloë gets a vibrator stuck in a place that she ‘just need[s] it out’ of, preferably without the need for an ambulance or a visit to hospital. After Chloë cries that the device is ‘tunnelling in’, the pair reach ‘the final fucking frontier of [their] friendship’ as Michelle extracts the vibrator, accidentally bringing Chloë to orgasm in the process.

But the show also has more poignant moments, particularly scenes cutting back to Chloë in hospital, taking selfies and documenting her experiences on social media while Michelle is working in Sydney. Drafting what to say to her friend, Michelle fails to find the words and instead decides to ‘like’ her post. These scenes mirror Reeson’s real-life experiences. ‘After diagnosis, I kept making a lot of jokes on social media as a way to talk about it,’ they tell me. ‘Then I got really anxious that, if I were making this many jokes, did people know how sick I was? In trying to look after myself by telling jokes, I was signalling to other people that I didn’t need looking after.’

Despite its focus on illness, Reeson muses that the show is ‘always more than just sick people’:

Their sickness is a new aspect to their identity, but we really wanted to highlight the ordinary, mundane aspects of life […] to complement the fact that part of what’s going on for these two are delusions of grandeur being shattered. When you’re young, you’re big into dreaming and projecting – and, for these two characters, they had the biggest spanners thrown into their lives.

This interrogation of the ‘stability’ of life is set up right from the first episode. ‘I’ll just stay until things are back to normal,’ Michelle says, to which Chloë replies: ‘That can take a long time.’

Reeson tells me that an idea at the core of Homecoming Queens is ‘how to connect with people when something’s happened’, whether it be a chronic illness or some other big life event. ‘How do you relate to other people, both in friendship and in exploring relationships with other people, when your relationship to yourself is altered?’ And, in a piece for SBS Life on the shortcomings of traditional narratives around illness and disability, Reeson has argued:

This focus on happy endings […] seems to take agency away from sick people. It forces their stories into something finite […] There is a long process of recovery. Things don’t go back to how they were just because the threat is removed. This is what chronic illness is. You live in that waiting period. It isn’t awful, and it isn’t pitiable. You build a life that is in many ways better than what you had before.[9]Chloë Reeson, ‘What It’s Like Being 22 and Diagnosed with Cancer’, SBS Life, 16 April 2018, <https://www.sbs.com.au/topics/life/culture/article/2018/04/13/what-its-being-22-and-diagnosed-cancer>, accessed 16 May 2018.

In many ways, Homecoming Queens is a simple dramedy about growth; in an ideal world, we would enjoy it for that alone. But, as we fight for more and better representations of disability and illness, the fact that the series has been created, written and (in the case of Law’s character) acted by people with lived experience of chronic illness matters. Perhaps it’s the freedom that comes from creating for the web rather than television – and the growing audiences drawn to the former – that gives networks and funding bodies greater willingness to commit to projects like this. By taking risks and allowing us to depict real experiences, real bodies, real illnesses and real friendships, what these platforms are doing is empowering us to show our real selves.

Endnotes
Endnotes
1 Graeme Mason, quoted in Shannon Molloy, ‘Virtual Reality, Personalised Content, More Local Shows: This Is What Australian TV Will Be Like in 2020’, The Daily Telegraph, 2 October 2016, <https://www.dailytelegraph.com.au/entertainment/television/virtual-reality-personalised-content-more-local-shows-this-is-what-australian-tv-will-be-like-in-2020/news-story/b1173b2673f93b8fed24d434c0b7fd43>, accessed 16 May 2018.
2 Bridget McManus, ‘Free-to-air Pick: Homecoming Queens Ticks All the Boxes’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 30 March 2018, <https://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/tv-and-radio/m07tvfta-20180302-h0wx2r.html>, accessed 16 May 2018.
3 Alistair Baldwin, ‘Why Homecoming Queens’ Nuanced Portrayal of Chronic Illness Is Vital’, ACMI website, <https://www.acmi.net.au/ideas/read/why-homecoming-queens-nuanced-portrayal-chronic-illness-vital/>, accessed 16 May 2018, emphasis in original.
4 Australian Bureau of Statistics, ‘4430.0 – Disability, Ageing and Carers, Australia: Summary of Findings, 2015’, 18 October 2016, <http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/mf/4430.0>, accessed 16 May 2018.
5 Screen Australia, Seeing Ourselves: Reflections on Diversity in Australian TV Drama, 2016, p. 15, available at <https://www.screenaustralia.gov.au/getmedia/157b05b4-255a-47b4-bd8b-9f715555fb44/TV-Drama-Diversity.pdf>, accessed 16 May 2018.
6 ibid., p. 30.
7 Michelle Law, quoted in Stephanie Convery, ‘Homecoming Queens: Friends Turn Chronic Illness into Comedy Script’, The Guardian, 15 April 2018, <https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2018/apr/15/homecoming-queens-friends-turn-chronic-illness-into-comedy-script>, accessed 16 May 2018.
8 Liv Hewson, quoted in Baldwin, op. cit.
9 Chloë Reeson, ‘What It’s Like Being 22 and Diagnosed with Cancer’, SBS Life, 16 April 2018, <https://www.sbs.com.au/topics/life/culture/article/2018/04/13/what-its-being-22-and-diagnosed-cancer>, accessed 16 May 2018.