Not an Odalisque

Posts Tagged ‘puppets

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