Reflecting initially on the Pussy Riot decision I began to think about the vulnerability of women in contemporary society; it is beginning to feel frighteningly unstable. The torturing of an elderly lady in her home during a robbery attempt shocked me; where does such brutality come from? A friend whose parents still live in South Africa commented on the level of violence in daily life; armed robbery frequently includes extreme violence for relatively small rewards. Of course there has always been violence in society and the immediacy of the internet delivers the news to our ears/eyes faster than ever before. To a certain extent this has somehow perversely made the previously horrific acceptable; shrugging it off without letting to true impact sink in. We have become numbed to the scale of this global crisis or am I taking it all to seriously? Where has our humanity gone?
So does two years, instead of the anticipated three (or seven) year sentence passed, for Pussy Riot constitute leniency in Mr Putin’s book? Will their anticipated appeal be bolstered by the international condemnation of the disproportionate punishment or is the Russian judiciary above such influence? If indeed it is a judicial decision rather than a political one. Personally, like Madonna, I will ‘pray’ for justice to be done i.e. the quashing of the sentence; what concerns me most is the term ‘prison colony’ not prison. Prison is appalling enough but the word ‘colony’ has frightening connotations. Or are these women misguided publicity seeking nobodies – I for one do not buy into this argument preferring to believe they are articulating the reality of an increasingly dangerous situation where descent is not socially acceptable.
This week the Guardian (17 August) highlighted the story of a Chinese woman sentenced to 18 months re-education through labour for “seriously disturbing the social order and exerting a negative impact on society” after she repeated petitioned officials in Yongzhou, Hunan, because she believed the sentences given to the men who kidnapped, raped and forced her 11-year-old daughter into prostitution should have been more severe. A public outcry led to her release but did not end with her return home last week. Protests called for the abolition of the system; at the end of 2008 China had 350 labour camps with 160,000 prisoners (in addition to drug offences the system is often used to deal with minor criminals such as thieves and sex workers).
Tanya Gold in the Saturday (18 August) Guardian writes about the Edinburgh Comedy Festival specifically about the number of ‘comedians’ employing rape jokes with a smattering of domestic violence thrown in for good measure. She cites comic Nick Page who says: “It is getting worse because of the volume of people trying to enter the comedy industry without the life experience to create good jokes and good stories”. So basically its lazy humour from immature ‘comic’ wannabees; what does this say about society today I would ask. But there are comics with backbone not prepared to be associated with this type of humour – Page pulled out of an Edinburgh showcase last week after watching “three comics in a row doing rape or violence material. They were damaging comedy. But with the death of feminism in mainstream culture more and more people are prepared to put up with it.”
But is this true? The death of feminism in mainstream culture or has it morphed into something more subtle; so subtle that the average misogynist can’t recognise it? Last year The Magdalena Project, of which I was part, celebrated 25 years since the international network of women working in theatre was established. Reflecting on what we’d achieved was salutary; certainly scores of female theatre practitioners across the world have benefitted from the Project having found the support of like minded professionals. But is the presence of the female voice in the theatre canon any different after a quarter of a decade? Overall little has changed reflected in the recent debate (led in part by Equity) about just this issue amongst subsidised theatres in England.
Have we survived (and thrived) by talking to ourselves; by inspiring younger women to get involved and supporting their endeavour? Without a doubt the female experience is a rich source of material to be mined for the script writer so why do theatre programmers stick with the tried and tested stories? The Shakespeare’s et al. In straitened times seats must be sold and fewer ‘risks’ can be taken but are audiences that shallow? OK it’s a long haul to change cultural (and other) habits but unless the material is presented to the audience we’ll never know whether they’d like it or not. For me theatre (and film) is a medium through which society seeks to understand the complexities of the world it inhabits. Stories transgress time and place; old tales resonate in a contemporary context. On Friday I went to see Coriolan/us (National Theatre Wales Pearson/Brookes production), staged in an aircraft hangar at RAF St Athan the result was an amazing theatrical experience. I confess my knowledge of the story was limited – as one fellow audience member put it ‘basically it’s about boys fighting’. What struck me was the contemporary resonance with what is happening in today both in Syria and at the platinum mine in South Africa. Bloody battles for territory both literal and metaphorical.
What does the treatment of rape/sexual violence say about contemporary society? The Fifty Shade of Grey debate just doesn’t seem to want to go away; the trivialising of the material typified by coming across the trilogy being on sale in Morrisions. Seemingly ‘Mummy Porn’ is supermarket fodder sitting alongside other special offers both healthy and unhealthy. I confess to finding the debate challenging as I worked in rape crisis and within women’s aid for years; dealing with horrific cases of real life abuse day in day out. What is fantasy for some is reality for others; one person chooses to engage whilst the other does not have this luxury.
A few weeks ago I was told the story by a friend’s daughter in her 20s and it frightened me for two reasons: firstly the casual way she regaled me and secondly her complete bemusement at my response. She is an active member of a social networking site where the main exchange between members seems to be ‘sex chat’. In the main it’s fairly harmless bringing light to otherwise grey days but every now and then the conversation takes on a rather more sinister tone. One male member – (no pun intended although the photo he shared (evidently taken for personal consumption as it one scrolled back his wife’s foot came into view) left nothing to the imagination as he was clothed only in his (extensive) tattoos)) – said he fancied another family so he ‘offered’ to come to this young woman’s house, tie her husband up and rape her in front of him. If she then got pregnant she could keep the baby or not; he would be involved in bringing up the child or not – these choices would be hers.
Rape has not and will not ever be a laughing matter for me; it’s not suitable material for light-hearted banter. And if this makes me weird or a prude then so be it. Whilst this type of sexual violence remain a frequently employed weapon of war it’s not funny and no matter how hard I think I fail to see how this ‘humour’ can be justified.