Today on Woman’s Hour...
Sally O’Reilly

Interior, mid morning. A radio is on in empty room and there is the smell of eggs frying somewhere nearby. On the radio:
Jenny Murray-Mint: Good morning. Welcome to Woman’s Hour with me, Jenny Murray-Mint…
  Are you one in a million? If you are, does that mean that there are over 60 other people just like you in the UK alone? Today we’re talking about just what it means to be an individual or a cog in the social machine. I’ll be talking to occult followers, for whom subservience is a must, as well as a fashion guru going it alone at the top. We’ll be discussing what it takes to be individuated or normative, and, later in the programme, Woman’s Hour’s Martha Carnage will be joining a group of artists at the seaside on a hen weekend with a bit of a difference…
Cut to sound of waves lapping on a pebbly beach, seagulls screeching high overhead and anoraks fluttering in the wind. We hear a minibus pull up, the door slide open and the noise of clucking hens grows louder until a whistle blows and the voice of a female sergeant major shouts commands…
Sgt Major Harrison:

Ok hens, synchronise watches. It is eighteen hundred hours and four minutes precisely. We muster here for cocktails at eighteen thirty. Fall out…
The hens start squabbling…
Hen 1: Hey, that’s my bag.
Hen 2: I don’t think so…
Hen 1: Yes it is, look, it’s got my copy of Death of the Author in it.
Hen 3: Hey! That’s my copy. Look, it’s signed by Barthes himself.
Fade out. Back in the studio…
Jenny Murray-Mint:

Find out later in the programme how the artists, those most singular of cultural producers, got on in extreme conditions of convivial compromise.
  But now, in the studio, I’m here with Sister Bronda, member of Humans Against God, or HAG, and Trudence Hemline, editor of Vague: fashion tips for the hesitant. Sister Bronda, tell me, how does being a handmaiden of the devil affect your sense of self?
Sister Bronda: Well, I’m very proud to work for someone so, so… famous.
Jenny Murray-Mint:

Yes, but don’t you feel a little overshadowed? And what about giving up all your personal effects, desires, friends and family? How easy was it to sacrifice all those things that, well, drive the rest of us, the individuated masses?
Sister Bronda:

Uh, I do still have personal drives and ambitions. My greatest ambition is to be the best, most anonymous handmaiden of the devil ever. To actually produce the most evil without ever being identified I think would be brilliant. I am in direct competition with Death, of course, because no one has actually identified her yet, except Bill & Ted, who came close but portrayed her a little more butch than she really is, of course. But for me, this anonymity would be the ultimate goal.
Jenny Murray-Mint: So the pinnacle of infamy for you, then, would be the point of disappearance?
Sister Bronda: Uh, that’s right, the pinnacle of infamy for me would be the point of disappearance.
Jenny Murray-Mint:

Well, Trudence Hemline, that would present a bit of a problem for you, wouldn’t it? Disappearance is just what you don’t want as an arbiter of fashion.
Trudence Hemline:

Sort of, Jenny. You see, what I give with the one hand I take away with the other. Mainstream fashion involves both the desire to be special and the desire to fit in. We all want to look special, of course, but we don’t want to look ridiculous. Today’s women are looking for a balance between remarkable and average, but in their bid to be noticed they do as people like me tell them to, and as a result they simply disappear in a fug of homogeneity. It’s like that bit in the film Spartacus, where the whole crowd says ‘I am Spartacus’.
Jenny Murray-Mint: Well, that is ironic. How aware do you think women are of this Catch 22?
Trudence Hemline:

Oh, they’re totally oblivious, unless they’re counter-cultural, but the fashion industry has factored this in now so that if anyone wants to operate beyond fashion – which is actually formulated from the syntaxes of punk, the resistance fighters of World War II and gestalt theory – they have to be very frumpy indeed, perhaps even resorting to service-industry uniforms, such as the Ryanair cabin crew’s range of blue and yellow separates.
Jenny Murray-Mint:

Fascinating. To test women’s awareness of how fashion manipulates them, we went to Oxford Street and asked a few shoppers why they follow fashion.
Burst of Beatles song Dedicated Follower of Fashion, then cut to recording with background clamour of traffic, shoppers and newspaper hawkers.
Woman 1:

Why do I buy fashionable clothes? Ummm, I don’t know, I never really thought about it before. It’s just nice to look nice, isn’t it?
Woman 2:

I think the high-street look at the moment is emblematic of our political context. As Simmel said, the more nervous an epoch is, the more rapidly its fashions will change, because the need for the attraction of differentiation, one of the essential agents for fashion, goes hand in hand with the languishing of nervous energies.
Woman 3: Oh I’m not shopping, I’m just checking the phone boxes for dropped coins.
Back in the studio…
Jenny Murray-Mint:

My, that was quite a range of reactions there from shoppers in London’s Oxford Street. Today, we’re investigating how we operate in society, as individuals or as part of a group. Consensus and individuation are, of course, key issues in a liberal democracy. We have now, on the line, the consensual theorist, Roger Thesaurus, who can tell us exactly how consensus on skirt length has been achieved over the decades, from the first glimpse of the ankles at the beginning of the twentieth century to the pussy pelmets we see in the shopping precincts today. Roger…
We hear the crackle of the phone line and a tinny voice, with faint cooing sounds in the background.
Roger Thesaurus: Hello Jenny.
Jenny Murray-Mint:

Roger, can you tell us just how consensus works? How does everyone decide to start wearing the same skirt length all at once?
Roger Thesaurus:

For some theorists consensus is an enigma, an apparent collective unconscious that somehow expresses itself as a mass movement towards the choice of, say, a ra-ra skirt for an entire season. But as a semiotician, I understand style consensus as simply a moment of successful communication. In today’s post-structuralist world the plurality of meanings and plethora of interpretations heralds a noisy polysemy that just isn’t useful to the fashion industry. It is the primitive yet pure channel of communication from designer to buyer, via advertising and editorial, that eradicates the ‘rustle of language’, as Roland Barthes called it, so that we all get the point of the communication and act unequivocally.
Jenny Murray-Mint:

But what if that fashion is announced as anti-fashion, as Mark E Smith did? If you remember a decade or so ago, the fashion was to be as unfashionable as possible.
Roger Thesaurus:

Well, this is interesting, you see, because what was posited as avant-garde has now been accommodated by the mainstream so that the instance of negativity – by this I mean the disruptive, even patricidal, nature of the avant-garde – reduces affirmation (i.e. consensus) to double negation, therefore never allowing it to exist in its own right. They say two wrongs don’t make one right, but actually sometimes one right can become two negatives in the presence of a single booboo.
Jenny Murray-Mint:

An interesting inversion there, thank you Roger. And Sister Bronda, Trudence, thank you very much…
  Now, last weekend Woman’s Hour’s Martha Carnage joined sixteen women at the seaside on a hen weekend. But this was a hen weekend with a difference. There was no bride to be and, despite all working in the art world, the hens hadn’t all met one another before. What is more, although they planned to eat, drink and do karaoke – all the normal things that hens do – they were also required to talk about art.
Fade in Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody playing through tinny speakers, the sound of a minibus engine revving and sixteen women singing along over the top. Fade out.
Martha Carnage:

Hello. I’m at the De La Warr Pavilion, the stunning arts centre in Bexhill, where for three days and two nights sixteen women have been living it up together. Hens, can you tell me the idea behind the hen weekend?
Hen 1:

(slurring) To get to know each other, really, away from the distractions of private views and the seriousness of meetings. (Hiccups)
Martha Carnage: It’s Sunday now, and how do you feel you’ve all got on?
All hens together: Fine.
Martha Carnage: Well, I think that all sounds remarkably harmonious.
Hen 2: I don’t.
Uncomfortable silence, with a little shuffling and clearing of throats.
Hen 3:

Ha, we’ve just taken part in a reconstruction. That was in fact a reconstruction, or rather recontextualisation, of the crowd scene in Monty Python’s The Life of Brian – the one when he’s at the window addressing the crowd who think he’s the messiah.
Cut to audio clip from Life of Brian:
Followers: Brian! Brian! Brian!…
Brian: Good morning.
Followers: A blessing! A blessing! A blessing!...
Brian: No. No, please! Please! Please listen. I've got one or two things to say.
Followers: Tell us. Tell us both of them.

Look. You've got it all wrong. You don't need to follow me. You don't need to follow anybody! You've got to think for yourselves. You're all individuals!
Followers: Yes, we're all individuals!
Brian: You're all different!
Followers: Yes, we are all different!
Dennis: I'm not.
Arthur: Shhhh.
Followers: Shh. Shhhh. Shhh.
Brian: You've all got to work it out for yourselves!
Followers: Yes! We've got to work it out for ourselves!
Brian: Exactly!
Followers: Tell us more!
Brian: No! That's the point! Don't let anyone tell you what to do! Otherwise… Ow! No!
Mandy: Come on, Brian. That's enough. That's enough.
Followers: Oooooh. That wasn't a minute!
Mandy: Oh, yes, it was.
Followers: Oh, no, it wasn't!
Mandy: Now, stop that, and go away!
Back to Bexhill recording with Martha and the hens:
Martha Carnage: Ah, yes, I see, but your reconstruction was a lot briefer than the original.
Hen 3:

Yes, but it was all in there, wasn’t it? As you say, harmony, but also dissonance, laced with both tragedy and comedy. And although the narrative you just experienced was based on a singular social instance, it can also serve metonymically for the universal experience of community. And all that distilled into just a few words!
Martha Carnage:

Amazing. So, anyway, tell me how the karaoke went. Did you turn it into an art performance? Or did it, by dint of the fact that you are artists, automatically have the status of art?
Hen 4:

That’s a difficult question. Joseph Beuys said that everyone is an artist, but then someone added a suffix to this, saying ‘but only the artist knows it’. The obverse of this would be that everything an artist does is art, but only if the consensus recognises it as such. I think we all agree to acknowledge it as karaoke, right?
Hens 3, 8, 12 & 15: (Singing in barbershop quartet harmony) Right…
Hens 1, 7, 13 & 16: (Singing in barbershop quartet harmony) Wrong…
Martha Carnage:

Well, hens, I see that you have turned difference into a productive phenomenon, overcoming the need for consensus, with the dialectic of disagreement becoming the creative social force.
Hen 9:

Yes, we have all come to understand that it is not total agreement on every political, ethical and aesthetic point that matters, but rather that we all acknowledge our differences of opinion and our vulnerability in the face of the opinions of others, while also respecting their vulnerability in the face of our opinions. This creates a solidarity based not on shared power but reciprocity, respect and… mutual nervousness.
Martha Carnage:

Marvellous. On that note of harmonious discord, let’s go back to Jenny Murray-Mint in the studio…
Jenny Murray-Mint: (Laughing) Martha Carnage there on a hen weekend with a difference.
  Now, this week’s domestic conundrum, sent in by a Mrs Trellis of North Wales, is how do they put the stripes into toothpaste? Well, Woman’s Hour researchers have consulted and cogitated and we can reveal that…
Sound of static interference and then silence as the radio set breaks due to a large power surge on the national grid.

A Hen Weekend commission 2007