Not an Odalisque

Misogyny at Carnival Divine

The love interest in my novel is a burlesque dancer, and writers have to research. So, hardship as it is, I’ve had to spend quite a bit of time watching girls take off their clothes. I’ve clapped encouragingly through some truly terrible routines, I’ve bought earplugs to cope with the noise at Slippery Belle and I swear that next time I’ll remember to take a lemon of my own, because, as the bartender put it, “this isn’t the sort of establishment that puts lemon in gin.” I thought I knew the worse bits of the scene. Then, last week, I went to Carnival Divine.

I’d heard good things about Carnival Divine and the calibre of the performers was obviously higher than at my usual, sticky-floored, lemonless hang out. I booked a table and I wore my shiniest shoes. Sipping my strawberry daiquiri, I waited excitedly for the show to start. The acts were good. The costumes were beautiful. Kitty Bang Bang is one of the best performers I’ve seen, and when she stepped off the stage in her paw-print pasties, leaving one or two audience members with milk splodges on their clothes, I clapped and cheered with everyone else. The next act was Puppetual Motion. A man behind a taped-together cardboard screen readied his finger puppets.

I won’t go into everything that wasn’t politically correct, because I don’t really know what the non-racist’s response should be when people make fun of Frenchmen, and I’ve no clue what the sponge-puppet’s accent implied. I’ll tell you what made me really angry. It was the song about domestic violence.

The puppet told us he’d had a girlfriend and said he, “came home to find her sucking my best friend’s dick.” His reaction was to try to ruin her life in every way he could, from getting her sacked to downloading child porn on her computer. I didn’t find it funny, because the underlying assumption was that a woman whose sexuality didn’t conform to his wishes deserved to have her life destroyed, but I do recognise that anger at infidelity is not uncommon. It was when he sang that he was going to smash his guitar in her face that I felt the burning in my gut. It was a comic song about a man beating up his ex-girlfriend. People laughed and cheered. They applauded Peter Kennedy as he crept off the stage, concealing himself behind his piece of cardboard. I couldn’t clap. There was a buzzing in my head. I was so angry. I’m still so angry.

I expect to come across jokes about violence and misogyny in my everyday life. I expect to hear that women’s sexuality should be policed violently. Years ago I did the number crunching for this report and found that 10% of Northern Irish students thought violence was acceptable if your girlfriend nags, flirts or refuses to have sex. That’s slightly higher than the UK average. In the room of, say two hundred people the other night, perhaps there were fifteen who held those attitudes. And if they think that punching your girlfriend is a reasonable response to her asking one too many times if you’re going to do the dishes, something more than that is probably appropriate for when she has a sexual encounter with your friend. The man on stage, and all the people cheering him, surely reassured those people that they are right.

I’m angry and upset, more than I would be if I’d overheard a stranger’s conversation or seen it on the television. I’ve seen burlesque as a space where women’s sexuality is accepted. I’ve seen performances by fat women, skinny women, heavily pregnant women, trans women, women in drag, lesbians and queers: Women who don’t do what they’re told, from dieting to sleeping with men to putting on a nice skirt. And I thought I was in a place where they were recognised as attractive people, people with agency, whose sexuality we (for want of a better word) celebrate. It took the lover to point it out to me, but the reason I was so upset was that the rules Peter Kennedy was applying, that women’s sexuality should be limited by a male partner, judge every women in the room. He judged the women who were dancing for us (sluts!) and all of us watching (whores!). He implied we should be beaten up. Unfortunately I do expect that in many places. I just never thought I’d hear it at a burlesque show.

I’m angry, and I doubt myself. Surely by the logic that says Peter Kennedy is promoting violence or contributing to a culture in which it is normal and acceptable, I should judge other humorous songs. What about Tom Lehrer’s narrative of murder and mutilation, which I’m quite happy to laugh at? Is that allowed, since cutting off your girlfriend’s hand is rare, while women are injured and killed trying to leave their partners quite often? And how much defence does humour provide? How do you judge the delicate balance between showing a character and supporting the character’s views? I have a degree in English Literature, an MA in Cultural Theory, and very nearly another MA in Creative Writing, and I still can’t answer that question.

I started to doubt myself a little less, reading Kitty Stryker on the subject of FetLife tweeting a “drunk hooker joke”:

When people call you out on the entitlement that often comes with such humor, reflect on why it’s so important to you to cling to your “joke.” Is it that important to you to tell drunk hooker jokes? Really? Is that an important part of your sense of humor? Why? Does freedom of speech include hate speech? Should it? Where do you draw the line on what constitutes such speech? If you say something offensive, is it really so terrible to apologize? Is that “political correctness gone wild” or just being a polite human being who doesn’t like to inflict hurt on others and apologizes when things they do or say adds to institutionalized violence?

On the night of the show, I tweeted:

I was shocked that @carnivaldivine hosted an act, Puppetual Motion, with a misogynistic song about domestic violence. Empowering women?!

I received the reply:

Every act is a parody, even the finger puppets.

It had been deleted by morning. So my question is, Carnival Divine, is it that important to you that Peter Kennedy gets to tell his beat-your-girlfriend jokes? Perhaps you think I’m overreacting. Perhaps I should try to see the funny side. But I doubt that I’ll see the satirical humour of the next song about the joys of domestic violence, either. I doubt the other people in the room who’ve been subject to violence from a partner (one in four women and one in six men, so a probably significant proportion of those present) appreciate the sparkling wit of such songs. With Puppetual Motion as Carnival Divine’s “resident puppeteer”, I’m going to have to think very hard about giving up going to one of Manchester’s best burlesque nights. Given the empowering, celebratory atmosphere of the burlesque world I know, I think that’s really very sad.

Written by Not an Odalisque

September 2, 2011 at 1:13 pm

3 Responses

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  1. Hi, I’m Peter Kennedy, the writer and performer of Puppetual Motion. No joke- I actually am him. I lift up the sponge and make him shout and all that.

    To begin, I’d like to sincerely apologise to having caused you offence. I’ll admit you’re not the first person to have a problem with a joke in my act, but as a writer you will know that not everyone is necessarily going to enjoy your work. I never directly aim to offend. I do obviously at times aim to shock (that’s the nature of punchlines) but not to hurt anyone’s feelings deliberately. Clearly you were very offended by the song I performed and I am really genuinely very sorry that you were. I know this is just text, so I’m hoping this isn’t coming across as being sarcastic because it’s not. I honestly and earnestly offer my apologies.
    However, I would like to say a few words in my defense.

    I am more than happy to take criticism, in fact I find it easier than taking complements, and the fact that you were impassioned enough to write a blog entry about how my show offended you shows your conviction on the matter and is commendable. But your critique is obviously not about whether or not the song works, your critique is about the content of it and also about myself.

    So firstly let me address the song-
    Worked around the Plain White Tees tune for ‘Hey There Delilah’ it starts out as a lament about his girlfriend cheating on him, then builds to reveal his instability and the lengths to which he will go to exact what he believes to be some kind of justice on the poor girl. His version of justice is actually sick and twisted even reaching a point where he is screaming the lyrics like a madman and threatening her with a kick “up the chuff”. (It is partially inspired by Adam Sandler’s somewhat bi-polar ‘Somebody Kill Me Please’ song from The Wedding Singer )
    This is not a serious tale of how to treat that situation. It’s a comedy song performed by a talking sponge. I understand the argument you put forward from Kitty Stryker’s article about defending what is essentially a lazy joke about violence, but I’d like to think it understandable, if only from the other puppets acts, that my material isn’t rife with sizzling highbrow wit. It’s foul-mouthed puppets doing rude jokes. The previous bit in my act was a poem that outted the big bad wolf from Little Red Riding Hood as a murderous gay transvestite, so I believe most people give it a little leeway and take it with more than just a pinch of salt.
    The storyline of the song should be pretty clear: the main character is cheated on by his girlfriend and in a vengeful fit of jealous rage exacts a plethora of horrible acts upon her for said betrayal. I should think anyone hearing a song that tells of trashing someone’s car, shredding their clothes, weeing on their hairbrush, destroying their music and dvd collections and sticking their toothbrush up his arse isn’t going to take this as practical relationship advice, nor as the singer condoning any of these acts.
    Someone who would do all of these acts of revenge is clearly not the most mentally stable person. If there is anyone in that audience thinking “Ha ha ha, yeah you teach that bitch who’s boss by smashing her head in with a guitar.” I think that is a problem they have with their own mental state. I doubt they’ll use the argument of “The singing sponge gave me consent to beat her.” during their domestic violence court case.
    E.g.: Years ago when the guy waiting in the queue for his copy of Grand Theft Auto IV got pissed off with the fella that cut in line in front of him, he went home and got a knife and stabbed the queue-jumper. Do you think he was inspired to do this because the game is so violent or because he possibly had mental problems? I don’t believe the inherent violence in the game gave him consent because I play it all the time and I’ve never had that urge. I’d say it’s more likely down to his own terrible way of dealing with things and not the actual content of the game.
    Please don’t try to put the blame on me for the actions of others. If they listen to ‘My Name Is Luka’ and think that that’s how women should be treated are you going to rail against Suzanne Vega too?
    Now just to correct you on a few points: Nowhere in the song does he sing about “downloading child porn on her computer”, and the story does not centre around him coming home to find his girlfriend sucking on his best friend’s dick. She’s actually just moved to a flat in the city and is sucking off a stranger she met that night. That may seem somewhat pedantic, but I feel it important to get these things right because not only are you actually being wholly inaccurate in your description of the song, to the point where you have added offensive things into the song I didn’t even put in there, but you have changed the dynamic of the story to fit your argument.
    You also say of my song that “the underlying assumption was that a woman whose sexuality didn’t conform to his wishes deserved to have her life destroyed”. It’s not that she didn’t conform to his wishes, but that the trust of a relationship was broken and, filled with anger, he tried to hurt her as much as she hurt him, a response you yourself say you recognise, and one I have witnessed in the lives of friends and loved ones.
    Let me ask you this: If my song was about a woman doing it to a man would you feel the same? Or would you complain that I had labelled women as vengeful little mentalists? You mention that you get a little stuck on the debate as to whether my song that is “promoting violence”(???) should be judged so harshly if it is a comedy song, citing Tom Lehrer’s ‘I Hold Your Hand In Mine’ as a comparable example. Is it my song you judge or myself? Is this personal?

    This leads me on to your criticism of me personally-
    You do not know me. To pronounce me misogynistic based on a single line from a comedy song is beyond judgemental, it is ignorant.
    I wasn’t too keen at you painting the picture of me as some evil little creature creeping off the stage, concealing myself behind my piece of cardboard, but that isn’t really my point. My point is you seem to have convinced yourself, and seem to be trying to convince others, that I am a woman hater. If you were pinning all the blame onto PICO the sponge who sang the song that’s fine- He is a prick! That is his character, he is not actually a living being reprehensible for his actions or beliefs towards others. It’s the reason people watch David Brent from The Office or Alan Partridge, they are idiots digging their own graves with their stupidity. As is PICO. PICO is not me, he is a character.
    The following part of one paragraph is particularly upsetting:
    “the rules Peter Kennedy was applying, that women’s sexuality should be limited by a male partner, judge every women in the room. He judged the women who were dancing for us (sluts!) and all of us watching (whores!). He implied we should be beaten up.”
    What the fuck dude?!? I’m not going try and stand up for myself here with a laundry list of character references from women that will argue the contrary. That would imply that I have a need to defend myself. Instead I think you are the one who should defend the words you have used against me, judging without even having met or spoken to me. I am horribly offended by this and it is the most rotten nasty thing anyone has ever said about me.
    Additionally, you berate Carnival Divine itself for allowing this supposed misogyny to mix in with all it’s other female acts. I’ve been performing there at almost every event for nearly 3 years and everyone there is lovely, welcoming, supportive and fun. Non of the dancers/performers have ever complained, in fact some are big fans, and I’ve got more gig offers from meeting the women that perform there than from any other nights I’ve played at. I support them as much as they support me, with cheers and applause and hugs and congratulations.
    I happen to have had a great response to that particular song from 3 separate audiences in the last 2 weeks, most of which was from women. Audience members and performers alike.
    The song offended you because of your opinion on a particular issue. I do not want to change your opinion, I’m not about that. Everyone has the right to believe in whatever they want to believe in whether I agree with it or not.
    What I ask is that I am not tarred with the brush of misogyny and labelled a woman hater because of your interpretation of a part of one of my songs.
    My song is not actually about domestic violence, it is about some idiot exacting revenge, you’ve just picked up on that one moment of the song. He doesn’t actually physically attack her, it’s all just bile-fuelled threats. At no point does it delight in the details of violence to women or how women should know their place and do what they’re told before they gets a beatin’.
    Once again I fully understand how strongly you stand against domestic violence, and I too believe it is abhorrent, but I would strongly recommend that before you judge people that maybe you talk to them first and maybe find out more about them before berating them anonymously on the internet.

    Anyway, I think I’ve pretty much said my peace. Any complaints you have should not be aimed at Carnival Divine, nor should you boycott going to their shows based on one act you didn’t/don’t like. I too think that would be very sad.

    Peter Kennedy
    Lackluster puppeteer and supposed comedian.
    P.S. I didn’t make fun of Frenchmen either.

    Peter Kennedy

    September 3, 2011 at 10:47 pm

    • Peter, I’m not going to comment because I feel that I’ve expressed what I have to say quite fully and you have too. I do want to thank you, though, for reading and replying to my post. I do appreciate that.

      Not an Odalisque

      September 3, 2011 at 11:50 pm

  2. I’ve decided to close comments on this blog. It was important that Peter Kennedy and Carnival Divine had a chance to respond, if they wished. Peter has and Carnival Divine have indicated that they do not wish to.

    I am aware that many people enjoy Puppetual Motion’s act, he was received with cheering and applause. Many commenters on this post wishing to share their appreciation have also included shocking language and mildly nasty threats. I’m not going to host those comments. My apologies if yours was not one of those; it was easier to close comments than continue to read them all, looking for the one or two I’m willing to publish.

    Please don’t feel silenced, though. I see there’s a lively conversation going on at Puppetual Motion’s Facebook page, where you’d doubtless be welcome to contribute.

    I would like to share one last thing, though. This is a video Carnival Divine shared on Facebook and Twitter in response to my post. It’s about being offended and it made me smile.

    Not an Odalisque

    September 4, 2011 at 1:19 pm

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