On girls, performance and the internet

Meet Catherine Bennett: an alternative, positive role model for girls. Created as an antidote to the flood of sexual and misogynistic representations of women that surround girls today, Bennett is a testament to the emancipating power of digital performance.

Niki Seth-Smith
4 November 2013

It all started when live artist Bryony Kimmings decided to conduct an experiment. She was wondering what her niece Taylor could access online. Imagining she was nine years old, Kimmings simply opened a laptop and browsed the net.

What she saw in the easily accessible, hyper-sexualised, violent and misogynistic bowels of the internet made her apoplectic. It enraged her to think of Taylor, her “fawnlike” young niece, confronting this world of gyrating identikit pop stars and “women shitting into each-other’s mouths”, as she – with typical bluntness - describes it.

At this point Kimmings could have helped campaign for an automatic online porn filter or joined the fevered debate over pop princess Miley Cyrus twerking at the MTV awards. But she is an award-winning performance artist. Instead, she decided to team up with her niece to create an alternative, positive role model for girls.

Let me introduce you. Her name is Catherine Bennett. She is 29, she likes singing, riding bikes, Taekwondo and tuna pasta. When she’s not making music videos she works in a museum with dinosaurs. She is nine-year-old Taylor’s creation, performed by Bryony Kimmings. She has been invited to Parliament, appeared on Woman’s Hour, and her pop songs have been played on Radio One. Her short video above gives you a flavor of the character and a music video for her track ‘Animal Kingdom’. The song is based on Taylor’s ideas about what makes a good pop single.

What really shot Catherine Bennett to fame is an hour-long show, performed by Kimmings and Taylor, in which aunt and niece act out the year-long journey they took together to create the character. Credible Likeable Superstar Role Model received rapturous reviews at the Edinburgh festival and just played a sold-out run at the Soho Theatre. It shows the genesis of Catherine Bennett, in some ways straightforward (Taylor loves dinosaurs; tuna pasta is her favourite food) but also problematic (how can Kimmings know that her niece isn’t just telling her what she wants to hear?) It’s a fascinating story on its own merits. It also offers a profound insight into the dangers and freedoms confronted by a new generation of girls growing up in the digital age.

One of the most graphic scenes in the show has Kimmings gouge out her niece’s eyeballs. We see her anger at not being able to control the onslaught of imagery that Taylor sees everyday and watch in horror as she turns the child’s back to us and pulls out a long spoon. As she digs vigorously into her niece’s eye-sockets (it was horribly realistic) a stomach-turning squelching and popping sound fills the theatre hall. I’m sure many parents and carers recognise that terrifying urge to protect – all the more desperate for its apparent futility.

A study last year found that one in five children between eight and 12 years old use social media sites. Controlling what a child sees and how they present or perform themselves on these multiple platforms requires nothing short of constant supervision. Following the 2011 landmark Bailey Report on the commercialisation and sexualisation of children, there was a panicked flurry of policy proposals. David Cameron’s headline pledge, to help protect children from online porn, has thus far come to nothing. The Let Girls be Girls campaign has had success on the highstreet, with retailers such as Primark, Matalan and Sweetling Bras signing up to their pledge “not to sell products which exploit, emphasise or play upon 'children's sexuality'”. But cracking down on ‘sexy’ lingerie for children is a lot easier than controlling the digital world.

In fact, the internet is so fluid and fast-changing that legislation is always one step behind. Porn is just one extreme. At one point in the show, it is Kimmings who is made deaf and blind, while Taylor has the mic and tells us all the things she’s “not supposed to know”. This includes, with beautiful irony, knowledge of her aunt’s previous show ‘Sex Idiot’, which riffs off Kimmings’ journey to find who gave her an STI. A flood of images and footage of women ‘performing’, more or less sexually, more or less in control, surround this nine-year-old. Not only that, but she is invited to perform herself in turn on social network sites where she can choose what to hide, reveal and invent – no longer defined as a child by her family or as a student at school.

Kimmings, whose career is based on autobiographical performance, recognizes this. She understands the temptations and the dangers. But the Catherine Bennett show and education project doesn’t only explore the corrupting effect of the internet on girls. It is also a testament to the positive power of performance. ‘Tweenagers’ like Taylor belong to the first generation to make the transition from child to adulthood with the net at their fingertips. As digital natives they are pioneers, facing not only risks but also new freedoms.

Take Taylor’s reaction to the idea of creating her own Superstar Role Model. Far from being daunted or perplexed by her aunt’s crazy idea, she simply shrugs and grins, “that sounds fun!”. Perhaps I would have been just as enthusiastic at the prospect of making over my aunt. But I would not, like Taylor’s generation, have already created multiple avatars for social network sites, video games and apps or be savvy enough to advise on my creation’s online branding.

Adults fear that digital natives are more vulnerable to malicious influences as they consume more imagery and information than ever before. But these girls are not passive consumers and imitators. They are also increasingly adept producers and creators, born into a world where reinventing oneself is a matter of a couple of clicks. The Catherine Bennett character may perform in the flesh, but she is a product of that world.

“Women perform themselves everyday,” says Kimmings. "You have to show strong female characters, tell strong female stories… An autobiographical performance can have a massively activist, social change-based agenda". The role of personal story in empowering girls and women has a long history, or perhaps I should say her-story.

The internet has hugely expanded these horizons. Sites like Facebook and Tumblr allow for the daily telling and performing of life. They create a space for women and girls to document their experiences, from the banal to the profound, unfiltered by the dominant mainstream discourse and its gatekeepers. I say ‘girls’ because we’re still talking about Taylor, a white, middle class kid.

Queer, post-gender and raced narratives, all those shut out and misrepresented by the dominant culture, use the internet in diverse ways as a space through which to challenge. Remember the archiving projects of the 1960s and 70s Second Wave feminists? Projects like the Feminist Archive aimed to rediscover and preserve female stories otherwise erased from history. Today those stories are instantaneously archived, preserved in blogs and social-media timelines. Girls today have it better than ever, from one perspective. Frida Kahlo, with her prolific self-portraiture, would have envied being born into ‘selfie culture’.

I’d argue that neither the neo-utopian or dystopian vision of the internet and its impact on girls is reality. We are far too prone to project our own fears, hopes and neurosis onto younger generations – and especially girls. I hesitate to give credence to Mark Zuckerburg, but he said something interesting in his campaign to end the under-13s bar on Facebook: “My philosophy is that for education you need to start at a really, really young age." My generation of women in our 20s hasn’t had the experience of discovering ourselves on and offline from childhood. What did we miss from coming late to that education?

When Kimmings asked to ‘borrow’ her niece for the Catherine Bennett experiment, she was surprised when her sister agreed. After all, the artist is far from a typical ‘responsible adult’. By her own description, she’s a drifting 30-something living in a mouse-infested flat, who occasionally “funds the drugs industry”. But her sister not only agreed but said something that stuck with Kimmings: “She’s new, you can teach her how to fight the fight.”

Credible Likable Superstar Role Model is on in Manchester on the 29th and 30th November and Bennett is busy doing gigs for her fans, the ‘C Beasties’. But Kimmings isn’t sure herself how long the project will last: “Taylor’s changing so fast. I can already see her moving away from Catherine Bennett."

I’m less interested in Bennett’s future than what this nine-year-old, who now proudly proclaims herself a feminist, will grow up to do. After all, it was Taylor who transformed her aunt into a superstar. We can only guess what the future holds for the first generation of digital natives.

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