Nobody personifies the word ‘provocative’ better than Catherine Deveny.
The Melbourne-born-and-bred social commentator exudes confidence as she ignores a proffered chair, instead choosing the non-conventional option of perching upon a table.
She fields questions from an unusually attentive throng of La Trobe University students – her former university, at which she studied Cinema Studies – with assumed ease, her body language indicating her comfort with and level of control over the situation.
‘I don’t need people to agree with me to know that I’m right,’ she exclaims, to general mirth from the audience.
As several students shuffle in late, mouthing apologies to various corners of the room, Deveny assumes total control of the theatre, leveling a joke at their expense.
‘Hi guys! Do you need anything? Like a watch?’ she says, drawing raucous laughter from the now completely-engaged student body.
Deveny, born and raised in the northern Melbourne suburb of Reservoir, has never been one to shy away from controversial topics. An outspoken atheist, dyslexic, and mother-of-three, Deveny cites fellow atheist Richard Dawkins and the late comedian Bill Hicks as personal influences on her somewhat caustic style.
‘Bill Hicks was an amazing comedian who died at about 30, and he was outspoken, unapologetic, ruthless and hilarious,’ Deveny explains in reverent tones. ‘I remember seeing him for the first time and my jaw was just down on the ground.’
‘You see a comedian and it just hits you right there.’
Deveny’s profile is soaring. She recently appeared on the SBS documentary series Go Back To Where You Came From, where she claimed to be ’embarrassed’ to be an Australian.
She was then the subject of a barrage of hate from what she calls ‘new media’, after her appearance on the ABC’s Q&A program.
Discussing her preparation for the popular program, Deveny brings up her war cabinet.
‘We [a collection of Deveny’s friends and housemates] all sit around and have a chat about the topics. I come up with ideas of lines I want to take. When I get off air, probably about a third of the stuff I said is stuff I had prepared and I’ll have a lot of stuff I never got to say.’
The particular incident in question was what was perceived as her disrespect of the Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, Peter Jensen, on the show.
‘I felt quite traumatised after Q&A. Sitting next to Jensen was an assault. Afterwards, I felt like I had been raped,’ Deveny says. ‘You can be as evil as you like when you’re quoting from the Bible. For him to be given as much airtime as he was was quite confronting. It was a physical feeling of repellent.’
Deveny was battered from pillar to post on Twitter – of which she is an active user – after her appearance on the show. She received death threats from users of the website, who labeled her, among other vitriolic diatribes, ‘combative, vicious, intolerant and inarticulate’.
How does she deal with so many dissenting voices?
‘I just don’t give a f**k what morons think. I’m not here to convince anyone with an ambulant mind, or be told that I’m a good girl, I’m here to stand up for what I believe in.’
Turning a blind eye to the hate or retaliating in kind on Twitter seems to be Deveny’s preferred mode of response. ‘I don’t care if people agree with me,’ she says, adding, ‘I just know I’m going to be on the right side of history’.
Her tone switches to mockery. The mimicry of her doubters begins. ‘You were disrespectful, and you lacked grace, and that’s why you should be killed!’ she apes. After a short pause, she adds, in the same high-pitched tone: ‘In the name of Jesus Christ!’
Deveny offers an alternate opinion on, as she calls them with upper lip curled and derision in her voice, the ‘haters’.
‘What they really want to say is I don’t like you saying these things because you’re a woman. You are being funny, you are not apologetic, you are not shrinking yourself down to be small, you are challenging me, as a heterosexual white Christian male with a wife who wants to live the life of Packed to the Rafters.’
Deveny’s scorn towards the institution of marriage is clear. In a 2009 column for the Sydney Morning Herald, she labeled it an ‘anachronistic system’, and stated that ‘the reinforcements of unrealistic expectations, out-dated gender stereotypes and proof we’re still being sucked into happily-ever-after endings’.
However, her dislike for the perfect nuclear-family situation which television shows like Packed to the Rafters display is made abundantly clear when pressed for her thoughts on marriage.
‘Love wasn’t invented, marriage was.’
With passion in her voice, Deveny continues. ‘I think marriage is an illusion. I think marriage is rigged in favour of the men, I think that a lot of women get sucked into the idea of being a princess for a day. I think it’s a big con.’
‘We need more realistic expectations, rather than thinking that a 60-year monogamous heterosexual relationship with a mortgage is the best outcome – it’s not. It’s just not.’
Deveny’s presence in the media is as apparent as ever. She had police at her house after she tweeted supposed death threats against the Queensland premier Campbell Newman. She helped police with their investigations into the death of Melbourne woman Jill Meagher. And she recently returned writing for The Age, after she was sacked from the paper for composing offensive tweets during the 2010 Logies Awards.
In the end, for all her bluster and outspokenness, Deveny displays a soft side when discussing her children. She says she wasn’t prepared for how much she likes her kids, with obvious pride in her tone, and speaks of her openness when speaking with her children.
‘I swear in front of them, I talk about sex, you know, as clearly as I can, I talk about political things, about drugs, as clearly and as rationally as I can.’
‘The only thing I want to be remembered as is a good mother, and only by my children, because they will be the only ones able to judge me on that.’
Catherine Deveny’s new book and first novel, The Happiness Show, will be released in November.