Guest Blog: Claudia Jefferies on her inspiration for creating ‘Syd & Sylvia’

Theatre maker and performer, Claudia Jefferies, makes a list of “crap that women face everyday” and writes about how her anger fueled her latest show Syd and Sylvia. 

Syd & Sylvia arrives at CPT on Jan 25 at 9pm, get your tickets here

I’ve made a show.  A show, as it is billed, about ‘control, expectation and the crap that women face every day’.  I dress up in drag, topless but for a see-through bra (see video).  

Ostensibly, the show centres on the characters of Syd and Sylvia, a husband and wife who run a fictional working men’s club in Eastbourne and gleans inspiration from the Bernard Manning-esque seedy cabaret ilk of entertainment.  The action takes place on a Saturday night at the club in 1987.  The conceit is that the two of them have been performing the same tired, fail-safe routines at the club for the last fifteen years but now, since taking up an evening class in Women’s Studies, Sylvia has been altering the content of the songs and performance material in order to push her newly awoken feminist agenda, much to the disapproval of old school misogynist and abusive husband, Syd.  However, the show is also set very much in the present day, with sudden changes in form where the set-up is broken and the audience is confronted with the reality of misogyny as a social problem in a modern day context.  As well as portraying both characters, I  periodically address the audience as a means of contextualising the material in relation to current feminist thinking.

I decided to make Syd & Sylvia because I had reached a point where I found myself feeling infuriated on a daily basis by the double standards that women face, the subtle and overt ways that we are oppressed and the overwhelming sense that public space does not belong to us: in short, the crap that women face everyday.  I started working on the show (then known as Syd) back in 2015.   I’d had the character of Syd – a surly night club entertainer – floating around my consciousness for about a year before knowing what to do with him.  Meanwhile, I was finding myself becoming enraged on a near daily basis by my experience of being a woman in the world.  I then had the idea to marry this rage with this fictional character.  I initially made the show as a work in progress using the gruff speaking character of Syd to relay personal anecdotes about my experiences with sexism, but speaking as if they had happened to him in order to highlight the double standards women are subjected to.  I wanted make a point about victim blaming and the flippant nature with which women’s claims are often dismissed / disbelieved due to archaic notions of us being distrustful and irrational. ​ Later on, following discussion and development, I added the character of Sylvia and constructed the narrative of them being a married couple who run a Working Men’s Club.  

The piece certainly tackles some harrowing aspects of misogyny (e.g. rape, domestic violence), but I am just as interested in addressing the subtler ways in which we are oppressed.  We hear in the news all the time of women coming forward with stories of sexual assault and harassment that are years, if not decades old.  A stock response to these allegations is often ‘why did she / they wait so long before coming forward?’  I’m interested in the route of this very human reluctance to speak out when we’ve been violated.  Sometimes, it can take years for someone to even realise / accept that they have been violated, let alone come forward.  In the case of VAW, I feel this is owed in part to everyday sexism: to the micro-agressions women are subjected to over a lifetime.  These can wear us down, demean our self worth and, ultimately, work to convince us that more serious violations are ‘not that bad’. Often in life, when we tolerate / excuse away small violations of our boundaries and our humanity, it lays the ground for these transgressive acts to gradually worsen in severity.  In other words, when exposed on a daily basis to  culture of disrespect towards women (aka rape culture), it is easy to internalise this diminished view of our humanity.  

To that end, I have written a few examples of the more insidious ‘…crap that women face everyday’ to illustrate what this culture of disrespect looks like on the most quotidian level.   

Toplessness, Public space & An anecdote about an anecdote.

The summer before last, a former housemate was staying with us briefly when, over breakfast, he relayed to me, with incredulity, the following anecdote:  Whilst gadding about town topless one summer’s day, a bus driver had had the audacity to ask him to put a shirt on before boarding the bus.  “I’ve never heard anything like that before!” he told me.  I responded wearily and with sarcasm:

“Well, yeah. I don’t think I’d be allowed on a bus without a shirt on, either.”

This took him by surprise.  He lost his words, blushed, laughed nervously and said: “no, I suppose not. I didn’t think of that…”

In a vague gesture towards acknowledging our inequalities, he offered this follow-up: “Well, in an ideal world, everyone would be able to walk around topless…”  

The thing is, for him, the worst consequence of being topless in public was not being allowed on a bus – and the fact that he considered this to be anecdote-worthy speaks volumes.  Perhaps this was the first time his right to exist freely in public space had been questioned.  In all his years of living on this planet, perhaps he had never had to adjust his appearance in order to move through the world around him. For a woman to be walking around topless in public, being denied entry to a bus would be the least of her worries.   Being a woman means modifying your behaviour and your appearance in order to move through / occupy public space.  That’s no secret.  

A middle-aged topless man on a hot day.  

When I’m on stage, the audience can look at my tits inside my lacy bra and objectify me. Or they can look at my chubby belly and judge / pity me.  ​But it makes no difference: I have my flesh out like a fat, middle aged man on a hot day and, for a brief time at least, I enjoy his impunity. I am the one in control.

When I’m not on stage, I sometimes see one of my middle aged, male neighbours wandering around freely with his shirt off. Do I look at him and feel as though he ought to be victimised for dressing that way? No. If anything, I feel victimised by looking at him; embarrassed by the sight of a body I didn’t ask to see and angered by the flagrant display of privilege.  Angered because, in spite of his age and appearance, he’s getting away with something that I can’t, simply because he is a man. He seems not to fear ridicule which, as previously discussed, is the best-case scenario for a topless woman in public. Anything less than best case doesn’t bear thinking about.  

I mean, a man might feel self-conscious about going around topless.  He may be ridiculed or bullied for it, but he is unlikely to be sexually assaulted or raped as a result.  He will not be arrested or face charges of public indecency.  He will most likely be spared both heavy retribution and the assumption by the others that, since he is flaunting his body, he/it is now public property for the base urges and cruelty of reprobates to be enacted upon.

That said, for a woman, any degree of public nudity is convoluted, even in the context of feminist art.  

About a year ago, I was performing an excerpt of Syd & Sylvia (then known as Syd) at a scratch night when a less than mediocre comedian took the stage after me.  I was early on the bill that night and he was the last act to go on. Having clearly not prepared anything in advance, he stepped on stage, somewhat self-apologetically, scanning his phone for the jokes he’d written that night during everyone else’s acts and about everyone else’s acts.  ‘…Wow! We’ve had some interesting acts on tonight!’

‘Here we go’. I thought. ‘He comes my mood ruiner’.

‘….  There was a woman on stage with a moustache!  And I still got a boner!’And in an instant the buzz I’d gained from doing a good, well-received performance vanished.  I felt weak, insignificant; reduced to being the butt of a boner ‘joke’.  Having failed to provoke the guffaw he’d anticipated, he looked sheepishly at his feet and added ‘…err, sorry…didn’t mean to shit on your artistic expression.’ Somehow his follow up – specifically the presumption it contained of him being impressive enough to shit on anything of mine – annoyed me more than the initial boner comment.  I had not only been humiliated, but now I was being condescended to.  Catatonic with rage, I had the shitty realisation that a fake moustache is no barrier against sexism.  During my act, I had recounted an incidence of street harassment in a masculine voice (Syd’s) with FKA Twigs’ How’s That playing in the background, after lubing the audience up with a bit of patter and cheesy joke telling. Of all the many words I used in my act, of everything I said and did to try and shed light on the hypocrisy and double standards that women face, he chose to focus on the fact I was a ‘wo-man’ in a ‘mou-stache’ (hurr hurr!) and exploit it as an opportunity to belittle me and take away the temporary power I had won for myself fair and square by doing the very thing I was critiquing.  What depresses me most is this guy will probably get a regular slot on some TV comedy panel show one of these days.  

Disgusting Bitch

A short time ago, I was walking home from the cinema with my boyfriend when I walked past two very unremarkable looking white men in grey business suits, eating greasy chip shop chips when I overheard one of them say: “…the disgusting bitch is getting uglier and uglier”, presumably talking about someone they knew. I was momentarily paralysed with anger. Everything around me went silent, the ground below me wobbled.  

‘Are you alright?’

‘No, not really’

I shouted “you’re disgusting” to them, but they didn’t turn around. I wasn’t loud enough. I hated that they didn’t turn around, that they hadn’t noticed me. The way they swaggered down the high street with no regard for the irony of criticising someone’s perceived physical decline whilst scoffing chips made me think of that scene in Spirited Away where the parents are stuffing their faces and turn into pigs.  

I had so much hatred in that moment, I wanted them to drown in a vat of crude oil. The pain and anger I felt was more than me and more than my lifetime. It was centuries deep: it was an inherited trauma that came from eons of women being subjected to cruel double standards.   We walked in silence. I let go of his hand – said I just needed a bit of space around me I hung back from him. I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t organise my white, hot anger into words.  I wasn’t just angry about this isolated event, I was angry about rape culture, about the existence of misogyny itself, about every single time in my life that I’d been made to suffer simply because of being female, or had to witness another woman suffering.  You see, the way that women (and all marginalised people) are treated creates cumulative stress that builds and builds and, unless we invest a lot of energy into dissolving it, can follow us around like a ghostly spectre, poised to attack.  Feeling like the world doesn’t really belong to us the way it does to others can taint our experiences, make us feel uneasy in situations that others don’t and can lead to stress related illness, anxiety and depression.  So, should you be reading this and think that all these examples are ‘not that bad’, I urge you to remember that they don’t exist in a vacuum.  

Bullying

One of the core aims of Syd&Sylvia is to create public awareness of the impact of sexual harassment and to highlight its routine presence in women’s lives.  People don’t always understand things just because you explain it to them (which can be so exhausting).  Sometimes you have to show people how ridiculous the world is by subverting it for them. ​In this piece, my temporary loss of gender identity through character manipulation allows for me to re-contextualise my woman-specific experiences and expose the harassment of women for what it is: Bullying.  Exclusion.  Stuff that happens in school when you’re a little kid that we’re all taught is unacceptable behaviour.  And yet, as women, we are bullied constantly.  But no-one calls it that.  If we take the sex out of it – along with the ridiculous notion that it’s a ‘compliment’ – what we’re left with is, I think, very clearly bullying.  We’re being picked on, made to squirm and feel self-conscious.  Having our moods ruined and the illusion that we can simply go about our lives minding our own business and getting away with it shattered.