A regular column of absurd cultural epiphanies from writer Elizabeth Holdsworth
By Elizabeth Holdsworth on November 19th 2014
I The Juice Party
I sort of met a girl at a party in Sweden—in the way that strangers in mixed groups, who don’t actually have a one-on-one conversation, could be said to have met. She had the word SCUM tattooed in elongated and shaky lettering on her neck.
This was at a gathering in the Stockholm suburbs. Experimenting with a new juicing machine, we drank obscene amounts of freshly pressed juice, revolting combinations of fruits and vegetables mixed in with toxic levels of vodka. A sticky layer of pulp seemed to coat all the surfaces of the tiny kitchen, and through the acidic perfumed haze of the evening I couldn’t take my eyes off her, off the SCUM.
She was a beautiful young woman. Mixed race, hair like an enormous lampshade. Deep red lips and gappy teeth, a shy smirk. I was caught by the violence of the word on her neck: SCUM. The word was so proud. I was confused and queasy at the time and as I left the party I took the image of her and her SCUM away with me. Why was she SCUM? I felt perturbed for conflicting reasons. Firstly, the girl was intoxicatingly alluring. What was the significance of her branding herself with SCUM, a defiant layer of filth? And secondly, why didn’t I have a tattoo this cool?
II The Manifesto
In 1967 Valerie Solanas published her radical SCUM Manifesto, which opens with the words, ‘Life in this society being, at best, an utter bore and no aspect of society being at all relevant to women, there remains to civic-minded, responsible, thrill-seeking females only to overthrow the government, eliminate the money system, institute complete automation and destroy the male sex.’ Solanas is now most remembered for the shooting and attempted murder of Andy Warhol in his Factory on June 3rd 1968. Warhol nearly died. Solanas was hospitalized.
Some readings of the SCUM Manifesto (Society for Cutting Up Men) position it as a polemic on the most radical and furthest fringes of feminism. There it lurks, a loaded gun with the safety off, for anti-feminist advocates to supposedly prove that feminism is a direct and aggressive attack, a mission to not only destroy the patriarchy but to topple society and eliminate men altogether.
Eyebrows raise and brows furrow, because there are others, however, who view the SCUM manifesto as less than completely serious, a witty commentary on the struggle of the Second Wave. How far should you take something? Do violent words have more, or less, of a powerful impact?
The true reasons and the exact circumstances surrounding the attack have become clouded, absorbed into the mythicism of Warhol and the Factory and inevitably marred by the fact that Solanas was later treated for mental illness. When Solanas was arrested for shooting Andy Warhol her justification for the assassination attempt was that he had too much control of her life. We cannot precisely know the exact intentions behind SCUM or Solanas‘ later actions. The truth is a slippery substance.
III The Word
SCUM. Quite a word. If it were in Swedish it would have been spelled with a ‘K’. Now, after speculation and my questioning a few acquaintances, it seems my Swedish crush’s tattoo could well have been referring to Solanas and her oblique manifesto.
I was floating in the kitchen across from the beautiful woman and the SCUM was a perfect swirl around her throat. To me it was more tropical garnish than defiant badge of protest. Sweden has its own Feminist political party. In other places Feminism is still a sticky subject, the word a bit convoluted, nausea-inducing, the only real F-word. I once successfully ended a not-very-interesting date by bringing up the subject. He couldn’t get away quickly enough.
It was a strange journey for me and that word. Any British punk girl from the North might have a tattoo like that, or any other four letter expletive, FUCK, etc. My expectations of the eternally politically correct Swedes were different, a group of cultured, well-travelled, intellectual, vibrant youth, dousing themselves in sticky, fruity C vitamins and art and literature and alcohol. My life, my England, felt anemically grim. That night we overdosed on fruits, on sickly decadent froth, rings of fruity scum around empty plastic tumblers. I left, feeling saturated, my stomach churning.