Week 5, and I’m in London again! This time Rosana is showing her one-on-one piece ‘My Big Sister Taught Me This Lap Dance’ as part of Camden People’s Theatre festival of feminism Calm Down Dear. I think what has been wonderful this week is to see how queer work can fit in to a feminist context, as there can often be a massive gap between radical feminism and relatively new, progressive feminism (often adopted by those identifying as queer). I shall discuss, and attempt to unpack some of my ideas surrounding these complicated arguments between feminists, in relation to the work I saw this weekend. I also think this festival is really interesting in the context of a new surge in feminism as a part of popular culture, and having more of a political presence. The recent feminism festival The F-Word that happened recently at The Tron springs to mind, (which I unfortunately did not get to see).
I’d like to talk about Louise Orwin’s piece Pretty Ugly, in which she shows us some of her discoveries about an online phenomenon. This is a culture whereby teenage girls post videos and ask viewers to comment as to whether they are ‘pretty or ugly’. This would often be stated by the girls being given a ‘rating’ between 1 and 10 on how attractive they were. Orwin then created several online personas, who were teenage girls joining in with this craze, to find out more about why the girls were doing it.
I think the piece is important and positive for many reasons;
- It reminded me that feminism and the fight for gender equality is at the crux of it a fight for young women (cis and trans*) to have a better future, where they can feel that they have a freedom of expression and better role models than we did.
- This does not mean speaking for them, and I think this piece had a gentle curiosity about it, whilst at the same time remaining non-judgmental.
- Orwin directly being involved in the online culture allowed her to experience the animosity and negativity that comes from online trolls and commentators. (It also meant she was vulnerable to getting involved with those who gave her praise, but more on that later).
- It was particularly fascinating when Orwin experimented with using some of the language others had used on her in chat rooms. We saw a rolling video of her typing to men on chat rooms. The male response to being ‘rated’ or told they were ugly was often either instant aggression, dismissal or a look of amused disbelief.
- Because Orwin ‘became’ a teenage girl herself, she discovered that actually you don’t need to be a teenage girl to be hurt by the Pretty Ugly online culture. Young people are more vulnerable because they are at a particular stage of discovery in their lives, but we are all susceptible to sexism and misogyny online. (And of course in real life)
I only had one qualm with the piece. Orwin tells us about a particular online relationship that she forged with an older man called Bobby. After watching her videos, he sent her messages. First they began with generic things like ‘don’t let people bring you down’ or ‘you’re beautiful, don’t think you’re ugly’. But slowly they seemed to ask for pictures of her, then topless pictures, then came professions of love, then of lust. It was clear that Bobby was basically grooming Orwin’s teenage persona Baby. Orwin then moves on by saying ‘this piece is not about Bobby, or the other Bobbys out here’. I can see why that was important for this piece, I can see that to try and address the motivations of both the people in the videos and the consumers of such would be a lot to tackle in one performance. But, all too often in feminism, and culture in general we see the motivations behind girls and women’s actions being interrogated. People want to bring awareness to the actions of others so that they might start to change. This implies, even when carefully dealt with as in Pretty Ugly, that the pressure is on the women and girls to change. But, what if we start to interrogate the Bobbies of the world? What if there was a piece that was about Bobby, that explored why 60% of all the comments Orwin received were from men, and almost all the private messages were from men? I feel that the more we encourage everyone to think about gender (in)equality, the more we all take responsibility. The less we get caught up in them and us, the perceived differences between men and women, and our gender roles. Actually, this online culture cannot be changed by one set of people, because it is part of a wider issue with the way society works.
I am part of a progressive network of feminists that means I automatically think beyond the question of what’s bad about the way I’m being treated in my gender role as woman? To what’s problematic about the construct of gender roles?
I do think Orwin managed to avoid slut-shaming the teenage girls, and instead interrogated the culture, but without the other side also being interrogated it runs dangerously close to implying that the girls need to change what they’re doing. (i.e their behaviour and the abuse they then receive is their fault).
Furthermore, Orwin’s work sits in a wider trend of people piping up and wanting someone to blame for the correlation between pop culture and the way young people act. Again, this tends to revolve around writers/popstars/celebrities commenting on the way the actions of female pop stars affect young girls. We know Orwin must cite some responsibilities in the role models mainstream western culture gives for the Pretty Ugly phenomenon due to her references to Britney throughout the piece. She's one of many trying to unpack this and other complex issues surrounding the behaviour of young women.
Jasmine Gardner falls in line to declare that 'decent' role models should keep their clothes on in this article on pop culture.
The new feminism? Lilly Allen's Hard Out Here - comment on pop music culture
Click here to read Guardian writer Suzanne Moore's article on the video