Image courtesy of UCU Sussex, Lewis Nielson one of the students currently facing disciplinary action at Sussex.
Youtube film courtesy of verymovingpictures
This post is a little bit different from usual Observing the Eighties posts, although it is certainly informed by the diversity and possibilities of our project.
I don’t usually engage with the autobiographical in this blog, and part of our initial inspiration for Observing the 80s was to try and move beyond the cliches of pop culture retro versions of the 1980s. But I recently gave a speech as part of UCU industrial action that made me think again about the ways in which the eighties as a period and the current context speak to each other. I had proposed that Union members and students shared our two hour strike on 28th January by watching the 1984 film Footloose. I’m not sure how I got away with it, but I did. Here is how I explained why to those who came to watch the film.
You can read the speech below or watch the film of the event
Personal, Political and Collective
When I first saw this film it changed who I was politically. I know that sounds odd. I’d been brought up within the Labour Party, and in Trade Unions. I’d been on marches since before I could walk, had run away to Greenham Common and raised money for the striking miners. I was very well brought up.
But I knew, I’ve always known what Emma Goldman and Sophie Ellis Bexter have taught us – If I can’t dance I don’t want to be part of your revolution.
When I watched Footloose in the mid 80s, I was already sick of the poseur punks, the subcultural snobbery of the self elected folk devils. I recognised that their distaste for the poppiest of popular music was the same snobbery as the previous young generations had felt from their parents. I also knew it was gendered. Girls like pop so it can’t have any meaning. I’m not claiming that Footloose is a metaphor for our specific conditions here at Sussex – if I wanted a direct metaphor I would have probably gone for Dolly Parton’s 9-5 in terms of foregrounding the extent to which inequality in Higher Education is gendered, managements attempts to divide us and the everyday acts of sisterhood that have got so many of us through our day.
Footloose was released in 1984. In a nutshell Footloose plays out standard intergenerational conﬂict and teen censorship through the relationship that develops between small town pastor’s daughter and wild child and the boy from the city (with a dubious reputation) Ren McCormak played by Kevin Bacon. The assumed danger from the city and moral contagion associated with McCormak and his single mother, is in fact nothing to the brooding fear of small town life. The small town has banned dancing in response to a tragedy, the fear of the outside escalates to classic moral panic levels.
The city boy helps organise an alternative high school prom, and challenge the ban. The scene where Ren challenges the pastor using the bible – is reminiscent of court dramas, its even a bit to kill a mockingbird.
So why this film? I am not claiming any revolutionary working class authenticity in Kevin Bacon’s footwork. Nor am I interested in re-running arguments about Brecht and Macherey’s models of revolutionary art. But, the kids in this film win because they use the systems own words against it. They shine a mirror back at The Man. It is a film that wants to tell us that moral condemnation is the product of fear. Fear of a collective, bigger, stronger, more energetic and with better moves than the system. That austerity is an artificial mechanism to stop free thought. It is a film in which research has a genuine role in social justice. It is film in which a group of young people don’t just bemoan the inability of the system surrounding them to fulfill their needs – they do it themselves. They build the world they want. It is a film that puts pleasure at the heart of politics.
So, collectively. What I love most about this film. Is that my comrades invited let me play it to you all as part of this industrial action. That is what a university or a community should be. Where the passion of one can be shared, valued and maybe even enjoyed by the many. There is a well known game, The Kevin Bacon Game’. In it the assumption is that Kevin Bacon is only six degrees removed from any other actor. The degrees of separation between us beat that – we are not only connected. We are one!
Collective action, trade union membership have never been about economics alone. As the women textile strikers in Massachusetts told us in 1912 we want bread but we want roses too. We might be legally only able in this context to strike over our pay but this strike is about fairness, it is about gender inequality, it is about privatisation, it is about exploitative contracts. So Like Ren McCormack, Emma Goldman and Rose Schneiderman, I don’t just want fair pay, I want fair conditions for all of our community.
So I say to management We’ve got Ren McCormack – Who have you got?