There’s a puzzling range of controversies raging over ‘entertainment’ and ‘the arts’. Social justice warriors are busy finding items – books, films, statues, to condemn for racism, and whilst libraries obediently bury offending books, the women’s movement battles over misogynistic and mind-bending traditions such as nightclub drag queens crossing yet more boundaries to present as adorable, harmless panto-dames and turning up in children’s libraries.
Personally, I tend to look hard and long in any direction I’m told not to – I’ve always done that. It’s the way I was brought up. Entertainment was a puzzle to me as a kid. The available choices were – well they were entertaining — kids are good at finding entertainment in whatever flotsam they’re handed – but the offerings were weird and embarrassing – books telling stories of love between adults who clearly hated each other, films about bullying – they were all about bullying, with much-flogged heroes constantly (in my view) making idiots of themselves by ‘bravely’ tolerating the bullying, corrupt administrators of the rules. Lovers were stalkers, all but bludgeoning their targets to win their ‘love’.
What is seen as offensive?
Amidst all this controversy over the entertainments I grew up with, I was trying hard to remember how I really viewed all that stuff when Jerry Sadowitz got banned from the Edinburgh Fringe for being offensive. I wondered how on earth anyone could have been surprised by Jerry Sadowitz being offensive. He’s been doing what he does in Edinburgh for decades. I’ve always avoided his shows – they were clearly advertised as what they were.
A feminist warrior with a firm lefty political stance not unlike mine says he’s no different to ‘Alf Garnet’. She’s wrong. He’s very different. I remember watching Till Death Us Do Part as a kid, and it was embarrassing trash – comedy centred around mindless racism and the inability of English neighbours to get along – a tedious illustration of what to expect from many adults. It confirmed my sense of being an alien. But let’s look at ‘offensiveness’ from a different angle, and see where that gets us…
Gone With the Wind
I read a book review the other day – under the title Southern Comforter, Alex von Tunzelmann writes about Sarah Churchwell’s revisiting of Gone With the Wind – the book and the film. It seems to me that Churchwell’s book, The Wrath to Come, will make a very good argument against the banning of ‘racist books’. She is, apparently, very clear that what she’s studying is American mythology. Gone With the Wind presents a clear road-map of — or maybe the original recipe for — Trumpy America, everything that social justice warriors are striving not to be, everything that the rest of the world (as we sit under the tables with our tin hats on) are praying that the States will stop exporting.
But what did I think, reading Gone With the Wind as a child? I have one abiding memory of watching the film – I was a new mother, newly sensitized, and was reduced to a nervous wreck by the horrors of the war scene, and the terrible, terrible danger to babies and their mothers as Scarlett tries to rescue the mid-birthing Melanie from the burning city amidst exploding shells and riotous soldiers.
Watching it a decade or so later, my daughter was mainly struck by the scene where Scarlett reads the list of casualties from a town-square notice board. My daughter’s generation seem to be more compassionate than mine. She spoke to me of a heart breaking vision of herself, reading of the deaths of all the lads in her peer group. I guiltily remembered reading that scene in the book and rolling my eyes, cynically recognising that Scarlett was mourning the vast reduction in the numbers of living souls who loved Scarlett. More recently, my eldest grand daughter wants to know why her mother watches comedies about “Friends” who clearly hate each other.
And now I remember – I remember well. Girls are brought up to be aliens to themselves, as well as to the world. We are set up to fail by being double-divided. I paid close attention to Scarlett O’Hara, noting how she “was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it”. As an adolescent, I worked hard for a while to pull the same trick. It echoed in my mind years later when, in a TV interview, Barbara Windsor spoke about a career based on pretending to have big tits. I remembered noticing the way she pushed her chest out until you could hear her voice cracking under the strain. I remembered the scene in a Carry On film where she was a stripper, wearing nothing but a few glittery, stick on hearts, and thinking ‘my god, surely people will notice what she has not got…’ but apparently, she pulled it off.
People are very, very eager to believe the narrative that’s been sold to them.
I wasn’t sympathetic to Scarlett O’Hara. I was watching, and plotting, divided against her and against myself, thinking how much better I would have been at holding together that fragile throne she sat upon. I noted that she stuck with the idea she’d been sold that good, healthy Southerners had far too much life in them to bother with books, music or anything at all complex – such as understanding other people. I (my young teen self) would have won all those young bucks and Ashley Wilkes – and I confidently told myself, in my version of events Rhett Butler would not have required the services of a whore.
The sexism and the constant, casual cruelty to black people and to the poor I took in my stride. The same abhorrent, utter human awfulness was apparent in all the ‘entertainment’ I was offered as a child. It most certainly didn’t make me ‘okay with’ all that – but it confirmed it as inevitable.
My lefty comrade who disapproved of Jerry Sadowitz and Alf Garnett said such things are dangerous because they are written as a piss-take, then accepted as a model by racist viewers. Well, you could say the same of Gone With the Wind – what you get out of entertainment and the arts is shaped by what you put in. Perusing the book in the library this week, reading it as a mature adult who’s read Fred Douglass, and lived through that stonkingly shocking (for people like me) summer of BLM events which (for people like me) were a constant series of “oh god, I didn’t realise…” the first few pages of Gone With The Wind highlighted for me the nature and the function of the narrative we need to break down.
Memories of my own childhood attitudes to it all show me that the message was there, and it was sinking in, as the young bucks leap off their horses and throw the reins to interchangeable ‘piccaninnies’, as the ‘darkies’ display that ubiquitous ‘African lower lip’ of impotent disapproval, as the young people’s servants patiently say “well I don’ know, masser, but…” and gently feed their boorish masters the information they need to work out if they are on their heads or their heels.
Racists, sexists and capitalists know exactly what they are doing, and who they are hurting. They build a narrative around themselves that does not hide it – that would be too difficult – but teaches racial, sexual and class hatred as an inevitable background. Let’s hang onto those books and films (though there’s nothing wrong with townspeople throwing the occasional statue into a river if they need to bring an arrogant council to heel). Let’s hang onto them so that when our kids realise how badly brought up they’ve been, they have something to pay attention to, to work out what’s wrong with their world, and how to start putting it right.
That’s why Jerry Sadowitz should not be cancelled. He is the opposite of 20th century mainstream entertainment. He does not feed you offensive rage as an inevitable background. He puts it right up front, and demands that you think about it. It’s one of the things comedians are for. Just as stating the realities of sex and gender, in order to flag up sexism, is one of the things feminists are for.
Back to those drag queens
Gone With the Wind tells us a lot about sexism, about how we encourage our young people to be two-faced and mad. As well as the racism, it tells me a lot about why I was so bored with, cynical about, and entertained by pantomime dames as a kid, and why they were the topic of the first decent story I wrote as an adult…
( This next bit is also me plugging my book. )
I traced the dame back through history as accurately as I could, adding ‘probably’s where necessary, visiting Mother Goose along the way, and throwing in one very unlikely (probably madly offensive these days) googly ball of a plot-twist, to make sure readers were paying attention. Oddly, no-one ever commented on that bit of narrative banditry. I suppose my audience were used to the idea that entertainment is weird, and just let it pass. Anyway…
Writing that story brought a lot of things into focus for me then, and is probably why I’m a feminist and a socialist now, and one who listens very carefully to what the radical feminists and the real anti-racists have to say about me and the world I live in.
I wrote Good Mother Gosse just before the turn of the century. It was published in a (slightly dubious) collection of early works by me called Jung’s People.
I have a few copies left, available for £25 — UK postage and some potentially offensive (or even feminist) materials included in the deal (for you to decide which is which). I’ll even sign your copy of Jung’s People for you, if you drop me a note telling me what to write. You can choose the Elastic Press or Circaidy Gregory Press edition…
Jung’s People by Kay Green
Elastic Press edition including postage to UK addresses, and mysterious weird things.
Here’s the Circaidy Gregory edition of Jung’s People. Click here to let me know if you want it signed, or if you want a price for sending one outside the UK.
Jung’s People by Kay Green
Circaidy Gregory Press edition, including postage to UK addresses and mysterious weird things.
Or for £3 I’ll email you a .pdf of the pantomime story, Good Mother Gosse.
Good Mother Gosse
Pdf copy of the 5000 word story exploring the pantomime dame, her provenance and her forebears.
( That’s the end of the book-trading bit )
…or hie thee to the library, and take a good look at Gone With the Wind, before someone persuades them to burn their remaining copies. It’s a really great way to start paying attention to just how we are led astray – so far astray we feed capitalist, pornographic fantasies to our kids without blinking an eye, even when it leads the rebels among them to believe that if they’re not happy with the tyranny of gender, they need to deny – or even change – their sex – meanwhile, we bicker about old books being racist even as we forget all about the horrendous number of black people, women and working class people who are in jail, and why that happens.
Or keep an eye out for Sarah Churchwell’s book, The Wrath to Come: Gone with the Wind and the Lies America Tells. If your library dares to stock a copy, I think it’ll be well worth a read.
Oh, and if you want to know what up-front, foregrounded offensiveness looks like, Jerry Sadowitz is still around, in places where promoters have stronger stomachs than the Edinburgh crew…