Our Pop Culture Apocalypse Survival Guide continues with this powerful personal essay from first time CEFA contributor, Aaron Bowman. In reflecting on the repeatedly devastating events of 2016, he provides a reminder not only that the anguish of personal grief and trauma can provide a pained perspective to a World seemingly intent on irrational suffering, but also that humour (and drag) can provide a great, eternal comfort from all of it. Sashay away, 2016…
For most, 2016 was a spelk of a year. I distinctly remember driving down a potholed street towards an empty carpark to the sounds of Mr. Cameron trying to spin his way into the history books as the man who brought gay marriage to the nation, despite the fact that he couldn’t even wrangle his band of merry (read: evil) misfits into siding with him (136 opposed the bill). I went down my usual route of trying a little too hard to make people laugh. Any Brexit jokes are still met with tired echoes of ‘too soon’ and their punchlines barely skim the surface of 2012 8 Out of Ten Cats humour, stuck firmly on repeat on any channel past ITV2.
This wasn’t the worst thing to happen in 2016.
When Trump was elected, a colleague and I drank coffee and one of us definitely mentioned early 20th century Germany. That shit was real. We tried to process it with humour, again, but it felt like we were at the funeral of someone we only vaguely knew and were making small talk about the array of miniature food, when really we just wanted to hug their parents and tell them how sorry we were for the loss, but we’re British so we don’t. We just carried on commenting on the inch-long toads-in-the-hole/toad-in-the-holes (because some plurals are a plural too far, but then again it’s 2016 so you can get away with anything).
This still wasn’t the worst thing to happen in 2016.
Sandwiched between Brexit and Trump, I experienced an altogether more personal loss. My best friend and future best man committed suicide in the height of Summer. Jokes were firmly folded and packed away into a drawer in my head. My usual way of dealing with the darkness wasn’t going to work. I did what any other millennial would do in 2016 and I tweeted and went way back through old Facebook conversations and screengrabbed messages and sent them to friends.
I tried to log back into my old Myspace account, but I realised I had grown up and forgotten my late-2000s password list. Although, let the record show that I know for a fact that one of them was doh5rty, which already feels vintage in a ‘perm’ way, rather than a ‘furcoat’ kinda way.
I raged. Privately, though, so no one knew the extent to which his death hit me. I would wake up from dreams of people chattering on about how sad they were that Bowie, Prince, Victoria Wood or Alan Rickman had died. I realised references to suicide are common, if fleeting, in everyday conversation. “And when I turned around and saw him I just wanted to kill myself”.
So I turned to humour again. But the aforementioned Ms. Wood wasn’t enough and rewatching early seasons of Sex and the City makes you realise that it wasn’t that funny at all. Eager to binge watch, I went back to my old friend RuPaul Andre Charles and his bevvy of beauties. So when the new season landed I watched each episode three or four times, made notes on which bits I liked best and even started a now-deleted tumblr page, teaching myself to make gifs (spoiler alert: it’s super simple).
I wanted to buy the merch, but I’d put myself on a spending ban because sadness + bankcard = regret. I downloaded Snapchat, despite being intrusively too out-of-touch (read: old) to understand it, specifically so that I could watch daily videos of the queens staring into their iPhone cameras and telling the world where they’re at and what a lovely time they’re having and how lovely everything is. And it was lovely.
Mid-Season (or series, because UK), I realised the true extent that these beauty queens, dancers, actors and clowns were having on me. They were living a personal truth owned only by themselves whereby the mask that we all wear can be a tool to overcome the trauma. Whether manufactured by Mr. (or Miss, Mrs, Ms) Producer or not, each one had a story to tell and had used their particular flavour of drag to overcome it. And they were having such a lovely time.
There was one scene in which the final three Queens lip-synched to If I Were Your Woman, a song I first discovered in my mid-teens and played on repeat, performed by Her Eminence, Gladys Knight (probably the only old Motown figure still alive who hasn’t lost her talent – Ms. Reeves, that’s you). That’s when I realised what had happened: I had somehow reverted back to the angsty teenager that played The Libertines and hung-out on Myspace when I should have been out smoking — who longed for the ride but who also felt motion sickness.
I was back to being the person I was when I first met my friend. Their charisma, uniqueness, nerve and talent slowly dragging me back to real life.
I’m still mid-grief, which is not something I can speed up or slow down or press ‘Live-Pause’ on. There’s more going on. I’m trying to figure out how to gender-fluid when you care too much about what other people think. I’m trying to figure out how best to increase my creative output in a way that benefits society, without sounding like a knob. I’m trying to figure out how to make fun of the darkness, so the future isn’t so scary. I’m trying to figure out how to save others from suicide.
Until then, I’ll just keep sissying that walk.
In his third from last text message, my friend had asked me if I was excited for the new season of RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars. I never knew how much that question would come to mean to me.
Aaron Bowman lives in Durham. He is currently working on the life-story of his cat, who is one year and two months old, a collection of poems inspired by the most under-viewed TED talks on Youtube and, more seriously, his first play, which is yet to be titled. He doesn’t tweet much except for macabre lyrics from alt-pop songs, but would like you to tweet him @ajdbowman.