Monday, 2 October 2017

The Guilty Pleasure of Cultural Piggy-Backing...

I've been thinking a lot about cultural appropriation this week. I know, who do I think I am, right? Last week it was a cobbled together list about blogging, this week I'm bringing out the big guns. I'm throwing in the hot potato. I'm having the conversation.

Cultural Appropriation is the concept of writing about a culture of which you don't belong. Lots of writers have done this over the years - indeed the very notion of fiction requires an author to create a story that is not simply a recount of their own experience. But in recent years a debate has emerged. Is it right - for example -  for a white author such as myself, to write about the experiences of a person of colour, when a) I couldn't possibly understand that experience for real, and b) there are plenty of people who live that experience and should be heard before the likes of me pipe up? Any subsequent debate means privilege raises its head. And then intersectionality. It all gets thrown into the mix. Can I authentically write the character of a gay man when I'm not a gay man myself but a straight woman? I haven't lived with homophobia but I have experienced sexism? Can I transfer understanding of one area of oppression to another to inform a character, or does that mean I'm a) being rubbish, b) silencing the stories of actual gay male writers who might want to concentrate on this area, or c) all of the above? B is an academic debate in reality - I'm silencing no one from my titchy corner of the book market, but the wider questions persist. The topic is full of shades of grey with no black and white answers. (Apologies for the heavy-handed metaphor but you really should recognise my clunky style by now.) A bunch of brilliant writers have their say here, and it's a mixed bag of thoughts and feelings. Cultural appropriation is a bit of a minefield. Something to avoid? Something to recognise? Something to go ahead with, regardless? I think about it a lot when I'm creating new characters - it seems important to have in mind even if they all end up having the same ethnicity, sexuality and socio-economic status as myself.

So why this week? What has brought it all to a head? Well, brace yourself for Nigella . There is always time for Nigella. This week I chanced upon a video clip where she said she didn't agree with the idea of having guilty pleasures. Pleasure shouldn't be guilty, it should be embraced. I've paraphrased slightly so check out her actual words here. But it made me think. I'm definitely with her on the chocolate biscuit thing. If you want to eat something, you should eat it and enjoy it. Absolutely don't feel bad about it. Feeling bad about biscuits (or *cough* roast potatoes) is pointless. I heard her words and thought, Yes, Nigella, once again you and I are in sync. But then I thought again. There are some pleasures for which I do think I should feel guilt. Not food-related but culture-related. One of those pleasures is drag. 

Please don't judge me.
Misty Chance
Hope Mill Theatre,
Manchester, 2016
Yep, drag. Men dressed as women, men being funny and fierce, men subverting reality. (FYI...I know drag kings exist, trans women and non-binary drag queens too. I'm not trying to rewrite reality. I'm just referring to my favourite performers, so far.) I've always had an appreciation for drag queens because Dame Edna Everage was the funniest person on the television growing up. Lily Savage made me laugh despite the fact she was hosting Blankety Blank, and RuPaul's Drag Race rocks my world. But once again, cultural appropriation rears its head. I just listed really mainstream drag artists. Ones that have made the leap from the clubs and bars to the TV. I can appropriate them without knowing a great deal about the culture from which they came. And when I do that, I'm not understanding the full weight of history behind the artists I enjoy. Drag was not made for people like me. I'm straight. I am catered for by many other entertainment genres. Drag was made for the gay community by the gay community. Going mainstream was never what it was about. But here I am, binge-watching Drag Race on Netflix, going to clubs to see RuPaul's alumni strut their stuff, and carrying a tote bag that says 'Sashay Away' when I head into town. I am so appropriating another culture it's untrue. At times I feel bad about it. I feel guilty. It's a guilty pleasure!

Smörgåsbord - or a
buffet on one big plate!
Aquavit with special
glasses from eBay
Recently there has been another culture I've piggy-backed onto like it's my own. Scandanavia. (Disclaimer: I know that's not the name of a country.) A couple of weeks ago I read Nørth: How to Live Scandanavian. See my thoughts on that here. But it confirmed what five days in Oslo, five days in Copenhagen and an afternoon in Malmo had already told me. Deep down I feel Scandanavian. The fact remains that I am not. I'm a Cheshire/Scouse hybrid without so much as a sniff of a cinnamon bun in my ancestry. And yet for the past week I have cooked and eaten nothing but Scandanavian food. This has mostly been meatballs and mash or hotdogs. (I lived the dream on Saturday night when I bashed out a smörgåsbord with aquavit accompaniment, for Strictly.) But the fact remains that I've gegged in on someone else's culture and cherry-picked the bits I like. It feels wrong. It's a guilty pleasure!

Worrying too much about these pleasures stops them from being pleasurable, so I won't. But I am aware of them. I'm aware they belong to other people, and hopefully those other people are on board with me loving their culture. I am aware I am an appreciative outsider. I support from the edges not from within. And when it comes to creating made up characters whose stories I want to explore, I am aware of the tentative mine field across which I tread.

In Carry the Beautiful, I explicitly included two of people of colour and two gay characters. These were almost incidental to the plot. (Almost. The existence of a couple of them highlighted the prejudices of another character.) Was I being representative or tokenistic? Was I being aware or naive? Not sure. But I think about it a lot. Especially when I'm warming glögg, cooking cinnamon buns and lip-syncing for my life. Especially then. The minefield continues but we must always remember it's there.

Have a lovely week, folks.


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