Can a woman shave her armpits and still call herself a feminist? That’s the question posed by Hadley Freeman’s column in The Guardian today. I think she gets it spot on – shave if you want, she says, but:
when we shave in the mornings, we feminist ladies shouldn’t kid ourselves as to why we are doing what we are doing.
I never shaved very often. One side-effect of not getting laid at all during my teens, aside from the copious weeping, was that I never felt the need to shave my body hair when it wasn’t going to be on show.
Twice I got my bikini line waxed, and absolutely hated it, so I sometimes shaved down there as well – usually only when youthful optimism won out over bitter experience, and I thought there was a chance I might pull. I was invariably disappointed, and the few times I did get off with someone were always when I hadn’t bothered, presenting my partner with the most luxuriant bush they were ever likely to encounter.
Even though I saw shaving as a chore done to satisfy other people, and even though I was perfectly happy with myself unshaven, I still continued to do it.
When I was 18, things started to change. Getting ready for a night out, I thought about shaving my bikini line and instantly felt gloomy about the itching that would plague me throughout the evening. And, for the first time, I thought, well fuck it. I decided that whatever my chances of sex, I wasn’t going to shave my pubic hair ever again. The discomfort wasn’t worth it, and I’d already observed that by the time anyone gets to see your vag, they don’t really care what sort of state it’s in. I trim, these days, but purely for my own physical comfort.
(Speaking of which, don’t you hate those articles in Cosmo etc. where they’ve done a survey about “What men prefer” and present the results – usually that most men don’t like a full-on Brazilian or Hollywood but want women to have a “neat triangle” – as something to celebrate? What a relief girls! The menfolk say we don’t have to rip all our pubic hair out by the roots! Just some of it!)
Around May last year, we had a bit of a heatwave. I put a vest top on, and instantly thought “Better shave my armpits,” when it struck me: “Hang on, I’m a feminist. Do I want to shave?” And I realised that I didn’t. I went out that day, for the first time ever, with really hairy armpits, and really hairy legs.
I was surprised by how incredibly self-conscious I felt. Since I wasn’t that fanatical about hair removal, I thought I wouldn’t give a shit. But for the first two days of public hairiness, I walked around in a state of mild panic, worried that people were going to say something, or stare, or burn me as a witch. They didn’t – and on the third day, I felt great.
It was astonishing to me just how liberating it was not to care about shaving, not to care about what other people thought, not to care about some external, unnatural standard of beauty – not even beauty, acceptability.
Now, there were certain circumstances which made this easier than for most women. Unlike the vast majority of women, I actually like my body. This undoubtedly meant it was much less of a big deal for me to do something which will supposedly make me less attractive.
Lucky for me. But another thing which enabled me to stop shaving is that I knew other women who didn’t. By the time I put down the razor I knew several other women who’d done the same. And here’s the thing. The more women stop shaving, or stop shaving so often, the more women will feel able to do it, and the less people will care about it. Safety in numbers.
I know that there might be women reading this who are angry at me because they shave for themselves – because they like it, not because of what other people will think. I’ve already said that I trim my pubes because I find it more comfortable, and I’m sure it’s the same for some people with legs or armpits.
That’s cool with me. But there are plenty of other women who have the same attitude I had – hair removal is a chore that you do because other people will judge you if you don’t. And those women shouldn’t have to feel that way.
I think every woman should try growing out all her body hair at least once. You might hate it, and feel utterly relieved to get rid of it all again after a while, and that’s fine. But I bet there are more women out there who, once they’ve got over that initial fear of being burned as a witch, find they no longer care. And if enough women start thinking that, and going out with hairy armpits, then it really does start to become a purely personal choice. And that, my friends, is feminism.
- The lady above is Emer O’Toole, go look at her saying all this stuff but better.
- The Toast’s hilarious look at The Comment Section for Every Article Ever Written About Intimate Grooming
- This doctor reckons you should leave your pubic hair alone - whatever you think of what she says, it’s nice to have a counterpoint to those people who tell you it’s “More hygienic” to shave (it’s so not).
Here we go again. Zoe Williams wrote in The Guardian this weekend about the findings of a book called What Do Women Want?: Adventures in the Science of Female Desire by Daniel Bergner. Online, the article has the headline “Women and sex: the myth-buster”; in the physical magazine, it is entitled “Sexy beasts” and illustrated, somewhat bafflingly for a piece about female sexuality, with pictures of bananas in various provocative states of being unpeeled. Hot stuff. The pull quote at the top of the page announces “In scientific tests, women become aroused when they watch monkeys having sex. Men don’t. Women’s sexuality is raw and bestial.”
Williams has been subjected to some poor editorial choices here. The gist of both her article, and the extract from Bergner’s book which accompanies it, is that what women think about their own and other women’s sexuality does not necessarily match up to their own sexual urges. All of which is fine, but the alternative picture constructed by Williams and Bergner, that of “raw and bestial” female sexuality, grounded in biological imperatives, is a) nothing new and b) just as problematic, in its own way.
This idea of woman-as-voracious-beast is not something that has only just come to light through science; it is in fact a stereotype much older than the Victorian Angel in the House, the wife and mother who only puts up with sex so that she can have babies. The dominant view for much longer, in the West at least, was that women’s carnal lust was a force to be reckoned with. Women, descended from wicked, impulsive Eve, were considered less rational than men, and therefore more likely to fall prey to the sins of the flesh. See, for example, and for a laugh, Thomas Nashe’s poem “A Choice of Valentines” or “Nashe, his dildo,” which has the honour of being the first recorded use of the word dildo in English. The poet goes to visit his lover and fails to satisfy her, in response to which she gets out her dildo and finishes the job herself, emasculating him in the process. “Signior Dildo” by that famously filthy poet, the Earl of Rochester, has a similar thrust (lol). These poems might not be serious, but they do demonstrate the early modern anxiety that women were so goddamn horny that men didn’t stand a chance of satisfying them. This also crops up much later: many versions of the myth of Leda and the swan right into the twentieth century do not depict the encounter as rape, but rather as a consensual act which expresses a bestial female sexuality that can fixate on anything. Not too dissimilar, then, to those women and their monkeys.
Those women and their monkeys come from a study which I am sick of hearing about. This is the same study which infamously declared that bisexual men don’t exist. That’s since been proved wrong by the way, to the surprise of precisely no one. I remember people criticising this study at the time by saying that if the researchers’ methods of measuring sexual arousal really did provide evidence for the non-existence of male bisexuality, then they also proved that any woman who says she’s gay, straight, or even bisexual is fooling herself because hey, they even responded sexually to pictures of monkeys fucking! Bergner appears to have taken the bold step of making this the basis of a theory of what women want.
While discrepancies between self-reported patterns of desire and physical arousal might be significant, it’s also simplistic to suggest that “women”, all women, because women are all the same, are therefore “naturally” promiscuous, “naturally” bisexual or “naturally” anything else. The problem I have with evolutionary psychology, or at least the way I’ve seen people use it, is that it tends to deny how we actually experience the world now. Instead, you get people saying that “women/men/gay people/people who wear hats behave that way because science, and you can’t change science.” So all women are naturally sexually passive, and there’s no problem with that attitude because we can’t change our monkey brains, you know? If you’re a woman and you’re not sexually passive, well you’re just deluding yourself. Or indeed in this case, if you’re a woman and you don’t want, deep down, a variety of cocks in you all day every day, you’re just a victim of societal pressures. The truth is, everyone’s sexuality, like any other personality trait, is produced by a mixture of biological and social factors which can’t easily be extricated from one another.
Women want sex and that’s fine. But just because women want sex, doesn’t mean we’re all rampant. Can we please just accept, once and for all, that people – women, men, and everyone else – want different sorts of sex in differing amounts with other partners of the same, opposite or whatever gender? I know people at every point on the Kinsey Scale; I know women who never masturbate and women who masturbate four times a day; I know men who only really like sex with a woman they love and prefer to keep it all private, and I know a pansexual, genderqueer man who responded to a mention of putting a finger up someone’s bum with an explosive monologue about the virtues of double penetration (“it’s nice because you can feel the other penis against your penis – like two little worms rubbing against each other”); I know sadists, masochists and switches; and I know that I could never define any of these practices as being natural or unnatural. Human sexuality is a complicated thing. Replacing one stereotype with another doesn’t do it justice.
So, any thoughts on how science is used to interpret sexuality? Pressure on women to want or not want sex? Anxiety about female sexuality? Has anyone read Bergner’s book and have I got it right or wrong? Answers on a postcard please, or preferably in the comments below.
(This post is dedicated to the members of King’s College, Cambridge)
Long time no see and all that. And I’m starting again with something slightly different. I’ve just finished my degree, and a lot of people expressed an interest in reading my dissertation. It’s about camp, focusing on the 1960s and ’70s – basically, whether it can be as politically transgressive as some people claim, or whether it’s actually always retrograde, as other people claim. There’s a lot more I would have liked to have talked about in it, but constrained by the word limit and the fact that I was doing an English degree and not Sociology, it was not meant to be. So here you go.
Screaming queens: Effeminacy, femininity and dominant cultural norms in camp texts, 1960-79.
What do Batman, Bette Davis and Lady Bracknell have in common? They are all over-the-top, spectacular, and adored by a certain group of people with a certain amount of irony; they are all camp. An exact definition of camp’s qualities has eluded most commentators, but it has some consistently recognisable features. Jack Babuscio identifies four elements basic to camp: irony, aestheticism, theatricality and humour. For Babuscio, irony is ‘any highly incongruous contrast between an individual or thing and its context or association’ (p. 20), and he gives examples of contrasts typically exploited by camp, most commonly masculine/feminine, but also youth/age, sacred/profane and others. He links these as strategies that create camp by their relation to gay experience. The use of incongruity is down to ‘the idea of gayness as a moral deviation’ (p. 21); all gay people are incongruous in mainstream society. A typical camp reaction to this is to mock that society by creating a self-defined elite which figures itself as superior to those who are offended by camp behaviour. This has a heritage stretching back to Wilde at least, with Lord Darlington’s declaration that ‘It is absurd to divide people into good and bad. People are either charming or tedious,’ and Susan Sontag’s 1964 essay ‘Notes on “Camp”’ states that camp offers ‘a different – a supplementary – set of standards.’As to Babuscio’s other elements,aestheticism is an opposition to puritan morality; theatricality comes from the need to be constantly playing a role in society; humour is ‘a means of dealing with a hostile environment’ (p.27). Camp is not exclusively by and for gay men, nor are all gay men interested in camp, but it remains a major part of gay male culture. I will focus on the masculine/feminine contrast, as it is expressed through effeminacy: the practice of a man incongruously performing traditionally feminine traits. Effeminacy is prevalent in camp and often extends into a parody of femininity, which reaches its peak with the drag queen, another way of mocking mainstream views of the fixity of gender roles. Effeminacy is one of the most provocative elements of camp, often prompting outrage or disgust. Why should this be?
Prejudice against gay men is largely due to the perceived threat homosexuality poses to masculinity. It ‘violates the rooted assumption that “masculinity”… is “natural” for… the male’ and dependent on ‘differentiation from, and dominance over women.’ This is worse if the gay man in question acts in a feminine way. This is why camp has been seen as a means of questioning heteronormative conceptions of gender, but is it more often means of reaffirming norms by declaring the ‘Otherness’ of effeminacy? The question of what camp might say about effeminacy is complicated by the fact that historically, Western gay male communities have indulged in camp while valuing ‘straight-acting’ men. The term ‘queer’ came into use in America in the 1920s as a way for some gay men to define themselves against ‘fairies.’ Randy Wicker, a gay activist in the 1960s, said that the Stonewall riots were ‘horrible’ because ‘screaming queens forming chorus lines… went against everything I wanted people to think about homosexuals.’ Even today, in a society far more accepting of sexual difference, statements like ‘I don’t deal with silly little fags’ and ‘If you’re a screaming queen…FUCK RIGHT OFF’ are common on gay dating websites. The straight majority figures homosexuality in itself as a threat to masculinity; those who valorise their own masculinity within the gay community are embarrassed by men who act effeminately. This is a form of displaced misogyny: it is based on the belief that masculinity is superior to femininity, and for a man to act like a woman is demeaning.
I will be looking at British and American texts from the period 1960-79: the radio show Round the Horne, which ran from 1965-68; Mart Crowley’s 1968 off-Broadway play The Boys in the Band; Joe Orton’s play What the Butler Saw (written 1966-67, first performed 1969), and John Waters’s film Female Trouble (1974). This period saw enormous changes for gay people. On 28th June 1969, the Stonewall riots in New York gave birth to gay rights activism in the form we know it today. Gay pride began to replace the strategies of so-called homophile groups such as the Mattachine Society and Daughters of Bilitis, who hoped to achieve equality by underplaying their difference to mainstream society. Two years previously, the Sexual Offences Act across the Atlantic partially decriminalised homosexual acts between men. These texts share a similar background, but offer different perspectives on gay people, effeminacy and femininity. The former two are more clearly retrograde. Round the Horne was a mainstream show; The Boys in the Band is just pre-Stonewall, and the attitudes it displays quickly became embarrassing to a newly-confident gay community. Orton and Waters, on the other hand, are often used as examples of camp that attacks normative perceptions of gender and sexuality. Examining them will help to answer the question of whether the distaste towards effeminacy that they sometimes demonstrate is only a reflection of a society generally hostile towards gay people and women, or something more problematic for camp’s champions. The nature of camp as a political tool has been much debated ‘with the majority of critics’ according to Carryl Flinn, ‘maintaining that camp at least has the potential [emphasis Flinn’s] to destabilize certain social and ideological forms and categories’ and that it is most useful politically by questioning oppressive gender stereotyping, as a ‘parodic critique of femininity.’ Although many critics acknowledge that camp can be misogynistic, they rarely look at misogynistic aspects of camp texts in detail, as when Fabio Cleto concludes his argument for camp’s political defiance with a perfunctory acknowledgement that camp ‘may not have been always progressive, and quite often it has actually played in the hands of the dominant’ without explaining how. Can such a male-dominated mode of expression truly be a tool to destabilise gender categories, even if those men who create it are subject to a form of gender-based discrimination?
Round the Horne and The Boys in the Band have very different aims and audiences. Round the Horne was somewhat risqué, frequently baiting the ire of Mary Whitehouse, but it was broadcast on the BBC Light Programme at Sunday lunchtime, a family listening slot, and had a mainstream audience. The Boys in the Band was first performed off-Broadway, and the casual inclusion of gay playwrights Edward Albee, William Inge and Tennessee Williams in conversation place it as a text most relevant to a gay, or at least relatively gay-friendly, New York audience with high cultural capital – exactly the kind of audience that has determined the shape of how camp has been seen in critical study, and more widely. This demonstrates one of the major differences between British and American camp culture. Camp was seen broadly as ‘specifically homosexual humour’ in the US, while in the UK camp comedians such as Kenneth Williams, Frankie Howerd and Larry Grayson were a staple of light entertainment. Despite these differences, Round the Horne and Boys have more in common than their use of camp – they both express unease with effeminacy.
In the UK, camp was related to homosexuality, as camp performers’ stage personas relied on insinuating that they were gay (which many were, although closeted offstage). However, camp did not belong to homosexuals in the same way, and the presence of camp in the mainstream does not mean that the British were any more tolerant of gay people than the Americans. The BBC’s website proudly proclaims that Round the Horne’s camp characters Julian and Sandy, played by Hugh Paddick and Kenneth Williams, who spoke in Polari, a form of gay slang, ‘encouraged British suburbia to laugh openly about a subject that till then had been strictly taboo.’ While the show may have provided a certain degree of visibility, its presentation of effeminate men hardly encouraged acceptance. It is also important to remember that not all of their audience would have understood Julian and Sandy to be gay, but might have read them as effeminate and asexual. The humour of the Julian and Sandy sketches was rooted in their effeminacy – everything else flowed from thence. Jokes about effeminacy are the most frequent, and often got the biggest laughs. In the first sketch in which they appeared, jokes include Julian describing his role in a commercial as ‘a rugby fullback,’ funny because of the incongruity of someone so effeminate playing such a strong, masculine man, and Sandy’s attempt to calm Julian’s hissy fit with an appeal to his feminine vanity: ‘If you frown, you’ll get crow’s feet.’ Kenneth Williams’s persona on the rest of the show employed similar humour. In the episode ‘The Rocket Site in Haiti,’ Williams gets his biggest laugh when describing a yearning for Shakespearean parts with the line ‘I want to wear tights!’ In ‘How the Bullet Proof Vest Was Won,’ Williams plays the gangster ‘Babyface Omi Polone.’ By this time, the audience would have at least learnt from Julian and Sandy that ‘omi’ meant man and ‘polone’ woman in Polari, making this character a ‘man-woman,’ even if they did not know that this specifically refers to an effeminate gay man. At his trial he declares himself ‘a pretty thief’ and carries a ‘sawn-off Dusty Springfield.’ A man acting in an effeminate way is presented as inherently funny – something to laugh at. Underlying this are several assumptions: that performances of gender outside of traditional roles are strange, and that it would be ridiculous for a man to want to act like a woman. This kind of camp humour creates a problem for the idea that camp is a ‘form of resistance’ for gay men as it ‘others’ effeminacy for the benefit of a straight audience. It also reduces the threat of such a challenge to masculinity by making it something not to be taken seriously.
The Boys in the Band takes a different approach. Michael is throwing a birthday party for Harold, and the guests are, ‘six tired screaming fairy queens and one anxious queer.’ While the play’s frankness about gay life might have been refreshing, the amount of self-loathing on display makes this a mitigated success. One of the play’s most notorious lines is ‘You show me a happy homosexual, and I’ll show you a gay corpse’ (p. 178). Effeminacy is not immediately disparaged. The play’s most loveable character is Emory, so camp he makes his entrance saying ‘Hello darlin’!… Oh, Mary, don’t ask’ (p. 35). However, loveability does not necessarily command respect – Julian and Sandy were much-loved by their audience. There are moments of disgust with effeminacy in the play, and several of the characters base their opinions of themselves on the assumption that their sexual orientation is a form of psychological damage, of which camp or effeminate behaviour is a symptom. Michael says to Emory ‘Why would anybody want to go to bed with a flaming little sissy like you?’ (p. 155). This is supposed to reflect badly on Michael, as evidence of his increasing unpleasantness as the evening wears on. However, his outbursts are supposed to pinpoint essential truths about the characters which they cannot admit to themselves, as when he announces that Harold has bad skin because he deliberately scars himself with tweezers (p. 113), or that Larry, whose promiscuity threatens his relationship with Hank, slept with Donald (p. 159). These truths derive their force in part from the fact that these characters are all responsible for their own problems. Therefore, the implication of the comment about Emory is that it is his fault that people do not want to sleep with him, rather than the fault of others’ prejudice. This is in line with the play’s presentation of stereotypically ‘gay’ behaviour – camping and effeminacy – as evidence of trauma. Michael’s camping about is based on movies: he impersonates Barbara Stanwyck and Judy Garland, and shows knowledge of obscure movie trivia. As the conversation turns to Donald’s therapy, and ‘how mommy and daddy made their darlin’ into a fairy’ (p. 19), Michael’s rant about this subject shows how this love of films comes from his mother’s attempts to make him into ‘a girl-friend dash lover’ (p. 24): ‘We went to all those… cornball movies together. I picked out her clothes for her… she’d take me to the beauty parlor with her.’ His mother’s treating him like a girl apparently made him gay, and is the source of an immaturity which has resulted in a catalogue of failures. He finishes with an ironic ‘Finis. Applause.’ (p. 25). This moment of self-criticism could launch a wider assault on Michael’s flawed analysis. Instead, Donald hugs Michael, and Crowley states in the stage directions that this is ‘a totally warm and caring gesture’ (p. 25). By stressing the sincerity of this moment, Crowley affirms that the audience should accept that what Michael says should be taken seriously and is worthy of Donald’s sympathy. Camp humour does not interrogate the characters’ self-pitying assumptions, but affirms their damaged nature.
Camp is no guarantee of resistance to heteronormative assumptions about the wrongness of effeminacy in men, which could reflect underlying misogyny. While this might be expected from texts which aim to appeal to a straight 1960s audience, who would not have had the most enlightened views on atypical gender roles, we have seen that this assumption is also present in texts which come from a gay perspective. Internalised homophobia is understandable given the period, and Boys is a reflection of the way not all, but many, gay people thought of themselves at the time. That these texts collude with the oppressive standards of the period does not necessarily damage camp’s potential political impact.
Joe Orton was also writing in the 1960s, and his plays demonstrate an alternative use of the camp sensibility. He is often praised for his savage critiques of authority and sexual repression. Orton’s stated aim for Entertaining Mr Sloane (1964), for example, was ‘to break down all the sexual compartments that people have’ and sexual fluidity is present in much of his work. Jonathan Dollimore says that Orton demonstrates a ‘transgressive commitment to inversion’ and What the Butler Saw is ‘an angry repudiation of sexual repressiveness’ which ‘interrogates the norm.’ In Orton’s work, those who express attitudes which would normally be dominant are excluded and stigmatised, a strategy which Cleto says is at the heart of camp’s ‘politics of radical dissidence.’ However, while he may have tackled prescriptive attitudes towards gender and sexuality, there is a strong strain of misogyny in Orton’s work. So far, I have examined attitudes towards effeminate men – in Orton, we see a camp treatment of women and their sexuality of a kind that provokes the aforementioned split between those who side with Cleto’s view that camp offers a critique of conventional femininity, and those who say that such representations are straightforwardly misogynistic.
Maurice Charney notes that Orton’s women often fit unflattering stereotypes: the ‘mother-whore’ or ‘coldly bossy temptress.’ In What the Butler Saw, we have the ‘sweetly sympathetic secretary’ Geraldine Barclay, whose confusion at the cross-dressing complexities of the plot places her as a figure representative of the norm. The plot of Butler unfolds from Dr Prentice’s attempt to seduce Geraldine, whom he is interviewing for a job, and his subsequent efforts to cover his tracks in ever more ridiculous ways. This task is complicated by the presence of asylum inspector Dr Rance, and Mrs Prentice, who is being blackmailed by hotel pageboy Nick, who attempted to rape her the night before. Geraldine is the only blameless character and the first to be plunged into difficulties, as the problems resulting from Prentice’s asking her to undress quickly escalate until she is certified insane. Her innocence stands in contrast to the other characters’ questioning of sexual norms, as when Nick is asked whether he has been ‘used… unnaturally,’ to which he replies ‘What is unnatural?’ (p. 416), and Dr Rance dismisses Prentice’s pleading his heterosexuality with ‘I wish you wouldn’t use these Chaucerian words’ (p. 411), suggesting that sexual categorisation is outdated. At the end of the play, Geraldine is forced into a straitjacket ‘weeping, bitterly’ (p. 438). Her humiliation can be explained as a punishment for the crime of trusting in normative values: if Orton wishes to shake people out of complacency, how better than to show that leading a ‘respectable life’ (p. 438) does not guarantee security? She is comparable in this regard to Mr McLeavy in Loot (1965), the only character in that play who is not a criminal, and the only one to be arrested. This suggests that Geraldine’s gender is irrelevant to her treatment – the attitudes she represents are under fire, not her femininity. However, her lack of power, which is largely due to her gender, means that Orton’s attack comes across as simply cruel. McLeavy chooses to acquiesce to the sociopathic Inspector Truscott; Geraldine is forcibly subjugated by men more powerful than herself.
In Orton, two different camp strategies interact: the aforementioned inversion of norms, and the Wildean aestheticism of his dialogue. Orton favoured ‘A combination of elegance and crudity,’ which is a version of camp’s ‘commitment to the marginal’ – conventionally distasteful situations are lavished with stylistic glitter. Theatricality is also a major component, as this language is both performative and artificial. This produces some of Orton’s most memorable lines: Mrs Prentice’s putdown of her husband’s sexual prowess, ‘My uterine contractions have been bogus for some time’ (p. 372); Inspector Truscott’s Biblical-sounding admonishment of Dennis’s promiscuity, ‘You scatter your seed along the pavements without regard to age or sex’ (p. 244). The exclusion of those characters who represent the norm, Geraldine and McLeavy, is signalled by their use of much simpler language. This is particularly evident when they use different styles at different moments in the plays. When Fay claims that McLeavy’s deceased wife accused him of murder, he says ‘Complete extinction has done nothing to silence her slanderous tongue’ (p. 252). Here, he enacts the same kind of inappropriate reaction to solemn situations as the other characters. When he expresses his unthinking submission to authority, his speech becomes syntactically simpler and his mode of expression considerably duller, as when he says in response to Fay’s concerns about Truscott:
‘We can rely on public servants to behave themselves. We must give this man every opportunity to do his duty. As a good citizen I ignore the stories which bring officialdom into disrepute.’ (p. 217)
We see something similar with Geraldine. At the very start, she responds to Prentice’s arch question ‘You did have a father?’ with ‘I’m sure I did. My mother was frugal in her habits, but she’d never economise unwisely’ (pp. 364-5). She deals matter-of-factly with unusual sexual situations, setting the tone for the rest of the play. By contrast, when she complies with Prentice’s request that she undress, she says ‘I’ll be delighted to help you in any way I can, doctor’ (p. 368). While her ignorance of what help he might require is funny, it is not self-consciously witty. Similarly, when she is asked to prove her sex while dressed in boy’s clothes, she says ‘I must be a boy. I like girls’ (p. 413). Coming well into Act Two, when rape, pederasty, lesbianism and furtive relationships with newspaper editors have already been bandied about in conversation, the simplistic nature of this statement shows that Geraldine still ‘clings to her suburban upbringing’ (p. 378).
However, the difference between Geraldine and McLeavy is one of power – or potential power, at least. While McLeavy allows Truscott to enter his home, Geraldine is on unfamiliar territory. McLeavy is ‘respected by the world at large’ (p. 200), Geraldine is a girl straight out of school. McLeavy puts himself in a position of subjugation to Truscott, while Geraldine questions Prentice on his motivations and is silenced by assertions of his power and social standing. As Prentice gets her to undress, he betrays his (already obvious) intentions by saying that what he sees on his couch ‘isn’t a lovely and desirable girl,’ but a mind in need of treatment; ‘The body is of no interest to men of [his] stamp’ (p. 366). Prentice claims objectivity and superiority through his professional position, which carries social superiority with it. Already vulnerable, Geraldine acquiesces further. McLeavy is ridiculed for traits that are his own fault; Geraldine is not in a position that allows her to overrule Prentice. Geraldine’s innocence highlights the extent to which Prentice, and later Dr Rance, abuse their power in a way that might be less forceful were she more resistant. It is nevertheless a somewhat uncomfortable fact that one of two women in the play is always a passive victim. While this is on one level a parody of the way young women are treated by older men, the primary target of Orton’s satire is Geraldine’s trust. Booth defends camp from misogyny on the grounds that because women are the primary representatives of the marginal in society, and camp is committed to the marginal, camp is therefore sympathetic to women. Here, the author figures Geraldine as a representative of ‘straight’ conformity to be attacked, not a marginal figure. Her conventionally feminine innocence, sweetness and stupidity are the source of her downfall, and, like Michael expressing disgust at Emory’s effeminacy rather than sympathising with him, Orton blames Geraldine for continuing to act as she does rather than allowing her to question her conditions.
However, as a demonstration of how men abuse their power, Geraldine’s misfortune could still be saved for the side of the subversive angels. Not so Mrs Prentice’s. She begins the play as a callous virago; by the end, she is a frightened, sobbing woman who has been cut down to size, and responds rapturously to sexual violence. This is not radical dissidence – this is the taming of the shrew. Mrs Prentice’s sexual independence is figured as a form of complacency which is broken down by the action of the play, like Dr Rance’s delusions of academic integrity as he interprets what he sees in the asylum as the basis for a bestselling book. Mrs Prentice begins as a ‘nymphomaniac’ (p. 368) who goes to a club for lesbians. One of her opening salvos casts aspersions on her husband’s masculinity, explaining that she is allowed in the club ‘because [Prentice] count[s] as a woman’ (p.369). Insulting a man by calling him a woman is a clear example of valuing masculinity over femininity, and saying that feminine traits in men are wrong. This hardly breaks down sexual compartments. The complement to gay men being seen as feminine is that lesbians are seen as masculine; Mrs Prentice’s alliance with lesbians, as well as her sexual appetite, therefore make her a masculine figure. She becomes more stereotypically feminine as the play progresses; as more and more perversions are mentioned, in Mrs Prentice the audience sees a character who starts out as a challenge to conventional gender roles, and conforms as the play goes on. She trusts increasingly in Dr Rance’s masculine authority, as she cries ‘Oh, doctor! Does any of this make sense to you?’ (p. 424) and is reduced to tears by the end of the play, culminating in her ecstatic response to being hit by her husband: ‘(gasping as he slaps her) Oh, my darling! This is the way to sexual adjustment in marriage!’ (p. 431). As Charney points out, ‘This… is as close to sexual fulfilment as the play ever comes’ and Mrs Prentice’s delight in being dominated sneeringly suggests that this was all she ever needed – as well as her renewed sexual interest in Prentice once it is revealed that it was he who raped her in a linen closet many years previously. Her use of the clinical term ‘sexual adjustment in marriage’ is funny because this jargon of mutual benefit is at odds with what actually excites her. While the use of an explicit act of violence to demonstrate this dynamic takes this into potentially shocking sadomasochistic territory, the dynamic itself is essentially conservative.
Furthermore, this is figured as a stripping away of her socially constructed outer self, not a result of suppression. Butler is Orton’s version of The Bacchae, and, like Euripides, Orton aims to show that primal instincts are barely constrained by society: a hint of chaos, and everyone loses control. The play attacks conventional sexual mores by exposing hidden desires. Rance’s declaring Prentice ‘a transvestite, fetishist, bisexual murderer’ (p. 428) reveals his own preoccupations, as the zenith of his obsession with always leaping to the most sinister conclusion, such as his insistence that Geraldine was ‘the victim of an incestuous attack’ (p. 382) – which proves true, in a roundabout way, as she is the long-lost offspring of the linen closet rape. Similarly, Mrs Prentice’s ostentatiously casual attitude to sex is shown to be a front, hiding a desire to be controlled by her husband: the public façade crumbles to reveal something more “primal” or “natural.” Orton thought of himself as ‘vulgar and offensive in the extreme to middle-class susceptibilities,’ and Mrs Prentice’s tolerance of sexual ‘deviance’ – reacting nonchalantly to her husband’s apparent penchants for cross-dressing (p. 373) and young men (p. 430) – represents an educated, middle-class, fashionable susceptibility to tolerance of sexual difference based on Freudian explanations. She goes along with Dr Rance’s account of Prentice’s behaviour as indicative of mental illness, and tries to soothe her husband by telling him that ‘Dr Rance has explained the reasons for [his] aberration’ and she will be ‘quite tolerant’ as a touch of homosexuality would ‘raise the tone of [their] marriage’ (p. 430). Her tolerance is entirely superficial, and her patronising tone, along with the fact she has misunderstood the situation entirely (Prentice is not gay) make her seem foolish. Mrs Prentice’s confidence at the start of the play is therefore exposed as an affectation. This is hinted at by the fact that she has adopted masculine traits – she has to be unfeminine in order to hold the values she professes – and it is her “essential” femininity which eventually brings her low.
Orton’s treatment of women shows that camp texts which come from a gay perspective, have political intent, and target sexual repression will not necessarily be progressive regarding gender. Moreover, Butler shows a camp mockery of women that, while witty, is based on the author’s distaste for what he perceives women to be like, and is not an interrogation of social pressures on women. Geraldine is naïve, ignorant and easily controlled by men, while Mrs Prentice’s strident approach to sex is mocked as a front for her naturally submissive desires. Moreover, the treatment of these characters shows that, for all Orton’s delight in his own subversiveness, his humour relies on the norms he claims to reject. Geraldine’s position as the norm against which the action works demonstrates the need for the text to constantly be pointing out how naughty its goings-on are. Just as Round the Horne’s jokes about Jules and Sandy only work well if we think that a man acting effeminately is ridiculous, so Orton’s sexual anarchy only works well if normative sexual boundaries are clearly defined. In addition, Orton’s sustained attack on Mrs Prentice is a misogynistic mockery of the possibility of feminine sexual enlightenment. Dollimore claims that Orton interrogates norms: Butler loudly declares its opposition to norms, but in doing so, upholds their importance. In the end, the play unthinkingly accepts those norms when it comes to women. Any challenge that camp makes to preconceived notions of gender relies on a deeper acceptance of those notions, and with Orton, his attitude towards women exposes this flaw in his writing most glaringly.
I would like now to skip forward a few years and hop back across the Atlantic to look at the films of John Waters. So far, many of the disappointing attitudes demonstrated in the texts I have discussed can be partially or wholly explained by their repressive contexts; even Orton was struggling against theatrical censorship. Waters’s films are post-Stonewall, and therefore come from a very different environment. While the general public may have still been antipathetic towards homosexuals, gay communities were using methods drawn from the black civil rights struggle and the women’s liberation movement to fight for their rights. Instead of trying to be unobtrusive, some gay people were trying to be as visible as possible, and to question heteronormative standards – reflected in the title of the Gay Liberation Front’s inaugural publication, Come Out! It would be simplistic to suggest that all gay people went from being closeted and ashamed to out and proud on the 28th June 1969, but there was a significant shift in consciousness, especially among young, urban gay people – people like John Waters and his star, a drag queen called Divine.
Divine: enormously fat, unabashedly bizarre, sometimes androgynous, always extreme. Divine belonged to the ‘genderfuck’ school of drag, and performed with San Francisco’s legendary Cockettes, who took to the stage in dresses with full beards. Rather than female impersonation, the aim was to explore the limits of traditional categories of gender. As well as this, the Cockettes ‘were exploding the myth of romance and glamour, the myth of success.’ The Cockettes’ questioning of gender was therefore placed in relation to capitalist structures of power and repression, making gender part of a wider political framework. Divine’s work with John Waters is diametrically opposed to the older glamorous drag style, both in the way she looks and the trashy squalor of the settings and storylines of these films. Waters takes the idea of camp creating different standards to extremes, creating alternate worlds in which people compete for the title of ‘Filthiest Person Alive’ (Pink Flamingos, 1972), or a doting aunt laments her nephew’s heterosexual tendencies (Female Trouble). In her most famous appearance in Pink Flamingos, Divine eats dog shit – hardly glamorous, or aspirational. Here, we find a much more far-reaching challenge to expectations of what is naturally or desirably feminine – a parody of femininity and aspiration which demonstrates how these are both imposed on the individual by society. These characters behave in a way that seems fake or counter-intuitive to us, but in such a way as to highlight that our own behaviours are learned. Divine is famously cited by Judith Butler in Gender Trouble as an example of someone who exposes the performativity of gender. Things are looking up for camp. However, Butler later clarified her position on drag as an art-form which ‘reflects on the imitative structure by which… gender is itself produced and disputes heterosexuality’s claim on naturalness’ but, since it requires gender norms to be understood, cannot fully surpass them. Does the film do anything more than take the audience to Oz so that they realise there’s no place like home?
In Female Trouble, Divine’s character, Dawn Davenport, starts the film as a runaway teenage delinquent, and ends it in the electric chair. Along the way, she gives birth to a child, whom she neglects, becomes a thief, and does ‘crime modelling.’ Female Trouble examines the standards by which we judge female beauty, and the signs by which we determine gender. As with Orton, artifice and staginess is played up at every opportunity, but where Orton achieves this through heightened aestheticism, a non-naturalistic excess of artistic refinement, Waters’s films are characterised by deliberately poor performances: the quality of acting in Waters’s work is somewhere between a B-movie and cheap pornography. In Orton, the depravity is somewhat counterbalanced by the elaborate language; in Female Trouble, the crudeness of the material is pulled into focus by the crudeness of the style. The aim is to confront the audience with filth in the brashest way possible. At first, the film stays firmly within the limits of what Butler says that drag can do in that it reflects on normative standards of gender, without truly transgressing them. This is especially apparent in the scenes where Dawn is supposed to be a schoolgirl: her sheer size, towering above her parents and teachers, most clearly points out the man behind the make-up, the incongruity which is the basis of drag. According to Newton, female impersonation ‘depends entirely on a sharply defined tension between maintaining the impersonation as exactly as possible and breaking it completely… A common method of doing this is to interject some aside in the deepest possible bass voice.’ This is camp irony in, perhaps, its purest form: a man pretending to be a woman, but not really trying to hide the incongruity between his actual gender and that which he performs. The most glaring instance of this in Female Trouble is that Divine plays both Dawn and the man who gets her pregnant, Earl Peterson. Divine’s male self is not only hinted at but literally displayed. This signposting of the discrepancy between female and male seems to place the film as a piece which only reaffirms what is normal and natural by displaying what is strange and unnatural. However, there comes an important turning point in the film when the ‘crime modelling’ storyline gets underway.
The Dashers are a self-consciously elegant couple who own the Lipstick Beauty Salon, which caters ‘to ravishing beauties only’ (p. 142), and it is they who make Dawn famous. The selection process for their salon shows that they have a different concept of what constitutes ravishing beauty from most people. Of the three applicants, two slim, pretty women and Dawn, they choose Dawn. This is the first of their actions which demonstrates the arbitrariness of what is considered to be beautiful, which is aligned with their own otherworldly, high-fashion aesthetic. While Dawn, self-proclaimed ‘thief and… shit-kicker’ (p. 143) seems far-removed from their refinement, that these fashionistas pick out Dawn as ravishing mocks the way that the real fashion world promotes particular body shapes and styles. They feel that ‘crime enhances one’s beauty’ (p. 160) and are delighted to take pictures of Dawn hitting her daughter with a chair. This is not anyone’s idea of beauty, but the way the Dashers express their excitement – ‘just think of all the little horror stories that go on in other people’s lives!’ (p. 174) – shows that their interest is less alien than it may appear. Their distaste for sex, which they find ‘most repellent’ (p. 159) combined with their prurient fascination with violence reflects that tolerance for violence and horror at sex in the media which is particularly prevalent in America. Their distasteful actions and curious taste in women are an only slightly distorted version of the ways the media portrays women, and the arbitrary nature of its taboos. Unlike Orton’s uncritical acceptance of stereotypes, this reflects on the social pressures facing women.
At the climax of the photo-shoot, Dawn’s enemy throws acid in her face. This is where the film goes from toying with gender norms to outright demolishing them. Dawn is in hospital, recovering from the acid attack, and her friends from the salon, including the Dashers, are excited. Donald insists that she ‘will now be more beautiful than if she had had a million-dollar face-lift’ (p. 179), and the others are jealous. When the bandages come off, they coo over her scars, but Dawn’s own reaction when she looks in the mirror is, understandably, initially one of disgust. However, she turns to the others and says ‘Pretty, pretty?’ (p. 183) uncertainly, and the approval of the crowd around her makes her accept it as beautiful. This continues the Dashers’ determination of perverse standards of beauty, but Dawn’s hesitation takes this one step further. It shows a moment of internalisation, but instead of internalising a societal norm, she internalises something entirely counter-intuitive. At this point, the viewer’s acceptance of Dawn as a woman on any level is brought under scrutiny, especially as Divine does not sport her usual extravagant makeup and hairdo. She verbalises a subconscious reaction to idealised images of beauty: the process which leads women in some cultures to starve themselves into thinness, and women in other cultures to eat themselves into obesity. It becomes clear that what we think of as normal is not necessarily natural. From this point onwards, Dawn’s hair, makeup and outfits become ever more bizarre, and she becomes more and more convinced of her own beauty. She begins to sport an enormous Mohawk, an androgynous style as compared to the long hair she had earlier. In an exterior shot, she walks down the street and people stare. From an outside perspective, it would seem they are staring at how strange she looks, but when she reaches the Dashers’ house she says that ‘Everyone was staring and gawking… like [she was] a princess’ (p. 197). Dawn takes the attention she has got for all the wrong reasons, and construes it as confirmation of how fabulous she is. There is no self-loathing irony here – she genuinely believes it. This puts the whole situation in a different light: as with Dawn’s friends cooing over her beauty, the viewer is not presented with a set of characters who share their own normative standards on some level; the viewer is made to feel the outsider. This is somewhat disconcerting, and it only becomes more so when Dawn performs her cabaret act. She jumps on a trampoline and rubs fish on her body – it is sloppy and strange. The audience, however, reacts rapturously, until she starts shooting them. They share her view of things, not ours.
Once Dawn is brought to trial, it seems as if we are going to be brought back down to earth from a Bakhtinian, carnivalesque high. The court laughs at Dawn’s posturing, and even the Dashers betray her: Donald says she looks ‘quite hideous’ (p.218). This should be the moment which brings Dawn to her senses. Instead, she is excited. The final scene sees her, head shaved in preparation for the electric chair, saying she is ‘thrilled’ because the death penalty is ‘the biggest award I could get in my field’ (p. 222). Her lesbian lover tries to bring Dawn back to reality by saying ‘You still think you’re in a show baby! You gotta realise it’s your life!’ Dawn replies ‘But my life is a show!’ (p. 224). There is no division for Dawn between what is acted and what is real – and this sums up what the film asks – why should there be? Since standards of what is natural and beautiful are externally imposed – imposed on Dawn by her environment just as much as they are imposed on everyone in wider society – why not recognise that fact? Here, with Dawn looking like neither a woman nor a man with her shaved head, lack of make-up and enormous bosom, the film shows how arbitrary norms really are. The division between what is real and what is performed dissolves at the same moment as the boundary between masculine and feminine. However, the film’s final shot at last breaks the spell. The camera freezes in close up on Dawn’s contorted, deformed face, which remains as the background as the credits roll. The film ‘shot to showcase [Divine’s] extreme beauty’(p. xi) finishes on an image which is undeniably ugly, committing to the audience’s presumed disgust rather than Dawn’s adoration of herself. Female Trouble excludes the viewpoint of the majority much more than Orton – it is truly committed to inversion in its central ideas that crime is beautiful and Divine is the epitome of feminine beauty. However, it still has to keep intact those norms it rails against in order to define itself against them. At the last minute, its transgressive potential is reined back.
In Female Trouble, Divine does reach a point of complete androgyny which destabilises the usual categories of gender. However, while there may not be normative standards of gender to which to compare her within the film, the whole world of the film stands in contrast to our own, meaning that even at its most transgressive, camp still relies on an audience’s shock. Does this reliance prevent camp from breaking down any normative barriers, or can this shock be a starting point for something much more subversive? Female Trouble has a more complex relationship to femininity than any of the texts I have examined so far, but it shows that Butler correctly identifies the limits of drag: it may make us think about gender, but it cannot change gender norms in itself.
Camp is not able to be the tool that smashes the gender binary in the way that some of its supporters wish it could. The fact that it works through incongruity means that it always has to ostentatiously reject the dominant culture rather than changing it. That it has colluded with those culture’s views on the strangeness of effeminacy, and the superiority of masculinity, is a legacy that cannot be ignored for any camp text: if the feminist reader is presented with effeminacy in a humorous context, she must always ask why she is expected to laugh. As Orton demonstrates, even those texts which seem to savage sexual conservatism may engage in that conservatism, and Waters shows that even at its most extreme, parody cannot surpass that which it attacks. However, this does not mean it should be consigned to failure. Newton considers camp a ‘pre- or proto-political phenomenon.’ It does not deny the stigma attached to being gay, but nor does the camp person does try to be like the oppressors. Camp’s artifice prompts thought about what is normal and natural by presenting what some people might consider shocking and forcing them to articulate what fault they find with it. Those screaming queens forming chorus lines outside the Stonewall Inn sparked a revolution that the Mattachine Society’s carefully conformist protests could not. The Stonewall rioters declared their difference to society, but showed that just because they were different did not mean they should be hassled by the police. Camp declares difference, for better or worse – and how can people accept what is different if they are never confronted with it? Camp provides a different way to think about gender, even when it does not intend to – and that is valuable in itself. While it is wrong to claim too much for camp, it is also wrong to dismiss it entirely.
‘Camp and the Gay Sensibility’ in Camp Grounds: Style and Homosexuality, ed. David Bergman (Amherst, 1993) pp. 19-38, (p. 20). Further references in text to this edition (first published in Gays and Films ed. Richard Dyer, (London, 1977)).
Oscar Wilde, Lady Windermere’s Fan, in The Importance of Being Earnest and Other Plays, ed. by Peter Raby (Oxford: 1995) 1.118-19.
‘Notes on “Camp”’, in Against Interpretation and Other Essays, 6th edn (London, 2009; first published 1966), pp. 275-92, (p. 286).
 Esther Newton, Mother Camp: Female Impersonators in America, 2nd edn (Chicago, 1979; first published 1972), p. 2.
Alan Sinfield, Out on Stage: Lesbian and Gay Theatre in the Twentieth Century (Bath, 1999), p. 109.
Quoted in Martin Duberman, Stonewall (New York, 1993), p. 207.
Amrou Al-Kadhi ‘THE FIRE’S OUT, HONEY: HOMOPHOBIA IN THE GAY COMMUNITY’, The Inkling <http://www.theinklingmag.com/amrou-al-kadhi/the-fires-out-honey-homophobia-in-the-gay-community/> [accessed 6 April 2013].
‘The Deaths of Camp’ in Fabio Cleto ed. Camp: Queer Aesthetics and the Performing Subject: A Reader (Edinburgh, 1999) pp. 433-57 (p. 438) (first published 1995).
Jonathan Dollimore, ‘Post/Modern: On the Gay Sensibility, or The Pervert’s Revenge on Authenticity’ in Camp: Queer Aesthetics pp. 221-236 (p. 231) (first published 1991).
‘Introduction: Queering the Camp’ in Camp: Queer Aesthetics pp. 1-42 (p. 31).
Pamela Robertson, ‘What Makes the Feminist Camp?,’ in Camp: Queer Aesthetics pp. 266-81 (p. 266) (first published 1996).
Newton, p. xx.
BBC website, ibid.
The figure of the asexual ‘cissy’ is prevalent in early 20th-century popular culture: see Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, The Celluloid Closet, 1996.
Round the Horne, BBC Light Programme, 28 March 1965.
Broadcast 13 June 1965.
Broadcast 12 March 1967.
Robertson, p. 266.
Mart Crowley, The Boys in the Band (New York, 1968), p. 16. All further in-text references are to this edition.
Quoted in Introduction to Joe Orton: The Complete Plays (London, 1998; first published 1976), p. 18. All further in-text references to the plays are to this edition.
Dollimore, p. 228.
Joe Orton, (London, 1984) p. 3.
Leslie Smith, Modern British Farce (London, 1989) p. 136.
Quoted in Introduction to The Complete Plays, p. 10.
Mark Booth, Camp, (London, 1983) p. 28.
Charney, p. 103.
Quoted in Sinfield, p. 281.
Andrew Ross ‘Uses of Camp,’ in Camp Grounds pp. 54-77 (p. 61) (first published 1988).
Duberman, p. 220.
Martin Worman, quoted in ‘Children of Paradise’ by Mark Thompson, in
Out in culture: gay, lesbian and queer essays on popular culture, ed. Corey K. Creekmur and Alexander Doty (London, 1995), pp. 447-62 (p. 449) (first published 1987).
John Waters, Hairspray, Female Trouble and Multiple Maniacs: Three More Screenplays by John Waters (New York, 2005). p. 139. Further references to the screenplay in-text are to this edition.
Gender Trouble (Abingdon, 2008; first published 1990). p. xxx-xxxi
Quoted in Robertson, p. 273.
Newton, p. 48.
Newton, p. 111.
[Non-explicit discussion of rape to follow]
Why are we always talking about rape? By we, I mean feminists. It’s a question that has been floating around in my mind for a while now, and when a friend aired the same question to me yesterday, I felt kind of relieved. Obviously rape is something we should talk about and the fight against rape culture is incredibly important. But why is it that by far the majority of feminist talks, discussions and articles I come across are about rape? My friend was commenting on this in relation to the emails we receive from our student union’s Women’s Officer. She does a fantastic job, and I’m not saying this is a fault on her part, but all these emails have something about rape in them. This is something I’ve noticed elsewhere – at the end of last summer, when I’d been working on this blog a lot and reading a lot of feminist blogs as research, I felt kind of weary. It got a bit much, reading article after article about rape and sexual violence all the time. Leaving aside the fact that some people are surprisingly slapdash about trigger warnings, aren’t there are other things we might discuss?
Once again, I don’t want to suggest that there are ‘more important’ things to be discussing, nor am I suggesting we should shy away from these things just because they make us uncomfortable. However, I see so many people getting ground down by the constant discussion of the same topics. There’s no getting away from it: as a woman, talking about rape all the time makes you feel pretty fucking helpless. If you are only ever talking about women who are victims, then it becomes hard to see the light.
There is also the fact that it becomes very easy to be drawn into the same arguments over and over again. I’ve written before about how I think SlutWalk doesn’t challenge the discourse surrounding women’s clothing and the way we think of rape and sexual violence enough. I feel like something similar can happen with other discussions of rape: when that’s what you talk about constantly, and you are coming up against the same attitudes constantly, it can be difficult to examine your own assumptions.
It can also be difficult to see how you can make any difference. Rape culture is endemic, and every woman comes up against it at some point. It is very easy to feel overwhelmed, especially when so much discourse is focused on this. But rape, like everything else, is not an isolated phenomenon. It is a product of a culture that doesn’t respect women. And we can all do something about that. Geek Feminism is one of my favourite feminist blogs, because it addresses prejudice in a subculture that is often very misogynistic in a very proactive way. Sample post: How do you look for jobs in an industry known for its bias against women? that does not just point out that bias against women, but offers some practical tips for dealing with it. At the risk of repeating myself, again, I don’t want to suggest that discussion of rape isn’t helpful, or can’t be proactive. It’s just that too much of it has the (entirely inadvertent) effect of making women feel they don’t have agency.
I’d really like to know what you all think about this. I haven’t thought this through particularly well – it’s just an impression I’ve had of late. If anyone’s got anything to say to it, leave your comments below.
I realise no one’s particularly going to give a shit about this, but I do have some followers, so you know. Basically, I realise I’ve been incredibly slapdash about updating of late. Given that I’m doing my finals, which involves a shit-ton of essay-writing, I usually can’t face doing more writing in what little spare time I have. But I also haven’t abandoned this blog. For the next little while, updates will probably be more like once a month, as that’s the pattern I seem to have fallen into. Don’t worry folks – I’m sure my looming unemployment once I’ve graduated will allow for plenty of angry blogging. xoxo
One of my early blog posts was about gendered marketing of books for adults. It makes me despair. But not nearly as much as gendered marketing of books for children. I work in a bookshop during my holidays from uni, and it’s a lovely job. But every year when I go back, there will be some incident in the kids section which makes me a bit depressed. This is (roughly) a conversation I had with a customer the other day. Variations on this happen all the time:
Me: Hi, can I help you there at all?
Customer: I’m looking for a present for a little girl, she’s about ten, but she’s very good at reading. Is there anything you’d suggest?
Me: Well there’s the Artemis Fowl series - it’s about a 12 year-old millionaire who discovers that fairies are real, but they’re not friendly and sparkly, it’s very exciting, there’s lots of action. I loved them at that age. Or there’s Inkheart by Cornelia Funke. A girl finds out that characters can come out of books… again, quite exciting.
Customer: Hm, well the thing is, she’s a very girly girl, I’m not sure she’d like those… [picks up a book about horses by Cornelia Funke] – this might be more the sort of thing, that looks perfect, thank you for your help.
Some people wouldn’t see a problem here. If this little girl is into pink and fluffy, then buy her pink and fluffy things. But why assume, just because she’s “girly” that she wouldn’t also be interested in adventure? I never even said adventure – I said the books were exciting. But girls don’t like excitement, apparently.
This is something I think has changed even since I was a child – so, in the past ten to fifteen years. If I look at the books I had at that age, none of them seem particularly aimed at one gender or the other. Even the Jacqueline Wilson books, which are very female-oriented, have brightly-coloured cartoon covers. Books “for girls” published now are very heavy on pink glitter and shiny bits. There are more and more storybooks “for girls” or “for boys“. Even sticker books are strictly divided on gender lines.
I’m not looking to deny that girls and boys are drawn to different things, whatever the cause. I’ve heard the same stories as everyone about parents who have sworn they’ll only buy gender-neutral toys, and end up caving into their boys’ demands for guns. However, I am sceptical about how biologically ingrained people insist these preferences are. I know about that study with the monkeys and the dolls, but boys asking for guns will have seen them on TV, and seen boys playing with them. And more adults buy into these distinctions more than they realise. When I worked in a shoe shop, I would see parents shouting at their toddling sons for picking up the girls’ shoes. These children were too young to understand, and almost certainly picked up the shoes because they were covered in shiny sequins. And they were told that this was bad. I wonder if their parents will insist that those boys’ preference for “boys things” is something they were born with? And what about girls and boys who don’t like these typical things? It is near impossible to buy clothing for girls that doesn’t have pink on it somewhere. I hated the colour pink when I was a child, but that didn’t mean I wanted to wear boys’ clothes.
This gender stereotyping is everywhere, but I find it particularly depressing when it extends to books. Books shape a child’s imagination, show them what’s possible or tell them about something fabulously impossible, teach them about what people are like. If that bright girl who’s very good at reading is only given books which don’t have any real excitement or adventure in them, how exciting and adventurous will she be when she grows up?
Thankfully, there is some hope. The old adage that girls will read books with male protagonists, but boys won’t read books with female protagonists, has been challenged by perhaps the two most successful series for teenagers to emerge in the past few years. The first, surprisingly, is Twilight. Much as I am not a fan of the Twilight model for gender relations, these novels designed to appeal to specifically female fantasies are actually read by a lot of boys. This is purely anecdotal evidence, but when I worked weekends at the bookshop during my A-Levels, it wasn’t uncommon for furtive teenage boys to come to the counter with Twilight books. The second is the Hunger Games. When these first started appearing on the shelves, I was pleasantly surprised to find out that the main character was female, because you wouldn’t know it from the cover. No pink or glitter to be seen – these look like any other young adult action series. Even better, Katniss Everdeen is a much more active and resourceful role model than Bella Swan.
I’ll leave the final word to a little girl named Riley. She’s not talking about books, but I reckon she’s got it down.
Anyone got any more examples of super-gendered marketing? Stories about the way kids have reacted to it? Am I right in thinking this level of division is a recent thing?
- Gendered books in children’s literature (didyoueverstoptothink.wordpress.com) – this is fantastic, really good look at how book covers shape our preconceptions
- Swedish toy catalogue goes gender neutral (The Telegraph) <3 Sweden
- Holiday Gift Guide for Girls (blog-aauw.org) – I want a child just so I can buy them Sometimes the Spoon Runs away with Another Spoon
- Presents of mind (beamagazine.wordpress.com) – another gender neutral Christmas gift guide
Last week I went to see some student theatre. For the first time in a very long time, it actually made me think. I saw For Colored Girls (who have considered suicide when the rainbow is Enuf) in Queens’ College. This is a piece of experimental theatre made up of 20 poems which together form a “choreopoem”. It has a cast of seven women of colour, identified by the colours they wear – yellow, blue, red and so on. It was a fantastic production – this review says everything I’d want to on that front – and that’s all I usually look for in a play. But this had a lot more behind it. It’s rare enough that you see an all-black and/or all-female cast on any stage in this country, and this was the first time it has happened in the history of Cambridge University. I think a lot about the aspects of my identity that mean that I am discriminated against: my gender and my sexual orientation. Although I try to be aware of aspects of my identity that make me privileged – my ethnicity and class – rarely are those considerations brought home to me as powerfully as they were by this production. And I think that’s important.
I go to the theatre a lot in Cambridge, and I’m pretty familiar with the scene here. Like every other scene in Cambridge, it’s fairly insular, and you see the same people over and over again. So when I heard about this play, quite frankly I was surprised that the director, Justina Kehinde Ogunseitan, even managed to find a cast. Oxbridge is not exactly great regarding representation of ethnic minorities, and from what I’ve seen, the visibility of Cambridge’s BME students is even less within those cliquey groups that assume the kind of social and cultural capital that comes from a white middle-class upbringing. Theatre is one of the best examples.
A lot of people who are very talented and creative are simply too intimidated by the ADC (the student-run theatre that puts on most of the high-profile student productions in Cambridge) to ever try to get involved. Credit goes to Robyn Taylor, who kindly looked over this article for me before publication, for pointing out that it’s not just a question of intimidation either. If no one’s providing the right opportunities – plays that might speak to people outside that middle-class London bubble – then people from different backgrounds just won’t be interested. Given that Oxbridge graduates still dominate professional theatre in the UK, that people don’t want or don’t feel able to take part has a real impact on the cultural life of this country as a whole. I can think of two black actors who I might see regularly at the ADC, and no directors or producers. I may be missing some people out, and I’d be happy to be corrected, but from the point of view of this regular theatre-goer, Cambridge student drama is pretty damn white.
I am also reminded of something someone said to me a couple of weeks ago when we were talking about the general problem of exclusivity at the ADC. He pointed out that the directors who put on most of the productions there like to cast women in the lead roles who are pretty in a certain way (read: thin, white) and who are good, but don’t detract from the male leads. I don’t want to denigrate the talent of any female actors in Cambridge, but I couldn’t help thinking, as I watched this cast who were all explosive and funny and riveting and not pretty in that “certain way” that they were not the kind of women who are favoured by those directors. They were also incredible to watch, and performed with a kind of confidence and tenacity that I would like to see more of.
I had two very strong, contradictory feelings when watching this play. The first was surprise at how much more I identified with this than theatre which comes from a male point of view. It showed me how little the ways I think and feel as a women are represented onstage. For Colored Girls presents the way women experience the world – love, friendship, violence, hate. To see something that made me think yes, I know exactly what she means – that was kind of glorious.
The second feeling was, rightly, a sense of unfamiliarity that was almost disconcerting. Coming from my middle-class, liberal, arty Home Counties background, I am comfortable with the theatre. I know that I can talk about it and engage with it in a way that is exclusive, dependent on people having the same cultural reference points as me. This play does not pander to those cultural reference points. Both in the material and the form, it shook me out of my comfortable expectations of what I will see when I go to the theatre. It made me think about my white privilege – about how the mainstream of this specific artform usually caters to me, and about how, more broadly, society supports me because of the colour of my skin. This is, as I said, something I’ve thought about, but not something I’ve felt in such a fundamental way before.
The arts are supposed to challenge and innovate – you can only be really creative if you’re working with and against what went before. Seeing this production made me realise how so much of what I consume doesn’t challenge anything, but perpetuates the same, boring cultural attitudes. All I can say is well done to everyone involved – and I can only hope that it shook some other people in the audience as it shook me.
UPDATE: Justina has written an article for Varsity about why she decided to stage the production. Interestingly, she originally pitched the idea to the ADC and they turned it down. Bet they must be kicking themselves, as it was one of the most talked-about productions this term.
P.S. Very annoyed at myself for being so shit at updating recently – hopefully there won’t be such a lapse before the next post.
Don’t have the energy to write a proper post this week (first world problems), so thought I’d just give a rundown of a few things I’ve noticed recently, and you can imagine for yourselves the wonderful, insightful articles I could have written about any of them.
- A man at a party who said he’d always wanted to go out with a girl like me “with big black glasses and a brain.” Was curious as to who these women without brains are that man usually dates, and wondered if they need medical attention for lacking a major organ.
- Lovely bit of casual ‘uni lad’ sexism over at student paper The Tab, as in this video one man asked what two luxuries he would take to a desert island says “Porn and fanny” (perhaps the women who function without a brain also have the ability to detach their vaginas), and another says “A condom and a knife” so he could get a girl pregnant.
- More from The Tab, in the comments on this article about sexism. Includes the gems “What a whiner” from ‘Gender Realist’, “Melodramatic quasi-feminists” and my favourite, as it is oh-so straight to the point “Nag nag nag go away wench.”
- When a counsellor this week asked me about my family, starting with my mother who, in the counsellor’s notes “is a circle because she’s a woman”, men being squares.
- Getting the balance right between being self-critical about a movement you are part of, and fostering infighting, in relation to Caitlin Moran’s “I don’t give a shit” comment about representation of women of colour in Lena Dunham’s Girls, and a bit of hoo-ha about allies over at an LGBT blog I read.
- Sexism in academia and higher education, as I find out that in my college, most of the new philosophy students are women, while in my year they are all men. The philosophy students I have spoken to think is down to the fact that interviewing used to be done by a man who asked very confrontational questions and laughed in the faces of prospective students, whereas it is now done by a female director of studies.
So there you go. And because this is the internet, as a bonus here is a picture of a guinea pig pretending to be a baked potato. Unsuccessfully. They are really stupid creatures. Bye for now, and I promise something better next week.