My favourite part of working in comedy is coming up with titles. I’ll think, “That’s a good title for a show; some comedian should write that,” and then I remember, “Oh yeah, that’s my job; I get to write that!” Them Fatale, my stand-up show with songs, has the title I’m most proud of creating.

You’ve likely heard of the film noir trope, “femme fatale”; a quaint idea associating women daring to have a sex-drive with murder. Five years ago, when I was in the sluttiest period of my life, I thought a lot about that trope. I was 27, newly single, newly non-binary, newly bisexual, and the owner of new plane tickets to move overseas. I had rid myself from the moral shackles of Catholicism and embraced polyamory. These were all very tasty ingredients for a recipe of fuckboi-level confidence, and all genders and genitals were on the table. I was going on Tinder dates nightly. I was asking out strangers and having one-night stands. I was proposing marriage as a regular gag, and telling all my friends that I wanted to fuck them. Like many queers, I was learning lessons about dating well into my adult years that the heteros get to learn in their teens. Consequently, I made some immature choices and was a little careless with people’s emotions. I didn’t murder anyone, but I broke some hearts, and I sacrificed some friendships.

In retrospect, a lot of people’s hurt feelings came from me not appreciating just how hot I was. Of course, people hooking up with me would get attached once they got a taste of the good stuff! While I deplore the sexist notion that feminine desire is deadly, I do believe that danger abounds wherever there is a person who doesn’t know their worth. I tread a lot more carefully now with my romantic exploits. I go slower. I’m much clearer with partners about my capacity for intimacy and what I can commit to. Although I still caught myself recently taking a queer woman’s palm on a first date and reading her heart-line as if I had forgotten that palmistry plus eye contact in sapphic encounters is as good as getting engaged. Old habits die hard.


The queer community in Aotearoa is famously small, and in the middle of this chaotic chapter of my life, I heard through the grapevine that I was being labelled a “them fatale” by my peers. Now, as someone proudly making their way through the LGBTQ+ alphabet, I adore labels, and this new label, “them fatale”, was very intriguing to me. I was both embarrassed and amused by my community’s talent for taking the old misogynist French “femme fatale”, sprucing it up with some pronouns and giving it a trendy gender-affirming twist. The wordplay seemed to me an exquisite paradoxical blend of slut-shaming and respect, pairing internalised prejudice with a commitment to diversity. How complicated! I loved it.

When I started writing jokes about my gender as a way of coping with day-to-day transphobia, I remembered being labelled “them fatale” and the cocktail of ironies it inspired. I imagined a moody main character with a haunted past, inviting audiences to a sexy emotional car crash where everyone has fun and nobody dies in the end. The title became a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow of queer comedy for me, an opportunity to create comedy that’s honest about the flaws and foibles of queer culture without being preachy or self-effacing.

”Don’t take my word for it. Come and see the show, and maybe afterwards we’ll both get lucky.”

James Hilary Penwarden performs Them Fatale on 16 – 20 May at Basement Theatre as part of the NZ International Comedy Festival with Best Foods Mayo.