For those of you who haven’t been following my furious tweets and Facebook status updates this Saturday local Bristol rage-rag the Evening Post branded me and my feminist colleague ‘hypocrites’ for campaigning against the Bristol City Council’s endorsement of a strip tease performance by Dita Von Teese, whilst not campaigning against 40 women taking their clothes off in the performance ‘Trilogy’. The article has been removed from the website, but that was the general gist.
The accusation of hypocrisy in this instance was completely ridiculous and unfounded and Helen and myself are complaining to the editor. But I wanted to take the opportunity to use my blog to give, as it is, my side of the story and fully explain why our position wasn’t hypocritical. It is pretty self evident, but I think it is worth saying.
I was first alerted to the Dita Von Teese performance a while back when Helen sent an email around asking whether the council were aware of the upcoming strip tease at the Bristol Museum and whether they were endorsing the performance (an email that was subsequently leaked to a very snide blogger). She rightly pointed out that the endorsing of the performance went against the Bristol City Council’s gender equality duty, which requires them by law to work against sexism.
We felt that by endorsing the performance at the City Museum the Bristol City Council were helping to normalise the atmosphere of a highly sexualised culture that promotes a very specific body ideal and a very specific performance of female sexuality. Whatever personal opinions were on burlesque and Dita Von Teese, we felt that the important matter to address was how council involvement in supporting the performance endorsed this normalisation (please note the Council did not pay for the party or performance). We believe (and have been supported by plenty of research) that the normalisation of a very narrow, idealised performance of sexuality and a very narrow, idealised version of women’s bodies has had a deeply disturbing effect on women’s mental health. In fact, 44% of young girls are suffering mental health disorders related to a negative body image, including the inability to feel or experience pleasure. (Sweet and Weston). The normalisation of the idealised female body and male defined sexual performance contributes to that.
We repeatedly asserted that the problem with this performance lay in its context. If Ms Von Teese performed in a burlesque venue then we wouldn’t have a problem with it – mainly because it would be a private venue without the backing of the council. Again, within BFN there are lots of views in burlesque, and we felt that by taking this stance we could best reflect a variety of opinions – that the problem is normalisation, not Dita Von Teese. It was the support of the council that raised our objection, as for the council to endorse a strip tease performance involved them in endorsing the normalisation of the objectification of women, and therefore broke their gender equality duty.
We also stated again that if the context of the performance was different, for example in a female dominated venue with a range of female performers of all shapes, sizes and ethnicities, with a female compere, our objection would be unfounded. But this wasn’t the case. In fact, Dita Von Teese’s performance was in a very male dominated context, not least because the majority of the artists in the exhibition were male. We felt that whilst the art on display challenged the culture of female objectification, the strip tease performance enforced this cultural status quo.
This was all explained in detail to the Evening Post in the statement posted on this blog by me previously, and picked up by other news outlets including the F Word and Women’s Hour, neither of whom found the argument that difficult to understand.
At around 5pm on Friday the Evening Post called me (as a press spokesperson for BFN) to get a quote on the debate. She asked me why I felt the Dita performance was ‘sexist’ but not the Trilogy performance. I have to admit, I was quite taken aback by the question, as in my mind the events were so different, and although I think there are questions to be asked about why, for women, we associate empowerment with nakedness (in a way we don’t for men) I was and am supportive of Trilogy’s aims. I explained to the journalist (as above) that the issue with the Von Teese performance was the context and how the involvement of the council contravened, in our view, the council’s gender equality duty. However, as I understood it, the Trilogy performance was about celebrating women’s bodies and the diversity of women’s bodies. The key difference is that whilst the Dita Von Teese strip tease is about a performance of a very specific, male defined version of female sexuality, the Trilogy performance had nothing to do with sex and was about nakedness. The two are not always linked you know!
By refusing to recognise these key difference between the two performances, and refusing to engage in my explanation of the contexts of the performances the Evening Post have gone on to call me and Helen hypocrites. This is in spite of printing my quote that doesn’t match up to their ‘hypocrite’ headline statement. They appear to want to portray feminists as being anti-nudity full stop, as prudes, as anti-men and anti-fun, rather than giving an honest portrayal of the story. The story was, to remind you, that by endorsing the performance the council were breaking their gender equality duty.
Further to this, the paper has portrayed Helen and I as being ‘against Dita Von Teese’. This is simply not the case and is a silly attempt to simplify the issue into one woman being against another. We are not against anyone. We are angry that the Council ignored their gender equality duty.
Since Saturday I have been criticised in some quarters for trying to ban or censor art. This is so ridiculous that I don’t know if I was more offended by this or the hypocrisy accusation. I am not interested in ‘ban this filth’ style histrionics, I’m not a Mary Whitehouse in modern guise. I am interested in discovering how we can combat the normalisation of sexualised images of women that have such a negative effect on women’s mental health. I am interested in how the council’s endorsement of a strip tease performance encourages this normalisation.
I appreciate and respect that many women feel empowered by burlesque. That’s fine – if burlesque empowers them and makes them feel good about themselves then I am happy for them. It is not for me to tell other women how to feel empowered. But by the same token, it is not for other women to tell me how to feel empowered. And frankly, watching a woman do a strip tease doesn’t make me feel good about myself. My job, my relationships, my voluntary work at BFN, my writing, my ability to make excellent brownies, my friends – they all make me feel empowered. That’s my choice, that’s my decision. I wouldn’t tell other women they have to follow my example of how to feel empowered. I am also curious as to why we associate women stripping (whether in burlesque or a strip club) with female empowerment, in a way we simply don’t for men. We don’t expect men to feel empowered by the Chippendales, or by male prostitution. Is it because we view men as more than a sum of their body parts? Why are men allowed to feel strong and powerful whilst fully clothed, whilst our cultural narratives tell women the route to empowerment is performing a strip tease or having her breasts photographed?
But whatever my personal opinions are on the matter, it has no bearing on what I said to the Evening Post. And that was that the context of the Dita Von Teese performance and the council’s involvement was the reason for our objection, and the context of Trilogy was completely different. There was no excuse to brand me as a hypocrite or as somehow anti-Von Teese. It was lazy journalism at best, and deliberate smearing at worst.
That’s my side of the story anyway.