If the XFactor hadn’t descended up it’s own backside several years ago it would have been more profitable than it is to open this post with a string of searing barbs, at least in part to mitigate the pain I felt through the show’s exposure of Gary Barlow as, well, a bit pissy. A certified exercise in redundancy, but I want to ensure I relieve myself of the majority of my XFactor acidity before I commence with the heart of this.
Oh! the vitriol I could pour onto my TV set every Saturday (if I didn’t know a bit about science, and know that this may cause a fire). There are a plethora of irksome XFactor factors: the booming, elongated annunciation of the voiceover guy; the fact every post judge’s house makeover seems to rely heavily on PVC, stratospheric level backcombing and three sticks of eyeliner; the Village of the Damned style dead eyed repetition of the phrase ‘you made it your own’; the way Tulisa pronounces her name ‘Tulisaw’ (which can also, presumably, be found in isle three of B&Q). Yet only one XFactor trope has the ability to inflame: the culture of poormeism. That is, the coldly cynical way the producers stretch and contort any vaguely disconcerting aspect of a contestant’s life into a grotesque parody of sorrow, into minutely engineered pageantry played out by unwitting pop puppets who see only the swiftly receding light of transient fame, not the manipulation and exploitation of their private lives. These tales have ranged from the insultingly innocuous (the cross Andy in series one had to bear was his employment as a bin man) to the punchy yet overstated (Rachel in series five was a former crack addict and petty criminal and also, as it turned out, not particularly nice). Yet, as with everything that continues to exist in it’s current form, there is the potential for someone to come along and scrawl all over your preconceptions.
Despite my seeming infinitesimal knowledge of the XFactor I haven’t, for years, watched it for longer than it takes to count a few cliches and wince at a few bum notes. So, it took a while for one of this year’s finalists, Jahmene Douglas, to filter into my consciousness. And then he seemed to be everywhere. Jahmene, for the uninitiated, has spoken out about living with an violent and abusive father and the subsequent, far-reaching aftermath. This daily torment culminated in a sustained and torturous attack on his mother, Mandy. She was imprisoned in her own home and abused for days with a blow torch; with fists; with knives. Then followed a series of refuge stays, of aliases and of trying to bear the seemingly unbearable. Coming to terms with a life lived in the shadow of abuse proved too much for Jahmene’s brother Daniel who took his own life. Yet this sequence of events has been imparted without sensation, without the vaguest whiff of self pity. It is hard to imagine Jahmene’s heartfelt words accompanied by the obligatory pre-performance ‘vote for me I’ve had a hard time’ piano refrain of a Coldplay or a Take That song. I hope I am not wrong.
Whilst the publicity generated by all of this has surely not hindered Jahmene’s progress in the competition, I think to focus on this is to miss the point. I have before seen contestants use their fleeting fame merely as a springboard to vacuity: entry into trashy celeb hangouts; dubiously rendered carol concerts in shopping centres; posing and pouting in mens’ magazines. Never before have I witnessed an XFactor contestant use the temporary platform granted by the show to do something worthwhile. Yet here we have Asda selling ‘Vote Jahmene’ T-shirts and donating the profits to the national domestic violence charity Women’s Aid; The Sun donating to Women’s Aid following an interview with Jahmene; the XFactor’s own website providing a link to a site about domestic violence; Women’s Aid and Jahmene retweeting each other on the subject of Domestic Violence Awareness. We also have #raiseawarenessofdomesticviolence trending on Twitter, at Jahmene’s behest. We have his young followers opening up about their experiences of domestic violence and giving money to help support services. One follower had proudly told Jahmene she had donated £10 to Women’s Aid, as that was all she had, but was worried that this was not enough. I am not a sucker for a sob story and can root out the coldly cynical at ten paces. I am also aware that the ubiquitous hash tag alone does nothing to reduce the statistic that two women every week die at the hands of a violent partner. I do, however, think that all of this has brought further into public consciousness a very trenchant point. With regards to the reporting and awareness of domestic violence, and to quote Mandy Douglas, “everything at the moment focuses on the aftermath”. The story of Jahmene and Mandy played out in the popular press and on social media websites is surely that indictment writ large. We hear them in retrospect, we hear them reach back painfully into the past and recall how – somehow – they managed to survive. The focus needs to stretch, to incorporate and give equal weight to prevention, to early intervention, to increasing routes to help-seeking and to eradicate the shame that is so attached to all of this.
And I know from whence I speak. I have been – I am – that aftermath. I know what it is to cower and to fear, to listen to the anger and see the pain, to be a child and to not know how to make it stop, to be conditioned to see your suffering as shameful, as wrong. Reading Jahmene say that “the thing that stays with you is hearing your mother scream and not being able to do anything about it” made me feel, for that moment, that he was the bravest person alive. I have worked for a women’s refuge service and seen women time and again feel that no one is listening, and that to fight to be heard, and to fight to be given the right options is a battle too far. I know that teens and young adults are at most risk of suffering violence at the hands of a partner, I know that there are ‘worrying levels of acceptance of abuse’* in teen relationships. This increasing normalisation of abuse needs to be tackled at the earliest opportunity, through education, and the services need to be there for people to come forward. Crippling cuts to refuge services need to stop, for we cannot continue to live in a world where 230 women were turned away by Women’s Aid in one day as there was not enough refuge space to accommodate them**.
If young people are talking about the destructive nature of domestic violence on Twitter, or during XFactor advert breaks, it is surely a start.
*Home Office 2004; **Women’s Aid 2011