Role Models, Icons and The Church of Beth Ditto
When people ask me who my favourite pop star, celebrity or famous crush is my mind draws a blank. Who is it I idolise? Who is my biggest role-model? Who do I want to be when I finally grow up?
These questions that have always left me stumped, my teenage bessie Louisa used to say we were both too self obsessed to dedicate our time thinking of other people - and there’s probably some truth in that.
Being a fat, queer, femme, political, mouthy weirdo means the icons and role models who straddle working classness, queer sexuality and radical politic collectively are few and far between - perhaps that’s why someone or something doesn’t automatically spring to mind.
At a meeting yesterday I was asked the same question - who inspires you, Scottee? The easy answer is to say people who sort of inspire you despite their political, identity or background differing from yours. When I used to wear sequins and makeup people would assume Leigh Bowery and Boy George (the fat years) were my father figures, as brilliant as both are I grew up watching Dawn French on the telly so if anyone, perhaps it was her.
Maybe the lack of an idol is less about a lack of familair exposure and more about my reluctance to idolise. Being a recovering catholic I’m sure has something to do with my aversion to believe in something other than myself. From a young age I was indoctrinated to believe that when they wafted the smells and rang the bells the only icon worth idolising, the one who died for me was in the room, watching me whilst I take part in symbolic cannibalism - drinking his blood, eating his body.
On Monday night, whilst rubbing shoulders with some of London’s fat and queer elite, collectively wiping our brows, cramped into a music venue that smelt of feet with carpets soaked in Red Stripe, just spitting distance from the estate and church I was born into I had an epiphany, I found someone I had perhaps did cherish all along.
Centre stage, back-lit, sequinned, Beth Ditto. As she tore her lashes off, joined in on the collective brow wiping she addressed us all. In that deep southern tone she instructed us to stand in the way of Theresa May’s control. It was a religious experience.
Ditto gave us snippets of chatter in between songs that covered being common, growing up queer, loss and fighting back. To top it all she called us followers her weirdos. This was shortly followed up with a group singalong - Erasures queer hymn A Little Respect. Beth is fat, common, weird and says shit I believe in. Its easy to see why I can believe in her, perhaps my role model was living within my instagram DMs this whole time.
The next morning, after two diet cokes and four hours sleep I woke up puffy eyed and eager to follow Beth’s loose commandments. Whilst on the way into London I began to put together an introduction for a film festival.
I’ve been asked to choose any film I fancy from the limited oeuvre of queer cinema. Instead of choosing a film I thought the punters in Northampton might like to see, I thought long and hard about what film was a true experience of my experience, something I understood to be real. That’s supposed to be the very essence of brilliant cinema right? A true experience. To witness something to be so real, horrifically real we believe in it and are moved by it. We fall for it, even when it’s set in the future, the past or on a different planet, its leaves its mark, it influences. What film from the past 50 years since the partial decriminalisation of sex between men in England and Wales makes me feel like I belong? What film makes me feel like I’m not the odd one out, the runt of the litter, the ugly duckling? What film acknowledges the contribution working class queers have made to culture and art whilst not ignoring the trauma, oppression and criminalisation?
As with my internal monologue on role models I began to wonder if a film like that even existed? Chances are if one existed the queers in it were played by heterosexual folk and was probs about posh queers like Oscar Wilde or Stephen Fry or even worse Oscar Wilde played by Stephen Fry.
I began to think about the importance of role models whilst the man reading a copy of the Daily Mail sat next to me in the quiet carriage elbowed my fat. Why is it important to have role models or relatable icons? If you don't see yourself reflected in culture or even society how do you even know who you are? I’ll make my point more directly; if you don't see your reflection how do you know you exist?
To be seen is to be acknowledged, to be heard is to be listened to. To be part of a history is to be placed, to fit, to have linage. To see yourself within that history, to hear yourself in that history is to better understand you and your history. To have role models enables pride, descales shame and installs meaning - giving you the right to feel you can and must take up room. Knowing this made my selection easier. I choose Prick Up Your Ears, the biopic of Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell.
Joe, a writer, predominantly and prolifically for stage made work about sex, maleness, queerness and taboo. Joe comes from a working class family from Leicester. Kenneth, Joe’s accomplice and sometime lover or what some might attribute as co-writer was an artist who mainly made collage. They lived together in a small bedsit in Islington, North London.
I’m proudly working class and queer and until last autumn my husband and I lived in a council bedsit in north London. I make theatre and performance about many things including maleness, queerness and taboo. My husband, James is also an artist, he makes collage. Now, the astute about you’ll have noticed some of the similarities.
Beyond that, as with Beth’s influence, Joe allows me to know that being common, rough, mouthy, sexual, political, trouble making and queer is something that should be celebrated. Joe’s work, presence and life actively encourages me to be purposefully queer and purposefully common.
I guess that's what a good role model does - encourages! Someone like you, someone relatable is able to tell you they know the path well, it can be shit but it’s worth kicking back at, demonstrating they survived (or didn’t in Joe’s case).
Spending my train commutes thinking about this, being pushed and prodded by manspreaders along the way has brought into focus that perhaps I (and you) should try and be a more active role model, because if the dominant narrative of our cultures are left to their own devices we'll always be left looking up to the privileged. I'm going to make a concerted effort to be a role model, not because I want to be idolised but because I too want to encourage - I want to demonstrate survival and allow future fat council queers to own their space far quicker, faster and more prominently than I will or have done.
Perhaps this will mean I can indoctrinate them into what I see as the right sort of belief systems - one that endorses equality, defiance, visibility and pride ...without the sponsored floats, religious guilt or masses imposing inadequacy.