My father used to say to me, “lucky your pretty with your Dyslexia, at least you can be a glamour model, no need for brains in that game”. It seemed evident very early on that I would be defined by my face, not my brains. Soon enough my body changed and long before I was ready, I was looked at. This was emphasised with the toys I played with, the books that were read to me and TV. I grew up believing that I was not only subordinate to men, but also an object for them. This idea continued in to my teens (see Appendix 2, p1, p21). Lucy Anne Holmes founder of ‘No More Page 3’ proposed: ‘When you’re 11 years old and the men around you talk about the breasts in their newspaper everyday, it shapes the way you see your own.’
I found it hard to feel positive about myself in a world that used the word ‘girl’ as an insult. This is beautifully illustrated in a short film by Lauren Greenfield, (Always, 2014) where actors are asked to run, hit, throw like a girl, challenging the negativity associated with the word ‘girl’.
Sam Cleasby (2016) a photographer, blogger and public speaker states:
I was 14. I met him in Meadowhall, he called out to me and said I was beautiful. I was flattered as he was older. If an older man thought I was attractive, then I must be pretty cool, right?
She continues to tell a familiar story:
He says I came for sex. I’ve never had sex before, I snogged a boy once. I’m scared. I try to act like a grown up in a film, I toss my hair over my shoulder and laugh.
This arguably common scenario was in the focus of the public eye, recently with the case of footballer Adam Johnson regarding his sexual conduct with an underage girl.
During Johnson’s trial, the public put blame on the young victim. The prosecution stated: “She endured a year of being called a liar and a slag while you encouraged your fans” (Rawstone. 2016).
One social media user commented upon the story, stating, “Society should be held responsible. As should the girl. No way this young woman didn’t know what she was doing…. and society/parenting are to blame” (anonymous).
Caroline O’Donoghue, a writer for The Pool, wrote in response to the Adam Johnson case:
It’s hard to sound surprised about what happens every day…
I want us to own up the fact that society creates teenage girls who are eternally receiving mixed messages about their own sexuality. I want there never to be a picture of a child star captioned by how she’s ‘all grown up (O’Donoghue, 2016).
Unwanted sexual contact of some sort is debatably inevitable for some young girls. In an interview with Nancy Spero, Sue Williams (1993) talks about her shock at the reality of her story, a story that is not that uncommon.
I was so surprised to find out how many people have had to deal with incest, have been molested or raped. I couldn’t believe it. People almost take it in stride. And that’s the way it is, it’s always been this way. This is a horrible thing that I went through. I had no awareness of my rights as a person, I did the classic thing. It’s so humiliating. People would ask me, “He beat the hell out of you and you went back to him?” I thought that this person loved me and that this was my home. I didn’t like it, but I was used to it (Spero 1993).
In a recent study of interviews, included 2,000 British women, it was revealed “that a fifth of women were exposed to unwanted sexual contact as schoolgirls” and “Plan UK state that 22 per cent reported having some experience of sexual touching, groping, flashing, sexual assault or rape while they were “in or around” school” (Smith, 2016).
It is this aspect of our culture that I want to challenge within my practice, that a young girl might look or act like an adult, but should be safe and able to practice adulthood without adults utilising and exploiting this vulnerable section of a girl’s life.
The film Fish Tank (2009) directed by Andrea Arnold is a strong example of exposing and highlighting this section in a girl’s life; encapsulated in the title. A review in The Guardian by Peter Bradshaw suggested that Arnold had “fluency in the social-realist idiom”. Mia, the 15-year old heroine, like Billingham is depicted growing up on a council estate. She similarly has a dysfunctional family. Bradshaw (2009) continues to describe Mia as having:
An enormous, poignant capacity for love, but she has never received any, certainly not from a damaged mother, whose one moment of intimacy with her daughter comes when she ferociously tells Mia that she was thinking of having her aborted.
The film attempts to be truthful to a specific sub culture in Britain. A way of life that is relatable, with authenticity. The film depicts the accelerated growth from baby to woman through the three female characters. The youngest sister, aged 9ish, demonstrates a blurred mix of child and behaviour associated with adulthood. She plays games and tricks, tries to play fight with her older sister, giggles, but also smokes, swears, drinks and holds an opinion against the adults around her. The elder sister, Mia, seems lost in a world that does not ‘pull any punches’, the only affection comes from the mother’s new boyfriend, which is laiden with indistinct lines between father and sexual predator. Sadly it is the latter. “Some reviews call Connor a paedophile. I think he’s more of an immoral opportunist” (Ebert, 2010).
He may not be a paedophile, but nor is he an immoral opportunist. It could be considered that Connor grooms Mia and exploits her vulnerability, in the pursuit of sex.
The mother, a product of her enviroment, maintains the cycle of abuse. There is a celebration of otherness, or at least a recognition of it. This ‘otherness’ is noticed and commented upon in Christopher Tookey’s critical review:
It’s about a foul-mouthed, violent, uneducated 15-year-old… living in a depressing council flat with her unloving, sluttish, boozy single mum…, and a disturbed, hate-filled little sister… (Tookey, 2009).
Tookey (2009) continues to write: “Fish Tank seems to have had all the optimism leeched out of it.” Alluding to an unrealistic portrayal of broken Britain, “it’s yet another piece of relentless British miserabilism”… “without any attempt at social or psychological analysis”.
This it seems is an opinion from an outsider’s perspective, one that cannot relate, and uses derogatory language towards the presented sub culture; to a point where Tookey fails to recognise different agendas within character groups. When describing a scene where Mia is assaulted by two brothers and rescued by one other, that she later has a relationship with, the critic misreads this as; “a half-hearted attempt early on to rape her. She doesn’t seem to take undue offence, however, and even starts to date one of them…even though he looks as if he smells.”
The sexual exploitation of teenage girls could be considered as part of our culture, and one where responsibility is still under debate. Plan UK (cited in Smith, 2016) support this.
Part of my practice evaluates this dialogue and pulls the subject of underage sex with older partners into view (see Appendix 2, p1). In my experience the expectation to be sexually active with the older, car-driving boys, was inescapable. My gender defined me and the size of my breasts told the male world I was ‘up for it’. It took time and age to realise that my friends and I, at 12 years of age, were sexually exploited and that we were victims. This cycle perpetuates through the younger girls.
It was the way it was; and as adults we bore the shame of it, the embarrassment. As Nancy Spero concludes to Sue Williams, ‘You are victimized but you are the one embarrassed!… I know, but I can’t help that . . .” (Spero 1993).
I admire Williams’ courage in her paintings. In Through Glass: “. . . no we r just good friends . . .” (2005/6) (see Fig XXXVI), the mixed expressions of shame and seemingly learnt behaviour on the girls positions and faces appear authentic. The colours are vibrant, graffiti-like. The background with partial coverage and scribbles bares a likeness to Mia’s sister’s bedroom wall. ( see Fig XXXV).
Figure XXXVI Through Glass: “. . . no we r just good friends . . .”(2005/6)
Additionally, I appreciate Egon Schiele’s observations of the body and his ablity to convey vulnerability in his subjects. Arguably because they were vulnerable. The absence of line and the strengh of line seems paramount within his work (See Fig XXXVII).
Figure XXXVII Nude Egon Schiele