“WTF! – the queer and feminist potential of scandal” was the title of a discussion held between Reyhan Şahin (aka Lady Bitch Ray, academic and artist), Patsy l’Amour laLove (gender researcher and ‘Polittunte’), and Jule Govrin (philosopher), chaired by Luce deLire, on Oct 11th at the ICI Berlin. The panel was part of this year’s Friedrich Schlegel Graduate School annual conference on “scandal”.

Written by Laurel Braddock

The evening kicked off with short presentations from all three panellists as well as from Luce deLire. These presentations functioned as brief insights into each participant’s understanding of the scandalous. DeLire’s input set the tone for the rest of the discussion, in my opinion, by challenging whether scandal carries any queer or feminist potential at all anymore. Is scandal actually “over”, as deLire put it? Indeed, while scandal still exists as a tool, if it is instrumentalized by the right as it has been in recent years, what emancipatory power can the liberal left, queer and feminist movements still draw from scandal?

During the debate, the speakers referenced historic examples demonstrating the queer and feminist potential of scandal, such as the grassroots group ACT UP of the late 80s and early 90s, which campaigned towards ending the AIDS pandemic; the Riot Grrrls in the Hard Punk US-American scene in the 90s and Pussy Riot in Russia; and the Slut Walks in the 00s. The Femen group was also mentioned – Govrin, however, questioned how adapted their methods were and whether they might have failed to channel the Zeitgeist of the moment to get their message through, which would explain why they never reached their full potential. I think at this stage it would have been interesting to go into more detail about the methodology of creating scandals as it would have helped the discussion to stay more focussed and given the audience a clearer idea of which scandals are considered most productive.

What seems to link these movements is that they used scandalous actions to destabilise the status quo of silence on certain topics, which obscures patriarchal and heteronormative dynamics operating at the heart of our Western societies. Their various tactics, aiming to shock and horrify the viewer – performing ‘punk prayers’ in cathedrals, throwing fake blood, bearing their bodies in public, etc. – forcefully set balls rolling, no pun intended, on conversations that needed to be had within our societies and are still ongoing today. They employed scandal, which in turn revealed an actual, deeper, systematic and systematised scandal.

Reyhan Şahin, Patsy l’Amour laLove und Luce DeLire Potential of Scandal
Reyhan Şahin, Patsy l’Amour laLove und Luce DeLire © Lorenz Becker

But all these movements belong, more or less, to the past, and it would seem that much of the potential of scandal has now been monopolised by the right and far right. The line between what is and what isn’t possible to say out loud has been pushed further and further towards the far right. This effect of shock and scandalising by making xenophobic, racist or sexist statements is a tool that the right has been using with great success – one need just check Donald Trump’s Twitter feed from the last few years as one of the most blatant, crass examples.

Not only has scandal been taken up by the right, but as Jule Govrin brought up later in the evening, it has also been completely and very effectively integrated into our late capitalistic system within recent decades. Who knows if the racist H&M advertising for kids’ hoodies or Pepsi’s appropriation of Black Lives Matter imagery were innocent mistakes, intentionally racist, or a publicity stunt: ultimately for H&M, Pepsi and the like, it’s all one and the same; all publicity is good publicity. There is an extent to which we – the public, the people, the citizens – have learned our lines so well that we know exactly how to play-act being scandalised. As Patsy l’Amour laLove pointed out, the naked breasts of celebrities snapped on holiday by paparazzi and printed on the first pages of the tabloids press do not, in reality, shock anyone any more. We simply enjoy “shocking ourselves happy”; we are, essentially, all faking it. There’s a market in being made to feel scandalised. It would seem, then, through its use by the far right and its commodification in contemporary advertising and the tabloid press, that scandal has lost all its potential for queer and feminist emancipatory purposes.

However, Reyhan Şahin’s input at the start of the evening made it very clear that some forms of female nakedness still hold very strong scandalising potential. This potential is revealed by the dire consequences one faces should one dare to show one’s body as assertive, active, aggressive. A female body shown as desiring instead of desirable might be gradually starting to be seen as acceptable, but what is clearly absolutely unacceptable is if a woman chooses to stage her body as desiring and sexual to her own sole purpose. Sexual female nakedness not destined for the male gaze is still deeply scandalising and will, therefore, be punished. And this kind of punishment is what Şahin, as her rapper-self Lady Bitch Ray, experienced through isolation as a result of her scandalous music videos and appearances on German TV. This contribution of hers during the evening was important in order to balance out the academic and scholarly references with the reminder of a lived, embodied reality of what taking the risk of creating a scandal can look like. As she put it: “Scandal sticks to you like the shit and period blood on your thong that won’t wash out even after a 90° wash”. For daring to scandalise German society, Şahin was forced, through aggressive shaming, to make the scandalous body of her alter ego rapper Lady Bitch Ray disappear and had no choice but to pull back from her music career.

Linked to the lack of solidarity that she has faced, there was a general consensus on the podium that scandals need to be collective if they are to have any emancipatory power, because scandals started individually and focused on one individual can only be destructive. The key word mentioned here as a remedy to the menace of individualism was solidarity, as theorized by Sara Ahmed: “Solidarity does not assume that our struggles are the same struggles, or that our pain is the same pain, or that our hope is for the same future. Solidarity involves commitment, and work, as well as the recognition that even if we do not have the same feelings, or the same lives, or the same bodies, we do live on common ground.”[1] At this moment, it would have been useful to hear more from the panellists on what this recognition of living on a common ground would then look like, enacted, in a real life situation, in order to truly reflect on how we can embody this commitment to solidarity in queer and feminist movements.

The #MeToo movement that started two years ago was mentioned as one example of a recent enactment of this collective use of scandal with solidarity at the heart of it. However, to Şahin, this movement also intrinsically has a voyeuristic component focused on the portraying of women as victims. Although I do see her point, I am not sure if this is a fair representation of the repercussions that the #MeToo movement has had. There has been a considerable shift in focus onto the behaviour of men, and away from the “victimness” of women: men are being held accountable for inappropriate behaviour. The feminist potential of this scandal has been shown in the profoundly misogynistic world of cinema insofar as moguls such as Harvey Weinstein have been taken to court. As I write, the tide seems to be turning against film director Roman Polanski, who until now had been kept safe from accusations of sexual assault and paedophilia by the ridiculous separation of “the artist” from “the man”. However, we still await both a Polanski trial and the results from Weinstein’s own trial, as we will only then be able to judge how far fundamentally patriarchal structures such as the police and the law courts can support the feminist cause.

Jule Govirn Potential of Scandal ICI Berlin
Jule Govrin © Lorenz Becker

DeLire’s final question to the panellists was whether, as people who work with words – writers, rappers, academics – they can try and push the limits of what is allowed to be said back towards the left by sharing with the public some of their favourite concepts and neologisms.

L’Amour laLove is a big defender of the German term Tunte, its anglophone approximate equivalent being ‘queen’. The concept of the Tunte is a powerful one, as a Tunte both scandalises and plays with scandal of her own creation through the theatrical drama of the staging of being a Tunte. According to L’Amour laLove, it is very, very hard to shame a Tunte, which means she holds plenty of scandalising power in her hands.

Şahin shared a few gems such as ‘cliterature’ and ‘pussitive’, whilst Govrin proposed the German term ‘Regenbogenfamilie’ – a rainbow family, which, unlike in anglophone terms, does not mean the big loving community of hippies, but an alternative family structure to the heteronormative structure of (typically married) biological mother and biological father and child. For Govrin, it is an important word as it reclaims familial and affective relationships from the right and far right who use them in homophobic discourses and attacks against gay rights.

In a sense, the whole discussion was about the act of reclaiming; of remembering the emancipatory potential of scandal and freeing it from its use for financial gain or in pushing racist, oppressive messages. Whilst the panellists didn’t propose clear answers and solutions to this act of reclaiming – and I don’t believe this is really the purpose of such events –, what the event did do, is remind us how scandal can create momentum, rattle the status quo, and initiate societal change.

Laurel Braddock is a PhD Student at the Friedrich Schlegel Graduate School at Freie Universität Berlin. She works on South African literature, with a focus on queer theory and ubuntu.

[1]    Sara Ahmed (2013). “The Cultural Politics of Emotion”, New York and London: Routledge, p.189.