Kate Smurthwaite is a comedian and activist. She is currently working on a new series of online videos: patreon.com/newsatkate. On Twitter @Cruella1


Kate Smurthwaite is a comedian and activist

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Kate Smurthwaite

Demanding a solution revolution

Call me a cynic but one of the first things I thought about the #MeToo movement was, ‘Wow, the backlash is gonna hurt.’ And sure enough, it came.

The first wave was clunky, pathetic and predictable. Within hours of the Harvey Weinstein scandal breaking, Ann Coulter, writing in Breitbart, described the survivors as ‘ugly girls taking their revenge on pretty girls’. It’s such a playground response that she might as well wrap it up by pulling their pony tails and stealing their lunch money. Anyway, there are hardly any ‘unattractive’ women in Hollywood.

It’s the equivalent of calling the Cat Protection charity and shouting, ‘WHAT ABOUT THE DOGS, YOU BASTARDS?

That’s part of the problem. Valuing women on their looks is part of the problem.

Next we were told that women wearing glamorous black clothing to the Golden Globes are ‘vain’. If they want to demand fair and equal treatment, they must do so while wearing a sackcloth. But in front of hundreds of cameras, hooked up to the global media machine that makes or breaks careers, is it really a crime to want to look nice?

Judging women on what they wear is part of the problem.

On top of this, the #MeToo-ers are accused of stupidity: they’re focused on the wrong issue here. They’ve picked the wrong target. What about the real bad eggs? Column inches after column inches of whataboutery. It’s the equivalent of calling the Cat Protection charity and shouting, ‘WHAT ABOUT THE DOGS, YOU BASTARDS?’

Telling women what to do is part of the problem.

We’re also greedy. Women put millions of dollars into the ‘Times Up’ fund – created in response to #MeToo – to help other women but it’s apparently not enough. Sat next to me on BBC Radio 4’s Today Show, Daily Mail columnist Sarah Vine complained that ‘quite a lot of [those who had donated] get paid quite a lot more than that…’ Women earn less than men across the board but unless we surrender all of it, or most of it, it’s not enough.

Telling women who fight for a cause that they need to do more is part of the problem.

Demanding women ask nicely – in the right way and in the right outfit – for their basic human right to not be harassed or assaulted is a symptom of the problem we’re trying to solve. The fact is that every woman who shares their own #MeToo stories, wears black, chips in, speaks up – including those who fight back by quietly and determinedly getting on with their lives – is a part of the solution.

None of these women are the problem. The men who rape, assault, abuse, harass and discriminate are the problem.

Feminists like me see #MeToo as part of a larger movement we call feminism. Our history stretches back to those ‘ugly’, ‘vain’, ‘stupid’, ‘greedy’ suffragettes (and remember that term was originally intended as an insult too) and way beyond.

When you see #MeToo within the wider sweep of feminism you quickly realize that whatever they’re calling us, we’ve heard it a thousand times before. If real change is to happen, and I believe it can, we must remember that weathering the backlash is just as important as fighting back.

Kate Smurthwaite is a comedian and activist. She publishes her work on patreon.com/newsatkate and tweets @Cruella1.

This article will appear in the March issue of New Internationalist magazine.

Why some punchlines are beyond a joke

We all like to believe we’re making a difference. As a political comedian – aside from doing benefit shows for good causes – I like to believe some of the humorous points I make on stage might actually get audience members thinking and even change a few minds. Strangely enough science seems to agree with me and various pieces of research have suggested that jokes are more likely to affect people’s opinions than facts. Which is pretty worrying in itself.

Leftwing political comedy is a bit of a niche market, though – too one-sided for TV or radio companies to sniff around much. You can blame that one on facts, not jokes. As Stephen Colbert said in his White House Correspondents’ dinner turn in 2006: ‘Reality has a well-known liberal bias’.

But what is mainstream comedy doing with its power to change perceptions? Recently I’ve been thinking about three types of people who seem to be standard victims for comedians, and wondering whether it’s really so very funny.

Firstly, ‘no win, no fee’ lawyers or accident-claim lawyers... You can barely mention these people without eyes rolling and muttering about the entirely apocryphal story of someone who got a billion pounds because there was a fly in their soup. These evil money-grabbing bastards demand ordinary people who’ve suffered injury – due to the negligence of others – be given the money to cover their medical bills and convalescence!

(Obviously I’ve got a tonne more respect for their colleagues – the lawyers who defend big companies besieged by these petty, self-centred asbestos-inhalers and radiation-absorbers.)

They’re just making life difficult for the good guys – those hard-working business investors who could otherwise wring out a few cents of extra profit, while only causing a couple of avoidable workplace deaths a year.

Secondly, on-street charity fundraisers. ‘Hilariously’ referred to in the UK as ‘chuggers’, a contraction of ‘charity mugger’. How rude they are, bothering you in the street asking you to make regular donations to the sick and needy – and do you know they get paid for it? Disgusting, isn’t it? We all know only bankers and corporate lawyers should get paid, not charity workers. And it’s not as if regular donations are actually a lot more helpful to charities than one-off contributions which make it difficult to commit to funding long-term projects.

(I much prefer the people in the street who stop you to actually sell you something you don’t need or want. Round my way it’s usually a paint-balling experience. Cool, yah? It’s like having a war but super-fun. Take the kids.)

And finally, health and safety experts. Ugh. You know the dull, dull, dzzzzz boring people who insist that companies supply hard hats to employees on building sites and that ladders not be made of polystyrene or cheese…

I mean they’re just making life difficult for the good guys – those hard-working business investors who could otherwise wring out a few cents of extra profit, while only causing a couple of avoidable workplace deaths a year.

And as long as the mainstream shows this level of disregard for balance, I absolutely won’t apologize if you find my work one-sided. That does mean you probably won’t find it on TV any time soon.

Kate Smurthwaite is currently working on a new series of online videos: patreon.com/newsatkate

Thumbnail photo: Jon Cartwright

Gay orgies are none of your God damn business

Isn't it time the Vatican admitted that people are going to keep having sex whatever they say? Kate Smurthwaite asks.

 The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel.
The 'Creation of Adam' by Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel. This image is in the public domain.

Police, we heard recently, were called to break up a gay orgy. Which doesn’t make sense as a headline if you hit pause on your moral outrage button and remember that the gender and number of people other people are having sex with is neither a legal matter nor any of your God damn business.

A God damn business, literally, it is though since the alleged scenes of responsible adults safely enjoying consensual sex were taking place in The Vatican. The apartment raided belongs to the secretary to cardinal Francesco Coccopa­l­merio who has been taken in for questioning and, based on historical Vatican honesty levels, will probably claim he accidentally rented it out on AirBnB.

It’s also that time of year when the papers are full of recommendations for holiday reading. So here’s one from me. Nigel Cawthorne’s memorable work Sex Lives of the Popes. An utter page turner in our house; more salacious than ‘Fifty Shades of Snooze’; and guaranteed to get you the arm rest on your budget flight.

One thing you’ll realize on the way through is that gay orgies are not new to The Vatican. Over the last couple of millennia they’ve mainly served as a refreshing change from all the straight orgies. Pope Leo X came out shortly after taking on the papacy. The Romans had been at first perplexed why he didn’t bring a mistress with him when he came to take office.

Which makes you wonder why the Pope persists in having opinions about who should and shouldn't be having sex and with whom and presumably in what position. Even those directly employed by him and working and living under his very nose are doing everything he reckons is a bad idea. All night long. It's almost as though at the moment of scampering upstairs with our collective knickers halfway round our ankles we're just not wondering what His Holiness's opinion is.

I have visions of a loving unmarried couple having romantic eye-contact-maintaining missionary position sex while next door a married couple gaffer tape one another to the wall and whack each other with a copy of Sex Lives of the Popes while shouting through the wall: ‘His Holiness approves of this you dirty perverts!’ But that is the Catholic Church’s official position, as far as anyone can tell.

The fact is that people have sex and it’s about time His Holiness got used to the idea. Evolution favours the horny.

You might think given my reputation as a dyed-in-the-wool atheist (I’m actually an escaped Baptist) all this is none of my business. But bans on safe legal abortion everywhere from Ireland to South America ruin and regularly end the lives of atheist women too. If your religion is forced on people against their will it’s not religion, it’s oppression. Blessed be the fruit.

The last pope didn’t seem to have a much clearer line when he announced that it was ok for male prostitutes to use condoms. Which feels like your mum saying: ‘Don’t do drugs darling, but if you do inject heroin into your eyeballs, rinse them out with contact lens solution afterward.’

It also creates a loophole in that gay couples paranoid about the Papal position on their love-making can resolve the issue by demanding a nominal one cent per fuck and declaring it on their Income Tax paperwork. If they keep at it they might make enough to cover the postage.

Last year the Pope warned Catholics everywhere not to run away from ‘the needy’. Perhaps it’s time he faced up to the fact that many of the world’s most pressing needs are for effective contraception, condoms and safe legal abortion. These are the inevitable side effects of the fact that a lot of us, Catholic or otherwise, wake up some days feeling like what we need is a bloody good shag.

The laws won’t work.


Global women's march, 21 January 2017. Mark Dixon under a Creative Commons Licence

Little could be more predictable or nauseating than the sight of Donald Trump, flanked by his super-rich, all-male team, signing the global gag rule back into force on one of his first days in office. The law, which means US funding cannot go to any overseas organization which offers or even gives information about abortion, will affect millions of the world’s poorest women.

There is no country in the world that has a proud history of men making great laws about women’s bodies. You’d think that maybe at some point they’d notice and stop, but don’t hold your breath.

Only a few weeks after Trump reinstated the global gag rule, Oklahoma lawmakers, as usual overwhelmingly men, started pushing Bill HB 1441, which demands that women seeking abortions first gain the ‘permission’ of their sexual partner. As if we needed further proof that the people drafting this bill lack empathy, the law literally refers to pregnant women as ‘hosts’. Presumably because none of them can spell ‘talking jizz incubators’.

The bill does include a provision that the signature is not needed if the individual in question is dead. ‘Could the defendant please tell the court how the victim died?’ ‘Yes, your Honour, he choked to death on the words “I just don’t like using condoms”.’

I had an abortion in Tokyo, where exactly this law exists. You have to get the ‘father’s’ signature to get an abortion. Let’s talk about that.

First, hello to the men reading this. You’re probably thinking something like: ‘What if her partner is violent or abusive?’ or ‘What if the relationship was brief and she doesn’t have contact details for him?’ or ‘What if she’s not sure which of her partners it is?’ All good, reasonable thoughts. Congratulations on being a compassionate indi­vidual; please consider getting a job in the Oklahoma Legislature.

But women reading this are going through a different thought process. I’ll give you a minute… And congratulations – you now know who your best male friend is! Because all you need to do is ring the man in your life who will help you no matter what. The idea that you would fuss about trying to make sure the signature on the piece of paper corresponds to the biological parent of the embryo is ridiculous.

And this, male lawmakers, is why your restrictions on abortion don’t actually work. Women know what they want and will say what they need to say to get it. All this law, and any law which attempts to dictate the ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ reasons for abortion, says to me is: GO AND LIE TO YOUR DOCTOR – which is incredibly unhelpful to the medical profession.

All these laws do is create an extra barrier to reproductive healthcare, and each barrier means yet more women miss out. Those that can’t risk taking the time off work, can’t find the childcare or get a lift to the clinic. Those that are too afraid to tell their violent partner or fundamentalist religious mum. Those too ill, too poor, too young to travel to a more favourable legal jurisdiction. Those without internet access, unable to Google a way round the restrictions.

Or to put it another way: those least likely to be in the room when the laws are being written.

Kate Smurthwaite is a comedian and activist. katesmurthwaite.co.uk. @Cruella1

Declaring the year of sisterhood



Reflecting on a dismal year for women, Kate Smurthwaite proposes a New Year's resolution.

Statement of the blindingly obvious number one: 2016 was a bloody awful year. I mean here’s hoping you had some good personal news, a new job, a new baby, a lot of great sex (assuming you wanted those things, some days I’d rather have a cup of tea and a biscuit and just a reasonable amount of great sex!) but the big picture was pretty awful however you measure it.

Looking forward there doesn’t seem to be much cause for optimism. It’s perfectly possible that by the middle of 2017 Aleppo will be debating whether it should take any more American refugees.

Statement of the blindingly obvious number two: when things are shit for people, they’re usually extra shit for women. Trump’s election and Brexit in the UK seemed to give strength to the haters and when there’s hate going on you can be pretty sure women will suddenly be at the front of the queue. I speak as someone who was recently described on Twitter as a ‘waste of tits’. I don’t even know what that means.

Statement of the possibly less blindingly obvious: when women are under pressure we’re often left feeling like we have to compete against each other. I am not suggesting that women are biologically programmed to cat-fight at the first opportunity. Quite the opposite, society teaches us we have to.

We see it in every field of achievement, corporate boards with one woman, Hollywood action movies with six tough guys and that one feisty chick (the one who starts out fighting against her own side due to a misunderstanding but eventually realises her mistake and…long stare…deep breathing… intense kiss… roll credits. Seriously I watched too many predictable films over Christmas!). In my world – comedy – so few stage or TV stand-up shows manage to put more than one woman on at a time. Even in six or seven act line-ups. So I know I literally am competing with other female acts for that one spot.

If aliens are observing us from afar (greeting overlords, if you’re not too busy I have a couple of favours to ask…) via the medium of the mainstream media they undoubtedly believe that all the women-folk of earth are engaged in a massive-scale competition to be the world’s greatest girlfriend. How to dress, style, make-up, work-out for maximum appeal, the disconcerting sex tips, lose weight fast, ideally within a fortnight of having a baby. The endless critiques of any female sleb who dares to stray from the toned-and-tucked endlessly available sex symbol ideal.

Statement of the blindingly obvious number four: we’re not going to get very far until we chuck this narrative away with great force.

So here’s my plan. I’m declaring 2017 The Year Of The Sisterhood. I’m going to sign up to be a part of promoting and celebrating brilliant women at home and around the world every single week this year. And I invite you to join me – men too, why not?

Retweet mine or add your own. Hashtag #Sisterhood2017 from my account @Cruella1.

Sexism A and sexism B

Accidental misogyny

A case of accidental misogyny - but not all sexism is a mistake. Garry Knight under a Creative Commons Licence

Being a feminist comedian and activist, I can say with absolute certainty that a lot of people hate me. There are times when the internet can feel like a burst drain spewing vitriol of every possible kind. Usually before I’ve even had breakfast.

It’s not my job to figure out what every angry dude’s problem is. One of them may be a guy I briefly dated in the late 1990s; if so, my apologies, Simon: it was very rude of me to climb out of your apartment window while you were trying to borrow condoms from your flatmate.

One recurrent trigger is when I criticize sexist behaviour: calling women pet names at work, giving children gendered toys, asking women whether they’re ‘Mrs’ or ‘Miss’. ‘How dare you?!’ comes the tsunami of responses. ‘I call my colleagues “darling” and “sugartits” and I’m not a sexist!’

People are terrified of being called a sexist. They’ve seen politicians, actors, sportspeople ripped apart in the newspapers for making sexist statements – the same newspapers, of course, that a few pages later will be criticizing a famous woman for not being ‘bikini body ready’ six weeks after giving birth to triplets.

The issue they have failed to grasp is that sexism, like racism and homophobia and many other prejudices, isn’t really an on/off thing. We don’t live in a world with 99.9-per-cent perfect people and a handful of Darth Vaders. We were raised and we live in a sexist world and we are not magically immune to it. Our expectations and attitudes are continuously shaped by the real world in which we live.

When we hear the word ‘supermodel’ or ‘nurse’, we all picture a woman, and for ‘lumberjack’ or ‘paratrooper’, a man. We all know the words ‘frumpy’, ‘ditsy’ and ‘hormonal’, but have we ever stopped to consider how rarely they get applied to men?

This doesn’t make us bad people, but if you are a female lumberjack the questions you get when you mention your job are eventually going to drive you ‘hormonal’.

We need a way to highlight this sort of sexism by saying, ‘I know you’re not a bad person. However, I think if you keep an open mind and consider the other person’s perspective you can see why this is an unhelpful behaviour choice and make a better one next time.’

So here’s my suggestion – we split sexism into two new words: ‘sexism A’ and ‘sexism B’. Sexism A means you know what you’re doing: this is overt, direct, deliberate sexism. Shame on you. Sexism B means don’t worry, you’re cool; we all do this sometimes, just do better next time. After an initial trial run we can potentially extend the concept to ‘racism A’ and ‘racism B’, ‘homophobia A’ and ‘homophobia B’, and so on.

People can learn and they can change and in the meantime we promise not to put you in the newspaper headlines. Unless of course what you’re doing is sexism A, in which case you deserve it. Unlike Simon, who really did not.

Kate Smurthwaite is a comedian and activist. katesmurthwaite.co.uk. @Cruella1

Toxic masculinity: what changed?


Pride in trivialising sexual violence needs to stop, now, writes Kate Smurthwaite

I’m walking through King's Cross station in central London. It’s about 6pm. Still daylight. There’s a stag do – a bachelor party to our American friends. We women know the drill: don’t get in their way, don't make eye contact, don't attract their attention. I stare with unlikely fascination into a coffee shop window until they’ve passed.

They're wearing matching t-shirts with a picture of the groom slumped over a table of empty drinks. Once they pass me I can see the backs, emblazoned with ‘hilarious’ nicknames: Rohypnol Rob, Pedo Pete. I want to throw blankets over them so children won't see this nastiness.

Who thinks this is a good idea? Who walks into a print shop ‘Do you do t-shirts? Great...’? What do they write on the invitation? ‘Eight til late, smart casual, party theme is: horrendous sex crimes!!’ Who are these people?

Online this cult, or one could argue ‘culture’, of toxic masculinity is highly visible. We read about self-styled ‘pick-up artists’ like Julien Blanc encouraging men to physically assault women. There are hundreds of Facebook pages sharing ‘jokes’ like Unilad's notorious ‘And if the girl you've taken for a drink won't “spread for your head”, think about this mathematical statistic: 85 per cent of rape cases go unreported. That seems to be fairly good odds.’

The conventional wisdom is that the anonymity available to internet users drives this outpouring of sexism. Sexism that the users – always assumed to be unattractive teenage boys in their parents basements – wouldn't dream of expressing in front of ‘real’ people. But the last time my local police actually bothered to investigate a death threat I'd received we were all mildly surprised to discover the perpetrator was using his real, full name and year of birth as his social media handle. He'd only stopped short of adding his postcode and bank account details.

At the Edinburgh Fringe last month I sat in the audience of a late night cabaret while a comedian (one I've not worked with before and who hopefully will radically change his material before I ever do) told us ‘I watched the porn version of Sixth Sense, I knew she was dead all along.’ I started to pine for the good old days when jokes were just about mother-in-laws being grumpy and overweight. I winced at my friends and stared at the floor.

Negative attitudes towards women and misogynist ‘jokes’ are nothing new. Nor is domestic and sexual violence. But overt pride in trivialising sexual violence against women and children does feel new. What changed? Are we surprised that an internet spilling over with violent and degrading pornography, runaway ‘lad’ culture and the sort of ‘men's rights’ activism that spends most of its time comparing feminism to cancer has left some guys under the impression that it's normal to act in this grotesque way?

No-one is under the delusion that we can magic sexual violence away overnight. But when rape culture stares us that blatantly in the face, it has to be time to act. We need to stop staring into coffee shop windows or at our feet and start throwing more blankets.

As Donald Trump and Brexit show, progress is not inevitable


President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair shake hands after a joint press conference following their meeting at Hillsborough Castle near Belfast 8 April, 2003. © REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/File Photo

When Tony Blair was campaigning to become the UK prime minister who would drag the country into an illegal war costing hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives, his campaign theme tune ran with the chorus line ‘Things can only get better’. It might be the most dangerous sentiment politics has ever known.

The feminist movement knows this all too well. Women’s rights are like drinks in a nightclub: it takes an unfair amount of time to get them, and then, if you stop paying attention, even for a few minutes, they’re gone. And if you ever have more than three, some scumbag will probably use it as an excuse to assault you.

Things cannot ‘only get better’, they can also get much, much worse. Anyone who laughed at the ridiculous prospect of Donald Trump being the Republican nominee, or of Britain leaving the EU, realizes that now, I hope. Progress is not inevitable.

The attitude that it is does a disservice to those who fought to bring us the rights and freedoms we enjoy. Nelson Mandela didn’t casually mention that apartheid seemed like a shitty idea, only for FW de Klerk to laughingly put down his sherry, mutter ‘Why didn’t you ask sooner, dear boy?’ and whip out a plan for dismantling it that he’d already been working on.

It might seem obvious to 21st-century eyes that apartheid was wrong and awful, but it wasn’t obvious to the South African authorities in the 1980s, or to a lot of people around the world only a few decades ago. And gender apartheid is practised today in places like Iran and Saudi Arabia and widely viewed, if not as ideal, at least as tolerable in a climate of religious and political relativism.

The ‘inexorable tide of progress’ belief system also risks the assumption that whatever is going on must be progressive.

We celebrate gay and lesbian marriage rights rather than asking why, in 2016, anyone wants their relationship to fit a model designed by patriarchal religions to control women. We cheer as Caitlyn Jenner is declared Woman of the Year rather than asking why the title is still reserved for women who conform to feminine beauty standards rather than challenging restrictive gender roles. Internet pornography is hailed as free speech and sexual liberation – and woe betide anyone who questions the influence of images of explicit violence against women being widely accessible to young children.

None of these are simple matters. As well as forwards and backwards, progress can also go sideways – such as when one set of freedoms is gained at the expense of another. To quote every hip teenager’s relationship status: it’s complicated.

Figuring out what we want progress to look like needs reason, thought, research and debate. But the really hard job is making it happen. The biggest lie of ‘things can only get better’ is that we don’t need to get up and fight, or that it won’t make any real difference if we do. And that’s exactly what they want us to think...

Kate Smurthwaite is a comedian and activist. katesmurthwaite.co.uk / @Cruella1

Men and feminism: the Smurthwaite Deal

Kate with someone else's child

The author, with someone else's child. © Kate Smurthwaite

I’m bored of hearing that ‘feminism needs to do more to attract men’. If only feminists could succeed by asking men nicely to allow us to gather up the scattered remains of our basic human rights from under their banquet of privilege!

What is it men want, anyway? Sports updates and side boob? Feminism is the campaign for women’s rights. And rights are rights. We shouldn’t have to ask nicely. We shouldn’t have to wait politely until powerful men feel comfortable handing them over. They’re rights, you fucking asshole, and I am entitled to them, even when I call you a ‘fucking asshole’.

The only reason to support feminism is because it’s right. Any man that needs to hear it from a smiley Emma Watson first doesn’t get it.

The other thing men shouldn’t do with feminism, of course, is try to run it. That can be hard, because little boys are often socialized to run the world and little girls to keep their legs crossed and let them. One interesting solution is for men who support feminism to call themselves ‘pro-feminist men’ rather than feminists.

I like men who do that. Sometimes I even give them some side boob. But I also hate complicated language that alienates people from what is actually a straightforward movement demanding simple, fair things.

So I will cut men a deal. The Smurthwaite Deal. You may call yourself a feminist in return for one simple thing: half a day’s free babysitting a month. Footnote – it has to be a child that isn’t yours. You can’t babysit your own child. That’s called parenting.

Gender equality is impossible while women continue to do the vast majority of the world’s childcare for free. Affordable childcare, often touted by governments as the solution, only moves the problem around, with different, poorer women doing the childcare and still not getting much thanks for it. The fact is there are loads of children, and they all need looking after, all the time. The only way for it not to be women that end up doing it is for men to do it, too.

But, but, but... ‘I don’t know how to look after kids!’ Well, if you had a good upbringing, replicate it; if you had a shitty one, do the opposite. ‘I spend ages looking after my own kids!’ So invite one of their friends along for the afternoon. You’ll even benefit when the favour is returned by fellow dads desperately trying to earn their Smurthwaite points.

I’m sure most compassionate men already do this. If you engage with those around you, you’ll soon notice someone struggling with the school run or stuck on their own with a toddler.

But what about the politicians who trot out the f-word (‘feminism’, not ‘fucking’ asshole) as a casual vote-winning strategy? David Cameron, Barack Obama, even Vladimir Putin. They might struggle to find the time between all the glad-handing of sexist dictators or lobbyists from industries that thrive on the unpaid labour of poor women raising the underpaid workforce of the future, but I think they’d learn a lot from meeting exhausted parents and spending a few hours mashing carrots and changing nappies. Or if they don’t fancy it, then, fine: feminism will have its word back.

Kate Smurthwaite is a comedian and activist. katesmurthwaite.co.uk. @Cruella1

Doing grief properly

French flag at half-mast

Terrazzo under a Creative Commons Licence

The Monday after the Paris attacks my aerobics class was interrupted for a minute’s silence. ‘I’ve been told,’ the instructor said, ‘we’ve got to do a minute’s silence. I’m not sure what for... maybe France.’ Before you judge her, let me add that based on her name and appearance I think there’s a chance she’s Lebanese.

So 30 sweaty women in tight fluorescent Lycra sat on their fold-out steps and stared into the distance. Others at the gym leaned against the chin-up frame and hit pause on the elliptical trainer. All except for a lone swimmer with headphones in who continued to breast-stroke round the medium clockwise lane, presumably because he loves ISIS.

From the badminton court, through a speaker that no-one could find the switch for, someone faintly sang: ‘You know you wan’ it, you’re a good girl...’ And then it was over and our instructor said, ‘Thank you. Now let’s do bums.’

Compulsory grief is not only pointless; looked at objectively, it’s grotesque and insulting… It serves as the ultimate whitewash

The media acts as self-appointed police on the grievy-train. The British opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn has faced criticism for the crimes of both ‘failing to sing the national anthem loud enough’ and ‘not bowing deeply enough at a memorial ceremony’. Perhaps his leather-bound copy of Debrett’s Comprehensive Etiquette Guide to Demonstrating Respect for the Dead was still on order.

It’s normal to feel sad about events like these. But if we know anything about grief, it certainly isn’t notorious as an emotion that adheres well to a tight corporate schedule. Particularly not one that slots it in directly before exercises intended to give you buns of steel.

Compulsory grief is not only pointless; looked at objectively, it’s grotesque and insulting. I gain no comfort from imagining that after my likely assassination the women of France will do marginally fewer burpees.

Furthermore, it serves as the ultimate whitewash. The news is plastered with warmongering politicians conspicuously grieving to Camera Three. While they order ill-considered drone strikes and approve arms trades with murderous regimes like Saudi Arabia, the platitudes about ‘families and loved ones’, ‘thoughts and prayers’ and ‘this difficult time’ are utterly nauseating.

Let’s do grief properly. If you really – really – think about the brutal, cruel, pointless, agonizing, vile murders of innocent people and the only reaction it engenders in you is a willingness to stop doing aerobics for 60 seconds, there is something pathologically wrong with you. 

Instead, let’s tear the ‘defence’ industry down, brick by brick. Let’s chase down every hypocritical politician and demand they answer our questions and face the truth. Let’s chain ourselves to every set of railings, blockade every weapons convoy, disrupt every arms fair. And demand every innocent family fleeing war and violence is welcomed with open – human – arms and treated with respect.

Otherwise what is our grief for?

Kate Smurthwaite is a comedian and activist. katesmurthwaite.co.uk @Cruella1


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