I’ve long thought I’d love to do a one-woman poetry show at the Edinburgh Fringe. Initially I thought “that would be really cool, but I’m not good enough yet.” Then I graduated to thinking “I probably am good enough now but I need an idea I can hinge everything on. I need a flash of inspiration.”
In August this year: I had my eureka moment.
I was trying to work out what I could offer an audience, which wasn’t just “if you like me you’ll probably like X thing about my past/my interests” – because, in the tiny window of opportunity you have to flyer each stranger at the Edinburgh Fringe – you need to have something other than “ME! Like me! Love me! I’m well good, I am!”
I mean: I’ve seen plenty of shows that would fit that dismissive description and have been brilliant, but poetry is a hard sell at the best of times, and anyway I’m fed up with talking just about myself.
And then it hit me: my big theme which I’ve been looking for has been here with me for over a year already: Permission.
About a year ago I wrote a poem called Permission, about instances of women acting in ways which were notably bold or in some way kicked against the assumed status quo. It was in part because I was so stunned by the succinctness of the image here*, and in part because I’d been trying to explain to a straight male friend of mine how differently women in gay bars hold themselves. Something about women just being confident in themselves seemed to be subversive and almost revolutionary. I was drawn to the double-edged sword that badass women are
- amazing and
- sadly too rare.
Permission was a poem I initially thought was pretty good, but when I started performing it I saw it usually goes across really well. As in: people remember lines of it and quote them back at me afterwards. Dudes have come up to me saying “sorry, I know that poem wasn’t really for me, but it really spoke to me and I needed to hear it.” This theme seems to have touched a nerve that – though strongly linked to feminism – was bigger than gender politics alone. It is about to get all intersectional up in here.
I performed Permission once at a Hammer and Tongue poetry slam not long after Thatcher had died. After I came off stage, the emcee – just trying to make a link to the next thing – mentioned Thatcher as an example of a woman who doesn’t ask permission. I was less than thrilled, but thinking about it afterwards I realised: he wasn’t wrong. It’s just that I hate Thatcher and everything she stood for. And she was the leader of a country, so her ‘not asking for permission’ was not empowering or gutsy: a person in power just doing whatever the hell they want and never caring if other people agree with them is often a very bad thing. I’d say: the more power you have, the more often you should check in with people to make sure you’re not being a dickhead.
The more I thought about it: permission is a very rich, complex and tangled topic.
Permission to just live my life
Lately I keep feeling I need someone’s permission to do some things in my life which I know, intellectually, are only my choices to make. Things like turning down a social thing, self-promoting my poetry stuff, or turning down jobs for causes I disagree with. I’m seeking someone else’s permission because I’m nervous about letting someone down, looking arrogant, or making a principled stand I perhaps can’t afford in a recession. I’m reticent to take full control of my life sometimes, because I’m still cowed by… something.
When I graduated from university I remember spending a few weeks feeling utterly bewildered that no one was going to be grading me on anything anymore. I even asked friends if they could please hold up scoreboards every now and again so I’d know how I was doing at life. Being an adult means not always having an authority figure. And that freedom – while I’m not knocking it – can take some getting used to.
Permission as a status signifier
I’m also haunted by an experience from a few years back, when I went on a weekend away with a big-ish group of friends. We had about three days staying in the middle of nowhere, just hanging out and drinking cheap cider and living off healthy things like jellybabies and Pringles. Whenever we were passing things around there was one girl – let’s call her Lucy – kept asking “Oh, could I have some of that, too?” – pre-supposing we were going to leave her out.
We were a big group of friends and everything we’d got from the supermarket was in big packs to share around, all the booze and the meals were shared, but every time we passed around crisps, sweets, someone’s camera so we could all see the funny photo – Lucy would say: “Oh, can I have one too?”
- “Oh, can I see that too?”
- “Oh, could I have a crisp too?”
- “Oh, could I have some pudding too?”
This linguistic tick (entirely subconscious, I’m sure) did some strange things over the course of three days:
- It made you (the person being asked) feel slightly guilty that she’d assumed you were going to leave her out.
- It made you feel slightly rushed/harried that she wasn’t just waiting her turn.
- And also, I’m ashamed to say, it made her seem distant. Lower on the ladder. Someone we could say ‘no’ to. Someone it was half-expected we’d say ‘no’ to.
This act of asking for extra permission put us (her contemporaries) in a strange position of power, and made us feel like in some way she wasn’t actually part of the group. By the end of the holiday I slightly resented her and kind of wanted to turn her down. Which is horrible, I know. I’m not proud of myself. But that whole dynamic was created by just one verbal tick.
It got me thinking that there is an interesting power dynamic – both assumed and created – by the act of asking permission. Sometimes asking someone else’s permission is more like asking for their blessing. Most of the times I’ve been looking for permission recently I’m really looking for encouragement or affirmation, not asking to be granted the right to do something. And in some instances permission is a thing between equals – say: sex and consent – where permission is the difference between a sex act and a sex crime. And in some instances – such as petitioning the High Court for permission to have a judicial review: they have all the power and can tell you to piss right off.
When you’re a kid most permissions will be in the latter category – you’ll be asking an authority figure who can turn you down outright. As an adult many more of the permissions will be just polite – i.e. “is it OK if I sit here?” (What will they do if you say no? You’re only really asking for their blessing.)
Some permissions have more than one layer to them: while you don’t have to ask the police’s permission to protest – in reality they often come down like a ton of bricks on people who haven’t ‘liaised’ with them ahead of time.
Some permissions have changed over time: asking someone for permission to marry their daughter was once “please sir, may I?” and now, in modern contexts – if that is your kind of thing – then you presumably see it as seeking the father’s blessing, seeking to be welcomed into the wider family as well.
So… permission and how and why and when we seek or need permission. That’s my topic. I have just under a year. My working title is:
I’ve never done a one-woman show before, and I’ve never set myself this broad a topic and just seen where it takes me – but that’s all part of the fun. I’ll try to blog about it semi-regularly to keep my own thoughts on track and hopefully bounce ideas off the blogosphere and see what comes out.
I’m aiming to combine a mix of some psychology/sociology/politics, anecdotes, and more. I’m aiming to read broadly and to have lots of coffees/pints with people with expertise and interest in any area of which this touches on. Some bits of these ideas are starting to take some shape and some form in my mind, but I’m very much still spitballing right now.
If you can think of any blog posts/documentaries/books/whatever that I should know about: please recommend them in the comments. If you’ve got some expertise and don’t mind my picking your brain at some point, then please do get in touch. (In the comments here or on Twitter, for starters?)
In the meantime I think this pretty much covers what I was initially talking about with womens’ body language in lesbian bars: http://thesocietypages.org/socimages/2013/09/10/gendered-and-the-body-language-of-power/ That on a body-language basis: ‘femininity’ and ‘submissiveness/low status’ are strongly interlinked.
*If anyone knows where this image originally comes from please tell me.