This is a guest post by Emily Jones, a third year Theatre student at Lancaster. Emily originally wrote this for a half-day Gender and Women’s Studies seminar which I co- organised with a colleague Anne Cronin (from Sociology) entitled ‘Is the Personal Still Political?: Young Women and Sexualisation’.
The impetus for this seminar was our alarm at evidence of the growth of ‘lad’ culture on University campuses across the country and this event included a brilliant presentation based on their research into this phenomenon at Lancaster by first year Gender and Women’s Studies students. Other papers were given by postgraduates and lectures on the topic of ‘laddism’ more broadly but also on femininity, queer identities and on the need to educate young women about their sexuality in positive terms.
While some of the stories and evidence that emerged from this event were alarming, it felt positive, productive and considering the topic, highly appropriate to have undergraduates presenting alongside other, more experienced researchers.
Emily’s speech was one of the more ‘personal’ contributions and afterwards I asked her if I could post it on this blog because it moved me and because it underlines one of the important ‘social benefits’ of engagement in theatre.
It also it ties in with the various posts Elaine and I made last year on V Day and One Billion Rising (see here and here) In fact I refer to Emily (forgetting her words!) in my post ‘So Did One Billion Rise’.
(For any non UK readers – Emily refers to herself at one point as ‘scouse’- this is a nickname given to people from Liverpool).
Theatre as Voice (Emily Jones)
In my second year at University a close friend of mine asked me a question that I’ll never forget. She asked me if I could ‘teach her how to be sexy’.
At this point I was in my second production of The Vagina Monologues, and was really heavily involved in the whole campaign, V-Day. I didn’t and don’t for one second ever think of myself as sexy. But I do know my own confidence. And it’s something that I truly believe developed because of the Vagina Monologues.
Every year, as part of our uni production, we hold a sharing event for the cast members or the activists as they should be referred to, in which everyone is given the opportunity to share their story, simply stemming from the question ‘Why are you involved with TVM?’ Of course for many, it is simply for making friends, theatrical experience or maybe to try and gain some confidence. But for most, the issues explored in TVM make their reason for being involved seem much closer to home. For most, this will be the first or only chance that the women have had to completely open up about sexual harassment, sexual abuse, bullying, rape, problems at home, problems at uni, childhood problems, on-going problems, the list goes on.
Stories I’ve heard in them sessions will stick with me forever.
One that will particularly never leave me was a story from somebody who was already, before TVM, a close friend of mine. She had been walking home, in Lancaster, when a man pushed her up against a wall and attacked her. I’d say luckily she got away, but it’s not lucky. When she told her story, nobody had expected it. She’s one of the most beautiful, always smiling friends that I have, and for some reason this makes people think ‘it couldn’t have happened to her’.
Far too many young women are experiencing sexual harassment or abuse whilst at university. The stories I’ve heard, my own story even, makes me want to fight harder for these voices to be heard by more people. Of course, this sharing session inevitably creates a strong support network.
It was being part of this sharing group that gave me courage to move on from my past. The session gave me the confidence to tell my story, not only to all of the other brave young women, but also to my family. Telling people changed who I was. And this is why I think I was asked that question by my friend. Because my whole demeanour had changed. I could hold my head high, I wasn’t afraid of letting men in my life again, I wanted to go out and socialise- something I’d missed out on in my teen years.
So, with my new found confidence and a louder voice (although being scouse it didn’t need to be much louder!) I ventured into creating a piece of theatre with my third year practical group for one of our modules. The piece involved 6 women simply standing in a space and sharing stories about the pressures that are felt by women in society.
When we began the process of scriptwriting, we wrote our own personal responses to topics as well as our own personal stories which we shared with the rest of the group. I probably speak for the whole group when I say we had never anticipated how difficult sharing our writing would be.
The personal, emotional connections we had to each other’s stories was completely overwhelming and very often resulted in copious amounts of tears! I think it’s important to note that the experiences we shared weren’t particularly shocking or awful stories, they were about simple, everyday things. But they made us realise how many pressures we subconsciously felt.
Both The Vagina Monologues and the piece we devised have been the only outlets I and many of the other girls involved, have had to talk about our lives as young women. And that is just as heart breaking as our stories. We should be able to speak. We should have confidence.
I want to end by saying; it’s only through writing this speech for today that I have really thought about the question my friend asked me. And it’s made me realise: sexiness is not something that can be taught, it’s not something that defines you, it doesn’t come from within or from how you look: it is simply a perception that other people can have.