On the face of it, nothing. There is nothing wrong with teaching a class where students experiment with ‘gendered’ movements. In fact, a class like that is very powerful and empowering, because it teaches us how gendered movement is constructed and learnt through the way we hold our bodies, the speed of our movements, how we occupy space, the way we hold our head, our gaze and eye line, etc etc etc.
I’ve seen a number of classes where this has been done very cleverly, and very well. Once Marie N’diaye was teaching a chorus line class at Herräng, where students were taken through the ways in which chorus lines in the 30s were gendered: how to emphasise your hips v your shoulders, how to turn your head, present a particular profile, focus on shapes or sizes of movements. I’ve also seen ‘girls’ hip hop’ classes taught by a man at a local street dance studio, where the students were taken through very femme movements and choreography employed by women dancers in music videos.
All of these classes make it clear (implicitly) that gender is something you can perform. That you can put on gender and take it off again, like a suit of clothes. And this idea of ‘performing gender’ is borrowed from Judith Butler’s book ‘Gender Trouble’. This is very important. Let me make it clearer: Butler (and other feminists and transpolitics writers) lay out very good cases for the idea that gender is something we _do_, not something we _are_. We learn to behave in ways which align with a particular gender role. This gender role is constructed by the culture in which we live. And the gender we choose is often chosen for us, by our families, our schools, our communities.
Right here and now, we can borrow from black feminists, who point out that there is no single way of being ‘female’ or ‘male’, and that these gender identities are culturally specific. So authors like bell hooks in We Real Cool point out how the dominant masculinity in modern American culture is _white_. It’s informed by race as well as gender. And then authors like Thomas Defrantz in Dancing Many Drums go further, pointing out how black masculinity isn’t just regulated by white ideas of what it is to be a man, but by heterocentric ideas of what a man should be.
In sum, gender is made.
Gender is not just about skin colour or the food you eat. It’s about class, it’s about sexuality, it’s about age, it’s about who we are and how we live every day.
And there are ‘dominant’ ideas of gender in different cultures. By dominant, I mean ‘most preferred’, or ‘seen most often’ or most favoured’. In some cultures there are more than two acceptable gender identities. But within western capitalist heterosexuality, there are only two. In this limited world, there is a dominant, hegemonic masculinity. This idea of ‘hegemonic masculinity’ is culturally specific. I like this term ‘hegemonic masculinity’ because it asks us to talk about class – capitalism – as well.
An ‘ideal masculine’ varies between cultures. If we’re talking about lindy hop, then, we need to allow for the fact that lindy hop today is a cross-cultural, international activity and community. There are different types of masculinity. Many cultures go another step further, and order different gender identities (or ways of being masculine or feminine) in hierarchies. Or, some ways of being a man or being a woman are considered ‘better’ than others.
So what is the ‘hegemonic masculinity’ at work in today’s lindy hop? The answer is going to be different, depending on which country and which city and which local community you’re considering. Let me start with Australia, because that is where I live. And let me start with white, mainstream culture. Here, hegemonic masculinity is:
white (anglo-celtic, coloniser)
Where did I get this list?
Well, if we have a look at a few things in my culture, we can find answers very quickly:
The nation’s political leaders (prime minister, cabinet ministers, etc);
The people with the most money (millionaires, industrialists, business owners);
Religious leaders in the most popular religions (bishops, ministers);
The most commonly-seen and employed actors and entertainment figures.
All of these people are male. And until very very recently, openly heterosexual (often ‘proved’ by having a wife and children), white, able-bodied. Rich. Coloniser.
You can do the same sort of exercise with the dance world. What are the most powerful roles in the modern lindy hop world? How many of these roles are filled by men, or filled by women? And what types of men and women fill these roles? How does your local scene compare with what you see in the videos and websites for huge international American, European, or Asian events? How does your national scene compare with these?
But what about women?
Hegemonic masculinity cannot exist without a dominant model for ‘femininity’. This ‘ideal woman’ is:
white (anglo-celtic, coloniser)
But she is dependent on a male partner, as she is also
physically weak or vulnerable
economically weak or dependant
Her heterosexuality is proven by her ability to have children, and her physical appearance (her sexual appeal). This ‘appeal’ is again contextually dependent. In Australia, she is slim, long-legged, pale-skinned, long (straight) haired, has small feet and hands, clear skin, ample bosom (but not too ample), hips (but not too broad)… and so on.
In fact, her body is an impossible ideal. Women are trained to pursue this impossible ideal at the expense of all else. They are trained to spend more time on how their body looks, than on how it works. To spend more time thinking about what they look like, than on what they can do. They spend time in the gym working on their body’s appearance, rather than their body’s functionality.
From here this ideal femininity and masculinity can also be defined by how they behave, or how they act. Men are active, physically tough, powerful, defensive and offensive agents. They take up physical and aural space in public. Women are passive, acted upon, vulnerable, hurt, weak. They make themselves small and speak softly so they don’t take up space. These two models are used to justify the relationship between the ideal male and ideal female: the female requires a strong man to protect her. The strong man requires the vulnerable female to give him children (and incidentally prove he’s not gay :D ) and keep his home. The active, fierce man is complemented by the passive, emotional, gentle woman.
And so on.
All of the things I am writing here are old news to anyone who’s done any feminist reading. I myself have two theses and a bunch of articles drawing on extensive field work and textual analysis to prove these ideas. In fact, my doctoral thesis looked at how this stuff plays out in the lindy hop world.
Let’s go all the way back to that first question:
What is the problem with teaching ‘traditional’ gender roles in lindy hop?
Nothing. While some feminists would disagree with me, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being vulnerable or small or pale or delicate. Or strong and bold and heterosexual. But I do think there’s a very big problem with a) these models being presented as the only ways of being a man or woman, b) with ‘man’ and ‘woman’ being the only options, and c) with these dichotomies (either-or options) being the most preferred models.
In lindy hop today, we see traditional white, heterosexual gender roles rewarded and valorised across cultures.
Take a look at the winning ‘couples’ at ILHC, the Savoy Cup, or any of the other big competition events. Who wears the dresses? How does each partner move independently, and in reference to their partner? What is their ethnicity? What angles and lines do their bodies make?
The competition finalists and winners are almost exclusively white, heterosexual-presenting, and adhere to these very conventional gender roles. We can make occasional exceptions, we might even see one same-sex couple. There may be a few women wearing trousers. But taken as a whole the repeating, and therefore dominant elements do nothing to reconstruct or challenge the gender norms. We never see women leads in winning couples. We never see men as winning follows. In fact, we rarely see a deviation from this gender binary: man/woman. How dull. How dangerous.
What’s the problem with this?
If these winners align with the dominant values of their community, is there anything particularly wrong with this?
This is where things get really interesting.
What exactly is the problem with these two gender roles?
These two roles encourage particular types of behaviour. That’s a very general comment, so let’s get specific. I’m going to take an issue that’s very important: safety.
How do these roles contribute to sexual assault and harassment in the modern lindy hop world?
I’m going to assume that you agree with me that sa and sh are bad things. Remember, this isn’t a universal belief. There are plenty of people who don’t believe that sh and sa are actual real things. I believe that they are. I believe that they are bad, not only for the people involved, but also for the community as a whole.
sa and sh physically hurt people, but they also discourage women from entering high profile or well paid roles (DJing, teaching, MCing, organising). This means that sh and sa limit the way our communities grow and do things. It makes us ordinary.
Let’s take that dominant feminine identity and apply her to lindy hop.
The follow role is associated with the feminine
We only have women or femme folk teach as follows at big events, we see workshops in ‘feminine styling for follows’ (but rarely other gendered options).
Follows are ‘quieter’
She doesn’t initiate moves or outshine the lead. She doesn’t interrupt or speak louder than the lead in class.
Follows are objects that things happen to
She doesn’t turn or spin; she is spun. She doesn’t decide where to move; she is moved. She doesn’t choose moves; the moves are chosen for her. She isn’t an equal partner; she makes the lead’s moves ‘work’.
Follows ‘look beautiful’ – they have long legs, small hands and feet, a slim build (with bosom, but not too much), they have pale skin, they have long straight hair
She wears clothes that exaggerate these elements – dresses and skirts, form fitting trousers, high heels (to make her legs seem longer and her feet smaller), make up. She dances in ways that exaggerate these elements – she points her toes and straightens her legs and arms, she extends her neck and drops her shoulders, she opens her arms with the palms up and open.
SHE IS WHITE. SHE HAS STRAIGHT HAIR. SHE HAS PALE SKIN. SHE HAS A SMALL ARSE AND THIN THIGHS. SHE HAS SMALL MUSCLES, NOT BIG, STRONG MUSCULATURE.
Follows are helpful, polite, and unaggressive
She does as she’s led, she doesn’t abort moves. She spins as many times as the lead wants. She turns in the direction the lead wants. She doesn’t interrupt the lead’s moves, or distract from him. She is passive and helpful. She does not solo dance alone. She looks at the lead all the time. She does not say no to dances. She does not stop dances mid-way. She doesn’t tell men to stop hurting or touching her. She will compromise her rhythm or timing for the sake of the lead’s rhythm or timing.
Follows are vulnerable; things happen to them, which they need to be protected from
She is vulnerable to kicks and accidents on the dance floor, and has to be protected by her lead. She is vulnerable to sh on the dance floor, so she needs a man to protect her. She doesn’t say no to dances. She must be walked to her car.
The follow is dependent on a (male) lead
She doesn’t say no to a dance; she cannot solo dance (she’s too afraid, she doesn’t know what to do). She cannot dance with a woman; only men can/are lead properly. Dancing with a woman would make people think she was a lesbian. She gains her worth from her heterosexual relationship with a man. She doesn’t tell a harasser to STOP; she reports him to a (male) organiser.
And so on and so on.
But remember: you cannot have this ideal femininity without an ideal masculine, and vice versa. Because in this story, the ideal fem or masc is heterosexual. Without a man, a woman is a lesbian (or a failure). Without a woman, a man is gay (or a failure).
We can do the same exercise with men and this ideal masculinity.
Can you do that? I’m a bit tired of typing, so I’ll leave you to make a little list. Write it down. What are the ways ‘leading’ is gendered hegemonic ‘masculine’?
These are all things that happen on the dance floor. But the modern lindy hop culture encourages us to see dance floor behaviour as the ideal model for off-floor behaviour. The most influential and powerful people at events are teachers and competition winners – people valued for their dance skills.
What happens when we extend this idea that a woman never says no to an invitation to dance? She is, in effect, told that she cannot say no to a man wanting to touch her. That she should smile and facilitate all the things that he wants to do to her body.
I wish that I could dismiss this as an exaggeration. But if we keep in mind the whole rest of the culture in which lindy hop is embedded, then we see that it’s not only unlikely, it’s also very difficult for a woman to say ‘NO’ to a man’s desire to touch her body. On and off the dance floor.
Here, look: this is how a dominant gender model informs lindy hop culture, and how this gendered dancing enables sexual assault and harassment.
Let’s go back a step.
Because I can’t stop there. I can’t stop at this feminist analysis. I need to do some feminist activism as well. I need to do and say something that will make it possible for me to go to lindy hop events. Make it possible for me to dance.
What are the problems?
1. We are using only white, middle class, mainstream Australian culture as a source for gender identities.
2. We haven’t considered this dance in historical context. What was happening in terms of gender in the 1920s and 30s?
3. We haven’t considered this dance in historical cultural context. What was happening in terms of black gender in the 1920s and 30s?
4. We haven’t considered this dance in contemporary cultural context. What is happening in terms of black/Asian/poc gender in Australia today? What is happening in terms of black gender in America today?
There are ways we can rethink gender in lindy hop: by actually watching and listening to black dancers.
In other words: thinking intersectionally about lindy hop (decolonising lindy hop; taking it out of white hands) will help us prevent sexual assault and harassment. I’m saying it clearly: there’s a problem with white, middle class, mainstream masculinity and femininity. And it has done bad things to lindy hop. Bad things to black lindy hoppers as well as white.
So, as a white women, I need to get my learn on.
For me, the first thing I have to do is sit down and listen. Stop talking. I need to watch and see what black dancers are already doing. I don’t ask them to come and give a lecture or wait at my beck and call in a dance class. I look at their work now.
Let’s look at those examples I listed above, where we had men dancing the ‘femme’ role. Let’s look at vogueing. Here, at first glance, we have ‘men’ performing that dominant femininity. But that sentence doesn’t go anywhere near explaining all the things that are happening. For a start, the categories of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ and ‘female’ and ‘masculinity’ seem awfully limited.
Who are these people dancing? Would they describe themselves as men? As women? As trans? As nonbinary (enby – N.B.)? As soon as we ask these questions, and we ask these people these questions, we get a sudden explosion of gender and identity. I like to imagine that a black and white binary drawing (man/woman, male/female, strong/weak, good/bad) just opens up in a massive rainbow spectrum of colour and identity. Strength, weakness, power, vulnerability, creativity, gentleness, violence, beauty, ugliness.
Right here, we see a whole range of ways to do femininity or masculinity. Lots of different ways to be a man or a woman. Or to be a person that doesn’t want to fit into this binary.
Queer studies gives us lots of ways of to think about gender and human relations.
Let’s go back again. Remember where I mentioned Tommy Defrantz? Where I talked about the kneebone bent?
Defrantz is a queer black dancer, whose book looks at black dance history in America and asks ‘where is the queer black masculinity here?’ He himself offers us a very different way of moving his body:
Dood is extremely gay. He is so gay. He is the gayest. And he’s out. And he’s black. And he’s political. He’s also a dancer. A street dancer. A concert dancer. An academic. A thinker. An activist. He is all these things at once, AND he’s a man. This is a different way of embodying masculinity. Look at him while speaks the language of tertiary academia, the academy, territory of white masculine power.
But listen to his higher pitched voice. Look at the way he holds his hands close to his body, taking up less space. The way he shifts from foot to foot, implying uncertainty or a lack-of-obstinant-determination. Then watch all that change as he STAMPS into the ground with the buck dances. The way he embodies this role of the ‘buck‘: aggressive, fierce, determined, sexualised, large. And then he shifts again, demonstrating the wing dances, which he morphs until THERE! we see vogueing, and the ballrooms of 1980s queer black Harlem.
In this single two minute clip Defrantz takes us through a hundred years of black dance and black masculinity. He shows us how rhythm can be style. He shows us how rhythm can be black masculinity. And because he can then take it off again, he shows us – all of us, whatever our gender – that this masculinity can be put on and taken off at will! Imagine a black woman putting on that identity for a moment. Buck dancing!
But what if we actually look at a black woman dancing lindy hop. First ‘vanilla’, then ‘with sauce’. Here, Cookie (Angela Andrew) shows us how to dance as a follow, as a woman, as a black woman. Her skin is black. Her hair is up in a turban. She wears loose trousers and shirt. She addresses the camera. She is with her partner, but she is also taking creative space, saying I AM HERE with her clarity of rhythm. HERE I take a triple step and make it a stomp off. HERE I pause, I stop moving, I hold the time in my body and groove it on down. And HERE I suggest a rhythm to my partner, and because he listens to me, because he is open to my contributions, he takes it up and he joins me. We are together in this moment as equals.
And what is the next step?
I actively choose not to hire teachers who run workshops which prioritise gender norms, or who exploit those gender norms. That means that I don’t hire teachers who’ve been reported for sexual assault or harassment. I don’t hire their friends who’ve stood by them and not called them up on their behaviour.
I do not hire teachers who’ve done publicly racist or antisemitic things. Nor do I hire their friends who’ve stood by them and not called them out on their behaviour.
I hire dancers of colour. I pay them good cashmoney for their work. I choose to hire teachers who are either actively engaging with gender, in a critical way, or I choose to hire teachers who are implicitly engaging with gender in an active way. Simply through being and dancing gender in different ways. This means that I can hire white teachers who talk the talk and attempt to walk the walk, and I can can hire dancers of colour who are teaching me about being gender simply by dancing-while-black.
More importantly, I can take their classes. Yes, that means you, dancer who thinks they’re too good to take classes any more. Be humble. Show you are willing to learn from this person of colour. Say, with your open face and willingness ‘I value what you have to teach.’ Be present in that class, be mindful. Learn. Assume that you don’t know how this works. Learn. Be open. Learn.
I think this is important: it’s not ok for me to ask teachers or dancers to articulate exactly what they are doing that makes them ‘black’. It is my job to learn to see how ethnicity informs who we are and how we move. It is my job, as a white woman, to stop seeing ‘whiteness’ as a default ‘norm’. It is my job to take my assumptions about what ‘good lindy hop’ is, and to see how my own privilege as a white women has shaped this set of values. All of this jargon – frame, connection, musicality, tone, leading, following – all of it is language circulated and controlled by white teachers, and commodified in formal dance classes. It is, truly, the colonisation of black dance.
It is my job to learn how to learn in new ways. To learn how to be in a class with a teacher and see how their movements, their ways of holding their bodies, of taking, of looking at students and each other, of being inform their dancing. Whether they are black or white, hispanic or asian. If dance is culture, then I need to do more than just ‘have a class with a black teacher’. I need to learn how my entire understanding of dance and classes is informed by my own ethnicity.
Here is a list of people you may choose to hire, who are not skinny white heterosexual women and men. Some of them are lindy hoppers, some tap dancers, some do dances traditional to their peeps, some are musicians. I haven’t even really gotten into Asia with this list, and it is totally not exhaustive.
And please note: being the old black/queer/asian in the village can be tiring and intimidating. Why not hire two! Or three! Or ALL of them!
After dealing with sexual assault and harassment in public dance forums for a number of years now, I’ve noticed a clear ‘type’.
He presents as a feminist ally, someone who knows a lot about antisocial behaviour and feminism, and professes to be very anti-hegemonic masculinity.
Yet he’s always the loudest voice in a fb conversation, dominating discussion and correcting others.
And he later proves to be an offender.
I don’t want to think on it too much as it’s too upsetting, but this feels like a type of gaslighting: I’m an ally, I can’t be an offender! Look at me talking the talk online!
I’m ok with talking about gender and using gendered pronouns in class. I just like to be sure I’m not just using the same two boring pronouns all the time, and that I’m using people’s preferred pronouns.
I’m not ok with gendering leading and following, or skills related to leading and following.
This is partly why I’m not ok with some elements of the ambidance movement: I don’t want to do away with all gender.
But I do want to do away with the essentialist coupling of skills and ideas with two gender ‘norms’.
How then do I work to deconstruct gender in lindy hop when I’m teaching?
1. Use the words ‘leads’ and ‘follows’ (or the role name, and I’m with Dan when it comes to avoiding leader/follower) rather than ‘ladies and gentlemen’, ‘men and women’, ‘she/her/he/him’ etc etc.
2. Use people’s actual names rather than the role. It’s nicer generally, but it also encourages us to think of people as individuals, not roles. I try to use my teaching partner’s name.
3. Rather than talking about or around your teaching partner (eg “The follow will do this,”) speak to your teaching partner, asking them to describe what they’re doing (eg “How do you know I’m asking you to move forward, Alice?”).
Then there are trickier, less obvious things.
1. Always ask permission before you touch someone. It’s quite common for leaders to simply ‘grab’ a follow in class/their partner to demonstrate on them as though they were an object. I always try to ask them if I can touch/demonstrate. And I always apologise if I’ve just thoughtlessly grabbed them.
I started doing this after we started asking students to always introduce themselves and ask someone to dance before touching a new partner. It rubbed off on me :D
This stops us treating our partners like objects/just ‘the follower’. And this issue happens more with leaders grabbing follows than vice versa.
2. Conceptualising lindy hop as something other than ‘leader says, follow does’.
We are currently using ‘call and response’ and both partners can do it. We also use ‘leader invites follow to do X, follow decides whether to do X, how fast to do X,’ etc etc etc.
3. Don’t use words that position follows as objects.
eg never using words like ‘push’ to describe what leads do: ‘the leader pushes the follow’. No. This a) not technically accurate, and b) disrespectful.
4. Always try to talk about and think about your partner as a human with feelings and emotions.
When we get really technical, it’s easy to reduce our partner to an object force/momentum happens to, or a subject who generates force/momentum. We are real people with real feelings. So while physics is at work, our feelings and emotions are much more important. So we use language that describes what’s happening from that POV first. In nerd terms, this means using ‘external cues’ rather than ‘internal cues’.
eg. I ask Alice if she’d like to go to the snack table, then I take her hand and go with her to the snack table. vs ‘I hold her hand with my fingers in X position, then I engage my core, prepare, and then lift my left foot, swing it back 20*, place it back behind me, and then she engages her core and activates her frame…..’
The technical jargon encourages us to talk about our bodies and partners as technical objects, not as real live humans. It also slows down learning :D
5. Speak and act as though your partner and other dancers have opinions, and that these opinions may differ from yours.
We often try to hide the way we ‘make the sausages’, but it’s more useful for learners to see us discuss things, perhaps disagree, share different ideas. So ask your partner and students what they think and feel. Allow yourself to learn from your students and be surprised and delighted by this new information.
-> all this stuff is about deconstructing not just a gender binary, but a hierarchy of gendered power with straight white bro at the top.
And what of historical accuracy in all this?
I think it’s important to talk about gender in a historical context when we talk about lindy hop. So while a gender neutral pronoun is very much something white, middle class Australian teachers are experimenting with, that’s not how black dancers might have spoken of each other in the 30s.
Again, though, I like to take care about generalising. While some dancers today would have us believe that the 30s were a time of rigid gender norms, that’s not entirely true:
– There were women leads and men follows (and every gender ID ever) in the olden days,
– There were queer dancers and musicians (I’m currently reading about queer culture in NY in the 20s-40s… helllooooo genderflex ID and jazz dance!) and genderflex lindy hoppers fucking up the patriarchy then. Lester Young, anyone?
– Some of the most supportive teachers I’ve had have been black OGs, who’ve used gender neutral language and openly said they support women leads/male follows/genderflex dance IDs.
So when we talk about ‘ungendering’ lindy hop, that’s perhaps not helpful. It’s more that I want to widen my understanding of gender (and sexuality) in dance to more than just straight men leading and straight women following. The world is huge, and jazz asks us to improvise and innovate.
My friend has a male work colleague who thinks of himself as a feminist ally. He has a ways to go yet, but he listens carefully and is open to new ideas and information.
He recently said something about how there are women who repeatedly use abortion as contraception. He then expanded, telling this story of being a teenager in Wangaratta in the mid-80s and listening to his parents in dinner party conversation with the town obstetrician who told them that he’d just seen a patient who had come in for her eighth abortion.
My friend, in conversation with feminist friends, wanted to know where she might go from here in addressing the many issues raised by this highly problematic anecdote.
My first feeling is:
Why does he assume this is a true story, not an exaggerated one?
Is he sure is recollection is correct?
One anecdote is not a good sample size.
So he should begin by interrogating the premise of the question, rather than assuming that it is a legitimate claim. He should be asking himself “How many women have abortions?” And then “How many women have multiple abortions?” And finally “What demographic are these multiple-abortion women (if they actually exist)?”
This is the sort of research task that can easily be done by an ally (and should be).
Actually discovering data is a key part of untangling patriarchal myths. He has to understand that this tedious task skills him up (in terms of research skills), gives him an appreciation of the type of work and thinking feminists have to do to counter cultural myths, and also gives him useful knowledge.
This idea that ‘women use abortion as contraception’ is a persistent myth in our culture. It suggests that being sexually active outside of reproduction is morally wrong or self-indulgent. It also suggests that having an abortion is quick, easy, and physically just like taking the pill. All points that are easily disproved. Particularly if one is living in 1980s Wangaratta.
Acquiring an abortion requires knowledge (where to go, how to book an appointment, an understanding of termination as a real option), time (being able to go to an appointment, then get home, without dependent children or work demands), and money. If not money, then access to public healthcare. In Brisbane in the 1980s and 90s (when I was a young woman, and my friends had abortions), you also had to find a GP who would refer you to a specialist for the termination. It was illegal to acquire an abortion if you weren’t at immediate medical risk; you could go to jail for this ‘crime’.
Wangaratta in the 1980s was a regional centre. Finding a doctor for a termination in that town at that time would have been incredibly difficult. And as this anecdote suggests, maintaining confidentiality would have been hugely difficult.
But let us assume we do accept this increasingly unlikely premise. That one woman this one time had multiple abortions (ie more than 5) I’d be looking at other data:
Is she catholic or otherwise unable to use contraception (eg has an abusive, controlling husband/partner)?
Is she the victim of serial abuse by a family member where she’s desperate to terminate pregnancies and doesn’t have the autonomy to get the pill?
What was the time frame for these abortions? A year? 30 years?
The doctor had a duty of care to discuss the issue with her. Had he? Why not?
So if women and girls are educated and have access to contraception, they have fewer pregnancies. They are also, consequently, less likely to terminate pregnancies. Multiple terminations in one woman’s life then supports the theory that she does not have bodily, reproductive autonomy. In other words, she cannot make informed choices about her own fertility and body. Whether because she doesn’t have the education she needs, she doesn’t have access to contraception (which isn’t that unlikely in semi-rural Wangaratta in the 80s), or she isn’t free to choose whether or not to become pregnant.
So i think the other important point here for my friend’s male friend, is to recognise how issues like sex, reproduction, bodies, healthcare, etc are employed in patriarchal discourse. He should ask himself “Ah! A comment by a male professional with institutional power about women’s bodies which perpetuates a myth that can be used to control women’s bodies! This ticks some boxes; I need corroborative evidence.”
Of course, the fact that it’s hard to find the answer to this question tells us that this data may prove awkward for men who want to retain that myth of sexual woman = out of control hetero breeder.
Which should make us all the more curious: why hasn’t anyone asked this question before?
Speaking of the black experience in jazz and blues dance…
I haven’t yet ready anything in the blues and lindy hop community about the black queer male body dancing.
There’s been some good work on black women’s bodily experiences in modern jazz dance culture, and a bit about black masculinity. Quite a few too many white men have whitesplained how blues works as a black space, and far too many white women and men have avoided talking about vintage fashion as an ethnicised scene.
Apparently the black queer body in a well cut suit or gorgeous gown is too terrifying even for whispers.
I saw Looking For Langston (an art film by Isaac Julien) last night. The whole project – a film made during the 80s AIDS crisis by a black British man, about a black American man of the Harlem Renaissance – is a meditation on queer desire, jazz aesthetics and the blues. The name (and a lot of the content, including some proto-vogueing) reminds me of Desperately Seeking Susan, Madonna, and the queer-eye-on-art. It includes voice work by Stuart Hall and Toni Morrison, Paul Gilroy gets props, Jimmy Somerville plays a cherub (again), and Tongues Untied is referenced. Also there is some cock.
The installation at Rosley Oxley9 Gallery features some beautiful large scale black and white stills from the film, depicting black men dancing in closed embrace. Photos I regularly see linked up on facebook as examples of queer dance in the swing era. Ha.
In a continuation of the discussion begun by Damon’s post, Kelly posted a lengthy, intelligent piece on facebook. This one was only visible to friends (not everyone), so I won’t copy and paste it here. But she did begin some interesting discussion about being a white woman engaging with this topic. I chimed in there in a less careful tone than I would on Damon’s post, as I know Kelly better, and I wouldn’t splash my feels all over the page of someone I don’t know.
Anyhoo, this is how I responded:
While i can get behind the statement, ‘Some historic blues dance styles are defined by a close embrace’, i cannot endorse the line that walking through the door at a blues dance event _is_ giving consent for a closed embrace.
Whatever the history of a dance, drawing an equivalence between those two points is rubbish.
I’m also very unkeen to just recreate the past. Honour our history, yes, but i’m not just going to give a blanket ok for wholesale reenactment of ‘history’.
I go to dances with my brain and eyes open. One of the most important parts of the cultural transmission of dances between generations, communities, and cultures, is adapting them to make them socially relevant. That’s why canel walk in 1930 and camel walk in 2018 aren’t exactly the same.
So i’m saying it bluntly: even if the historical ‘truth’ was that you (women, it is implied), give up the right to withdrawl consent at blues partirs, i am NOT ok with that now. And i do not want to revive or preserve that little nugget. And i sure as shit won’t tolerate retrosexist bros who use this ‘history’ to enable contravening women’s rights.
No punches pulled there, right?
But I’m finding it so difficult to stay chilled on this topic.
A couple of black men responded, but again I won’t cut and paste their comments here, as they weren’t publicly visible. When a post and comments aren’t public, we assume that the authors assume a degree of anonymity or ‘safety’.
But I did continue, after some thought, with the following post. I think it best sums up by difficulties in dealing with this topic. It’s so, so hard to unpack privilege and assumptions about race and ethnicity when your brain is being pounded by the effects of vicarious trauma.
Lately the topic of intergenerational trauma has entered Australian discourse about indigenous Australian rights and compensation. Part of me would like to talk/write about the physical consequence of trauma and violence (and living with the threat of violence) for people trying to participate in public discourse. Basically: it’s fucking hard to be calm and coherent when your brain is pouring adrenaline through you. And I think that this is why we need allies. We need people who have the privilege and advantage of not being physically threatened by patriarchy to do some heavy lifting.
I’ve been trying to figure out why I get so upset about this particular point. I understand with my brain, but then my emotions just come raging in.
I think it’s an old school trigger. I have heard men use exactly this argument -“It’s a blues hold”, “Relax and go with it,” “This is how you do blues dance” – when a woman asks them not to hold them so tight it hurts, not to touch their breasts or groin, or gets so upset they cry and leave the dance. I’m dealing with these men in my local dance scene at the moment.
So when I hear just the beginning of this sentence, it’s like a switch gets flicked in my head, and I hear those women literally crying, ashamed, and telling me what the man said as he held her down and groped or assaulted her. Repeatedly. “Relax. It’s a blues hold.” It’s line built for gaslighting.
I know I feel this way because I’m dealing with vicarious trauma from working on so much s.a. and harassment stuff. But my brain isn’t in control here. My emotions are.
At this stage, I simply can’t accept this approach. As I type this, I’m starting to feel a bit distressed. But right now, I’m 100% not ok with even getting anywhere near supporting or even taking apart this argument to see how it works.
I’ve also been wondering: am I doing some low-key racism here? Am I policing a topic for my own privilege? I’m not sure. I do know that I’ve heard white male offenders appropriate the ‘this is authentic black history’ argument to justify serious harassment, as social dancers, and as teachers, _teaching_ other men that this sort of behaviour is legit. And that makes me super, super angry.
So I’m going to sit on this for a while until I don’t get so seriously triggered. Then revisit it.
Damon Stone, a high profile black male blues dancer recently made this post on facebook:
Blues dance post following –
Asking for consent before dancing in close embrace. If you are at a blues dance and someone asks you to dance, the expectation is that you are going to do blues, be it freestyle or a specific idiom…if they say yes, that *is* consent for you to dance in close embrace.
Like all other activities and aspects of consent, such consent can be withdrawn at *any* time, but if you do not want to dance in close embrace with someone politely refuse the dance. If you don’t want to dance in close embrace with anyone, then, respectfully, find a different dance.
EDIT: This is assuming two things, 1) that the person is dancing correctly, 2) that not every single blues idiom dance is a close embrace dance, but blues idiom dances use close embrace as their starting position.
I read this post in light of the recent (and most excellent) comments by black women about white blues dancers (which I note in my post ‘Stop Dancing’), and ongoing about how to negotiate consent and avoid sexual assault and harassment in the contemporary blues, balboa, and lindy hop scenes.
My response was as follows.
I think there are a few issues here for me as a dancer and observer:
– One is the history of blues (and we are talking about a dance that includes a very close embrace – just as tango does),
– One is the different current cultural contexts of blues music and dance around the world today,
– And one is the different notions of consent and negotiated physical contact in different cultures today and then.
I think this statement is problematic:
If you are at a blues dance and someone asks you to dance, the expectation is that you are going to do blues, be it freestyle or a specific idiom…if they say yes, that *is* consent for you to dance in close embrace
Because people take this statement and this concept at face value. As a relatively experienced dancer, I know what it means: if I go to a blues party at Damon’s house, I should expect some pretty close physical contact. I’ll be able to tell a bro or a woman to back off if I’m not ok with what they do, but I should expect a close embrace (vs no physical contact at all, as at a tap jam).
But an awful lot of people take this sort of dance etiquette and map it onto their relationships throughout the dance world. An awful lot of men and women are trained to expect this: that a woman or man must say yes to a dance invite, a close embrace, a partner doing as they like with our body. Because an awful lot of people don’t know how to touch other humans with respect.
In my world (fuck, in Trump’s world), men expect to touch women as they like, women expect that men will try to touch them without permission, and learn to avoid that in a non-confrontational way. Men learn to exploit this and exploit women.
So when we go to a blues dance, some people need to be told, explicitly: you don’t get to do what you like to your partner’s body. You have to ask permission.
I’m rolling my eyes too. For fuck’s sake.
Blues as a historically-rooted dance comes from black communities, where notions of how to touch and when to touch and who to touch were something black kids learnt growing up, engaged with as teens, and then continued to negotiate and renegotiate as adults.
These ideas of ‘appropriate’ touch, how to ask for permission to touch, how to reject touch and so on weren’t monolithic across black communities in the US. I mean, there’s that iconic story that Frankie Manning told about imitating his mother dancing by dancing with a broom and getting into big trouble. The implication here is that dancing that way was something adults (sexually mature people) did. And they certainly didn’t do it across generations (part of his mother’s reaction was no doubt to do with the fact that Frankie was watching his mother, not some random woman, in an intimate embrace).
So we have generational differences then. We also have generational differences now. And young women regularly police the boundaries of when old is ‘too old’ to dance intimately (and sensuously) with (“eee gross! He is too OLD for you!”)
Then of course, we have different regional differences (country v city, city v city, etc), and different class differences (eg the super close intimate dancing has long been associated with ‘low’ culture, and wasn’t appropriate for huge, cross-generational dances in ‘polite’ company).
In all those spaces, people figured out what was appropriate and what wasn’t. A good slap would tell a man if he’d crossed a boundary. From that woman, or her brother or father. And then a series of stern frowns, lectures, and ‘punishments’ from a world of aunties and grandmas and mothers.
But, for many dancers today, blues dancing isn’t situated in that close community network. Their aunty is never going to know what they did at that party and come after them with a broom. There isn’t that inter-generational education about how to touch and be touched on the dance floor.
Blues dancing today also exists in lots of different cultural and social contexts, with all sorts of attendant social mores and modes of behaviour. We are at this moment having very public discussions about the role of race, cultural heritage and who gets to police these values. Who gets to speak in these discussions, who gets listened to, and whose words last are subject to broader socio-political forces.
I’m saying this not to be patronising (I know you all know all this), I’m saying it to signal that I’m aware of these issues. I need to talk context, and I am aware of the bigger issues, and the intensely personal issues at hand.
But I think that one of the voices I’m not hearing in many discussions about blues dance (and how to touch a partner on the dance floor) is black women’s. I think that Cierra’s Obsidian Tea piece about dating is really useful here, for me (as a white woman in another country). It says, ‘Hey, mate, your rules of physical intimacy may not apply here. Pay attention.’ So I’m paying attention.
BUT there is also an ongoing contribution from black women talking about their rights to decide how and when they give consent, and to whom. As a full-on example, a queer black woman at a blues dance not automatically give consent for a man to hold her in a closed embrace. Nor does a straight black woman. They might not need to give and receive verbal consent, but they certainly have a right to set boundaries about their bodies.
So I figure: in this moment, when we are renegotiating blues and lindy hop, we don’t assume anything about how we touch other people’s bodies. I might go to a tango practica expecting to be held and to hold in a very close embrace. But each dance that I have in that session will involve some degree of negotiation. I might invite a close embrace, but I might also reject it. I might end a dance early. I have a right to do all these things with no notice, both on and off the dance floor. How I do this depends on the traditions of that scene, and my own social skills (or lack thereof).
In my culture (white woman in urban Australia), women are strongly discouraged from publicly embarrassing men. To protect their own bodies, but more to protect the reputations and status of that man. So we are trained not to slap a handsy man on the dance floor (though goddess knows I’d like to). We’re trained not to say “STOP THAT” to that handsy man on the dance floor. We’re trained not to move away from that handsy man on the dance floor.
And I don’t know what a black woman my age at a party in Chicago would do in those situations either. I’d probably watch and learn, and ask my female friends questions, and figure it out. But I’m in Australia, and I’m white. So I’m figuring it out long distance. And this is why I really really want to see black women talking about how they do this stuff.
We might sensibly assume that if we go to a blues dance or event that is advertised (or described) as a party in the sense of the historic blues idiom, that we might be doing some close embracing on the dance floor.
(which I think is your original point, Damon?)
BUT I think that we should never assume that we can embrace someone or touch someone without asking for and receiving consent to do so. And to continue to check in and to see that our partner is ok with this. And being prepared to end the dance ourselves if our partner isn’t into it, or if our partner wants to end this.
A few days later, I found a way in, when a man asked a useful question.
Please, first read the article above, then read on.
I began with this response:
Nope nope nope nope nope.
Which escalated to:
I think this Alcorn article is bullshit too. I’m so angry I have to step away from the computer.
But my way in came in the form of a specific discussion about a ‘continuum of harm’. Garner and Alcorn argue that a grope is less important than a ‘rape’. They argue that there’s a continuum of harm/seriousness, and neither really understands why women don’t just ‘deal’ with offenders in less serious cases. This made me very very angry. It’s an attitude profoundly lacking in empathy, but it also suggests to me that this sort of woman is enabling and participating in rape culture by dismissing claims about the ‘severity’ of an offence.
This is what I said next:
I actually don’t buy the continuum of seriousness model, where we have ‘totally not a big deal’ at one end, and ‘horrible violence’ at the other. It simply doesn’t work in practice.
In my experience working on s.h. and assault within a community over the past couple of years, it’s the relationship between incidents and behaviour that is significant. So a whole heap of ‘minor’ things all add up, within the context of patriarchy, to a pattern of exploitation and abuse. It’s very important to recognise these ‘small’ things as part of character type, so that you can predict what will happen next.
So I like to use a ‘spectrum’ of behaviour, where it is the connections between actions that are important.
I think… no, I _know_ that dismissing something like a ‘boob grope’ as inconsequential is a way of dismissing women’s concerns, and making them question their own instincts.
At any rate, should we wait til a man violently rapes a woman, or watch for patterns of behaviour and intervene well before that point?
Garner and Alcorn seem to be suggesting the former, I argue – angrily – for the latter. In fact, I think that Alcorn and Garner’s attitudes are dangerous and betray a profound inexperience with practicalities of dealing with s.h. and assault in real communities with real people. The theory of assault is nothing like the realities of dealing with it in real settings, with real people.
Me, when I see the pattern develop, I step in. I ban men who are potential trouble, because I am not fucking waiting til they do something ‘serious’ enough to warrant a police report. And I devote a lot of my class time to teaching men and women how to identify inappropriate behaviour, and how to respond to it.
This is the deal: women under-report assault and harassment. Men don’t report it. Women question all their instincts. Offenders train women to question themselves and downplay the seriousness of offences.
Garner completely fails to see how her demanding to know all about an event, and to have access to all the details is about her presumption of privilege. Basically, the right to disclose or not to disclose information about assaults and harassment is a key – central – most important! – part of responding to reports.
In my work, we have found that protecting anonymity is SO IMPORTANT. Because women who report, and women who act as agents reporting for survivors, are threatened – physically, legally, financially, emotionally. Within my dance community we’ve had to develop complex networks of relationships to make it possible for women to make reports anonymously. Garner’s coming into a situation like that, behaving the way she did, endangers women.
Reporting to the police? I fucking laugh. That’s far too dangerous and public for almost all the women I know who are reporting assaults.
Garner can fuck off.
I’m getting so angry writing about this, I have to stop. It’s seriously triggering my own vicarious trauma from working on these issues.
Garner, Acorn, and their opinions are fucking bullshit.
Someone then asked:
What’s the difference between a continuum and a spectrum of transgression?
And this is where I really go to town.
A continuum ranges from A to E in a straight line, suggesting A leads to B leads to C leads to D leads to E in gradually increasing severity.
A spectrum thinks in at least 2 dimensions – imagine a circular field, with lots of points all across that field. Instead of progressing in a straight line, offenders commit numerous offences and do many things that in themselves seem ‘unimportant’ or less ‘severe’, but taken as a whole network, add up to a more complex understanding of sexual assault and harassment behaviour.
It’s very very important to note that most offenders defend things like a breast grope or a very tight hand hold, or repeated invitations on dates, or persistent facebook messages, or standing too close, or interrupting women, or not using their proper titles as ‘small’ things. They often admit to doing these things, apologise profusely, and profess ignorance. They target younger, less experienced, less confident, less ‘visible’ women and girls. Women and girls less likely to report and less likely to believe their own instincts.
Taken one by one, each of these is ‘small’. It’s the relationship between all of them, and the repeating, ongoing ‘snow’ of actions that add up to important character profiles.
Most women actually tend to dismiss all these individual things as ‘unimportant’. More significantly, they may not even recognise that men are doing these things to them – eg a woman might feel ‘uncomfortable’ talking to Mr X, but not realise it’s because he’s standing too close, touching her ‘accidentally’, making a lot of eye contact, asking for too much personal information, choosing to speak to her in smaller rooms with no windows, etc etc etc.
It’s easy to apologise for a ‘small’ thing: “Oh, sorry! I didn’t realise! I’ll never do it again. I’m so sorry. Is it ok? Do you feel ok? Let me make it up to you.”
So we have a second important point: women are trained to doubt their very good instincts, men are trained to take the assertive role in these interactions.
A third point: women are trained not to notice or give weight to these many ‘small’ actions/offences.
A fourth point: women are trained to prioritise politeness, male comfort, and avoiding social awkwardness above their own discomfort. So they won’t move away, let alone speak up or ask a man to stop.
A fifth point: women and men lack a language for talking about these minor things, let alone major things.
Women are discouraged from using precise terms to talk about their own bodies: vulva, breast, bottom, stomach, small of the back. This means when they try to articulate where they were touched, they are imprecise: “He touched me down there” rather than “He brushed his finger tips across my vulva”; or “He boob swiped me,” rather than “He trailed his whole hand across my left breast as I turned away from him.” This social awkwardness combined with lack of _words_ makes it difficult for women to explain why they felt uncomfortable, why it hurt, why they didn’t want him to do these things. So when they report these ‘small’ things, they blush, tremble, stutter, hesitate. All signs that suggest ‘fabrication’ or ‘dishonesty’ if you’re looking for a lie.
A sixth point: offenders are really fucking good at hiding what they do in plain sight. I’ve stood and watched a man holding a woman in his arms while dancing, knowing he was groping her, but not being able to see it. I had to trust the woman’s report that he held her too tight, wouldn’t let her go, squeezed her fingers, pressed her groin against his leg. So ‘minor’ things in combination are easy to hide, and also work in concert to make a woman a) doubt herself, b) feel utterly trapped, c) make it impossible for her to report. What does she report? “He touched my hand in passing that one time? He sent me a lot of fb messages?”
A seventh point: other men are discouraged from calling men out on their behaviour, especially when it’s smaller stuff: “Lighten up, mate, it’s just a joke.” They’re trained to dominate space, and to prioritise their own feelings. So they don’t ‘see’ when a woman is trying to get away from a man in a public space in a non-confrontational way.
And, finally, I have seen that offenders invest a lot of time in all this ‘small’ stuff, training women to be quiet, isolating them from friends and help. And then, they escalate. They most commonly seen to escalate to becoming a ‘boyfriend’ who may not actually declare the relationship, but insist it’s casual or just for fun. And within that relationship they often escalate the violence of sexual encounters, and use a lot more controlling, gaslighting, and isolation techniques.
All this is why it’s super important to remember that rape is something that usually happens in the home, domestic or work space, by men women know well.
When we position rape as ‘violent attack on the street by a stranger’, it’s inexplicable (what was she wearing? why did this happen?).
But rape isn’t a bear attack or an earthquake. It’s not an inexplicable natural disaster. It’s often a very carefully planned and executed act of control, and just one expression of a whole continuum of control and exploitation.
So when we want to ‘look’ for sexual assault and harassment, it’s not useful to ‘look’ for the most ‘extreme’ incidents (which are usually defined in terms of phallic power, often literally in terms of vaginal penetration). If we want to find (and stamp out) sexual assault and harassment, we need to look for the ‘little things’, and then the relationships between these little things.|
This is how it’s essential to consider rape and harassment within the context of patriarchy. Everything about that story in the First Stone establishes this as a serious example of sexual harassment. If I was investigating that incident, I’d look for other, non-sexual(ised) incidents of his exploitative and controlling behaviour. Did he use women’s real titles? Did he take them to dinner a lot, or pay for a lot of drinks? Did he only hold meetings in his own office? Did he fail to pursue delayed pay or conditions for employees? Did he ask people to work late?
And so on.
I also need to add that I didn’t really understand how all this worked until I worked on it my dance community myself. I started seeing clear patterns in women’s reports and men’s behaviour. There were a lot of things that I couldn’t articulate or pin down about what made something ‘dodgy’. Luckily dance gives me a good vocab for talking about how to touch someone. But still, it was super difficult, and I still feel like I’m not quite there. I’m missing something. Most telling, I find my own empathy for women reporting assaults, and my own vicarious trauma change the way I think about and respond to reports.
I just don’t think that Alcorn and Garner had or have this understanding of the practical experiences of working on these issues. Too much office time, not enough observation and listening time.
Of course, if you’re reading along as a dancer, and as someone who’s read my other posts, you’ll realise that this is why I get so niggeldy about gender specific language in classes, about the types of photos of dancers we see at events, and whether the lead or the follow is listed first in competition couple announcements.
The ‘continuum of harm’ model is too simple. It suggests only two options: bad or not bad. Which is a) intellectually dishonest, and b) actively disempowering women and survivors of assault. It forces them to decide, ‘Was I raped/harassed or not?’ when the question should be ‘Is that man’s behaviour threatening others?’
This is a post drawing together some thoughts that I had in a discussion with some friends. These were good friends, in a private discussion, so I won’t present their words here, just my own. But I want to give them credit for their thoughtful comments.
Here is the nub of the discussion: should Gordon Webster play the song ‘I Like Pie, I like cake’?
Background: he recorded this song with Steven Mitchell on vocals, in the early stages of the band’s push to popularity. The album included some very, very good musicians, was recorded live, and is super super popular with dancers.
Now that who and what Steven Mitchell has done is being spoken about publicly, most dancers and DJs have decided not to play that recording. But what about Webster? Should he still play the song, even without Mitchell on the lyrics?
My response is: no. No. No.
Apparently Webster plays it almost every gig he does. When a friend commented in real time, that Webster was playing it at that moment at Snowball in Sweden, one of the biggest events in the lindy hop calendar, I was shocked. I couldn’t really believe it was happening. Surely that’s a no-brainer? Don’t play a song made famous by a rapist?
So I just assumed that there’d been a confusion with the organisers, a problem with the person who briefed him. As I said in that online discussion:
If they [the organisers] didn’t tell him ‘no pie/cake song’, then it’s their issue. But if they did brief him, and he played it anyway, the band organiser should have had a list of ‘consequences’ for breaches of the code of conduct, and know how to handle the situation.
why can’t he play that song?….. Is it because of the connection with SM, that he shouldn’t play it?
I was, frankly, flabbergasted. What do you think? But then I reminded myself: not everyone is elbow deep in safe space policies. And it also made it clear: men who aren’t doing this work, aren’t thinking about it a lot, are able to think about other issues, and do other work. It’s clearly a limitation on their own work, to not understand these issues, and, at heart, a failure of empathy. But it also limits them creatively.
But let’s look at my response. The following is cut and pasted from the discussion, removing names to protect anonymity, and hopefully edited for coherency :D
Yes [it is because of the SM thing], because Steven Mitchell is recorded with the band, on Webster’s biggest selling album, and because Mitchell was always at the front of the band showboating with that song. It’s impossible to separate the two in people’s minds.
Most events have that recording of the song on their banned list, as it’s
a) grossly insensitive to play a song by a man who sexually assaulted girls and women for years, and
b) when we play that song, we are saying ‘I think this is a good song, and I don’t care about other people’s feelings’.
We should draw the line somewhere.
I choose not to play it because Mitchell groomed and sexually assaulted girls and women, using his power to force them into horrid relationships and situations with him. It makes me feel ill to hear him sing. It makes me angry to hear people applaud it or celebrate it by dancing.
So should Webster play that song, even if Mitchell isn’t singing?
I say no.
Mostly because it shows very poor taste (as though he’d rather get the props for playing a popular song than respect the women Mitchell assaulted) and very poor judgement (it implies he doesn’t care or is too cavalier to realise how playing this song might imperil future gigs or his reputation). But also because it shows us that he simply puts his own ego and feelings ahead of the girls and women who were assaulted, and of all the other women, girls, boys, and men who have been sexually assaulted or deal with harassment and the threat of sexual violence every day.
Basically, Webster playing this song tells me that he doesn’t think. And his continuing to play this song, even after being made aware of the issues, tells me that he puts his own ego before ethics, and that he’s tone deaf (in a social sense, not musical sense).
As an organiser, that tells me he’s trouble.
As an organiser, I’d get right up in Webster’s face (after the gig) for playing that song. I’d be so fucking angry, as I would definitely have told him not to play it. Webster playing it at my gig would be tarring my reputation, but it would also be his disrespecting me, publicly, as a woman and as his employer.
In fact, his continuing to play that song absolutely guarantees I’d never book him.
I’m also wondering if the band booker/manager for Snowball gave Webster clear guidelines on this. Playing the song in Australia would technically constitute sexual harassment and bullying, which is illegal (and could get an event manager into serious trouble). There are a range of issues at work here, including the scope of the band booker’s brief (ie what exactly are their powers and responsibilities), and whether there is a clear policy in place for dealing with sexual harassment and/or difficult behaviour from musicians. These aren’t questions I can answer for this event. But with events I run, I have clear guidelines for the bands (leaders and musicians), and scripts that I use for addressing issues with bands. Because I’ve had to in the past.
After this comment, some other friends made interesting observations. I want to maintain anonymity here, as this is a thoughtful group of people exploring difficult issues in a safe and private conversation. So I’ll paraphrase.
This from a very interesting comment:
– Webster still plays this song, every gig, even after the Mitchell issue became public
– People have spoken to him about the issue
– He has spoken to other people (including women who have spoken publicly about being assaulted by Mitchell)
– He knows it’s not ok to use the recording where Mitchell sings
– I’ll quote this bit: “he feels that he and the lindy hop scene can and should reclaim the song for themselves. It’s a theme for the band, not the person, despite the previous recordings. ”
– Sarah Sullivan’s (Stevens first public accuser) band also plays that arrangement specifically for the point of reclaiming the song.
I’ve heard these points from a few people now, phrased in roughly the same way. I think these are key issues, and worth addressing. So here are some things I said.
There’s a huge difference between Sarah (a woman, a survivor) playing this song, and Webster (whose band recorded it with Mitchell) playing it. The power dynamics are completely different. If Webster had a reputation as a clear ally, and if he wasn’t such a showboat, I’d consider it.
I feel that as a powerful, white, straight man, Webster’s speaking to other people about it isn’t really convincing. Who’s going to tell him to stop? In what settings does he have these conversations? At gigs where he’s the headline act, the ‘star’? Who’s he speaking to? Women? Men? Who? Women who’ve been assaulted by Mitchell?
[Let me digress here, to explain why ‘talking to people’ isn’t an adequate reason for continuing to play this song]
It’s difficult for many women to confront men like Webster, on a topic like this, in confronting circumstances. The very emotions of this issue make it difficult for many of us (whether we have been assaulted or not) to articulate why we don’t think it’s ok. Our culture discourages and punishes women who rock the boat and critique powerful men in public spaces. And Mitchell took great pains to make sure his targets were disempowered and unable to speak up against a powerful man.
Dance events aren’t really conducive to serious talk, and where else would ‘ordinary’ dancers have access to Webster? Not too many people would dare to confront or disagree with a ‘star’ at a big gig. Not too many people, other than other powerful people.
And here we have the point: who are these ‘other powerful people’? Who are the MCs, the organisers, the DJs, the high profile teachers? We still see men over-represented in these roles.
And it’s clear that other men covered up for Mitchell, and enabled his actions. Other teachers, organisers, MCs, influential people. ‘Other powerful people.’ While they may be quick to condemn Mitchell now, these men are not as quick to dismantle the social structures that enable injustice. And dismantle their own power.
Playing a song made famous by a sexual offender is an articulation of power, and it is an injustice. It is part of the discursive and industrial structures that enable sexual offenders. It tells us that the stories and songs of powerful men are more important than the stories and safety of women and less powerful people.
Who says what and where is a matter of power.
Who sings what song, and where, is a matter of power.[/]
Listening to that ep of The Track, Gordon’s clearly not aware of the way his own power and status work in his interpersonal and professional relationships within the scene. Though he may have changed his thinking since then, I’m just not convinced his judgement is sound on this one. And continuing to play this song tells me that he’s not aware of the nuances at work.
The thing is, Webster worked with Mitchell for so long, taking him to cities where he assaulted and harassed women. This makes Webster complicit in Mitchell’s actions, even if only through neglect or awful coincidence. As a band leader, he was in a position to call Mitchell on his other inappropriate behaviour (and Mitchell was always a difficult, demanding, pain in the arse). He could have disrupted the continuum of exploitative behaviour Mitchell was operating within. He could have removed Mitchell’s literal platform for self-promotion and self-aggrandising. But he chose to put him on the stage, at the gigs, again and again.
And I’m not really ok with a white, powerful, influential man ‘reclaiming’ something. That’s a concept that works as a way to ‘speak truth to power’. Sarah can do it, a woman can do it, even a band that’s not associated with Webster can do it. But the song was ‘his’ to begin with… He had and has the power, so what’s he ‘reclaiming’ it from? His own poor decisions? His own association with a man who has always had a reputation for inappropriate behaviour, let alone assault? Better to make reparation and let the song stay unplayed.
At the end of the day, as a powerful person, he should be making choices that are beyond doubt. By choosing to hang onto a song because it gives him props as a pop anthem, he’s treading on dangerous ground. With his history of association with Mitchell, he needs to be beyond doubt in his actions. And this choice is very dubious.
At this point in our discussion, I thought, ‘What am I doing? Why am I defending this position? Surely it’s clear, that choosing not to play this song is the right choice?’ I really felt as though I was going to a lot of effort to prove something that should be self-evident. To articulate that lurch in the guts that was a combination of rage and frustration and fear and sadness. Now I realise that that ‘self-evident’ emotional, empathetic response isn’t shared by people who do not experience sexual harassment and assault. Men aren’t trained to see and respond to these things the way men are. So they need it pointed out; it isn’t self-evident to them.
And this is the kernel of my discomfort: I feel as though we keep having these discussions. And it’s always women who are doing the explaining. Where are those male allies to step in and do this work? Why aren’t men willing to just accept that we actually know what we’re talking about? It’s so, so tiring. And as long as women continue to do all this work, the social structures that enable injustice remain in place. Women spend time and labour on this, instead of other creative work.
[edit: same goes for issues of race. How come it’s poc doing all the hard emotional labour, and white people (especially white men) so unwilling to just trust their word, believe black people?]
So then I felt like I had to excuse or explain my ‘shouting’ and long comments. I always feel like this. As though I need to excuse or explain why I’m so worked up. That there’s something wrong with getting worked up. But because this was a group of friends, I just posted my feels. And then I realised: this is the core of it. The feels. This is what I wrote:
I am so adamant about this because I’ve seen the havoc these men wreak. After the last year working with women reporting assault, I’m just… I cannot articulate just how evil these men are. It’s not ‘just’ a matter of ‘attacking’ a woman once. It’s systematic, ongoing control of every aspect of their lives. These women are terrified, seriously fucked up, and it’s just so so bad.
These women contact me saying ‘I just want to know if X is going to be there. If he is, I won’t go.’ They’re just so afraid, that if they see these guys they dissolve into panic – it’s real trauma. And the things these men do to them. It’s horrific.
And it’s now very clear that these men all cover up for each other, support and defend them. That’s the part that’s really upsetting me. I keep running into organisers and DJs and teachers and musicians who actively protect men who are known rapists and cruel bastards, because they’re also doing these things! They hire each other for gigs, they bully women into disappearing quietly, they provide environments that encourage exploitation in all sorts of ways.
It’s all so awful that I can’t read any more reports. I haven’t been assaulted, but I am regularly harassed, because I’m a woman. And now that I’ve heard these stories, that are just so common, I’m just heart sick.
So I just can’t believe that someone like Gordon Webster wouldn’t do something as simple as stop playing a song. It’s such a little thing for such an influential person, but it’s such a big gesture.
Reading these comments again now, I’m reminded of the arguments people make for watching and posting videos of Max Pitruzella, another reported rapist. People go to great lengths to defend this choice. And I’m not convinced.
In sum, then, I don’t think Gordon Webster should play the ‘pie/cake’ song with his band. He should stop playing it. For as long as he continues to do so, and for as long as men defend his playing it, I will be suspicious of him and his motivations. They are not my allies.