Meet Australia's delightful Mrs. Doubtfire
Her good advice and humor have made 'Mary G' the queen of hearts with Aborigines.
BROOME, AUSTRALIA — Alan Carpenter, indigenous affairs minister for western Australia, has only just stepped into the radio studio when the flirting starts.
"You got a wife?" coos Mary G, his host, before he's had a chance to settle in his seat. "I can sit in your lap if you want," she trills a few minutes later.
It's Wednesday night, and in remote communities all across northern Australia thousands of people are tuned into "The Mary G Show," giggling at the to-and-fro between the politician and the Aboriginal radio host with a reputation for conducting on-air flirtations.
The humor is largely sophomoric, the music eclectic. This could be almost any community radio show with a cult following. But there's something very different about Mary G.
First, she's a genuine star - she also hosts a nationally televised variety show in Australia.
Then there's the fact that along with all the winks and nudges, she delivers important messages about things like nutrition and respecting your elders.
And finally, there's the little detail that Mary G is really a man - think Aboriginal Mrs. Doubtfire.
But what may be most important about Mary G is what her show says about the role women play in Australia's indigenous communities and the intricate kinship system that governs life in what is often described as the world's oldest living culture.
Mark Bin Bakar, the slightly meek, goateed comedian and DJ who plays Mary G, insists he never planned to have an alter ego. But when he was bored one night in 1995, he began talking to himself on the air in a funny voice, and Mary G was born.
"Mary just walked in and said something like, 'Hello, dahling, you got a wife? I wouldn't mind meeting her,' " recalls Mr. Bin Bakar. Not long after that the phone lines started lighting up.
" 'Mary' gave Mark a hard time the first time she went to air, and people in the community were quite offended by that," he recalls. "They said: 'Who's this woman talking to Mark? She shouldn't be talking to Mark like that.' "
It didn't take long for people to see through Bin Bakar's ventriloquism. But by that time Mary G was entrenched in his weekly routine, and within two years she had her own show going out across Australia on an Aboriginal radio network.
Over the years, Mary G has evolved into a distinct persona based partially on Bin Bakar's mother, who is one of thousands of members of the so-called "Stolen Generations." These Aboriginal men and women were removed from their families as children and put into orphanages as part of government assimilationist policies practiced for much of the 20th century.
Bin Baker drew Mary G's sense of humor from his mother. She and her friends had joked about their ordeal - and whatever other obstacles they encountered - the whole time he was growing up.
"There's so much pain they carry inside, and yet they can laugh at anything," he says.
The rest of Mary G, Bin Bakar says, is modeled on the elderly "aunties" who rule both family and community life in many Aboriginal communities.
With one of these women, "You don't know whether she's hot or cold sometimes because one minute she's all over you - 'I love you, my darling, and you're a really good little kid.' And the next moment she's saying, 'Don't talk to your mother like that!' " he says. "Every family has a Mary G. She keeps people balanced. She keeps people knowing who they are, where they sit in the world."
That's an important message for the country's 400,000 Aborigines. Life expectancy for indigenous men and women in Australia is almost 20 years less than for their white counterparts. They also have higher rates of almost everything from imprisonment and infant mortality to suicide and substance abuse. And, in theremote communities where many Aborigines live - and where Mary G is most popular - there are also third-world housing conditions, paralyzing rates of unemployment, and welfare dependency.
That's where Mary G's humor and her "auntie" become more than just an act.
"Most of the people across the northern hemisphere of Australia listen to her," says Henry Councillor, director of the Kimberley Aboriginal Medical Services Council, an umbrella group for Aboriginal health clinics in northwest Australia.
One key to this success may be that Mary G delivers important messages to Aborigines in their own language.
That language is Aboriginal creole - or pidgin - a peculiar dialect that mixes English with indigenous languages and a range of pronunciations that is difficult for the untrained ear to understand.
Mary G's trademark phrase, for example, is "Whaddayow!" which means "What do you make of that!"
When he steps into character, Bin Bakar does his best to use concepts that people in remote communities can understand. When Mary G is urging people to eat whole-grain breads, for example, it turns into something like: "Eat brown bread! It stops your engine clogging up and falling on the road!"
But Mary G's radio show has another effect on listeners, too, according to Cliff Collard, acting program manager for western Australia's Office of Aboriginal Health, which sponsors Mary G's radio show. Mr. Collard has only anecdotal evidence, but in some of the roughest Aboriginal communities in the outback, crime seems to slow to a trickle on Wednesday nights.
"Everyone is inside listening to her," he says.
To understand why Mary G holds so much appeal, it's important to appreciate the role "aunties" play in Aboriginal culture.
Aboriginal kinship rules can vary, says Deirdre Heitmeyer, an Aboriginal studies expert at the University of Newcastle. But in general the rule goes like this: "All your mum's sisters you call 'mum' and all your father's brothers you call 'dad.' All your mother's brothers you call 'uncle' and all your father's sisters you call 'auntie.' "
The title "auntie" is often given to women who are revered within Aboriginal communities, says Jackie Huggins, an Aboriginal historian and anthropologist at the University of Queensland.
"Their word is usually law," Ms. Huggins says. "You can argue with a younger person. But you can't argue with an 'auntie.' They're almost saints to us."
That authority, Huggins contends, has grown almost from the day in 1788 that Australia became a British prison colony because, many people believe, as she does, that "aboriginal women have come out of colonization better than men."
In fact, if Mary G were Mark G, says Huggins, she wouldn't have the same power she does within the Aboriginal community. "You can see that with her interviews," Huggins says. "Men do defer to her. Even the really macho guys."
That may be because Mary G, in her unique style, knows how to handle even the driest of interview subjects.
There is a point, Bin Bakar insists, in Mary G's serial flirtations. It's a way to keep male indigenous leaders and her other VIP guests honest somehow.
"It's not about humiliating them. It's more about letting them know someone is watching," he says.
"Whaddayow!" as Mary G would say.