I was recently introduced to a show called Nathan For You, starring Canadian comedian Nathan Fielder. The concept of the show is that Fielder, posing as a consultant, offers convoluted and ridiculous suggestions to unsuspecting business owners to boost their sales. Again and again, we watch astonished as subjects politely agree to try ideas such as marketing a “poo” flavoured frozen yoghurt, or introducing a live alligator into an electronics store. This dynamic — testing how far the fear of appearing rude or ignorant will push people to go along with absurdities — is a comedy staple. Think of the Borat films, or the parable of the Emperor’s New Clothes.
There was more than a hint of this flavour of humour in the furore that engulfed Goodmayes Library in Redbridge, East London last weekend. To promote the Summer Reading Challenge, an annual children’s literacy event, costumed performers were hired from Mandinga Arts, a “carnival, participatory and outdoor performance art organisation” supported by Arts Council England. So far, so good. The aspect that has sparked outrage is the nature of one of the costumes, which really has to be seen to be believed.
The costume is, shall we say, “adult”: it was referred to on Twitter as a “furry rainbow monkey with a huge dildo and exposed anus” (though it appears that the monkey’s “exposed anus” and similarly exposed nipples are part of the costume, and not the performer’s own). It’s unclear what, if anything, is meant to be the connection with reading or libraries.
At no stage, as far as we know, did anybody question the laughably unsuitable costume
In a video (now deleted) from the Redbridge Libraries Twitter account, we see the rainbow monkey rushing out of the library doors, alongside a giant strawberry and some kind of lizard, to gyrate on the side of the road and flap his sizeable appendage at passing traffic. In another image, the monkey is seen bent over on a bench outside a Lidl displaying his plastic buttocks to shoppers. The scene would not be out of place as part of a skit from one of the aforementioned cringe-comedies. One can picture audiences gasping with incredulity that library staff would go along with something so ludicrously inappropriate.
In the days since this controversy erupted, Mandinga Arts, Redbridge Libraries, and local council leader Jas Athwal have all issued public apologies. But the question very much remains: how did it come to pass that Redbridge Council’s contractors paid a man to wave a dildo at an event for children?
At first glance, Mandinga Arts does not seem like an obviously straightforward choice for children’s entertainment. Before it was taken down, their website showed a number of carnival costumes that seem more appropriate for an adult audience, including what appear to be pigs in bondage gear, and suggestively shaped “love birds” (“nothing makes them happier than a gentle stroke”). Our priapic primate is shown cavorting with a number of characters resembling the Wizard of Oz’s Tin Man, except with giant phalluses for hats. Hardly the sort of thing you’d see on CBeebies.
Presumably, after Mandinga Arts was engaged for this event, somebody at the organisation selected the dildo monkey from Mandinga’s costume repertoire to entertain the children of Redbridge. Staff at the library will have then seen the monkey, complete with monkey member on full display, preparing to go out and meet the public; afterwards, a member of staff posted a video to the library’s Instagram account, commenting “when you’ve got it, flaunt it”. At no stage, as far as we know, did anybody question the laughably unsuitable costume. Why not?
The desire to be seen to have the right values is so strong that rational judgement is suspended
Part of the answer is revealed by some of the responses to this affair. While a large majority of comments have been disapproving, a few lonely voices insisted that the costume was harmless fun and that the widespread outrage was unfounded prudery. Criticism is attributed to “mumsnet puritans” and to “gender critical” feminists, who supposedly have a prurient obsession with genitalia. Most notable among these voices was Sally Hines, Chair of Sociology at the University of Sheffield. “When I was a child I had an anatomically correct boy doll who had a penis and testicles. Was it inappropriate of my grandma to buy me this?” reads one representative tweet posted by Hines on Sunday. Another commenter accused monkey-naysayers of “having a meltdown about an arts project” simply because “it involves monkey suits that are anatomically correct”. (It’s hardly the point, but if the costume really was “anatomically correct” the offending organ would have been considerably smaller, since human males are unusually well endowed compared to our primate cousins).
This bizarre contortion makes sense when one considers which ideas are currently “in” and which are “out”. Sexual self expression, especially where it can be branded as “queering” something, is very much in. Anything involving colourful makeup is definitely in. Concern over sexual boundaries, or over the sexualisation of children: these are out. If the wrong kind of feminist expresses these concerns, it is very important that those on the Right Side of History position themselves as the polar opposite, even if this leaves them defending the ridiculous or the inexcusable.
As a result of these ideological fashions, many practices and ideas become difficult to challenge. From “drag kids”, to the promotion of prostitution to university students, to the mainstreaming of kink as family-friendly entertainment, there’s a sense that to express ambivalence is to be anti-progress or some non-specific brand of bigot. As a further example, consider the gushing, even slightly patronising response to male pop stars such as Harry Styles or Sam Smith exploring femininity through clothing and makeup. The desire to be seen to have the right values is so strong that aesthetic judgement is suspended: any male in a dress is automatically Stunning and Brave.
There is no indication that actual harm was suffered by any party in last weekend’s monkey penis escapade — no thanks to the safeguarding procedures of any of the involved organisations, which are clearly lacking. Perhaps the events at Goodmayes Library could serve as a timely reminder to never outsource your moral judgements — or, for that matter, your aesthetic ones — to someone else. At best, you risk embarrassing yourself. At worst, alligators in electronics stores are not the only dangerous things you enable.
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