:: Encore Theatre Magazine ::

:: British Theatre: Polemics & Positions ::
:: welcome to Encore Theatre Magazine :: home | who are we? | links | contact us ::
:: Encore Revivals
:: Encore Heroes
:: Encore Futures
:: Encore Snapshots
:: Encore Polemics
:: Encore Resources
:: Encore Criticwatch
:: Encore Commentary
:: Encore on Encore
:: Encore Awards 2003
[::..site feeds..::]
:: Atom
:: RSS

Encore Theatre Magazine
::Front Page::

:: Sunday, January 21, 2007 ::

Racist Culture

Jade GoodyThe year’s barely three weeks old and our culture’s been rocked by racism from top to bottom. From the hallowed heights of the ballet came the uncomfortable revelation that Simone Clark, principal dancer at the English National Ballet, has joined the far-right British National Party; soon followed the spectacle of Celebrity Big brother, in which Jade Goody (pictured), aided and abetted by her boyfriend Jack Tweed, model Danielle Lloyd, and ex-S Club member, Jo O’Meara, connived in the racist bullying of Bollywood star, Shilpa Shetty.

The BNP have tried to exploit this new addition to their ranks which led to the bizarre spectacle of 30 racists fighting for the right to go the ballet past a group of 50 anti-racist protestors. The left in the meantime has been up in arms about the affair. A similarly surreal non-event greeted Jade Goody when she was overwhelmingly voted out of the Big Brother house with 82% wanting her out. Fearing violent scenes, Channel 4 decided to hold a public eviction, so Jade bathetically tottered out to be met by Devina McColl (who, deprived of her audience and unsure how to play it, did her best to look both excited and grave at the same time).

It’s a weird situation when the tabloids, who have so often whipped up racist fears about immigrants and asylum seekers, sitting astride their very highest horse over loudmouth Jade. The Mail for example published a very sympathetic interview with Shetty’s parents, bemoaning ‘the poisonous atmosphere of the Big Brother house’ and the horrifying ‘reality of modern Britain’. In an interview with Simone Clarke, on the other hand, the same paper, after some cursory criticisms of the BNP (mainly about how uncouth they are), all but endorsed her decision to join. Her reasons for joining ‘cannot be brushed aside as a foolish error, let alone ignored’ and indeed her worries about immigration reveal not her own ignorance and prejudice but ‘that something has gone badly wrong with democratic British politics’. Because, they insist ‘crime and immigration are real and understandable fears’ (how did ‘crime’ get in here?) and indeed ‘immigrants are arriving in Britain and the rate of one a minute’.

In both instances, the arguments reveal our confusion as a culture about racism. While Clarke (pictured) is obviously fantastically naive and, frankly, a bit thick if she didn’t know that the BNP are holocaust-deniers, favour forcible repatriation, and various other policies she doesn’t believe in, it’s also disturbing to see how ignorant and demagogic the arguments have been against her and Jade Goody.

Simone Clarke loves a man in uniform, apparentlyFor one thing, does it matter what the private opinions are of a ballet dancer? The sad fact about the ballet world is that these men and women are trained from a very early age precisely not to express themselves, to evacuate their creativity, to become machine-like and merely to to execute - perfectly and beautifully - the steps assigned to them by the choreographer. In fact, they merely obey orders. (The perfect follower of fascism, in fact.) The idea that Clarke will be given a platform to express her racist views on the stage of the Colisseum is absurd. You don’t become principal dancer of a national ballet company by using the stage as a platform to express yourself. She only got a platform in the press because she was exposed. There is little evidence that she intended to make a public stand at all. And if it’s a legal political party - ah but that’s another debate - why can’t she join it? Is joining the BNP a notifiable act? If not, then we shouldn’t really have found out. It annoyed me to read that Peter Hall and Harold Pinter voted Tory in 1979. It doesn’t make me respect Frank Lampard very much to know that he supports David Cameron. But, hey, I don’t go to the theatre just to see myself on stage, I go to encounter other people, different people, to extend the limits of my experience and so of myself.

Which leads us directly to Big Brother. In 1978, Germaine Greer wrote ‘Eternal War’, a brilliant article about August Strindberg. One might have imagined that Greer, the most famous feminist of the twentieth century might have little positive to say about the most famous misogynist in theatre history. But the article is a eulogy. Some men, she says, claim to be feminists, to understand what women want; they are soft, and caring, in touch with their feminine side. Bollocks to that, says Greer. This is just the co-option of feminism and nothing has changed underneath. Strindberg is the greatest playwright about the battle of the sexes because, she argues scarily, he is the only playwright who genuinely reveals what men really think about women. Implicit in the article is the belief that it’s better to face the horror of the world than to hide it.

And if this is true, and we think it is, what’s wrong with Celebrity Big Brother? What that programme revealed starkly and clearly was what racism is like. We saw - as David Eldridge has pointed out - the way that racism intersects with class envy and class hatred; we saw the way it expresses itself in crude paranoid fantasies (the housemates unbelievably believe that Shilpa Shetty is trying to poison them), its coded expression in sexist language (Shilpa has been called a ‘dog’ and a ‘cunt’), and the casual, ambiguous joking that can terrorise without exposing itself (’What’s her name? Shilpa Poppadom?’ quipped Jade; ‘I think she should fuck off home’ opined Danielle).

Trevor Phillips, the chair of the Commission for Equality and Human Rights, has demanded that Channel 4 admit that it mishandled the situation and called for its chairman, Luke Johnson, to be censured. It’s true that the episode has revealed some murky things about the relationship between TV programmes and the big celebrity agents but this isn’t what Trevor Phillips is talking about. So why censure C4? Because it showed racism? Because it brought some nasty people together and showed the result? Racism is a feature of current Britain. This sort of attitude is about two things (a) making you feel better about your own latent prejudices by identifying someone more racist than yourself, (b) a belief that if you ignore it and pretend it isn’t happening, racism will go away. The first is dishonest; it suggests that London Theatre Blog may be right when it claims that under the radical protest lies a rather more conservative view that everything’s really alright; the second claim is not true and has never been true.

If you believe that racism thrives in the oxygen of publicity - and perhaps it would - would it not be better to ask what there is in our atmosphere that could give life to such a hateful belief? Otherwise it’s like locking up teenage junkies for possession without stopping to ask why they are taking smack in the first place. Oh, hold on, we do that.

The media and the performing arts are venues in which we can ask questions about the sources of human hatred, the forms of our ignorance, how we become the worst of ourselves. And the thread that runs through both of these unpleasant episodes is not so much race as class. Why is it so horrifying that Simone Clarke’s a neo-Nazi? Because she’s a ballet dancer. She’s in contact with high art, she’s probably middle class, she’s one of us… which is why it’s expressed as puzzlement, shock, confusion. Whereas Jade, the unacceptable face of the white working class, is a repository for the bourgeoisie’s hatreds and fears. Usually middle class liberal can’t admit that he or she is disgusted and terrified by the working class, so moments like this represent rare relief. Thank God she’s said something racist, and to such an emblem of cosmopolitan middle-class refinement, because now we can happily hate her and all of her chav scum kind!

It’s nastily ironic that what we saw here was a lynch-mob mentality. And if you believe, with Encore, that racism feeds on irrationalism and ignorance, that the arts are at their best when they are fearlessly imagining the worst and the best that we can be, this has been a bad week for all of us.

Labels: , , , ,

Simone Clarke is my hero. She has stood up to the nasty bullies and made them look like the fascists that they are.

I also have sympathy for Jade Goody. She is of mixed race and her father did not give her the best upbringing.


Thought crimes and name calling are
thought more serious than real crimes these days.
Dear Theatre Worker,
As with Radio 4 Today presenters when they stray from politics into the arts, you do sound like a bit of an undergraduate knob when you wander the other way.
Hey Anonymous, thanks for the detailed feedback. It's always so encouraging when people of such evidently detailed knowledge and understanding take the time and trouble to engage with the arguments. Yours, TW.
jade gets everything she deserves racism is very serious and jade is jealous because shilpa os better looking and is well mannered.
Interesting and thoughtful post, TW. But Christ, what a depressing bunch of comments.
Really interesting post. I can't help feeling though that, even in this post-modern age, we should be able to make a differentiation between Strindberg and Big Brother. I would even go so far as to say that Strindberg was an artist and Big Brother is tedious, exploitative television and that the celebrity version is the worst because it is the least representative.

Just because something exists doesn't mean we have to see it, does it? Big Brother and verbatim theatre seem to be linked in this sense - they both place a premium on 'authenticity'. Just look at the language so frequently used in the shows: "I'm the most genuine person here".

What's amazing though is that if people are so disgusted by it, why don't they just stop watching it? It's like pornography - those who love it and those who want to abolish it are unified in the fact that they are obsessed with it.

I do agree with the points you make about Simone Clarke though. The Guardian acted recklessly by outing her and in doing so employed really trashy tabloid tactics. It was just that the victims of those tactics were BNP supporters rather than love-rat, high-jinx rugby players or cricket players, so they considered anything to be fair game.
Interesting post (despite what our smug and entirely baseless anonymous friend may think).

I couldn't agree more on Clarke, it is only now in the wake of the Guardian's counter-inuitive witch hunt that her political position could possibly have any impact. Her performance has only now, as the protesters and counter-protesters clash outside the theatre, been imbued with an element of the political. Unless the Guardian are suggesting that her membership of a (as you said) legal political party should negatively impact upon her potential employment. And if all the were wanting to suggest was the extent to which the BNP is expanding into the traditional middle-class middle ground, why the need for names?

It seems to me that the important thing was to identify Clarke as an individual and an outsider. An exception to prove a spurious rule; That the unpleasant spectre racism and division casts its shadow only over the big-brother-watching masses, leaving the middle classes and their nobler arts bathed in the glorious sunshine of liberal enlightenment.

When exactly did these reality shows like Celebrity Big Brother become something more than lighted aquariums of clumsy cheap entertainment? At best these aquariums act like funhouse mirrors that present distorted reflections of the culture in which they are placed. However outrageous, in the end they are nothing more than products in a marketplace. Culturally and politically, it’s tempest in a teapot.

I came to this “scandal” through an odd circuit of googling Germaine Greer and other feminist references about the V-Day celebrations. Of course I had heard of Big Brother, one of the original reality shows, but I had never really heard of the Celebrity version. I found it strange that Greer was even watching (and commenting on) the show, but I was dumbfounded when I learned that she had actually once been a contestant in “the house.”

Greer had had an awful time and quit her episode in 2005 and now commenting from outside the Big Brother aquarium she is convinced that “the actress” Shilpa is having a good time: "Everyone hates her because she wants them to. She also knows that if she infuriates people enough, their innate racism will spew forth."

Of course Greer has also had her own good times goading others in the medium where she's the diva. And she has no new lesson for herself or anyone in this, just that old fish-out-of-water thing. Stay within the environment that best feeds your talents and filters your shit.

This ballet dancer story and the TV story are not only totally unrelated but also totally inane except that they string together to make a newsy scandal about “racism.” Debate and discussion on this scandal then also becomes its own species of frivolous entertainment.

So I’m partially with anonymous, Theatre Worker needs to get back to work on theater. He has nothing to say here. Nobody does. There’s nothing to talk about.
nick's post is actually the best post ever.

not just for what he or she says. but for the use of inverted commas, which is "amazing".

and also for writing the two most brilliant sentences ever written.

"I came to this “scandal” through an odd circuit of googling Germaine Greer and other feminist references about the V-Day celebration" and,

"He has nothing to say here. Nobody does. There’s nothing to talk about."

I am "giddy" with love.
Really interesting post. Although I have one major quibble. I'd suggest you actually attend the occasional ballet before characterising the dancers as automatons. Better still here is a cheaper solution; go to youtube and type in William Forsythe and then watch the extaordinary differences in interpretation, better still type in Giselle and be prepared to be stunned by the differences.

Now fair enough if classical dance ain't your scene but to belittle it out of ignorance does your article a disservice.
Post a Comment

Powered by Blogger Pro™