13/08/2016 § Leave a comment
I was inspired to write this post following the conviction of Dr Lee Salter, an academic from the University of Sussex, who had an affair with a female student, during the course of which he violently attacked her in an assault that included him punching her in the face, stamping on various parts of her body, and pouring salt into her eyes and ears.
Although problematic, in the interests of brevity I am going to set aside a consideration of the questionable ethics of student/lecturer relations – other than to note that such relations are highly problematic and open up questions of a lack of professionalism on the part of the staff member, as well as an imbalance of power in the relationship, conflicts of interest in the delivery of education and assessments, and the potential for predatory and exploitative sexual behaviour to go unchecked. I will simply say that universities have a duty of care to their students, and their staff, and they should have a clear code of conduct that discourages such relations for as long as the student is registered at the institution.
More importantly, to my mind, is the assault, and the university’s non-reaction to Dr Salter’s conviction. Domestic violence is as routine as it is heinous, so that a man would behave like this is shocking but not surprising. Conservative estimates suggest that one in four women will be the victims of domestic violence at least once in their lifetime, and two women per week are murdered by their partner. What is notable about this case is that the perpetrator was not dismissed by his employer following his conviction. Surely, in a case of this nature, when the victim is not just the partner of the perpetrator/staff member, but also a student of the university, the correct way for a university to behave if it wanted to show that it was serious about tackling sexism, would have been to suspend Dr Salter on full pay pending the outcome of his trial, and for him to have been dismissed upon conviction. The University of Sussex did not do this. There is a student-led petition calling for his dismissal, and an outcry in traditional and social media, but at the time of writing Dr. Salter is still in post. (UPDATE: I RECEIVED AN EMAIL FROM THE COMMS TEAM AT UNIVERSITY OF SUSSEX AT 8PM ON SATURDAY 13 AUGUST, INFORMING ME THAT DR SALTER IS NO LONGER EMPLOYED BY THE UNIVERSITY.)
This case comes less than three months after Professor Sara Ahmed resigned from Goldsmiths College London to protest about management inaction in cases of sexual harassment by male staff members against female students, and against a backdrop of increasing sexual harassment and assault on UK campuses generally
There’s an awful lot of handwringing and outrage about all of this, but the question of what can be done is rarely answered. In response to the Dr Salter case, another white, male academic, Professor Will Brooker, tweeted that Dr Salter should not be treated as a singular case, and suggested that all men should look to their own behaviour, acknowledging that there are many ways in which men can oppress women.
Prof. Brooker is right, of course, but his insights are nothing new. Dworkin and MacKinnon said in the 1970s that all men are rapists, by which they meant not that all men are literally rapists, but that women must organise their lives around the assumption that any man could rape them. So it is today, that women organise themselves around an oppressive masculinist word that seethes with misogyny and violence. Plus ça change.
Prof. Brooker’s suggestion, that men check their own behaviour, would be a nice start, but is unlikely to amount to much. If self-regulation doesn’t work for the press, it’s certainly not going to work for men and their behaviours and attitudes towards women. Feminism changed women, which is why Dr. Salter’s ex-partner, Allison Smith, had the courage to press charges, and to allow herself to be named in media reports. Feminism has not changed men.
And why should men change? They live in a world where it is very easy for masculinity to be vile. Predatory sexual behaviour is fuelled by the view that women are conquests, and can never be equal partners in a sexual relation, and the male ego is bolstered by every “conquest” it makes, while “slut-shaming” is the lot of women. Still. Women are very often feared and hated in equal measure, and so a spectrum of physical, sexual and psychological violence against them is rampant. (If you don’t believe me, check out the Everyday Sexism project.) At the very least, misogynist men get away with their misogyny because there are never any real consequences for their actions. Even a criminal prosecution, itself a rarity, will only come after numerous instances of overtly criminal behaviour. At best, they find themselves around like-minded men and women in a culture that validates and encourages their beliefs, attitudes and behaviours. It is much more difficult for men to be decent, and life is difficult for those men that try.
So, if men won’t change, there should be social and cultural consequences for their actions. The law can only go so far, and although we have had sex discrimination laws in the UK since 1976, and criminal laws around assault for much longer, Dr Salter is just one example that shows that laws have had little impact on mens’ attitude to women. It is a mystery to me that we have “slut-shaming” and “fat-shaming” and all the rest, but no “misogny-shaming.” We must stop relying on law, then, and say, clearly and categorically, that misogyny must stop, and that there will be social consequences for misogynist behaviour. That message needs to come from men and women themselves, as well as employers, sports clubs, music venues and festivals, advertising and media, and, crucially, schools and universities.
Doing nothing, saying nothing, quietly accepting, hushing up, covering up, paying off victims, maintaining the status quo, is not acceptable. Pretending everything is fine and that problems are an abeyance and a rarity is not acceptable. Leaving people to it because they’re all adults is not acceptable. Leaving it to the law to sort it out is not acceptable. We must ask ourselves what world we want to live in, and how do we create that? Proactivity, decisiveness, and a commitment to gender equality is required from all and by all, and that calls for much more bravery than has been on display so far, by the University of Sussex, or anyone else.
UPDATE: I RECEIVED AN EMAIL FROM THE COMMS TEAM AT UNIVERSITY OF SUSSEX AT 8PM ON SATURDAY 13 AUGUST, INFORMING ME THAT DR SALTER IS NO LONGER EMPLOYED BY THE UNIVERSITY.
04/08/2016 § Leave a comment
JT LeRoy (Savannah Knoop) and Speedie (Laura Albert) at a reading of LeRoy’s The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things in 2003. Photograph: Matthew Peyton/Getty Images
The first JT Leroy novel, Sarah, was published in 2000. The second, The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things, followed a year later in 2001. Both of them were stories of an abused child who grew into a trans adolescent who scraped by in life by working as a prostitute at truck stops in the more remote, culturally isolated and socially deprived parts of America.
In one sense, the books were in keeping with the trend for misery lit that was popular at the turn of the millenium. Starting in the mid-90s with Dave Pelzer’s A Child called It, misery lit was the publisher-led trend for books by people who had truly awful childhoods. What made JT Leroy’s novels different, though, was firstly that they had a literary bent that was largely absent from the recovery narrative of others in the genre, and secondly, that there was actually nothing autobiographical about them. They were works of fiction. But because, very often, people can not, or will not, differentiate between author and protagonist, any more than they can differentiate between actors and characters – witness the hassle an actor gets in the supermarket when the soap opera bad guy he plays is involved in a particularly scurrilous storyline – the desire to believe that JT Leroy was a real person, and that Sarah and The Heart is Deceitful were at least partially “true” stories, became a phenomenon.
The author of the books was Laura Albert, a mother and author from Brooklyn. She roped her sister-in-law, Savannah Knoop, in to play JT Leroy to a media and film industry that wanted to believe in JT Leroy so badly that they were prepared to set aside the dodgy wigs and the bound breasts in order to believe that Savannah was JT, and that they really were talking to that most exotic of creatures – a trans hooker who could write. Among those taken in were Winona Ryder, Asia Argento (who directed and starred in the film of The Heart in Deceitful) and Gus Van Sant, plus journalists, film executives, and countless others.
The two novels do not just tell a story. They recreate the dull, thudding reality of profound trauma, where there can be no creative symbolism or imagery to describe life events – just the “it happened” matter-of-factness of someone so damaged by the actions of others that their language, the way they interpret and express their world, is beyond repair. They have lost the use of metaphor, interpretation and process have become impossible, and can only repeat in deadened, literal terms what occurred. It is a testament to the power of writing, and in this case, the power of Laura Albert’s writing in particular, that it can convince people to see what their eyes do not.
Savannah Knoop later told her side of the story in Girl Boy Girl: How I Became JT Leroy, published in 2008, and, in a mirror of the trajectory of the books, the story was later made into a film Author: The JT Leroy Story, that was released in March 2016.
Author: The JT Leroy Story is the film of the story of the novels that became the literary controversy of the last twenty years or more. But what is more interesting, in my view, is the stories themselves. If the novels hadn’t been so credible, no-one would have even wanted to believe in JT Leroy. But everyone who read the books really wanted to believe, and so they did. This belief meant that a whole host of narratives, real and unreal, would circulate in and through books, and films, and newspapers and journals, for years. The story is still going strong now, because writing made the stories strong to start with, to the point where the question of which story, whose story, has become largely irrelevant. Authenticity is demolished both by the non/traumatic novels and by their in/determinate author and the subsequent circulation of all of these things, and ultimately it is not the heart that is deceitful above all things, but in fact the mind.
13/06/2016 § Leave a comment
It’s taken me ages to get around to writing this post. I think I had some internal resistance to the need to comment on something so manifestly stupid and so crassly and unthinkingly sexist that it really shouldn’t be happening in the 21st Century, but is.
A few weeks ago I was invited to take part in the BBC Radio 4 Today Programme. The final article – the fluff piece that is usually taken up by something to do with pandas or puppies – was given over to “fashion.” It was the news story about Nicola Thorpe, the receptionist who was sent home from work by Portico, the agency contracted by Price Waterhouse Coopers to supply front of house staff at PwC offices, for refusing to wear high heels.
When the BBC producer telephoned me the day before and asked me to take part, I was categorical that this was not a fashion story. It is a question of gender politics. The interviewer, John Humphries, included this idea in his introduction, which was scripted, but otherwise spent my entire time in the studio staring at and questioning me on my choice of footwear, which suggests that he’s a part of the problem rather than a part of the solution.
Despite John Humphries’ apparent confusion about the politics of pointy shoes, the idea under discussion, that woman should have to wear heels to work, is manifestly absurd – so much so that when the story broke a whole host a spoof videos were produced, pretty much overnight, of men wearing heels for a day to show how impractical, how uncomfortable, how painful, and how sexist, it is. There’s one here from Stylist magazine, for instance, and a home-made one from a Swedish floor fitter called Emil Andersson Meanwhile, the comedian Russell Kane comprehensively took the heels-to-work rule down in a matter of seconds in his sketch on the subject
The agency that employed the receptionist backed down under the combined pressure of a PR disaster and a quiet but unequivocal word from their client, PwC, and the heels rule was set aside. Nevertheless, the hapless receptionist, undaunted by her flat-shoed unemployment, started a petition to make it illegal to compel women to wear heels. I’m no lawyer, but this must surely be covered under UK sex discrimination legislation, in the form of The Equalities Act 2010. Since 2002, schools have been legally obliged to allow girls to wear trousers, and more recently there are schools that have rewritten their dress codes to make them gender neutral, so that boys can wear skirts, too, if they want to.
But while schools are on board with gender politics and clothing, employers, dealing with adults, apparently are not. A recent article in The Guardian invited readers to write in with their own experiences of sexist dress codes at work, and what a sorry state of affairs the world of employment is, if even half of these stories are true.
We should be quite clear about two things. Firstly, clothing is not inherently gendered. If anything is gendered, it is people’s thinking. And people who think clothing is inherently gendered should really think again, and a bit harder. Secondly, employers can have whatever dress code they like, but it should pertain to the job, and not to the gender of the person doing the job. Other social fields – professional and social events, like film festivals (hi Cannes ) nightclubs, and all the rest – can likewise have dress codes if they wish, but they should pertain to the event, location, activity, etc, and not the gender of attendees. Men and women and everyone in between can wear whatever footwear, or clothing, they wish.
This is not rocket science, but it appears that a breathtakingly high number of people still need this spelling out to them. If you’re reading this, don’t be one of them. It’s embarrassing for everyone.
26/11/2015 § Leave a comment
A student from the US emailed me recently to ask my opinion on the “Free The Nipple” campaign.
Until I received this email, I hadn’t given the matter much thought, but I took the opportunity to reflect on this question, and here is my response to it.
The “Free the Nipple” campaign is concerned with perceived double standards with regards to what parts of the female body can be shown without censure, compared to the male body. It was started by a film maker called Lina Esco, in response to Instagram banning all pictures of female nipples, and resulted in a variety of Femen-esque topless protests in New York and L.A.
I’ll start by saying that I don’t really have a great deal of time for Instagram.
The activity of taking and distributing “selfies” and the use of this activity for self promotion (because, lets face it, what other purpose does it serve?) is a neurotic cultural practice that shows absolute obedience on the part of its practitioners to dominant neo-liberalist ideas about “individuality” and the self, and self-promotion, to the neglect of all other human relations.
It also promotes the pre-eminence of models of “personal achievement” determined by neoliberal capitalism social norms. Success is measured in terms of conventional popularity and social approval – and the people who do best on the internet are the pretty, young, white girls, the ones with good skin that comes from always having good quality, nutritious food and never going hungry; the ones whose bodies fit a very narrow definition of attractiveness that has largely been determined by western patriarchal culture anyway; the ones who are always doing something fabulous somewhere exotic and/or exciting but who are never seen reading books, or marching in support of a difficult cause; the ones who never have to say anything, or do anything, or even think about anything, because a picture of their arse is enough to make their very existence socially, culturally and economically relevant.
I’m actually in quite good company with this one – Grace Coddington, the former model and creative director of US Vogue recently went public with her views on instagram, and she was even less complimentary than I am about it.
And then there’s social media itself – the venture capitalist’s wet dream, where fat profits are to be made from millions of people all over the world who are all sitting at their computers, ready, willing and able to have their data mined and to be advertised at. As the saying goes, if you’re not paying for it, then you’re the product. Social media users are the product that is being sold here, and it is naive to think otherwise.
And in the middle of all of this, we have a bunch of young women campaigning to be allowed to show their breasts on a particular for-profit internet platform that has decided to have a no-female-nipples policy. As if there aren’t enough media platforms that display female nipples as it is?
The wider question is about what body parts can be exposed in public without censure – the “Free the Nipple” campaign seeks to address this question, and is concerned to “desexualize” women’s bodies, particularly women’s breasts.
The fact is that we see women’s naked breasts on the pages of newspapers on a daily basis. We see them in cafes if they have an infant that needs breast feeding. We see clothed breasts (that are, nevertheless, clearly and manifestly, breasts) in lingerie adverts on billboards, and at the beach in the summer when people are wearing swimming costumes. And so on and so forth. The body, and particularly the female body, is everywhere. Questions about how a particular part of women’s anatomy, and its representation, firstly is interpreted and secondly relates to feminism are vexed. The response to images of women’s bodies varies depending on the viewer, and also the context of the image, and it is possible that one image can be seen as both feminist and as misogynist or sexist, depending on whom you talk to.
What I would say is that the Free the Nipple movement, which aims to desexualize women’s bodies all together, is fundamentally misguided. The idea that gender equality will be reached simply by showing female nipples on social media on the grounds that there is no difference between mens and women nipples assumes that if we just ignore difference it will go away. Sadly for the “Free the Nipple” campaign, this is not enough to overturn centuries of ideas about the many and varied psychosocial and the cultural meaning of the body. Indeed, the idea that corporeal equality exists at all is hopelessly optimistic – not least because it doesn’t seek to question these deep and profound meanings that are attached to the body. Instead it presents a naïve and largely uncritical response (that’s not fair!) to predicatable, rudimentary corporate censorship (Instagram rule 1 – no tits.)
Free the Nipple is asking the wrong questions. For the purposes of gender equality, the difference between male and female anatomy, and the various levels of social acceptability thereof, are, in a sense, neither here nor there. The fact is, differences exist, as surely as the sun rises in the east. The precise form these differences take is incidental, and these differences will not, in and of themselves, be negated by the newly neutral appreciation of tits that will apparently arise as a result of women exposing their breasts. Instagram censorship is a separate issue, and should be treated as such.
What does need to be questioned is the constant scrutiny that womens bodies are under, and the mechanisms for enforcing that scrutiny, from men’s cat calls in the street, that start when girls reach puberty and continues until they are menopausal women, to music videos that perpetuate feminine sexuality as heteronormative and reliant on male desire for its validity, and everything in between. It is not sexuality per se that is a problem. Nor is it the sexualization of womens (or mens) bodies that is a problem. The problem is that sexuality is firstly circumscribed and used as a mechanism of psychosocial control, and then deployed as a way of shaping feminine experience. Exposing ones breasts is, frankly, a woefully under-thought and inadequate response to this, and however radical one may think ones breasts are, getting them out in public is not going to change the misogyny that runs through women’s lives like Brighton through a stick of rock.
I would also say that the belief that it is possible, or even desirable, to desexualize the human body is a bit silly, given that the very essence of human subjectivity, as well as all human relations, is predicated on sexuality of one sort or another. With this in mind, I suggest that all these instagramming free-the-nipplers stop taking selfies of their tape-covered chests, and go and read some Freud instead.
10/02/2015 § 1 Comment
I swore I wouldn’t write anything about the cultural ebola that is Fifty Shades of Grey. How the bored housewives of mumsnet choose to resurrect their saggy, flagging libido in an effort to reconnect with, or liberate themselves from, the paunchy, balding sperm donor who accompanies them round Sainsburys every Saturday is no concern of mine. That someone wrote a sub-Mills-and-Boon standard romance novel and decked it out with pink fluffy handcuffs from the Ann Summers on the high road in order to revive a flagging and increasingly irrelevant literary genre is neither here nor there. The vulgar consumerism of licensed and unlicensed merchandise that sees this hoary canard yoked to everything from fabric softener to £60 teddy bears is proof only of the fact that you really can sell anyone anything.
The novels, the film and the merchandise don’t interest me in the slightest, and I can and do ignore them. The media frenzy surrounding all of this is as tedious as it is predictable, so I largely ignore that too.
However, there is an idea now in circulation, on the back of the Fifty Shades of Grey “phenomenon,” that bothers me. The idea that bothers me is that anyone can, and indeed should, do BDSM, that kink is merely a practical technique that expands the range of sexual activities that anyone and everyone can participate in. This idea was most recently published in an article in the Guardian newspaper by the evolutionary psychologist Brad Sagarin “Never tried BDSM? Go On, Its Good For You” but a quick look around most news and current affairs outlets will produce an abundance of similar articles.
Sagarin is the proprietor of a university research laboratory to which he and his team return after “collecting data in the field” – by which he means fetish clubs – where the “data” is “analysed” and various physiological and psychological findings are recorded according to saliva samples, statements from participants, and so on. In the article, Sagarin sets out his psycho-kinky stall in scientific terms. He extols the various benefits that current participants derive from BDSM, and suggests that as current participants derive some kind of psychological benefit from kink, everyone should try being kinky. He concludes that BDSM participants generally come away from a BDSM experience quite happy, and concludes that if everyone was kinky they might be a bit happier themselves.
What he doesn’t consider is what leads people to BDSM in the first place.
What does lead people to BDSM? The drive towards “normal” is immense. The pressure on individuals to conform to monogomous, heterosexual reproductive sexual relations means that anyone who does not conform faces a whole raft of problems, of which social stigma, however insidious, is just the beginning.
The psychiatrists handbook, more usually known as Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders lists sexual bondage – which includes BDSM – as a mental disorder. The DSM, particularly it’s most recent iteration, DSM 5, published in 2013, is a contentious document. It has been condemned by some mental health professionals for its tendency to turn every aspect of human behaviour and thought into a mental illness that can then be treated by medical professionals and prescription drugs, at no small cost to the client and at considerable reward to the health care industry. It is also produced by the American Psychiatric Association, and is reflective more of the norms and values of the US than of the human condition itself. Nevertheless, in terms of understanding the human mind, the DSM is still a highly influential publication.
Some forms of BDSM are considered illegal under criminal law in the UK – a legacy of the Operation Spanner police investigation and the court cases that followed from it. More recently in the UK certain sexual practices have become illegal to show in still or moving images, and a government-appointed quango, ATVOD, is vigorously prosecuting anyone who publishes such images in the UK. The list of banned content includes the following activities:
- Aggressive whipping
- Penetration by any object “associated with violence”
- Physical or verbal abuse (regardless of whether consensual)
- Urolagnia (known as “water sports”)
- Role-playing as non-adults
- Physical restraint
- Female ejaculation
These are, to all intents and purposes, BDSM activities. What this new law means is that while you may be able to practice some of these activities yourself, you cannot look at pictures or films of other people doing them. Nor can you take pictures or films of yourself doing them. And if you are in possession of any such images, whether knowingly or not, you are liable to be prosecuted.
We live in a world where kink is criminalized, and sexual autonomy is circumscribed by law and pathologised by medical orthodoxy. People who practice BDSM can and do lose their jobs, their homes, and even their children, because of their sexual preferences, in a way that previously was reserved for gay men, and unmarried mothers. Under the circumstances, it’s hard to see why anyone would choose it as a lifestyle.
Except, they don’t choose it. Sexuality – what gets you off, and who and how you fuck, or not – is not a choice. It’s not just an activity, something you do. It’s something you are. Sexuality is neither genetic, nor a conscious decision. We know from psychoanalysis that sexual desire is instead a developmental process that takes place from the minute you are born, that never stops, and that occurs in the deepest, darkest and most inaccessible recesses of your mind. It is created through the encounters we all have as individuals with the world around us, with our parents initially, and later with broader social injunctions, and these encounters then mould our unconscious in ways that no-one as yet fully understands, and shapes, amongst other things, our erotic desires.
No-one suggests that gay people should try having heterosexual sex because, hey, we took some saliva samples from straight couples and their happy hormones were way up after a penis-in-vagina session, so it would be great for everyone to give it a go. Likewise, no-one is suggesting that straight people try being gay because the gay guys a researcher spoke to in a nightclub were just having the best time ever. To do so would be ludicrous. And to suggest that BDSM is a hobby you can try out because it’s good for you, like salsa or bridge, is, in my view, just as ridiculous.
It may well be that there are more kinky people in the world than has been recognized or acknowledged thus far. Certainly, while fetish clubs and online groups are growing in popularity, there are also many people who enjoy BDSM but who do not identify as a part of the BDSM “community” and who are not represented in the self-selecting sample studied by Dr. Sagarin and his colleagues. It is also equally possible that kink will eventually come to be accepted as a part of the spectrum of “normal” sexual behaviours. Perhaps we will one day look at the legislation and case law that criminalises kink in the same way that today we look at the Labouchere Amendment that criminalised homosexuality in the UK in 1885, and that was not repealed until 1967. Perhaps, one day, we will say some people are kinky, get over it.
Until then, it might be helpful to recognise that sex (however defined) is not just a hobby. It might also be helpful to accept that what consenting adults do in private is entirely up to them and neither the law nor anyone else has any business to be concerned with it. And whatever sex consenting adults have, vanilla and heterosexual, or something, anything, else, or none at all, it’s fine. It might also be worth thinking about sex as an ethical matter rather than a moral one. And we could, if we wanted to, recognise too that the spectrum of human sexual behaviours is wider and more diverse that anyone can adequately express.
Finally, and for me most importantly, we could accept that our unique erotic desires and satisfactions are not a shopping list of activities to try, or a purely bio-social activity that can be measured and quantified by “data” in a “laboratory” – but instead are the supreme articulation of the vagaries and traumas and joys of the human soul. Wouldn’t that be something?
21/07/2014 § 1 Comment
It would be fair to say that music festivals are not the best place for introverts. The relentless competing noise from stages, bars, and stalls, combined with never-ending swarms of identikit punters and the impossibility of finding anywhere quiet for even five minutes combine to create an experience that is an amalgam of FBI torture strategies and Shaun of the Dead. So, while I worked on any number of music festivals during my time at the music industry coal face, my only festival punter experience to date was Glastonbury 1991, which was so traumatic I swore I’d never be a punter at another festival again – until this weekend, when I was prevailed upon to go to Latitude.
Latitude is one of a portfolio of events organised by Festival Republic. A man called Vince Power set up the Mean Fiddler in 1982, a London music venue that became famous for charging bands to play there and that was on the receiving end of the Musicians Union “Pay to Play? No Way!” campaign of the late 1980s. Power subsequently bought another venue, the Astoria 2 on Charing Cross Road, in 2000, and the Mean Fiddler Music Group was born. The MFMG accepted a take-over bid from Hamsard, co-owned by Live Nation, who were previously a division of Clear Channel Entertainment, in 2005, and following a restructuring in 2007 Festival Republic was born.
So far, so corporate.
The Festival Republic website claims they have “largely created the modern music festival market in the UK” That may well be the case, but please don’t think they have anything to do with the creation of music festivals themselves, which started back in the 1960s, and which led to the radical free festival movement of the late 1980s and early 1990s. This episode of festival history is interesting because free festivals sprung up as a direct counter-cultural response to the neo-liberal, capitalist, individualist policies of the UK’s 1979-1997 Conservative government. And while it may be easy to dismiss free festivals as a subcultural flash-in-the-pan, they remain to this day the only subculture to provoke a direct political response, in the form of the Criminal Justice Act 1994. Section V of this legislative hotch-potch made it a criminal offence to attend an outdoor event where music “includes sounds wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats” was played. Overnight, free festivals and raves were criminalized.
Despite the moral panic around outdoor music events in the early 1990s, and subsequent government crackdown, they were, in fact, incredibly popular, with tens of thousands of people attending dozens of festivals in the summer and raves and warehouse parties all year round. Into this fray stepped the Mean Fiddler/Festival Republic, with a weather eye on capitalising on existing cultural practices that they could co-opt into a corporate strategy and generate as much profit from as possible.
The punters at Latitude 2014 seemed to fall into one of a handful of demographic groups, all of which were very white, very straight, and very middle-class. Femen-style floral headbands were worn by women of all ages while Native American parody headdresses were worn by the men, all purchased on site from approved retailers.
There was a large family camping area and lots of activities for children, as the organisers are clearly keen to emphasise the family-friendly nature of their event. Alton Towers is family-friendly. So is McDonalds.
Latitude was also one of the most over-staffed events I have ever encountered. Everywhere you looked there were coloured tabards with hi-viz strips on them – blue, white, green, red…. They all had numbers on the back too. Like the police. And for all the job descriptions displayed on these tabards – customer service officer (steward) customer protection officer (security) and so on, it was always quite clear that they were the eyes and ears of the event owners. Customers, if they were considered at all, were, like everything else on site, there to be controlled and exploited in the service of the event organisers.
The customer experience at Latitude included:
- An arena-based event, where you had to have your wristband checked and your bag searched every time you went in or out of the arena. There was a checkpoint, similar to those found in the Berlin Wall during the Cold War, where customers were subjected to this indignity. It opened at 10am every morning – if you arrived earlier you were told that the festival was closed. You were not allowed to take your own drinks into the area and I was required to empty out the last 200ml of a 500ml bottle of mineral water in case it was vodka. Drinks could only be bought from pre-approved merchandisers, at a significant mark-up.
- Either spending an eye-watering amount on junk food (£7 for a burger, £3 for a freshly ground coffee that was nothing of the sort, and a good hour-long hunt for something vegetarian and edible for breakfast) or else cooking for yourself on a camping stove at your tent, and then queueing up to wash your pots at a stand-pipe, like they do in the developing world.
- Being advertised at – there were advertising hoardings with posters on them advising you when the latest album by Mogwai or Royskopp was coming out, or else that you could attend the University of Essex because, well, you could. There was also a large Peugeot promotional stand where you could dress up in themed costumes to match the themes of paint jobs on the latest 105, and then get your picture taken in the car, to be used on the Peugeot website for marketing purposes at a later date.
- Spending £10 on a programme, because running orders weren’t available by themselves, and could not be downloaded from the website. A programme that, incidentally, was printed on cheap paper and was tatty and in places unreadable after a few hours in your bag. It was the size of a novel and too large for your pocket. And, from the number of typos, spelling mistakes and grammatical errors, had been copy-edited by someone who failed GCSE English and didn’t much care.
- Watching a programme of events that had been devised by the finest minds the UK music industry has to offer – a tick-box list of charting dance acts, singer-songwriters and thrashy rock bands, augmented by retro 80s pensioner-stars and a bit of world music at lunchtime. The non-music programming ideas that the organisers had lifted directly from Glastonbury Festival (circus, cabaret, poetry, etc) were intermittent with large gaps in their running orders, and of erratic quality. Outside of the programmed events there was nothing – spontaneity and creativity were conspicuous by their absence, to the point where there was not even a lone stilt walker mingling with the crowds.
- Enduring medieval plumbing arrangements. Toilets that, while considerably better than they could have been, are still effectively latrines in the campsites, and a bucket in a box in the main arena. They were fairly well-maintained, but you are still more proximate to other people’s faeces than you should be in the 21st Century. And yes, there were showers, but the water pressure was so weak they could not be used at full capacity, and if you wanted to use them you were looking at up to a 90 minute wait.
Tickets, including booking fee, cost £187.50 for the weekend, with basic camping.
Over the years Festival Republic have won a number of industry awards for their events. But since when has a festival, which is, strictly speaking, a celebration, an occasion of gaiety and joy, been subject to “industry standards”? The humanity that unites us all, that we used to celebrate in festivals of all kinds, has been entirely subsumed in a scramble for profits and a series of joyless, formulaic, locked-down events has been created instead. There is a real sense of Emperor’s New Clothes, where the hype far outstrips the reality but no one wants to be the person to stand up and say as much. I don’t know which is more tragic – the festival organisers that have created this situation, or the festival-goers that have allowed them to – but whichever it is, next time I want a celebration and a bit of joi-de-vivre, I won’t be going to anything organised by Festival Republic.
07/05/2014 § Leave a comment
Many consumer brands these days create a human interest angle related to their brands that they think people will identify with. They give their products a character and a context that mirrors real life, and they expect that this identification will result, ultimately, in increased sales.
Flora, the margarine brand owned by Unilever, has come up with the Flora Mum, Tiffany Jones, who “lives in Suffolk with her husband Phil and two daughters Rosie (12) and Hannah (11).” Apparently, Tiff (as she’s called on the Flora website) loves festivals and Zumba and once ran a farmers market. She likes to cook everything from scratch, too.
This branding extends from the advertising campaigns and the product website, to the product itself. If you open a tub of Flora you’ll find a member of the family printed on the foil lid, with a caption about their daily life. My personal favourite is the picture of Rosie with the caption “My dad says he’s a great cook because he makes great cheese sandwiches. My mum says that’s not cooking.”
The very model of a modern family, then. Something the majority of consumers can relate to.
Or perhaps not.
According to recent research by the sociologist Sacha Roseneil, the trend for people living outside of the traditional family structure has almost doubled in the last thirty years, with the number of adults living in non-coupled households increasing from 19% in 1979 to 29% in 2004. Meanwhile, according to figures released by the Office for National Statistics in 2010, the number of child-free women over the age of forty has doubled, from 1 in 10 in 1990 to 1 in 5 in 2010.
As women’s roles are redefined in society, and as motherhood increasingly become a choice rather than an inevitability, the idea of a family is changing. Access to safe and reliable contraception has combined with increased economic independence and employment and educational opportunities to give women options that they have never had before. And it seems that many of them are grasping them with both hands.
Growing acceptance of homosexuality and the legalisation of gay marriage in countries all around the world has also redefined what it means to be in a couple. The emphasis on heterosexual couples and heterosexual reproduction is no longer the gold standard. Instead, people are increasingly able to organise their personal lives in ways that suit them, rather than fitting into a one-size-fits-all model.
For all of these reasons, we can see a definite trend away from family life as it is usually understood, with mum and dad and the kids (ideally two) becoming less and less real for many people living in the UK today.
That said, whether the traditional family ever existed in the first place is debateable. Professor Pat Thane, from Kings College London, is a family historian who has discovered that the long-lasting marriages and the nuclear families of the 1950s and 1960s were actually anomalies. Instead, throughout history, single parent families and unmarried parents were more likely to be the norm. It is possible that we are just reverting to what we always had, with what we think of as “traditional” actually being a blip that is slowly fading from view.
Which brings us back to Flora. And indeed other brands too. Cars, supermarkets, food products, holidays, and lots of other consumer goods are marketed on the back of the traditional family. But why? Given that the traditional family is becoming increasingly alien to UK consumers, and given that it probably never really existed in the first place, why are brands continuing to use this myth as a strategy? It may have worked up until the 1990s, when people still had a memory of the halcyon days of family life, but now? In the 21st Century?
Brands would do much better to think of the diversity and the plurality of relationships. They need to think about how people are organising their lives in dozens of different ways, and in particular how the role of women has been transformed beyond all recognition in the last thirty years. Instead of trying to squeeze consumers into a demographic that exists only in people’s imagination, they should think about working with variety instead.
One brand that has embraced this idea is Colmans. Their current advert for cook-in sauces shows a single dad making shepherds pie for his teenage daughter, who’s upset because she’s just had an argument with her boyfriend. It’s a far cry from the Flora idea that men can only make cheese sandwiches, to the despair of the women in their lives, but it’s all the more appealing for that.
Successful advertising tells us what we already know. Familiarity sells. If the world has changed, and traditional families no longer exist, then brands need to reflect this. Sticking to the mythology of a fairytale family will, eventually, only alienate consumers – and I’m sure that’s not what brands would want from their strategy, or what consumers want from their brands.