Bertie Did Burlesque!

Back in the autumn of ’16 I had the privilege of watching the fierce, fabulous, queer, Canadian, Burlesque wunderkind that is Rubyyy Jones perform at Ku Bar’s first ever Kindness Kabaret. They stripped to sparkly underwear, they sang and they stuck two fingers up at the God awful patriarchy. Suffice to say it was love at first sight and a year and a half later I found myself in a small dance studio in East London being coached by Rubyyy in the art of Queerlesque.

I signed up to the course for two reasons: one, I do actually love Rubyyy and couldn’t pass up the opportunity to spend more time with them and, two, I wanted to turn my overly-intellectualised dissatisfaction with mainstream beauty norms into something practical (put my money where my sparkly jock strap is, sort of thing). The Queerlesque classes themselves were a wondrous adventure – I learned about classic burlesque, neo-burlesque, lip sync, choreography and costume. I also got to do the course with five other epic folk, all there for different reasons and all of whom taught me lots about dancing, stripping, living and being queer. The course culminated in a graduation show at the Hackney Showrooms (just last week actually) and, given I had never done anything like this before (discounting singing and dancing in front of the mirror), I had to come up with an act. It came in the form of Bertie. He cropped up as an idea early on in the course and gradually took shape: a former public schoolboy and Oxford University graduate conditioned into toxic masculinity and poshness but yearning to reveal his inner queerness (sound familiar!?). Cue chinos, loafers and a tie being stripped away to reveal tights, jock-strap and mesh. And then I had to perform the thing in front of an actual, live audience!

Rubyyy led the way and one by one we did our acts until my name was called. Pushing my need to pee aside I stepped up onto the stage and, basically, had fun. I wasn’t there to prove myself to others or try and be sexy for them, I was there for me and for Bertie. Besides, sexiness is in the eye of the beholder, so I can’t control that, but I can bare my body and own it. I can occupy space and queer it. I can be me and have fun. Don’t get me wrong, there were a lot of nerves, but I did what my acting friends do – I acted confidence until I felt it. And it felt great to rip off the layers of posh programming and show the real(er) me beneath and it felt great to get applauded for it. So, for one night, myself and six others (we had a bonus guest appearance from a previous Queerlesque course), led by the fantastic Rubyyy, kittened by the fab Lydia, shared a bit of our souls and varying amounts of our skin. Together we created the world we long for – queer, fabulous, inclusive, just and joyous. At least that’s what it felt like to me. Now, here’s Rubyyy…


Is The Flaccid Penis A Joke?

A NSFW post and if you’re a younger reader maybe best to ask a parent or guardian before you carry on reading!


This question came up at the pub recently: is the flaccid penis a thing of beauty or a joke? The responses were many and varied, and it got me thinking about the male member. On the one hand a dangling willy can look quite silly but does this mean men should feel ashamed of what is between their legs or can they reclaim their manhood?

On the side of the penis-as-joke there were multiple arguments. The simplest was the aesthetic one, that it just looks silly. Now, this of course depends on your taste but I can’t help but feel that if we’re telling men that their tackle is basically one of evolution’s (or God’s) punchlines then we’re going to create a lot of insecure men. ‘Man up’ one might say to this and just get used to the fact that the meat and two veg look ridiculous. A further argument is that a floppy penis is pointless, surely it’s just a dormant erection. This is interesting because it completely instrumentalises the penis, implying it is only of use when it is hard (presumably for sex rather than an object of greater aesthetic worth). The implication here is that the soft penis, in and of itself, is pointless. It’s only useful when it’s doing something else. Curiously, the curators of a recent Madrid fashion show might disagree as they’re clearly using the non-erection to help sell handbags (video very much NSFW).
An aesthetically pleasing penis?

On the other hand, penis-as-thing-of-beauty, we still find ourselves battling pervasive tastes. If the majority of people have been conditioned to see the flaccid penis as a joke then how do we undo that conditioning so they can come to see it as something beautiful or, if not beautiful, at least as something that isn’t stupid? One possible answer is to continue to create great art (like Michelangelo’s David) that elevates the willy from the ridiculous to the sublime. At least then men, ashamed of what’s between their legs, can see the penis reclaimed and begin to undo the narratives that pervade their own minds telling them their tackle doesn’t amount to much. Of course, we might never reach a place where everyone admires the soft willy but there might be a day where people at least take it seriously.

Now, feminists amongst the readership might be asking why I should bother with a post on the penis. It’s a good question, surely there’s enough phallocentrism out there already, surely most buildings have been designed in the patriarch’s image, and didn’t Freud write enough on penis envy? Whilst this is all true the political is still deeply personal and this includes body image. And sure, focusing on the flaccid penis might come across as a little trivial (but I must confess the tone of this piece isn’t entirely serious) or maybe that’s just because the willy is used to derision but men do care about their manhood. Men who may well be riding off the back of much privilege but who may also feel disenfranchised. Thus, perhaps if we shift the narrative slightly and reclaim the flaccid penis then men will have one less thing to worry about and can get back to the task of challenging male privilege and being awesome feminists.

Anyways, whatever your view on the male member here are some rowers from Warwick college getting their dongs out for a good cause – tackling homophobia in sport. Now that’s an innovative use of the flaccid penis!

Suffragettes, Lipstick & High Speed Internet

Seat found, popcorn in hand, fizzy drink in the other. I was ready to enjoy Suffragette, the new movie about the women’s rights movement in the early 20th century, when Emmeline Pankhurst was rallying thousands to the cause, when Emily Davison threw herself in front of the King’s horse, and when bricks were being thrown through windows and wires were being cut because women did not have the vote. I couldn’t wait. I love feminism, I think it’s awesome, and a whole movie about it is a right treat. But before the film, the adverts…

First there was the make-up one. John Legend takes a seat at a piano and starts singing La Vie En Rose. Then in comes Julianne Moore followed closely by Naomi Watts, Blake Lively, Leila Bekhti, Eva Longoria and a whole host of famous women. They gather around the piano in their pink dresses and friendly smiles. The camera lingers briefly on their lips, hair, chins and breasts. Legend carries on singing and sometimes the women offer a word or two, you get the impression they don’t really know the lyrics. And it’s all for Color Riche Collection Exclusive, a new line of pink lipsticks from L’Oreal. The advert ends with Moore telling us “we’re worth it” and the impression I was left with is that everyone involved with the advert (hopefully) got paid a lot of money. Ok, famous women using their celebrity status to help promote a product and a brand, it’s hardly new. I mean, it’s not quite on a par with what the Suffragettes did but it’s great that these brilliant women have made it…made it onto the set of a L’Oreal advert. It’s fine, I won’t think too much about it, can’t wait for the movie.

Then it’s Heineken and Daniel Craig. James Bond nicks a speed boat to escape some bad guys except a female water skier is attached to it. Dragged along by the boat she deftly navigates waves, rocks, a wedding, a bar (she even has time to grab a tray of beers) and one of the enemy speedboats. Jumping aboard the boat she throws a top hat at the baddy currently attacking Bond. It doesn’t do much. Bond then prompts her to tie the bad guy up to a parachute who then gets dragged away. Bond then asks her if she’d like to join him for a boozy lunch. Ok, quite funny, yes the woman is unnamed and wearing a swimming costume the whole time whereas we all know Bond’s name and the men are all wearing suits but it’s a beer advert, what can you except? Maybe a little more, maybe? Anyway, nearly time for the film!

And just before it begins a truly inspiring advert, finally! A mum and her young daughter are watching clips of great women doing great things, people like Emmeline Pankhurst, Paloma Faith, Billie Holiday, Steph Houghton, and they’re all winking at the young girl inspiring her to join the movement and become awesome. And what an inspiring way to advertise…Vivid, the new high-speed internet connection service from Virgin. Right, because that’s how we celebrate feminism throughout the years by truncating the narrative and shoehorning it into an ad for broadband. And lipstick. And beer (although I doubt Heineken has even thought about co-opting feminism into their beer-selling cause).

So there was I, excited for the movie, but a little perplexed. As I watched these adverts I couldn’t help but feel like I was at the receiving end of an agenda – an agenda that appropriates amazing moments in our history/present to inspire us, not to try and replicate these events or even celebrate them, but to buy stuff. Consumer capitalism is really rather brilliant at reducing everything to an act of consumption. It also objectifies the female body and uses it as a vehicle for selling make-up and alcohol. None of this is new but it is exceedingly boring especially when it’s juxtaposed with the ensuing film, namely one about women who risked their lives and died so women could have greater equality. And the advertising agenda wasn’t even subtle. I mean lip stick and a feminist themed broadband. It’s clear these brands did some lazy ‘market research’ before crassly targeting their presumed captive audience with the ‘appropriate’ products. But the minutes before a film like Suffragette make for prime time virtual estate. So as I finished my popcorn long before the film started I couldn’t help but feel that despite all the amazing gains that have been made there is still a very long way to go. Time to smash some beer bottles, stamp on some lipsticks and cut some fibre optics.

The Many Mixed Messages of Meghan Trainor

The tube strike last night was the perfect opportunity to acquaint myself with Meghan Trainor’s back catalogue. The walk from Piccadilly to Paddington (the buses were just too full) gave me plenty of time to enjoy both her number one hits and her lesser known numbers. There’s many an inspiring message in Trainor’s songs but the more I listened the more I began to realise that the messages were really rather mixed.

You may know Meghan Trainor from her number hit All About That Bass – a lively piece that contests the mainstream’s obsession with slim woman and instead celebrates a diversity of body shapes. “I see the magazines working that Photoshop,” sings Trainor, “We know that shit ain’t real, come on now, make it stop. If you got beauty booty just raise ’em up, ’cause every inch of you is perfect from the bottom to the top.” This is an inspiring message about celebrating one’s big behind (mine is not inconsiderable in size) until it becomes clear that the point of one’s body is to attract the opposite sex. “My momma told me don’t worry about your size, she says, boys like a little more booty to hold at night.” So it’s not about embracing your body, whatever size it is, it is about trying to find a man. To make it worse Trainor then calls out slimmer women for being “skinny bitches” but quickly covers it up by saying she’s joking. So it certainly is a jumble of mixed messages as it both subverts and conforms to the media it challenges.

Dear Future Husband deserves a whole blog post of its own but for now I’ll just focus on the highlights. On the one hand she calls out her future husband for expecting her to stay at home and cook because, like him, she has a 9 to 5 job. This is great, equality in employment for men and women (of course, this is not to shame women who don’t have jobs and who do enjoy cooking). Then she sings a little about sex: “I’ll be sleeping on the left side of the bed, open doors for me and you might get some…kisses. Don’t have a dirty mind, just be a classy guy, buy me a ring, buy, buy me a ring.” This is somewhat more problematic as she asks her potential partner not to have a dirty mind immediately after leading him on to believe she was going to sing about follatio: she’s set him up for a fall there. Meanwhile, the request for a ring falls somewhere between a demand and a plea  – if people happily consent to marriage then that’s fine by me but it seems as if Trainor seeks matrimony for matrimony’s sake and perhaps to fill a hole in her life, arguably not the best reasons to get hitched. But this is understandable given the pressure young people are put under to find the ‘right mate’ and the way love is presented to us in terrible Hollywood movies. But there’s still a while to go before pop successfully challenges this propaganda.

Somewhat more explicitly in Title she tells her future boyfriend to “treat me like a trophy, put me on the shelf” – so here she is demanding to be objectified. This, I’m sure, would be fine in some sort of consenting sex game but here it does just seem that Trainor craves the validation of men and actively encourages them to reduce her to inanimate object status. This is not a good message to be spreading. Close Your Eyes is a nice song in which she eschews trying to fit in and look good even though she recognises that “everybody wants to be cool, yes they do, and I’m just like them.” Here, Trainor highlights the very mixed messages themselves that pepper her lyrics.

Perhaps, the most bleak of Trainor’s messages comes in her song Never Ever, a ballad about getting over dumb guys and embracing being single. “Never ever ever will I need someone, never ever do I rely on one, ‘cause I’m all grown, I’m all grown, and I’m okay on my own, okay on my own…Well you can try, to say that I am co-dependent, but I depend on me, yes me and only me.” The sentiment is clear and the desire to be independent strong but I worry that these lyrics could only have arisen in an isolated, consumer society such as our own in which the very existence of society has been denied (thanks Margaret Thatcher) and atomisation and isolation are on the rise. As community and social cohesion suffer so we try desperately to find meaning in relationships, normally with just one other person, and this often results in too much stress and expectation being put on a partnernship. It seems that community oriented co-dependence (or perhaps inter-dependence) is off the cards and we may well end up being forced to rely purely on ourselves. Perhaps Trainor’s lyrics are a grim prophecy of things to come and she is a modern day oracle. Perhaps.

Now, enjoy this post modern reworking of a Meghan Trainor classic…

Out Of Style

Style, a new song by Taylor Swift. The lyrics tell the simple story of a fraught relationship. Swift is picked up by a male lover who she can’t stop thinking about despite the fact he rarely calls and is rumoured to have been sleeping with other women. He drives a little recklessly and they eventually go back to her house. He admits the rumours are true and Swift also states that she has been sleeping with others. A catchy chorus intersperses these dramatic moments:

“You got that James Dean, day-dream look in your eye
And I got that red lip, classic thing that you like
And when we go crashing down, we come back every time.
Cause we never go out of style,
We never go out of style.”

The chorus captures two central themes of the song. The first is that of crashing: be it a car or a relationship. Nevertheless, Swift asserts that they will survive the metaphorical car crash of their partnership and keep returning to one another. The second theme concerns their looks – they are both classically and timelessly attractive. Other verses sing of his “long hair, slicked back, white t-shirt” and her “good girl faith and a tight little skirt.” Meanwhile, the video shows Swift and a male model casting smouldering looks, walking in front of projected images, holding up pieces of glass, striking poses, getting wet by the sea and generally doing what conventionally good-looking people do.

However, there is something very concerning about the central message of this song. The fact that Swift and her partner will never go out of style because of their looks is basically a threat: if you’re not one of the stylish few then you never will be. If a man does not look like James Dean and if a woman does not look like Taylor Swift then it’s off to the ‘ugly’ pile. Now, a social hierarchy based on looks is no new concept but it does often rest on the presumption that beauty is an objectively measurable scarce resource possessed by a lucky few. Furthermore, the less this view is questioned and contextualised the more it seems that the timelessness of beauty is an unquestionable truth. Hence, Swift’s ability to never go out of style.

But I like context and ours is one of capitalist, consumerist patriarchy. Bodies are constantly commodified and objectified by consumer capitalism’s endless quest to turn everything into profit. Advertising, films and television fall back on simplistic tropes of body image in an effort to get us to hate our bodies and buy their products. It is not that the people we see on adverts are more beautiful than the rest of us – bearing in mind they are heavily made up and airbrushed – it is that a group of predominantly male ad execs with limited imagination and social awareness will have once again failed to exercise any creativity or compassion. Meanwhile, whilst sexism is continually being challenged it still remains rampant – in the streets, in work places, in the home and in presentations of beauty. Watch 4music for any prolonged period of time and more often than not it is women who are presented sexually on-screen and reduced to sexual objects in lyrics. It happens to men too, but not as much. Furthermore, these women are often held accountable for how they appear rather than the larger dehumanising cultural and political milieu. In essence, sexist, consumerist capitalism dictates to and sells us a very limited, dubious conception of beauty.

So what could beauty look like in a world beyond patriarchy and consumerism? Imagine a beauty that transcends gender binaries, one that is happy to embrace queer bodies and blurred boundaries, rather than forcing us into little boxes. Imagine a beauty that ages, one with wrinkles, sagging skin and grey hairs, rather than one that relentlessly presents youth as the one thing worth possessing even though aging is the one thing we all do. Imagine a beauty that is not dictated to us by billboards and those who profit from them, not predicated on the fear of loss, and not treated as a scarce resource in constant need of capitalisation, but one that is an abundant commons available to all, hierarchy free, enjoyed as it changes, enjoyed because it changes and never answerable to currency.

This unfettered beauty already exists in our society and is available to all, should we wish to engage with it. Of course, it can be very difficult to feel beautiful in a society where we are constantly made to feel ashamed of ourselves for the way we look. Challenging this agenda will be tough but worth it as we prove that style is something for all of us and not just reserved for the James Dean and Taylor Swift lookalikes, although they are welcome to partake of it too.