By Jenny Flannagan
Do any of you remember a campaign run by the Body Shop in 1998 featuring the “Ruby” doll? In case
you don’t, here she is:
You could argue that producing another plastic doll wasn’t the best way to challenge stereotypes of women in the media. The very concept of reducing femininity (or even masculinity) to an inanimate ideal is flawed and unhelpful. But it got a lot of people’s attention and, in Anita Roddick’s words, “[exposed] the cruel irony of the myth that a company must make a woman feel inferior in order to win her loyalty.”
I stumbled across her voluptuous form only a year or so ago while googling on behalf of my theatre company, The Ruby Dolls. I enjoy the coincidence of our names.
And I’ve thought about her again this past month, while The Ruby Dolls have spent August performing at the Edinburgh Fringe. We’ve had a fair amount of press attention, most of it really positive. And during our very first interview, we were grilled on our feminist credentials.
How could we claim to be intelligent women telling important stories with a name that made us sound like “a strip-tease act” (asked Fest Magazine)? Why had we chosen such a pejorative name, seemingly contradicting our more sophisticated ideals?
There were others who challenged us on the same front: The Telegraph found “the ‘doll’ conceit” to be “a little too infantilizing.”
The truth about the genesis of our name is that we started as a group who mainly sang in harmony, which was when we named ourselves. We wore Ruby Woo lipstick. We had styled ourselves in a 1940s vein because of all that era had enabled in terms of the changing role of women in our culture. The name ‘The Ruby Dolls’ seemed to fit into that world.
Then we decided we really wanted to be a theatre company; that singing songs from a bygone era, or in a bygone style, wasn’t enough. We had more to say to the world.
And from the start, one of our biggest sources of inspiration was cabaret. Which is a difficult term to use as it means different things to different people. So let me be more specific. One of the strongest reference points for us was Weimar cabaret, where performance became a means of protest against the political repression of the world up above. Art subverted, satirized, and resisted the growing Nazi movement, through the seemingly harmless or reductive frameworks of funny songs, puppetry, poetry, dancing.
There’s an element of disguise which has always been important in art. The least satisfying art is one dimensional and has no mystery to it.
So it’s interesting to me that people have reacted against our appearance and name, even though they have been quick to praise the intelligence and depth of our work. Why is glamour deemed to be inconsistent with serious femininity?
Names are always reductive; appearances can only tell you so much. But I reject these dismissals of the way we present ourselves as ‘belittling’. Our name and our look belong to an era where women were suddenly given new levels of freedom and independence, and allowed to do ‘men’s jobs’, but while still being expected to wear stockings and lipstick off duty. In some ways it reflects an ongoing struggle to express our femininity and identity in the world – and the confused ways it can be received. The show we did in Edinburgh was about family heritage – our own family histories, and the limitations imposed on those who came before us. There are less limitations now (in this country) but still plenty comment.
I don’t think it’s a simple issue to resolve. There are plenty notions of feminine beauty to be debunked, just like Ruby did more than a decade ago. I’m not naturally a red lipstick and heels kinda girl most of the time, so to be arguing in their favour is odd. But the experience of being judged and dismissed because of a style choice seems grossly unfair, and as ugly as any other kind of prejudice.
Jenny Flannagan is a writer, actress and film-maker. She has worked for Tearfund for the past 8 years, and her particular focus in recent times has been finding ways to capture and share stories of Christians serving their communities in diverse ways all around the world. She counts herself hugely privileged to travel and meet such extraordinary people. She is also a founding member of the theatre company The Ruby Dolls, described by Time Out as "an elegant, inventive and absorbing fusion of theatre, music, storytelling, dance and puppetry". She lives on a council estate in South London with her husband Andy, where they are trying to be downwardly mobile. They are part of The Well Community Church and lead a fledgling missional community.