Caitlin Logan: Why the Witsherface homophobia row shouldn’t be laughed off by Yessers

Writer Caitlin Logan says the controversial Witsherface comedy sketch should have no place in the independence movement

SO, a few days have passed and that Witsherface sketch, and the ensuing reaction, is still bothering me. 

In case you’re not aware, a comedy act at the Scottish Independence Convention reassembly, held in Glasgow on the 18 September anniversary of the referendum, attracted criticism for the content of its lyrics in a rap sketch. 

The offending section of the rap, which was co-written by comedian Karen Dunbar and performed by all women comedy collective Witsherface, introduced Scottish Conservatives leader Ruth Davidson as "Ruth Dykey D". 

Read more – "Utterly ridiculous": Karen Dunbar hits back at Witsherface homophobic smear claims

This word, "dykey", has been the focus of the reporting around this, but I’d argue it wasn’t the only problem with the content.

After SNP MP Mhairi Black’s character referred to Ruth Davidson’s "tank commander belly" and called her and Kezia Dugdale "a poor excuse for women", Davidson’s segment went on to say:

Well hello there young Mhairi, you’re a bit of alright

I could rock you on my futon on a Saturday night

Get a taxi fae the garage even if you’re blootered

I assure you that my pussy is politically neutered

SNP MP Joanna Cherry QC, who hailed the act as "irreverently funny", sought to deflect criticism as "mansplaining" to her as an out lesbian. 

"For many years lesbians have self-referenced as dykes, now it seems we must apologise to others for no longer finding the word offensive. Lol," she tweeted on Sunday night. 

I am a lesbian and have never described myself as a "dyke" - the word jars with me as I recognise it as a term used by many to insult gay women- but self-description is not really the issue here.

She has since published a letter responding to criticism from Conservative MSP Annie Wells, who is also gay, in which she describes the context as a "comedy sketch written by lesbian women and performed by lesbian women" but concedes that while she did not find it offensive, "I do understand why some might find it to be".

The Witsherface comedy collective itself, perhaps more understandably defensive of the criticisms, has responded by explaining the group’s firm and positive connection to women of all sexual orientations, describing accusations of homophobia as "utterly ridiculous" and asserting that politicians are "always fair game when it comes to comedy".

 

 

Because I would not like to see the issues which have been raised here be misunderstood or swept aside, I want to elaborate on exactly why I see this as a problem. I was not at the event - I saw it on video - but if I had been, the performance would have made me uncomfortable. 

I am a lesbian and have never described myself as a "dyke" - the word jars with me as I recognise it as a term used by many to insult gay women- but self-description is not really the issue here. Even if I did use the term, in a room full of people, including predominantly straight politicians and high profile campaigners, the laughter at this comment and the subsequent sexual innuendo around Ruth Davidson and Mhairi Black would have been unsettling.

Unfortunately, even if you feel like you’re in on the joke, we can’t assume that everyone who laughs at this humour does so from our own 'evolved', re-appropriated perspective. 

It’s important to remember that despite being a politician, and a Tory at that, Ruth Davidson is a human being, and when the subject at hand is as serious as homophobia, she should have a say in whether it bothers her. 

While politicians should certainly be fair game when it comes to their policies and the ridiculous things they’re inclined to say, I don’t think we should assume that politicians should expect to be referred to with homophobic, sexist or other discriminatory language.

Clearly the argument here is that because some involved in the writing or performance are gay, that makes it okay. The thing is, belonging to a particular group does not negate the impact of your language on others, especially when that language is broadcast to a wide audience.

Unfortunately, even if you feel like you’re in on the joke, we can’t assume that everyone who laughs at this humour does so from our own 'evolved', re-appropriated perspective. 

At the end of the day, the joke about Ruth Davidson, in using the word "dykey", put the focus on her sexual orientation and led on from this with crudely sexualised remarks. It’s both as a lesbian and as a woman that this bothers me. 

We do not yet live in a post-sexist or post-homophobic society, and there is still a huge amount of work to be done to challenge those attitudes and the very real limitations they put on people.

The joke about Ruth Davidson put the focus on her sexual orientation and led on from this with crudely sexualised remarks. It’s both as a lesbian and as a woman that this bothers me. 

Of course I wouldn’t, couldn’t, deny someone their right to use whatever self-descriptors they choose. But in a wider audience, where this back story was unlikely to be known by many, how might a young gay person, afraid to come out, interpret this situation? 

And when women are still less likely to put themselves forward for political office or even to voice their opinions publicly, is this helped by a room full of people at a political event laughing at sexual comments about female politicians? 

For me, the importance of addressing the sexist culture which can act as a barrier to women’s participation in politics cannot be overstated, and we all have a role to play in this - including women.

I read an interesting thread of Tweets recently by someone studying humour from a sociological perspective. Their argument was that we are never really "just" kidding - all humour has intent and makes implications about its subjects. 

We do not yet live in a post-sexist or post-homophobic society, and there is still a huge amount of work to be done to challenge those attitudes and the very real limitations they put on people.

I accept that the people behind the sketch did not intend to be homophobic or suggest that women in politics should be reduced to their sexuality, but sadly these are ideas in which many people still find humour for all the wrong reasons. 

Language is a powerful thing, and while "free speech!" will invariably be the response to such criticisms, we all have a responsibility to consider how we use that speech.

It’s also fair to say that there is a time and a place for different kinds of humour, but in my view, the place for this particular content was not at an event which many would see as the relaunching of the drive towards independence. 

It’s more important than ever to send the message that the "face" of pro-independence is an inclusive and welcoming one, both because this will help to win the case for independence, and because this should be the ideology on which an independent Scotland is founded.

An event like Sunday’s, with its list of high profile attendees, is as close an approximation to an official voice as people could hope for at this point, so it’s disappointing that these implications were not considered more deeply. A renewed campaign for independence has to be both smarter and better than this.

A serious commitment to reflect on these issues and to address sexism, homophobia, and all discriminatory attitudes, however well intentioned, must be at the heart of a revived and improved Yes movement. 

It’s not impossible to understand why some have reacted with defensiveness to these criticisms, or simply put up the blinders. Shining a light on your mistakes or shortcomings never feels good, and to some it might feel like giving ground to your opponents. 

However, I would argue that it’s not a weakness, but a strength, of any movement or group of people to be able to discuss and address these concerns openly.

For all of us - women, men, lesbians, fraggles - there is always something to learn about how our words and actions impact on other people. There is always room to grow into a more inclusive movement, and this can only benefit us all as a means to, and an end of, independence.

A serious commitment to reflect on these issues and to address sexism, homophobia, and all discriminatory attitudes, however well intentioned, must be at the heart of a revived and improved Yes movement. 

Anything less is selling ourselves short on what can really be achieved with a new kind of politics.

Picture courtesy of mrgarethm

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