RRight to RReply

alice

Criticising critics for criticising your performance is mostly a silly and fruitless task, particularly when it’s merely their opinion that you disagree with. It tends to leave you looking foolish, bitter and insecure. I mean, if they claim you threw a Hitler salute, wet yourself and punched a baby seal when you didn’t, by all means take them to task; however if they just claim you weren’t funny or that you bored them, then you may not like it, but it is only their opinion.

And yet This Is Cabaret’s review of the final show of The Double R Club’s Summer of Unease at London Wonderground I think raises some questions and needs some reaction. No fist waving or raised voices, it’s mostly a very positive review, which is lovely, but it addresses something that David Lynch’s work has long been accused of: misogyny.

It is not my intention for this to be an excoriating rant (which I realise is unlike me), or in writing this to suggest that everyone has to like and/or ‘get’ what it is we do, nor that critics should not be free to write whatever they choose about us or anyone else; but apart from whether the show was good or bad, such an (albeit somewhat cloaked) suggestion of misogyny should be answered.

The writer says: “I’m not convinced that uncritically reproducing said narratives of female victimhood with added nudity actually counts as subversion (or perversion), or even commentary.”

I’m not entirely sure what the writer would like us to subvert or pervert, or even comment on, having herself already stated that Lynch’s work is “fundamentally concerned with narratives of female victimhood.” We bill ourselves as ‘Lynchian Cabaret’ “inspired directly or indirectly by the dark and beautiful worlds of David Lynch,” so couldn’t the above comment be seen as saying “This just in: Lynchian cabaret is too Lynchian”? Why would we be inspired to pay homage to Lynch’s work and then undermine, change or twist its aesthetic?

But was the show (even accidentally) misogynist?

“The overall impression, though, left by the night was a lot of screaming, frightened sexygirls and the white- faced dude in the black suit appearing to be sinisterly authoritative and going away again. Which probably is as an accurate a reflection of Lynchian gender dynamics as it is possible to get.”

To us, those “screaming, frightened sexygirls” were not in any way sexy; they were a device, along with some other acts we book, to deliberately wrong foot an audience who might think that any and all female nudity onstage, whether cabaret or burlesque, must, by definition, be sexual. Additionally, “the writhing blood-covered girl dancers” we saw as more threatening than superficially sexy; whether they were resurrected dead girls, or the dreamselves of girls trapped in some nightmare, or figments of the nightmare itself, the idea sprang initially from wanting to illustrate the Fred Madison-like sax appearing in the song being sung. A horrific Lost Highway-like hallucination.

The “white- faced dude” was our own invention, Blackhand, our own Lynchian ‘bad man’, designed to stand for all of Lynch’s strange and nameless threats from ‘another place’ from Twin Peaks‘ BOB, to Lost Highway‘s Mystery Man; it’s worth noting I think that while it’s true the victims in Lynch’s work are invariably female, so the purveyors of evil are invariably men, or male manifestations of evil. I’m not convinced Lynch is suggesting that all men are evil any more than he’s suggesting that all women are victims.

Lynch: “[P]eople have an idea that Dorothy [in Blue Velvet] was Everywoman, instead of being just Dorothy. That’s where the problem starts. If it’s just Dorothy, and it’s her story – which it is to me – then everything is fine … When you start talking about “women” versus “a woman,” then you’re getting into this area of generalization. There’s a billion different stories and possibilities.”

Violence against women in Lynch’s work is often explicit and difficult to watch, but shouldn’t it be? To portray it in any other way surely diminishes its impact and therefore its horror. Take away the horror from violence and you’re left with something like Tarantino’s execrable Kill Bill, which plays like the bloodier scenes from Monty Python but without the laughs.

Lynch: “The worst thing about this modern world is that people think you get killed on television with zero pain and zero blood. It must enter into kid’s heads that it’s not very messy to kill somebody, and it doesn`t hurt that much. That’s a real sickness to me. That’s a real sick thing.”

So, if you are to deal with such subjects (and Lynch does and therefore so do we) they should make the audience feel uneasy.

Acts that were, I think, unfairly mischaracterized in the review in pursuit of something upon which to hang the term misogyny, were those of Hotcake Kitty, Sabrina Sweepstakes and Snake Fervor.

“More ambiguous – slightly – is Hotcake Kitty losing her innocence as a more naked Audrey from Twin Peaks”

To me, Hotcake’s Audrey is no mewing nymphet, but a young woman who, by the end of the act, is in total control of her sexuality, and of the audience.

Hotcake Kitty on her act: “I would say if anything ‘Audrey’ plays with the ideas of vulnerability but comes out stronger in this instance, resisting the temptation to give the audience what they want at the end of the act. Thus playing with the idea of the full reveal in burlesque.”

The article goes on to say: “Sabrina Sweepstakes with great skill transforming her head into a clay nightmare while her naked body just happened to get smeared with clay and water. Hmm.”

Which is a fairly accurate description of her act, yet the inclusion of the words “just happened” and “Hmm” sarcastically suggest that the performance is somehow demeaning or exploitative. This is so far from what I see in that act I barely know where to begin. It’s important to remember that the vast majority of the acts we book are conceived and choreographed by the performers themselves, we saw Sabrina do that act, loved it and booked it. I see nothing overtly arousing in it and to be honest find it really quite frightening; I return to my point about stage nudity being about more than mere titillation. My wife and co-producer Rose Thorne describes Sabrina’s act as “a nightmare in human form… a plain girl in a plain dress… who morphs into a monster.”

Hotcake Kitty: “As a female member of the cast I feel whole heartedly that misogyny was not used to dictate the order of the day. At points in the show acts did reflect on the ideas of the victims being female- as they do in Lynch’s work, but this is a Lynchian night. If it was ignored it wouldn’t be relevant to Lynch’s work and wouldn’t deliver the ideas and themes to an audience that may or may not be acquainted with his work.”

The review takes issue in particular with Snake Fervor’s act, stating that “Utterly brilliant as Fervor’s characterisation was, that was Victimhood with a capital V”

Snake Fervor told us that she dreamed up her act while in hospital following a serious performance injury: “[I] picked my character for that act because she was tortured and traumatised. I could relate to her when I was lying in hospital injured, and I wanted to create an act that made the audience feel uncomfortable” adding “It’s not a glittery, prissy, let’s all leave smiling and happy show.”

Snake’s last point I think speaks directly to the nature of The Double R and what we have tried to create from day one. It is not the usual ‘happy-clappy-wall-to-wall’ frivolity of many cabaret shows. Its very aim is, while entertaining, to unsettle, wrong-foot and disorientate its audience, to amaze, amuse and yes, sometimes arouse you; but also to show you things that may, to quote my ridiculous signature hyperbole “scare you beyond the capacity for rational thought.”

Misogyny is a sensitive issue, and rightly so, not least with the recent abuse of, and threats towards, female writers on Twitter and elsewhere. It is an issue that should no more be ignored and brushed under the carpet than examples of it should be displayed for mindless titillation; yet I firmly believe that this is not what Lynch does, and not what we at The Double R Club do. To call what we do the “unthinking adoption of Lynchian gender dynamics” goes beyond whether the show was good or bad, it is an accusation that, working as we do in an industry that is probably roughly 90% female, we felt could not be left unanswered.

I’ll sign off with a quote from Lynch himself: “The only thing to say about all the controversy is, did I make all that up, or are there examples in real life? And there are countless examples like that in real life. So why do they get upset when you put something like this in a film?”

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Postscript from Lydia Darling (one of the “the writhing blood-covered girl dancers”, a seasoned cabaret & burlesque performer and our own Miss Twin Peaks 2010):

“A lot of it depends on whether you equate nakedness to vulnerability. When somebody is stripped, there’s an intimation of them having been stripped of their power, that someone stronger than them has shorn them of their garments and an expectation for them to hide their nakedness. The inbuilt idea that their nakedness should bring shame.

But that’s only one kind of power exchange. There is another when a person decides to be naked despite those connotations of disempowerment and to own their own flesh. As a performer, I enjoy the moments where the audience is uncomfortable – taking the gaze and reflecting it back at the audience. I certainly know, as I stood blood-soaked and naked under the spotlight, I did not feel exploited. I stared into the eyes of the audience members, not with a plea for help but with defiance; look upon us if you dare. Each person who could not hold my gaze was a little victory. My nakedness was not there to titillate. My dancing was not supposed to be sexy. Agreed it was not subtle; it was not meant to be.

Besides, who’s to say that the naked, blood soaked girls were victims and not perpetrators?”

P.P.S.: See ‘Comments’ (above) to watch the debate rage on!

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~ by benjaminlouche on August 9, 2013.

4 Responses to “RRight to RReply”

  1. Great piece.

  2. Hello! I am the reviewer who wrote the piece that prompted this – and I am flattered and pleased that you considered it important enough to respond to so eloquently. Part of the reason why I do the job I do is because it enables precisely this kind of dialogue, and I hope it’s clear both from the original review and this response that I am in general a huge fan of the DoubleR, I love your work, and most of the things about the show I think are great and challenging/unsettling/disturbing in good ways.
    A few things, though, in response. Most importantly for the sake of everyone’s integrity, I absolutely was not in any way accusing you of exploiting the dancers, the performers or anyone else – nor, for the record, am I accusing the performers of being cultural dupes enslaved to oversexualised feminine norms, or some suchlike. They are all, regardless of gender, obviously very talented, hardworking and self-determined people in control of their performances and their actions, and fair play to them, say I. Whilst the point of the review was that I was particularly interested in and impressed by those acts that deliberately challenged and subverted traditional gender assumptions, that certainly does not constitute the implication either that the performers have no autonomy or that they were being exploited.
    Relatedly, and I suspect fundamentally to this discussion, I very deliberately did not accuse you of misogyny. If I meant that, I’d’ve said it; I have many faults as a reviewer and as a human being, but a lack of directness isn’t one of them. Nor did I submit a review drenched in invective to TIC only to be instructed to tone it down; rather the reverse, in fact. I deliberately didn’t use the term misogyny, both because I don’t think (as you point out) it’s justified or necessary in this particular case, and also ‘misogyny’ is a big, ugly, many-headed cultural monster, about many more, varied, different things from the ‘funamental…concern with narratives of female victimhood’ that I wanted to discuss in this particular instance. Saying Lynch is concerned with narratives of female victimhood is fairly difficult to dispute, but that does not necessarily equate to an accusation of misogyny – it’s always in how the tale is told. There are any number of ways to explore female victimhood, many of them interesting, troubling, subversive, critical, ultimately empowering or culturally challenging ones, and I’m not sure I’d even define Lynch as misogynistic, let alone the DoubleR – I think it’s a bit more complicated that that, and if I’m honest I’m not sure my knowledge of Lynch is sufficiently encyclopaedic to come to a truly informed judgement. My point was, simply, that as a female audience member, I would like to see more acts that take those narratives of female victimhood and undermine them, subvert them, play with them, problematise them, discuss them – as some of the Double-R acts I mentioned clearly did. If it comes down to ‘well, if Lynch did it, it’s good enough for us’, then fair enough – but as I hope the last line of my review implied, I love the DoubleR, I love your work, and I think you’re in a really good position to discuss this stuff as well as recreate it.
    To move onto some more specific points:
    ‘’ Lynch: “[P]eople have an idea that Dorothy [in Blue Velvet] was Everywoman, instead of being just Dorothy. That’s where the problem starts. If it’s just Dorothy, and it’s her story – which it is to me – then everything is fine … When you start talking about “women” versus “a woman,” then you’re getting into this area of generalization. There’s a billion different stories and possibilities.”
    I’ve never come across that quote before, but I find it a bit disingenous (and problematically like Stephanie Meyer defending Twilight: http://www.stepheniemeyer.com/bd_faq.html). If there are a billion different stories and possibilities, and you (general you, not ‘you Mr Louche’!) **always choose the ones in which women are victimised, dismissed, exploited, violated or otherwise subject to various forms of cultural violence**, then I reserve the right to question and dislike your choices.
    Your piece said: ‘it’s worth noting I think that while it’s true the victims in Lynch’s work are invariably female, so the purveyors of evil are invariably men, or male manifestations of evil’.
    I actually wasn’t aware that the latter aspect there was the case. I think I’d vaguely assumed that evil could have many faces but the victims were almost universally female. (If there are female or androgynous perpetrators of violence or evil in Lynch’s work, acts based on those would go a long way to answer the criticisms in my review, for reference! But I’m not an expert.)
    ‘I’m not convinced Lynch is suggesting that all men are evil any more than he’s suggesting that all women are victims.’ – I would hope not, in either case, although i wouldn’t claim sufficient expertise to say for certain. I didn’t mean to imply that all Lynch’s women were victims, and i’m pretty sure I never said that – I simply meant that for the most part Lynch’s victims were women. For the sake of authenticity I’d assumed there are a few characters of both genders who are just, y’know, people, manifestations of nightmare, hidden facets of the human character, neither evil *nor* victims.
    Lynch: “The worst thing about this modern world is that people think you get killed on television with zero pain and zero blood. It must enter into kid’s heads that it’s not very messy to kill somebody, and it doesn`t hurt that much. That’s a real sickness to me. That’s a real sick thing.”So, if you are to deal with such subjects (and Lynch does and therefore so do we) theyshould make the audience feel uneasy.
    ‘Violence against women in Lynch’s work is often explicit and difficult to watch, but shouldn’t it be? To portray it in any other way surely diminishes its impact and therefore its horror. Take away the horror from violence and you’re left with something like Tarantino’s execrable Kill Bill, which plays like the bloodier scenes from Monty Python but without the laughs.’

    That’s precisely my point. Traumata’s performance, which iirc immediately preceded the dancing bloody girls number, was uncomfortable, disturbing and brilliant precisely because it drew attention to and called into question the ways in which the traumatised, violated or otherwise damaged female body is used for a variety of purposes in popular culture. Her bleeding and inferred pain wasn’t easy or comfortable, but clever and disturbing – explicit, and difficult to watch. Not to cast aspertions on the excellent dancing of the women concerned, or their autonomous engagement in the matter, following that with some undoubtedly talented dancers who happened to be covered in (obviously fake, in contrast) blood and displayed no other signs of the consequences of violence *did* diminish the impact of assumed violence or violation. Having read your explanation:
    Additionally, “the writhing blood-covered girl dancers” we saw as more threatening than superficially sexy; whether they were resurrected dead girls, or the dreamselves of girls trapped in some nightmare, or figments of the nightmare itself, the idea sprang initially from wanting to illustrate the Fred Madison-like sax appearing in the song being sung. A horrific Lost Highway-like hallucination.
    …then yes, that makes sense; but at least to myself and my (female) companion, that certainly wasn’t the impression we received – from our perch at the side of the stage, we saw no threatening behaviour or suggestion, rather a kind of, well, sexy dancing often objectified in popular culture and common in music videos and suchlike, whose performers happened to be covered in blood. It certainly didn’t explore or demonstrate the experience of violence or its control in the way the previous performance (entirely commendably) had, or (as you say) Snake Fervor’s went on to do, or even feel particularly uneasy – simply, in context, a bit inappropriate.
    ‘Acts that were, I think, unfairly mischaracterized in the review in pursuit of something upon which to hang the term misogyny, were those of Hotcake Kitty, Sabrina Sweepstakes and Snake Fervor.’
    I never used the term misogyny, very deliberately. Just for the record. Any hanging there is yours, not mine!
    Some of that is simply difference in interpretation – I think it’s possible for Hotcake’s Audrey, for example, to be in control of her sexuality *and* giving a fairly traditional innocence to experience narrative which I would feel more challenged and engaged by were it more subversive, but that isn’t to reflect negatively on the quality of her performance, and I fight quite shy of discussing Sabrina Sweepstakes’ nudity and its sexuality or otherwise in detail because it feels disrespectful to the performer concerned – original and highly skilled, certainly. Again, I never used the term ‘misogyny’, much less suggest it was ‘used to dictate the order of the day’.
    ‘Snake Fervor told us that she dreamed up her act while in hospital following a serious performance injury: “[I] picked my character for that act because she was tortured and traumatised. I could relate to her when I was lying in hospital injured, and I wanted to create an act that made the audience feel uncomfortable” adding “It’s not a glittery, prissy, let’s all leave smiling and happy show.” Snake’s last point I think speaks directly to the nature of The Double R and what we have tried to create from day one. It is not the usual ‘happy-clappy-wall-to-wall’ frivolity of many cabaret shows. Its very aim is, while entertaining, to unsettle, wrong-foot and disorientate its audience, to amaze, amuse and yes, sometimes arouse you; but also to show you things that may, to quote my ridiculous signature hyperbole “scare you beyond the capacity for rational thought.”
    My point was that there were more ways to unsettle, wrong-foot and disorientate an audience than those referencing female trauma – i would be totally up for some acts featuring women as perpetrators, gender-bending, reversal of expectation, gender ambiguity, turning the tables. I didn’t accuse you of misogyny and I didn’t accuse you of exploitation – my point was you do great stuff, maybe mix it up a little, including in terms of gender. And I stand by that.

    • “I very deliberately did not accuse you of misogyny”

      As I stated, I believe your review definitely gave “an (albeit somewhat cloaked) suggestion of misogyny” And personally I’ve never had to deliberately or even “very deliberately” not accuse someone of misogyny, does this not suggest that it was your first instinct to do so? What I believe you did level at us was the celebration, hand in hand with Lynch, of female victimhood, which to me suggests the celebration of violence towards women, which in turn suggests misogyny. You may not have used the word but I believe it is all over your piece.

      “I’ve never come across that quote before, but I find it a bit disingenous (and problematically like Stephanie Meyer defending Twilight”

      I’m not going anywhere near that. Twilight, really? Are these comparable artists?

      “I would like to see more acts that take those narratives of female victimhood and undermine them, subvert them, play with them, problematise them, discuss them – as some of the Double-R acts I mentioned clearly did.”

      The acts you didn’t like made up roughly half the show and were threaded throughout the night, to provide colour and dynamics to the show. This is how you program a cabaret show. Your review bunched them all together, suggesting that it was one victim after another, thus supporting your point; this is disingenuous.

      “Traumata’s performance, which iirc immediately preceded the dancing bloody girls number”

      You do not ‘rc’. Traumata’s act was followed by Laurie Hagen, then by my Eraserhead puppet act, then the fifteen minute interval, and then “the dancing bloody girls number”.

      “undoubtedly talented dancers who happened to be covered in (obviously fake, in contrast) blood and displayed no other signs of the consequences of violence *did* diminish the impact of assumed violence or violation.”

      What makes you think the blood was their blood? Did they act injured, or weak?

      “I fight quite shy of discussing Sabrina Sweepstakes’ nudity and its sexuality or otherwise in detail because it feels disrespectful to the performer concerned – original and highly skilled, certainly.”

      What you wrote about Sabrina was: “her naked body just happened to get smeared with clay and water. Hmm.” If the “just happened” and “Hmm” are not sarcasm, and therefore criticism, then I have no idea what they’re doing there.

      In the end, of course, you are welcome to come to any conclusion you like about what it is we do, and to write about it; and while I find the discussion about Lynch and sexism a very interesting one, I think your article handled it very badly by cloaking it in a half-baked review. Half-baked because some acts are barely mentioned while others (that support your theme) are trawled over and over. The lighting and staging is barely touched upon, ditto the music and the incredible venue. The amazing performance of Em Brulée is mentioned only in regard to her not having undressed. Does this not feel “disrespectful to the performer concerned”? This was not a review proper, it was a polemic in sheep’s clothing. However none of this was the reason for my reply. But when you use patronising phrases like ‘”take to task” and “unthinking” along with the theme of your ‘review’, that is a direct attack on my wife and I’s motivation in staging the Double R as we do. To suggest that we have not thought about the way we run, book and stage The Double R Club, and have done so for 4 years, is extraordinarily insulting.

  3. Looking forwards to my first RR club this month, more than ever!

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