Category Archives: Gender

I’d rather be a Billy Goat than a Troll

“As the Billy Goats Gruff approached the rickety rackety bridge a huge troll with horrible little eyes and sharp teeth stuck his nasty head out of its hiding place and shouted “Whose that trip trapping over my bridge?””

A couple of weeks ago I was invited to participate in a large community event in east London.  As well as storytellers and authors a group called Drag Queen Storytime UK were booked to perform a couple of sets.  Working as a storyteller in libraries I have seen Drag Queen sessions advertised so I was intrigued to attend.  In the event I somehow ended up holding my mobile phone as a mirror whilst Aida H Dee (Tom) prepared to meet the children!  Aida was wonderful to watch.  She threw herself into entertaining the children who loved her version of “Going on a Bear Hunt”– one little girl went as far as to giving her a hug as she left. I can honestly say that the experience was joyful. Then came the critical moment: I took a photo of Aida and posted it on social media.

Spin forward a few weeks and my latest storytelling tour is under way.  Things have been going really well; audience numbers are healthy, the children are enjoying the session and I am feeling really good about the next few months.

Then I got an email..,

A formal complaint has been made against me by a member of the public concerned about my suitability to work with children citing a photo of me on social media.  You’ll never guess which one?  That’s right my ability to work with young people has been questioned because a member of the public has confused me with a drag queen!  My immediate response was to go online to assure the complainant that the photo wasn’t actually of me (I’m far older and grizzlier and certainly don’t have the patience to apply all that make up), that I am in fact DBS checked and have almost 20 years of experience working with young people in schools and libraries.  I then went on to say that Tom/Aida was a fantastic performer who I’d recommend to anybody.

And that was that.  I thought.

A week later and another anonymous complainant has heard I’m a drag queen and is using social media to question my suitability to run sessions in libraries for children.  Again I explain that I am a DBS checked storyteller with oodles of experience working with children.  This isn’t good enough for this complainant and before I know it they are firing off messages to the Police, local papers and the even their MP.  They also start pushing me to condemn drag acts as a form of children’s entertainment.  What began as a conversation about safeguarding and event programming in a local library now seems to have a transphobic agenda.  I refuse to engage with the complainant (who uses website articles from the United States that reference known Alt-Right media groups to back their argument).  They aren’t satisfied with my lack of response and take it upon themselves to start messaging my other social media contacts and some of my other clients.

Social media has always fascinated me.  It is a very powerful thing but I’m pretty sure most users don’t truly understand just how powerful.  When using social media we become both publishers and broadcasters and our audience is often global.  Social media allows a platform for opinions which can be empowering but sometimes things like truth and accuracy suffer.  This is the second time in 12 months that this storyteller has been involved in a controversy relating to his image.  When my picture was used to advertise another storyteller on a website I got an immediate apology and took down the material but in this instance where I have been accused of condoning child abuse (oh yes) and a deliberate prejudiced attempt has been made to discredit me and the work of another professional performer there are no real consequences for the perpetrators.  You’ll appreciate how angry these messages left me feeling.  Remember, all I did was post a picture of an entertainer who I thought was good at their job and bizarrely it blew up into unmerited internet nastiness.  It’s sad to think of the time I spent building a professional reputation which could be so easily damaged by this kind of foolishness.

I could try to understand why my work became a target for abuse but in the truth is we’ll never know. At the moment they have stopped but I share my story with you knowing they could start again and that things could have been far worse. The reason I feel need to make you aware of what has been happening is because I’d rather be the Billy Goat standing on the bridge than the Troll lurking under it and this episode has had a distasteful darker side to it which I feel cannot be ignored. Let me be clear:

  1. Storytelling is one of the most ancient and accessible art forms.
  2. Over a 20 year period I am proud to have worked with the very best arts professionals in this and other countries irrespective of their background.
  3. Bridges don’t belong to Trolls; they belong to everybody.
  4. #hopenothate

Is it pink for a girl when storytelling?

Miss TrunchbullDanielle Gibbons, Libby Stout, Corina Schroder, Ellie Stewart, Gemma Bonner, Lucy Bronze, Rebecca Easton, Nina Pedersen, Martha Harris, Amanda Da Costa, Fara Williams, Katrin Omarsdottir, Louise Fors, Nicole Rolser, Katie Zelem, Gemma Davison, Lucy Staniforth, Natasha Dowie and Kate Longhurst.

You might well ask who these people are.  This is the Liverpool Ladies football team who won the 2014 WSL championship.  A tremendous achievement of which they should all be rightly proud but I doubt many people will be naming their children after any of them just yet.  In my lifetime it would be fair to say that women’s football has always been overshadowed by the men’s game.  Gender stereotypes and ignorance may also be at least in part to blame.

Why am I telling you this?  Well as I present The War Game” I have been thinking a lot about gender and how audiences respond to my stories.  In “The War Game” I have opted to finish with a moment’s silence to commemorate those who have lost their lives in war.  This is signalled by a whistle and ended with three sharp whistles (like you’d hear at the end of a football match).  On one occasion the silence was broken when a female member of staff quite reasonably encouraged the audience to clap.  I (foolishly) suggested that perhaps girls don’t understand football.  Then, in a question and answer session, when a young man asked why women didn’t fight The Great War.  Rather than tell the young man all the positive things that women did do during the war I simply told him they weren’t allowed to by the British Army.  Twice I staggered over stereotypes and did nothing to dispel them.  Hopefully I can redress this in the remainder of this blog.

Private Peaceful visits WandsworthWomen are an important part of my life.  Without the love and support of my mother and my wife I genuinely hate to think where I’d be.  I’d also be nowhere without the many significant women in my work.  In a recent blog I discussed the attributes of heroes, focussing on Odysseus and Beowulf but in that blog I also talked about Scheherazade who in “1001 Nights” used all her courage and wit to change the heart of Shahryar and in doing so saved the lives of the women of her land.  Heroines do not always trip off the tongue in the way heroes do.  Perhaps this is because in many stories women act quietly support their men who then take the glory (in “Dracula” Mina Harker is as at least as important in the hunt for the vampire as any of the male characters but doesn’t necessarily get the credit).  In the past I have spoken of my admiration for Odysseus’ wife Penelope who waits for her husband to return from Troy for twenty years.  Whilst Odysseus the man could be said to act impulsively, Penelope the woman is steadfast in her loyalty.

It isn’t just in stories that women quietly demonstrate heroism.  Whilst working with Hackney and Waltham Forest museums I learned about the role of women during The Great War.  The war wasn’t easy for anyone and the men who fought were husbands, brothers, fathers to the women they left behind.  Still it was those women who kept Britain going during the war, some of whom contributed directly to the war effort in transport and munitions factories (girls who worked in munitions were known as canaries because the chemicals turned their hair and skin canary yellow!).  This greater responsibility empowered the Suffragette movement and led to further emancipation.

Now ahead of launching “The War Game”, I wasn’t sure that girls would like the story.  That a story which revolves around a football match wouldn’t capture their imaginations.  Sure enough as I tell the story I see hard-to-reach little boy’s eyes light up at the mention of football because football is their thing.  Do the girls switch off?  Well of course not – it was silly of me to think they ever would – they stick with the story to the end.  To understand why allow me to share a generalisation from the question and answer sessions that follow each presentation.

Me:  What is the story about?

Boy’s answer: Football

Girl’s answer: Friendship

Cracking Clues at Chelsea LibraryThe point of telling “The War Game” is to commemorate an event of global significance and make it more accessible to young audiences but in doing so it is interesting to see how we relate to stories.  The above example is of course a gross and controversial generalisation as many girls also say football but then I could just as easily have written a blog considering why boys like fairy tales.  The fact is that many of the stories I tell could be construed as being for boys or for girls but whether they be about footballers or princesses, a story’s themes are what will appeal to us and make them winners.

It is wrong to assume things on the basis of gender.  Liverpool ladies, Scheherazade, Penelope and the women of Britain who contributed so stoically to the war effort are all great examples of how many stereotypes about girls are misplaced.  As for stories, we could talk further about gender differences or we could just accept that part of the joy of stories is subjectivity and where one person is enthralled by the football match another understands the humanity in a simple act.  Today, I’m happy to put the lid back on a can of worms and leave it at that.

PS (31/12/14) follow this link to a TED talk about how gender roles are portrayed in film.