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‘Relax darlin’, take it as a compliment’: Voicing the Sexism and Gender Discrimination of Modern Ire

Scrolling through my Facebook feed on a Wednesday morning, I wasn’t expecting to find Heartbreak (Emmet Kirwan, Short Film, 2016). Aware of Kirwan’s face, name and powerful voice from numerous projects including my personal guilty pleasure, Irish soap Fair City, as well as the mesmerising performance of Dublin Old School, I was intrigued by the video shared by friends. In the midst of the usual online posts and updates, Heartbreak speaks to the social media generation in their own habitat with a striking message.

In a distinct Dublin accent, Kirwan begins with the title of the piece, “Heartbreak, Youngone wakes to the morning after.’ We are immediately introduced to the speaker who stands upon a rooftop, and the actress who brings Kirwan’s words to life. From the beginning ‘Youngone’, is placed in a less than idyllic domestic situation with an absent father and preoccupied mother, with an older sister who once offered support is now gone. Smoking in Youngone’s bedroom with friends, Kirwan paints the picture of teenage revelry with lack of adult supervision, or even concern.

Fast forward to Youngone’s first experiences of catcalling, inappropriate sexualisation and unwanted male attention. As viewers, we understand the protagonist’s feelings of unease. An all too common occurrence for women, the visualisation of a young woman’s discomfort due to unwanted sexualisation harbors anger for the viewer. She finds a boy that doesn't leer or shout, believing him to be a great guy with respect and love for her. This pairing illustrates the confusion of young girls when faced with the male as aggressor, or male acting somewhat acceptably in comparison with his peers. Why does this trope seem all so familiar to those who watch Heartbreak? Young girls fantasise about the boys who ‘aren’t like the others’ in film, television, music and real life. However, it is damaging to see girls and women happy to accept the lesser of two evils; as in the case of Youngone.

Youngone’s circumstances worsen with an unwanted teenage pregnancy, a result of ‘pulling out late, and now pulling out early’, referencing the father’s absence following the impregnation. Kirwan draws attention to the poor standards of sexual education in Ireland, and the subsequent problems of underage and unwanted pregnancies. We follow the young woman to the pharmacy, where she receives a patronising talking to from the staff, who discourage her from getting emergency contraception. Youngone is pushed to isolation by a society not ready to grapple with the issue. Approaching her distant and distracted mother, we are met with the harsh reality for those unable to travel abroad for safe abortions due to financial strains. Her mother notes, ‘Look, listen, understand there’s no money for a trip on the ringer, that’s only for those that can.’ Alone again, Youngone embodies the familiar narrative of an unsupported young mother in Ireland. Despite her disheartening circumstances and isolation, Youngone decides to change. She opts for pre-natal vitamins instead of the previous substances she indulged in . Understanding the severity of her circumstance, Kirwan articulates how Youngone’s emotions become dark, and again she thinks ‘heartbreak’.

Jumping forward to the birth of the baby, Kirwan describes how Youngone ‘resolves to love this thing more than she was every loved herself.’ Still residing at home, we see that circumstances have not improved as her mother continues to prioritise herself and her social life, while unfamiliar male visitors still leer at the new mother. Adamant to provide for herself and her son, Youngone makes the decision to move out from her negative home space, and attempt to live on her own in Dublin.

Following on from Youngone’s tragic home situation and unplanned teenage pregnancy, Kirwan’s narrative highlights the lack of support available from government bodies for those in need of housing and finance. ‘Go back to your mam’s’, the local politician tells Youngone. Unable to do so, she stays in a hostel where the media take her photograph. Though this is done to presumably raise awareness, we cannot ignore the fact that by picturing a young girl in a ‘€15 Boohoo dress’ the press also exploits Youngone and her situation. Kirwan plays out reactions to the photograph from members of the public, skeptical of the brevity of her circumstances, saying ‘she looks fine to me. My tax euros mean that she gets everything for free.’ These harsh words demonstrate society’s tendency to disregard those in need, often discriminated due to their appearance. Youngone’s age, gender and good looks work against her. Kirwan introduces a pair of new characters who discuss Youngone’s media depiction and circumstances. One of the righteous taxpayers complains about his his money being used to ‘pay for a house for a working class slag.’ Though this man knows nothing of Youngone’s circumstances, he is quick to jump to conclusions. Unfortunately, Kirwan’s narrative rings true in actual Irish society, as the underprivileged are often judged by those who should support them. Again, Youngone is pushed to isolation by an apathetic society.

‘Heartbreak’. Kirwan’s repetition of the title sections off the various hardships which Youngone has to endure. Alone, with no stable income or support, she takes begins work, in order to ‘prove them all wrong.’ What follows is a zero-hour contract, overtime, a continuous cycle of hard work and the inability to afford accommodation. Youngone’s employment and housing situation is the bleak reality for many of those living in Dublin. ‘Prices go up, wages go down’, Kirwan states while delivering a powerful, energetic passage of Youngone’s narrative. In the piece, we see Youngone’s baby is now a young boy, and to support herself and her son she returns to education.

Eventually, we are introduced to a character who inspires and encourages Youngone: a helpful teacher. Kirwan describes the young woman as ‘learning for learning’s sake. So that she can articulate this incandescent rage between all the young women of Ireland in 2016.’ Youngone becomes aware of the inequity she faces as a woman, not only in Ireland, but globally. She learns about the struggle for women’s rights and what Kirwan specifies as the ‘constitutional refusal of bodily autonomy.’ Through an emotive delivery, Kirwan voices the concerns of young women, begging the question ‘You mean as a woman, or plebeian, in this country of opportunity the ceiling and sea is a shamrock coloured green glass to me?’ The startling revelation awakens the feminist in Youngone, as she grows increasingly tired and frustrated with the callous treatment of women by a patriarchal society. A woman who struggled and persevered through inequalities, sexism and a difficult home life is left ‘still dealing with the ignominy of getting followed and hollered at in the street, in spite of undergraduate accomplishment.’

The final chapter in Youngone’s narrative is the most powerful segment of Heartbreak, and it’s soul shines through in the actress’ performance and Kirwan’s spoken word. Walking with her son in central Dublin, Youngone passes a group of men who can’t help but comment about her appearance and the fact that she has a child. Every difficulty that we have seen Youngone endure appears to culminate into a moving exhortation;

‘STOP! I am not defined by the fact that I am some man’s daughter, sister, cousin, mother. I am a woman. And I have agency just because I’m breathing air, motherfucker. And I’m standing here, motherfucker.’

Rather than the profanity of Youngone’s words damaging the integrity of what she is saying, the use of ‘motherfucker’ further strengthens her invocation. Using the word to articulate and personify women’s adversaries, she exclaims to the group of men that it is ’you, and the state are the ones that are trying to FUCK ME!’

A witness to his mother’s outburst, and her treatment by the state and the men around her, he decides to ‘regulate’. This child, aware of the injustices faced by his mother, consciously advocates for change. Youngone, in response to her experiences and circumstances, tries to ‘build this young man, this young boy. He will be the best elements of femininity, wrapped in a rebellious feminine but benign masculinity. The man she always hoped for.’ Youngone places hope in the future generation’s ability to improve and eradicate gender inequalities, by breaking down the preconceived societal expectations of respective binary genders. Kirwan articulates the young man’s future stating that he will ‘settle up the score and say “here Ma, you embody all that is good and are the one that I am fighting for. I’ll never catcall. I’ll treat and respect and help to create an Ireland that will stand in awe of all mná.’ (“women” in Irish).

‘Heartbreak, Heartmend.’ Kirwan’s final words call for a certain reconditioning of society. With education and experience, he calls on us to learn from the past and current circumstances to improve the future. Heartbreak beckons for a social awakening about gender discrepancies, prompting thought and discussion amongst those who watch, like, and share it online. The piece, originally commissioned for THISISPOPBABY and RIOT for the Dublin Fringe Festival in 2016, brings a number of problematic elements of contemporary Irish culture to the fore. Winning Best Production at the festival, the short film clearly resonates with the progressive thinking in terms of gender equality in Ireland.

Words by Elly Collins

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