Failed femininities and troubled mothers: gender and the riots by Kim Allen and Yvette Taylor
17 January 2012 5 Comments
While the dust has settled, the after-effects of last year’s summer riots continue to be felt as we begin 2012. In the absence of any public inquiry, academics have played an important role in bringing sociological perspectives to bear on the complex causes and consequences of the summer riots. On this forum and elsewhere, sociologists have unsettled the easy answers and ‘smokescreens’ offered by the government – such as PM David Cameron’s assertion that rioters were driven by pure criminality, greed and opportunism – by asking important questions and calling attention to the role of growing inequalities and injustices in contributing to the recent unrest. However, thus far a gendered analysis has been absent from this critical intervention.
The LSE and Guardian’s ‘Reading the Riots’ project claims that 10% of those involved in the riots were female. But while the dominant images of rioters have been masked young men, one of the most striking features of the media coverage and policy responses to the riots has been the (hyper)visibility of women. Within this, two figures have emerged: ‘troubled’ mothers and ‘failed’ female rioters.
Indeed the historical positioning of working-class mothers as a locus of national concerns around morality and repository of middle-class fear was bought to the fore again. In the immediate public responses to the riots was a strident blaming of ‘poor parenting’ within poor communities, which spoke almost exclusively against mothers. A Guardian/ ICM poll found that 86% of the public cited poor parenting as the main cause of the riots. These debates were suffused with a long-standing narrative of troubled mothers, with single-mothers blamed for failing to bring up their children properly, fuelling public discourses of welfare dependency and the (un)deserving poor. Newspaper reports of mother and daughter Clarice and Chantelle Ali – photographed together looting shops in Hackney, East London – and readers’ saturated condemnations of the working-classes as lazy, irresponsible and immoral – had a specific gendered edge:
Well done Clarice, you’ve ruined your child’s life! No doubt she will go on to destroy her child’s life and the cycle will continue indefinitely as we continue to fund this via the welfare state, effectively giving the green light to such appalling behaviour. 09/12/2011 12:02
What a pair of oxygen stealers. When they’re out don’t give them any benefits – they’ve had their chance, they were looked after by the state and taxpayers – and look how they repaid us. Until we start getting tough, vermin like this will continue to stick their hands out and abuse the system whilst also draining the system even further and costing more money through criminal activity. 09/12/2011 11:36
Here, working-class families are positioned as sucking the life-blood out of community – and capacity – rendering the State’s ‘good tax-payers’ exhausted by their diseased criminality: these ‘vermin’ are seen to breed, decay and drain in their ‘appalling’ cycles of life-as-death. Respectable, regenerative lives, coded in the bodies of some youth, are replaced with only deathly potential, where the bad youth of today lacks life affirmation. These public debates are illustrative of the centrality of class practices of distinction and distancing among the middle-classes – or ‘class making’ (Skeggs 2004) – as the middle-classes claim their position as ‘respectable’ and ‘defiant’ members of the community, wielding brooms as they go about cleaning up and repairing ‘Broken Britain’.
Public discourses of feral youth and failing families elide and mask questions of structural disadvantage, individualising inequality as the outcome of personal ‘ills’ rather than systematic material inequalities. David Cameron recently announced a ‘crackdown’ on ‘chaotic families’ as a response to the riots, dispatching ‘family troubleshooters’ to tackle a ‘responsibility deficit’ in problem communities which suggests an even greater hyper-surveillance of the working-classes. Re-configurations of family are re-done around the intersections of race, class, gender and sexuality: public discourses of ‘troubled families’ and poor parenting are not only easily and problematically collapsed into one of ‘failed mothering’. These ‘riotous responses’ also operate to uphold the logics of heterosexuality as (re)productive, thus failing to recognise the complexity of contemporary family formations.
Alongside the marginalisation of mothers has been an exceptional focus on the young female rioters, most notably 18 year old ex-Olympic ambassador Chelsea Ives who was jailed for two years after being found guilty of burglary and violent disorder. The public interest in Chelsea was undoubtedly informed by her status as a 2012 Olympic ambassador: as the ‘face of the city’. There is much to unpick here about how particular classed, racialised and gendered (young) bodies come to be (re)positioned and (re)inscribed within regenerated city-scapes. Urban ‘disadvantaged’ youth become objects of a particular luminosity, encoded as future-oriented, agentic subjects who stand for the city’s pride, hope, diversity and multiculturalism. But, with London Mayor Boris Johnson calling her ‘unfit’ to represent our country, Chelsea’s story shows us how fragile this positioning is, as her ‘exemplary’ status is used against her: she was the girl who threw away her – and the city’s – chances.
Chelsea’s media representation might also be said to speak to the shifts and repositionings of girlhood within this era of austerity and youth disenchantment. Coverage of young women’s participation in recent ‘organised’ protests such as the anti-tuition fees marches, the Occupy movement and ‘slut walks’ predominantly featured white and middle-class women – perhaps most strikingly embodied in the photo of female students peacefully linking hands around a police van in the midst of the student marches through London. These ‘riot girls’ – positioned as legitimate and respectable protesters and signs of renewed ‘feminist’ protest – sit in stark contrast to the construction of Chelsea’s ‘illegitimate’, and so-called ‘greed-driven’ rioting.
The play ‘The Riots’, performed most recently in Tottenham – where the riots began – includes first-hand testimonies from individuals involved in last summer’s events. Excerpts from Chelsea’s letter to the play’s writer, Gillian Slovo, are included, standing out amidst a sea of male voices. In her letter, penned from Holloway Prison, she apologised for her actions and challenged the media’s image of her as ‘council estate scum’:
The public seem to automatically place me in an unnamed category for thick, low-lifed [sic] individuals which is not me at all. I haven’t even had the chance to speak for myself … The public just need to know I’m only accountable for my actions and not everyone else’s and I’m sorry.
Chelsea’s need to repent, to dis-identify from the pathologised working-class and prove her ‘respectability’, can draw parallels with Jade Goody – another working-class girl who had to show her desire to improve and who was publicly persecuted for her ‘failings’ in the most extreme way. Working-class femininities are always-already failing and must be repudiated, corrected and left behind in order to become intelligible neoliberal subjects.
Writing on femininities under the New Labour govermment, Angela McRobbie argued that those on the periphery of idealised models of autonomous, individualised and ambitious young womanhood were ‘more emphatically condemned for their lack of status and other failings than would have been the case in the past’ (2008: 7). The troubled mothers and failing riot girls of last summer’s events embody this condemnation of young working-class women but in a new context. The gendering of the riots tells us many things, but perhaps most importantly that classed and racialised distinctions and boundaries of failed and ideal femininities are becoming more accentuated under the coalition government and its austerity policies.
In a recent post, McRobbie suggests that there has been a further narrowing of the models of ‘success’ available to young women, with a celebration of a ‘normatively middle-class idea of achievement, ambition and professionalism’ presented by white, upper-middle class MPs such as Louise Mensch or the Prime Minister’s wife, Samantha Cameron. While New Labour’s meritocracy project was deeply flawed, there was a narrative of aspiration available to young working-class women. This seems to have been lost under the coalition – after all it was David Willets MP who blamed aspirational women – and feminism – for the lack of jobs available to working-class men. Recent cuts to youth services, a dramatic hike in university fees, the withdrawl of the Educational Maintenance Allowance (EMA), cuts to Sure Start and rising unemployment, seem to send a simple message to working-class young women: ‘don’t even bother’.
So what is there left to dream of and aspire to for girls like Chelsea who are (increasingly) excluded from the material and cultural resources which are valued? We shouldn’t be surprised at women’s participation in the riots, nor their participation in (likely) future forms of unrest: it is these very cultures and contexts of education, family, community and employment, foregrounded in the below seminars, that may well produce rather than prevent ‘riots’.
Kimberly Allen, Institute for Policy Studies in Education, London Metropolitan University, London
Yvette Taylor, Weeks Centre for Social and Policy Research, London Southbank University, London
London Metropolitan University and Plymouth University are holding a seminar on ‘Family Cultures’ on the 15th February 2012 at the Women’s Library, London. This is the fourth seminar in the ESRC seminar series ‘New Perspectives in Education and Culture’. For more details on the seminar and to book a place, please visit the website: http://educationandculture.wordpress.com/
The Weeks Centre is hosting a British Sociological Association one-day seminar, titled ‘Intersecting Family Lives, Labours, Locales’ on the 3rd February 2012. For more details and to book a place, please visit the website: http://www.lsbu.ac.uk/ahs/news/191211.shtml