FRESHEN UP: A COMMENTARY ON TOILETS, LABOUR, PERFORMANCE AND CASUAL MISOGONY

BY HAROLD OFFEH

“Freshen up, Freshen up. You gotta Freshen up!

No soap, no hope

No splash, no gash

Wash your fingers for de mingers

No Armani, no punani

You touch it, you wash it

No spray, no lay

No tissue, no issue

No Davidoff, no suck it off

No wash, no nosh

No gum, no cum

No money, no honeyz

No cologne, go home alone

No Calvin Klein, no 69

No designer, No vagina

No money, No honey

No CK, No BJ

No Paco Rabane, you go home with a man

No AfterShave, you go home with Dave

Freshen up for punani, punani, punani

Freshen up for punani, punani, punani.

We love pussy”

 

What is presented above is an edited version of the subcultural phenomena, known as the Freshen Up song. This half rap, half sung refrain can be heard in various public toilets from Manchester to Magaluf. It’s usually sung by African men, working for tips as toilet attendants in pubs, clubs and bars. The song is usually performed to drunken young men in an attempt to garner cash tips. You can find various performed versions of the song on YouTube, captured and posted on YouTube by the amused and self-congratulatory punters of the toilet attendants. However, I’m interested in what lies beneath the humour of the song? What happens when the joke is used to mask exploitation and prejudice? I believe the song as a slice of contemporary culture provides an insight into some of complex dynamics of labour, power, race and gender. While the abject location of the toilets provides a seemingly comic backdrop, it also reinforces the hidden baseness of some of the persisting issues of social injustice.

 

Banal, puerile, vulgar, disgusting, funny, comic or just plain entertaining? The song Freshen Up may embody some, all or none of these. In discussing it, I don’t intend to make any grand or totalising statements about the current cultural zeitgeist. As an artist, what I’m interested in doing is asking questions, informing myself and then sharing my investigations with whoever might be interested.

 

So to give context to my selection of the song: in 2006, I participated in a group exhibition entitled At Your Service at the David Roberts Arts Foundation in London. I performed a number of service roles, taking on real jobs that reflected the problematic dynamics of service and patronage. I earned a commission fee by working 48 hours over 6 days as doorman at the foundation’s gallery in Fitzrovia, London. In addition to this, the curator Cylena Simonds and I negotiated with Tate Modern for me to work 16 hours over 2 days as a toilet attendant in gallery.

 

The project was my first attempt to explore the world of the public toilet attendant, framed by the awkward baseness of the public toilet: an uncomfortable space where we have to negotiate our most private of needs in a social context. Add to this complex mix of service, patronage, labour relations and economy and you have a difficult and challenging space. My rationale for the initial performances was very basic: I wanted to understand the social dynamics of this space. I had experienced it many times as a customer searching for change for tips or avoiding washing my hands to escape a handed paper towel. But I wanted to get sense of what it was like to serve in this space.

 

However, I have to confess that this wasn’t my first experience of service or cleaning toilets. I come from a Ghanaian immigrant family who have and still do earn their living from cleaning the halls, corporate meeting rooms and the toilets of many public spaces. But it is the particular situation of the toilet attendant that was unique to this experience. This initial experience really brought home how much power the role has. It is a socially powerful position. Anyone who has ever been caught short, desperate for the WC will know what a vulnerable position it is to be in. This vulnerability on the patron’s part creates a strange interaction with the toilet attendant. In most forms of service, the parameters of labour and remuneration are clearly defined: you expect to pay and receive an appropriate service in return. As a consumer, you are clearly aware of making a choice about whether you choose to purchase a service or not. However, with a toilet attendant, that choice is often taken away. As a customer or patron, you are literally confronted with the service provider. And more often than not, it is a service you might not choose to purchase. The customer is then put in a position where they have to confront the economics of this form of labour. Do you tip or not tip? In a British context, unlike the US, tipping can still feel awkward. The toilet attendants’ unwanted labour and ensuing request for a tip can be very problematic and for some, quite disturbing.

 

This already difficult situation can be further compounded by the performance of service and patronage. I’ve observed attendants adopt various strategies to engage customers and maximize tips. These can range from addressing customers with a friendly “hello” to singing the Freshen Up song. Other efforts involve handing all customers paper towels or offering more elaborate services like perfume, gum or lollipops. While this might seem rather benign, each of these actions forces the customer to engage with the attendant. By taking the towel, you are receiving that person’s labour, which forces you to make a decision about whether or not to reward that labour. The power of the attendant can lie in the latent potential of an awkward and embarrassing situation that some customers will want to avoid at all costs. The attendants do understandably take advantage of the awkwardness of the situation. Approaches like the Freshen Up song work because they help negate the uneasiness and can cleverly provide a convivial and friendly welcome.

 

Despite this apparent latent power, many attendants are forced into gimmicks, niceties, singing and other offers by the need to generate an income from a form of labour that can very often operate outside of the employment regulations that include a minimum wage. In reality, many can only make money from tips alone, making the need to service customers more pressing. Many attendants, particularly in bars and nightclubs, can be subject to violence and abuse from costumers – many of whom are annoyed by what they see as an unwanted service. In 2003, tabloid darling Cheryl Cole was convicted of assaulting a toilet attendant Sophie Amogbokpa in Guilford, Surrey. The incident was apparently started by a dispute over an unpaid lollipop. The underlying economic context of the situation means that some attendants are usually in precarious financial situations and open to participating in exploitation. However, for the patron in the moment of encounter, the underlying dynamics of exploitation are overlooked due to the awkwardness of the power imbalance.

 

In collecting the various versions of the Freshen Up song, my initial interest was in these social, cultural and racial dynamics played out in the YouTube versions of the video. What becomes increasingly apparent is the language and the casual appropriation of degrading and misogynistic language put in the service of entertainment and ultimately, money.

 

So far, so what? Well, that is my point, slight and obvious as it may appear. We’ve come not “so far” and yes, “so what” are we going to do about it? Women are casually objectified and degraded with an ease that, as prudish as it may sound, I still find disturbing. In the YouTube clips, you see the young men gather and chant as the toilet attendants exploit that basic premise of a lads night out – namely, to go home with a girl and “Any will do!” So make sure to “spray” in order to get a “lay.” The women are seen as products to be acquired (Sometimes literally) as part of the lad’s night out or Stag do package. The whole endeavor of a lad’s night out becomes another sport and the toilet attendant provides an entertaining interlude. While you might argue there is nothing wrong with young men collectively having a good time and wanting sex, the increasingly commericalised culture that feeds that narrative sets up a number of problematic mythologies – in particular, that women exist to service men’s sexual desires. What perhaps is more disturbing is the effect on many young women in terms of their own body image and the ensuing perceptions of themselves. As continued evidence of this culture, I would refer anyone to the UK’s biggest selling daily newspaper, The Sun, which still in 2014 has a topless woman on page 3!

 

It’s obvious to see the toilet attendants’ motivation: they are trying to make money in a job that is often only paid through money earned from tips alone and doing so through pandering to their customers’ misogynistic dispositions/sense of humour. The songs and banter are entertainment to get the “punters” in the mood to payout. The toilet attendants remind me of the first black minstrels who were painted with absurd blackface. They are forced by pragmatism to perform a racial stereotype that conforms to racial prejudices. That they choose to do it while reinforcing sexism appears to be collateral damage.

 

What is further important to acknowledge in this discussion of the toilet attendant is the gendered dynamic of the space itself: the public toilet and the peculiar theatre that is set up by the mix of public and private. The fundamental function of the space remains the same whether it’s in a club, bar or shopping mall. But it is a space with a specific psychology and etiquette of its own. Public toilets as we know them are a 19th century construct: gender segregated spaces with banks of cubicles and/or urinals with wash and dry facilities. But throughout the 20th century, these spaces have become corrupted and subverted. The male toilet in particular is a contentious and problematic space, often associated with subversive or illicit acts of graffiti, sex and drugs. There is an underlying and unacknowledged sexual charge that is induced by the fear or expectation of a homosexual encounter. For many heterosexual men, these are not spaces to linger: maintain a fixed stare, use the facilities, maybe wash your hands, but make a quick exit is the mantra.

 

This problematic space is the toilet attendant office – again a 19th century construct but this time, originating in the higher echelons of salons, gentlemen’s clubs and fine dining societies. The attendants of yore were there to provide an attentive and quality service. Contemporary toilet attendants – particularly in aspiring nightclubs – are as much there to police these spaces and control any illicit activity. This immediately sets up an inherent and contradictory problem: the attendant has to fulfill the role of dutiful server and security enforcement.

 

A common strategy to deal with this dual role has been the creation of a convivial space. The toilet becomes an extension of the club or bar with music from the club often piped in. The attendant plays host and patrons enter an environment that is shaped and formed. This space negates much of the homoerotic awkwardness by the creation communal hyper heterosexual space. These toilets, many of them evidenced on YouTube clips as the back drop to the Freshen Up song, adhere to the fading Lads magazine’s tradition of booze (Patrons in clubs are often drunk), banter (Crude and jocular humour abounds) and birds (There are various references to sexual prowess and the need to “pull” women).

 

These toilets become social spaces where friends interact, confer and joke at the cost of civility. Like American fraternity houses, the mix of alcohol and testosterone creates a culture of idiocy that many attendants pander to and exploit as they play jester to drunken fools. The Freshen Up song is a manifestation of this particular environment, one that is fed by the unique circumstances of this single sex environment. This is a space devoid of self-reflection and critique. But, so what? These are just young people having fun wh playful banter and jokes. My objection is not the drunkenness or male high jinx, although you could make coherent objections to those things. I think this cultural phenomena is indicative of a wider cultural passivity that stems from a bizarre assumption about equality. Race, gender and class inequality are passé and seen as not really affecting the mainstream. Young women hate feminism, black people are visible in the media and sport, and the middle class and working classes are united in their disgust and hatred of benefit scrounging chavs’ otherwise known as the feckless and work shy.

 

The toilet attendant and the Freshen Up song provide a window into a world of lazy assumptions. There is a reluctance to question and examine the world we live. This is nothing new, but manifestations of this are varied and shifting. A closer examination the context of the attendant highlights a number of problematic contemporary narratives at play: the continued casualness and indifference to examine patterns of behaviour according to class, race and gender, and the disturbing, underlying social and economic causes.

 

The Freshen Up song is a joke. As someone who often employs humour in my work, humour can often be used to negate and belittle a critical awareness and understanding. My very simple point is that casualness creates anti-critical environment, where to question behaviours and their impact on wider cultural spheres becomes a no-no – the suggestion being you can’t take a joke. The real joke is the continuing complacency in the face of ongoing prejudice.

 

**

 

Harold Offeh Bio

Harold Offeh is an artist. He lives in Cambridge and works in London and Leeds where he is a senior lecturer in Fine Art at Leeds Beckett University. Working in a range of media including performance, video, photography, interactive and digital media, employing humour as a means to confront the viewer with an assessment of contemporary popular culture. He studied at the University of Brighton and the Royal College of Art, London. Recently Offeh has approached the themes of futurism and hair through collective live engagements with other artists, performers and community participation. He has shown widely both in the UK and internationally.

Recent exhibitions include:

PINATOPIA & MOUNT FOLLY. Follies of Youth, Pavilion Project. Temple Newsam, Leeds, UK 2013

TRANSPORTER. Art On The Underground Commission, London, UK,

2013-14.

THE SHADOWS TOOK SHAPE, Studio Museum Harlem, NYC, USA,

2013-14.

 

Malise RosbechComment