About Syd&Sylvia, 10th July 2017:
I’ve made a show. A show, as it is billed, about ‘control, expectation and the crap that women face every day’. I dress up in drag, topless but for a see-through bra. Kinda like this:
Ostensibly, the show centres on the characters of Syd and Sylvia, a husband and wife who run a fictional working men’s club in Eastbourne and gleans inspiration from the Bernard Manning-esque seedy cabaret ilk of entertainment. The action takes place on a Saturday night at the club in 1987. The conceit is that the two of them have been performing the same tired, fail-safe routines at the club for the last fifteen years but now, since taking up an evening class in Women’s Studies, Sylvia has been altering the content of the songs and performance material in order to push her newly awoken feminist agenda, much to the disapproval of old school misogynist and abusive husband, Syd. However, the show is also set very much in the present day, with sudden changes in form where the set-up is broken and the audience is confronted with the reality of misogyny as a social problem in a modern day context. As well as portraying both characters, I periodically address the audience as a means of contextualising the material in relation to current feminist thinking.
I play both characters and also address the audience as myself, switching between roles as the boundaries between them start to blur and conflict escalates. I use this set-up to expose and critique the double standards faced by women by using a man’s voice.
I decided to make this show because I had reached a point where I found myself feeling infuriated on a daily basis by the double standards that women face, the subtle and overt ways that we are oppressed and the overwhelming sense that public space does not belong to us: in short, the crap that women face everyday.
A few years ago, on a clowning workshop, I invented a character called Syd. A seedy, surly, sleazy working men’s club entertainer who wears a sparkly dress and a moustache. I’d been trying to find a context for him to exist in for some time so I decided to glue him and my rage together to make a show called Syd, which later developed into Syd&Sylvia, following some mentoring by the wonderful, maverick and critically acclaimed performance artist and teacher, Marisa Carnesky
The piece certainly tackles some harrowing aspects of being a woman (e.g. rape, domestic violence), but I am just as interested in addressing the subtler ways in which we are oppressed.
Because the subtler things things can eat away at you too.
So, to that end, I have written a few examples of the more insidious ‘…crap that women face everyday’
Toplessness, Public space & An anecdote about an anecdote.
A former housemate was staying with us briefly last summer when, over breakfast, he relayed to me, with incredulity, the following anecdote: Whilst gadding about town topless one summer’s day, a bus driver had had the audacity to ask him to put a shirt on before boarding the bus. “I’ve never heard anything like that before!” he told me. I responded wearily and with sarcasm:
“Well, yeah. I don’t think I’d be allowed on a bus without a shirt on, either.”
This took him by surprise. He lost his words, blushed, laughed nervously and said: “no, I suppose not. I didn’t think of that…”
In a vague gesture towards acknowledging our inequalities, he offered this follow-up: “Well, in an ideal world, everyone would be able to walk around topless…”
The thing is, for him, the worst consequence of being topless in public was not being allowed on a bus – and the fact that he considered this to be anecdote-worthy speaks volumes. Perhaps this was the first time his right to exist freely in public space had been questioned. In all his years of living on this planet, perhaps he had never had to adjust his appearance in order to move through the world around him. For a woman to be walking around topless in public, being denied entry to a bus would be the least of her worries. Being a woman means modifying your behaviour and your appearance in order to move through / occupy public space. That’s no secret.
A middle-aged topless man on a hot day.
When I’m on stage, the audience can look at my tits inside my lacy bra and objectify me. Or they can look at my chubby belly and judge / pity me. But it makes no difference: I have my flesh out like a fat, middle aged man on a hot day and, for a brief time at least, I enjoy his impunity. I am the one in control.
When I’m not on stage, I sometimes see one of my middle aged, male neighbours wandering around freely with his shirt off. Do I look at him and feel as though he ought to be victimised for dressing that way? No. If anything, I feel victimised by looking at him; embarrassed by the sight of a body I didn’t ask to see and angered by the flagrant display of privilege. Angered because, in spite of his age and appearance, he’s getting away with something that I can’t, simply because he is a man. He seems not to fear ridicule which, as previously discussed, is the best-case scenario for a topless woman in public. Anything less than best case doesn’t bear thinking about.
I mean, a man might feel self-conscious about going around topless. He may be ridiculed or bullied for it, but he is unlikely to be sexually assaulted or raped as a result. He will not be arrested or face charges of public indecency. He will most likely be spared both heavy retribution and the assumption by the others that, since he is flaunting his body, he/it is now public property for the base urges and cruelty of reprobates to be enacted upon.
That said, for a woman, any degree of public nudity is convoluted, even in the context of feminist art.
About a year ago, I was performing an excerpt of Syd & Sylvia (then known as Syd) at a scratch night when a less than mediocre comedian took the stage after me. I was early on the bill that night and he was the last act to go on. Having clearly not prepared anything in advance, he stepped on stage, somewhat self-apologetically, scanning his phone for the jokes he’d written that night during everyone else’s acts and about everyone else’s acts. ‘…Wow! We’ve had some interesting acts on tonight!’
‘Here we go’. I thought. ‘He comes my mood ruiner’.
‘…. There was a woman on stage with a moustache! And I still got a boner!’And in an instant the buzz and endorphins I’d gained from doing a good, well-received performance vanished. I felt weak, insignificant; reduced to being the butt of a boner ‘joke’. Having failed to provoke the guffaw he’d anticipated, he looked sheepishly at his feet and added ‘…err, sorry…didn’t mean to shit on your artistic expression.’ Somehow his follow up – specifically the presumption it contained of him being impressive enough to shit on anything of mine – annoyed me more than the initial boner comment. I had not only been humiliated, but now I was being condescended to. Catatonic with rage, I had the shitty realisation that a fake moustache is no barrier against sexism. During my act, I had recounted an incidence of street harassment in a masculine voice (Syd’s) with FKA Twigs’ How’s That playing in the background, after lubing the audience up with a bit of patter and cheesy joke telling. Of all the many words I used in my act, of everything I said and did to try and shed light on the hypocrisy and double standards that women face, he chose to focus on the fact I was a ‘wo-man’ in a ‘mou-stache’ (hurr hurr!) and exploit it as an opportunity to belittle me and take away the temporary power I had won for myself fair and square by doing the very thing I was critiquing. What depresses me most is this guy will probably get a regular slot on some TV comedy panel show one of these days.
A short time ago, I was walking home from the cinema with my boyfriend when I walked past two very unremarkable looking white men in grey business suits, eating greasy chip shop chips when I overheard one of them say: “…the disgusting bitch is getting uglier and uglier”, presumably talking about someone they knew. I was momentarily paralysed with anger. Everything around me went silent, the ground below me wobbled.
‘Are you alright?’
‘No, not really’
I shouted “you’re disgusting” to them, but they didn’t turn around. I wasn’t loud enough. I hated that they didn’t turn around, that they hadn’t noticed me. The way they swaggered down the high street with no regard for the irony of criticising someone’s perceived physical decline whilst scoffing chips made me think of that scene in Spirited Away where the parents are stuffing their faces and turn into pigs.
I had so much hatred in that moment, I wanted them to drown in a vat of crude oil. The pain and anger I felt was more than me and more than my lifetime. It was centuries deep: it was an inherited trauma that came from eons of women being subjected to cruel double standards. We walked in silence. I let go of his hand – said I just needed a bit of space around me I hung back from him. I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t organise my white, hot anger into words. I wasn’t just angry about this isolated event, I was angry about rape culture, about the existence of misogyny itself, about every single time in my life that I’d been made to suffer simply because of being female, or had to witness another woman suffering. You see, the way that women (and all marginalised people) are treated creates cumulative stress that builds and builds and, unless we invest a lot of energy into dissolving it, can follow us around like a ghostly spectre, poised to attack. Feeling like the world doesn’t really belong to us the way it does to others can taint our experiences, make us feel uneasy in situations that others don’t and can lead to stress related illness, anxiety and depression. So, should you be reading this and think that all these examples are ‘not that bad’, I urge you to remember that they don’t exist in a vacuum.
One of the core aims of Syd&Sylvia is to create public awareness of the impact of sexual harassment and to highlight its routine presence in women’s lives. People don’t always understand things just because you explain it to them (which can be so exhausting). Sometimes you have to show people how ridiculous the world is by subverting it for them. In this piece, my temporary loss of gender identity through character manipulation allows for me to re-contextualise my woman-specific experiences and expose the harassment of women for what it is: Bullying. Exclusion. Stuff that happens in school when you’re a little kid that we’re all taught is unacceptable behaviour. And yet, as women, we are bullied constantly. But no-one calls it that. If we take the sex out of it – along with the fucking ridiculous notion that it’s a ‘compliment’ – what we’re left with is, I think, very clearly bullying. We’re being picked on, made to squirm and feel self-conscious. Having our moods ruined and the illusion that we can simply go about our lives minding our own business and getting away with it shattered.
Syd & Sylvia will be at Edinburgh Festival Fringe as part of PBH’s Free Fringe from 5-26 August 2017 (not including 8th, 15th and 22nd). Full details here Please note: correct dates are listed here and NOT on the ed fringe website
London preview date: 14th July, 7:30pm at Hackney Showroom. Tickets £8. Full details here