Thank F*** It’s 2015

A lot of things have been conspiring, lately, to make me remember the nineties, and the experiences I had during those years.

I’ve just watched the return of TFI Friday on Channel 4 and I recently returned to the scene of my nineties ‘heyday’, if you can call it that, when I made a trip to Brighton. I lived there in my mid-to-late twenties, and in many ways it’s the perfect place to experience that period in your life.

Mine wasn’t the usual trajectory, though. When I moved there I was still a naive Welsh girl, even though I’d lived in London from 1989. I have more in common with Kelly McDonald in Trainspotting (1996)  now, then I ever did as an Actual Young Person. I watched films like that in a state of disbelief. I’d never been near a drug, or a one-night-stand in my life. I’d been to a Catholic school, done a pretty much female-only degree (Dance and English) and worked at Liberty for three years, in which I’d discovered the delights of drinking, but still dressed like a nun on her holidays.

I now think that there’s something about places like Brighton and San Francisco that call people like me to them. I had a sexual epiphany in each of them, and my life changed as a result of experiencing them. I arrived in Brighton ostensibly to do an MA in Post-Modern English Literature but I gave it up after eight weeks, because I now think I’d moved there for an entirely different purpose. I met people who shook me out of my buttoned-up life, taught me how to live a little and put it out there. I wore mini-skirts and tight tops and realised I looked good in them.

But never quite good enough.

I met my ex and his group of friends a year into living in Brighton. We met while clubbing and we went out a lot – mainly to pubs with dance floors, that played Oasis, The Prodigy and The Charlatans on a loop. Hilariously I’d met my ex on my very first one-night-stand, but I ended up marrying him. Typical.

It was the era of the ladette – there we were, drinking and being lairy like the lads, joining in the ‘banter’, watching sport, Baywatch, and laughing along with Loaded. I’ve written about my struggles with the pressure to be a ‘cool girl’ before, and the fact that I maintained it so long. All of us seemed to be being marked against a parade of professional girl-next-door’s who were ‘up for it’: Denise Van Outen, Gail Porter and Louise Redknapp, to name but a few. I knew I’d never be able to match their ‘hotness’ (little knowing that most of it was photoshopped) and it really did upset me. I’d see my ex poring over their pictures in Loaded and grab his copy afterwards to examine them more closely. Was there a way I could be more like that?

There was never any way. Even though I hit my lowest-ever weight at that point in my life, I was still a pale-skinned curvy woman with hips and a muscalature that would always be concealed by a layer of fat. I’d never be an All Saint or a Spice Girl, and I certainly wasn’t cool enough to be a Louise from Sleeper or a Gwen Stefani. And heaven forfend, I’d never be a Pamela Anderson.

Even though I’d shed my ‘ugly duckling’ huge clothes, I still felt pretty awful most of the time. While my ex continued to wax lyrically about his love for Denise V O, I’d cross the road if I saw a bunch of men coming along so they couldn’t see my face too closely, with all its flaws. There was only one gaze back then, and it was definitely male on female. I squirmed under it.

Some women would say that they felt empowered during this time – ‘one of the lads’. It was an extremely liberating time, and very much so for me, but I unwrapped myself just at that moment where in order to be one of the lads, you had to be a ridiculously attractive girl who only had to pull on a vest top and denim shorts to qualify. I remember seeing that outfit described as the ‘girlfriend uniform’ in Loaded and knew I’d never get into it (I did in my 40s though, when I was single…)

Watching old clips of TFI I can see the female guests adopting that wide-mouthed YEAH expression that meant they were ‘up for it’. They fooled me at the time, but they don’t now. What strikes me about that time is just how many of the guys who propagated this lads ‘n’ ladettes lifestyle were deeply unattractive. Chris Evans could have been their poster-boy. The guys commenting on women in Loaded could look like a wedge of cheese, but every girl had to be an image of gleaming perfection. It was perhaps the biggest act of ‘look over there!’ transference we’ve ever witnessed.

If the ladette wasn’t a bad enough role model, then along came Sex and the City in 1998 just to cement the idea that you had to be impossibly thin, unattainably groomed and attached to a man to be a valid person. I love the series, I really do (not the movies), but it did offer a very narrow set of options for women, whilst purporting to be about a new breed of independent females.

I know for a fact that I staggered by default into marrying my one-night-stand because I didn’t question the cultural signals that were all around me. All I knew was I needed to be thin, attractive, cool and attached to a man to be a valid person. Bridget Jones (1996) knew that too, and while she offered an alternative to the first three of these things, she was the chardonnay-swigging ladette who managed to get her man by being cute and bumbling. Falling off gym equipment has never been my schtick.

How things have changed now, where all around me are young women questioning everything, not settling for anything and making their own decisions about their lives despite cultural pressures. They have men in their lives that they see casually, who are no doubt hoping for some relationship pay-off, which is clearly never going to happen. These women would rather use online porn than have casual sex and they are makeup free and happily hanging out in public in yoga leggings, loose t-shirts and their specs.

I like the new cool girls. They’re not trying to join the Lad Gang, or any gang. I think we’re in a new era of independence where we’re less likely to be defined by the recruitment of a life partner, and more about what we did before, during and after we met them. If indeed we do meet them.

So, I did love you, TFI, but you remind me of a time when I was never good enough. And I look at Chris Evans interviewing a gushing Helen Mirren now, and think, ‘WTF?’ Thank f*** it’s 2015.

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Whiplash

What exactly is charisma? People use the word all the time to describe film stars, musicians, political leaders and revolutionaries. It’s a ‘compelling attractiveness or charm that can inspire devotion in others.’ It can be someone who holds your attention with a smile or a few carefully chosen words. I once had the good fortune to meet Irish author Roddy Doyle, the perfect exponent of it. He speaks to you like you are the only person in the room, eyes sparkling, quiet humour bouncing off his tongue. Just for you. That’s the best of it.

But what of the other side of charisma? When charm is part of a sociopathic character set that allows someone to reel devotees in, unwittingly, into their web of abuse and keep them coming back for more? What of those charismatic dictators in history who’ve managed to convince entire countries to carry out evil deeds in their name?

I thought a lot about this subject after going to see the movie Whiplash at the cinema, and having a profound response to the bullying in the movie. Quite rightly, JK Simmons won an Oscar for brilliantly playing a charismatic music teacher whose idea of nurturing his students is to take them to breaking point. ‘Good job’ are the worst two words you can say to anyone, he says in the movie. But for me, they are the best.

What really struck me about this movie was the divide in audience reaction to it. It took me a while to process what I’d just experienced: that the astonishing levels of bullying in the movie were entertaining to the audience I was sitting with, who laughed when the sociopathic teacher began yet another hideous round of cruelty with his student. When the treatment forces the young drummer, played by Miles Teller, to raise his game, I was surprised that people found it empowering and cheered him on. I simply saw someone who was falling under the spell of so-called ‘charisma’, who was so desperate for validation that he kept going back for more. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Stockholm Syndrome.

When I came out of the movie I felt angry that I had appeared to watch a glorification of bullying that had audiences laughing and feeling inspired at the end. I railed against it on social media and found reviews that had it billed as a ‘dark comedy’. I couldn’t, and still don’t, see the funny side. Then I found a review that billed it as “Stockholm Syndrome set to a killer beat.” Yes – that’s it, I thought. The movie is about that very dynamic – the way that a person, especially a young, impressionable one, can be captivated by the charisma of an older, allegedly wiser one. Once I saw it through that lens, I felt much more able to appreciate the brilliance of the movie and the acting in it.

But what of those who disagreed with me? Largely these were men, used to a culture based on levels of abuse. It didn’t surprise me that some of them were public schoolboys, whose entire lives had been built on structures of abusive relationships. To some, that lives on in the form of ‘banter’ – I used to try and defend my ex-husband against the taunts of his friends until he took me to one side and told me it’s just how things are between them. They had horrible nicknames for each other, and took the piss out of each other relentlessly. I felt aggrieved on his behalf, but it was all part of the nature of straight male relationships, apparently. Lads and bantz.

After Whiplash, a number of guys asked me if it was really bullying if the music student wanted the abuse in order to make him a better drummer? Of course it bloody is, guys. Open your eyes. The student was going back for more because he was under the thrall of his abuser, not objectively seeking out a teacher who would take him to the very edge of existence.

It really does disturb me, the fact that a number of my acquaintances found the movie inspiring and empowering. It inspired nothing but loathing for the abuser in my mind, and pity for the victim, however great he became at drumming. Surely this isn’t the only way to achieve creative greatness – are we saying we can only achieve it if someone else is pushing us beyond our boundaries? I’d rather achieve it on my own, thanks.

I know that in this situation that I would just get my things and walk away. I wouldn’t try and go back to impress my abuser, I’d simply never look in his ‘charismatic’ eyes ever again. Why would you want to impress someone like that? These are simply deeply insecure people who have mastered a way of exacting revenge for that on others. I see it for what it is and I’m very glad I do.

I’ve watched people look into the eyes of would-be dictators and crave their attention and it makes me very sad. What’s inspiring and empowering is watching someone extract themselves from that situation, if they can. So I didn’t cheer at the end of Whiplash, I simply felt loathing and pity. I am genuinely interested in other people’s reactions to it, so do comment away.