Jools and Lynda Topp’s popular act, performed on television, on stage, and on the streets of New Zealand, is a mix of stand-up comedy, protest folk songs, and, most interestingly, Absolutely Fabulous-type sketches in which they play stereotypical New Zealanders who might find their unabashedly butch aesthetics objectionable. The documentary The Topp Twins: Untouchable Girls takes on the challenge of introducing the unlikely duo of yodeling lesbian twins to an international audience.
Given most people’s unfamiliarity with New Zealand idiosyncrasies and politics, much gets lost in translation here. While there’s an unexplainable pleasure in watching the Topp twins play, for example, stuffy ladies who lunch in one of their satirical sketches, there’s also a contextual chasm the film tries to bridge with mixed results. Yet it’s when the twins feel most easily comprehensible that they lose their exquisite authenticity, as when they crack jokes such as “Why can’t lesbians wear makeup when they go to Weight Watchers?” Answer: “Because you can’t eat Jenny Craig when you got Estée Lauder on your face.”
They’re unabashedly rural folk lampooning fellow rural folk whose socio-political bite we certainly only partially understand, but they also double as cringe-inducing representatives of an identity-politics generation so willing to find existential relief in the pleasing of heterosexual audiences who are, most likely, just interested in queerness-as-spectacle. The film, which is produced by the twins’ longtime manager, Arani Cuthbert, paints them as a perfect and palatable hybrid of political awareness and universal entertainment: “People will listen to a song before they will listen to a speech.” They take on New Zealand’s anxieties around its Maori population, the campaign for a nuclear-free country, and cancer. They also share coming-out stories of a time when at least one of them rocked a mullet and their mom told the first one out of the closet, “Wait until your sister finds out.”
But while the film seems to think of the duo’s project as one that queers the red-neck ethos into acceptance of diversity, we never learn how their shtick might translate in the lives of real queers in New Zealand. Is the overweight bull-dyke really adulated when she gets off stage?