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Festivals: A Feminist Issue?

2011 October 13

This may be an odd way to open an article on a feminist website, but I love Robert Smith. I’m one of the five people in the world who bought that giant B-sides and rarities four-disc special edition CD when it came out in 2007. So when I heard that the Cure were doing a two-and-a-half-hour set at this year’s Bestival, I packed my camping reservations in a rucksack and duly set off on the Friday to catch the last of our declining summer on the Isle of Wight – and my very first festival. So it goes.

photo showing crowd of people cheering at a music festival. Taken by flickr user Shane Kelly and shared under Creative Commons licenceThere’s nothing that takes us back to basics more than camping. Take away the shower, the clean toilet, the puffs and powders and that whole sleep thing and you’re playing on a level field. Or are you? After the first set, I watched as scores of men took to the fence, whipped their genitalia out, and relieved themselves with an efficiency almost amounting to elegance. Then a girl and her friend approached, one providing coverage to the other. Barely had she begun to unzip when a (female) security guard magically materialised – you can’t do that. Use the portaloos, please.

Now we can argue endlessly about the acceptability or otherwise of whipping any species of privates out in a public place, but surely if we’re going basic for the weekend, we should all be as basic as each other? As for the portaloos themselves, well – the feminist implications of in-conveniences for the ladies have already been discussed in this very publication, so I won’t repeat them, but I will ask you to consider what happens when those using urinals also share the cubicles with those for whom this is not an option. And the queue-length that implies. All in all, I ended up feeling my experience had been inferior to my male companions’ on account of my sex (and, in the case of the security guard, because of my gender, too). But others have had it worse…

Managing events on this scale, however much it may be a British institution, comes with all kinds of questions around safety, both onstage and off. The dominant concern must always be to make people feel like they’re living dangerously, when in fact they’re safe as the proverbial houses. That’s how you deliver a great live experience. No-one wants to feel on-edge all weekend, but no-one wants to feel mollycoddled either. After all, the teenagers who trash Reading Festival each year are trying to get away from their parents, and it’s surely a given that any festival is riddled with drugs. Who cares?

Photo showing a mass of coloured festival tents in a green field. By flickr user UnofficialGlastonbury, shared under Creative Commons licenceFestival Republic (who manage Glastonbury and run Latitude, Reading, Leeds and the Big Chill) took this thesis to its logical conclusion in 2010 and significantly scaled down their police presence from the outset. The resultant spate of thefts was accompanied by a gang rape on the first night, and a second instance on the second. On-site, the organisers responded with that old chestnut about women not going around the site unaccompanied. Oh! There’s that gender thing again.

I find this particularly galling because there was a suspected instance of rape in the campsite I was staying in myself on the Saturday night at Bestival. It seemed to be a case of domestic abuse, but it’s the height of irony that a festival attended by 30,000 people could be seen as a ‘safe’ space to take this toxically private crime outside its eponymous home. It’s even more ironic that these crimes against women are occurring at events that are almost synonymous in many minds with the image of one very famous female – Kate Moss, whose ‘festival style’ was recently voted the most iconic festival fashion moment of all time, beating Jimi Hendrix’s tasseled white Glastonbury shirt. Rarely was it more truly spoken that one is never so alone as in a large crowd.

The live events sector is a multi-million pound one, and despite this year’s setbacks (and the state of the economy more generally), it’s still a growth industry long-term. Illegal downloading and the resultant changes to the music industry’s economy will only make live music events of all sizes more important over the coming years. And with Beyonce this year becoming the first female headliner at Glastonbury in 20 years and women like Kate Moss and Sienna Miller leading the style stakes, there’s clearly a female voice coming through. Yet, as unpleasant as it undoubtedly is to admit, when something goes wrong, it’s often the women who suffer – festivals are the perfect rape storm: scantily-clad girls (whose hemlines do not but may be perceived to = consent), large groups of drunk men (our neighbours serenaded us with a beautiful rendition of ‘Get your rat out for the lads’ at four in the afternoon on the Saturday), crowds that can easily separate you from your party, softly-softly security, copious amounts of drugs and large open spaces where people may hear your scream but probably won’t realise, care about, or be in a state to deal with, its urgency. There’s been evidence that some live events companies are listening, of course, and I don’t want to suggest a doom-fest of misogyny either – but with the industry set for the boomtimes to come, I’d like to be assured that festivals aren’t a feminist issue.

One Response leave one →
  1. Russell permalink
    October 14, 2011

    I think there is a problem with festivals and toilets, primarily that they are normally disgusting and unhygienic. Not “basic” but positively unhealthy to spend any time in. It’s part of the reason why I stopped going to festivals – not to be too snobbish, but once I couldn’t get VIP tickets, and access to the better facilities therein, I quickly lost interest. It is also completely sexist for security guards to be suggesting that it’s okay for men to pee up against a wall but if women do it it’s not, even if they have got a friend with a cloth or jacket completely covering them.

    This article reminded me of the experience of a friend who found she needed to use a tampon on the last day of a festival, and had to use the toilet facilities which by now were at their muddiest, nastiest, and most disgusting, a deeply uncomfortable experience that dimmed the weekend experience for her.

    I think that as much as the festival experience is about rolling about in mud and not eating for three days, there is a kind of discrimination in that it’s not being considered that there might be ways to make that a better experience for both sexes, rather than focusing on perceived male advantages in this area.

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