This week, the social video platform TikTok unleashed a new meme: young women filming themselves dancing – interpretively – to a soundtrack of angry, abusive, emotionally manipulative or threatening voicemails left by their ex-boyfriends.
The images of girls throwing gentle shapes through recorded monologues of hostile condemnation have understandably gone viral. If someone hasn’t dubbed them “scornstars” yet, they probably should.
This iteration is fresh and digital – but the genre of women’s artistic responses to men’s bad behaviour is ancient. History and literature heave with examples of what could properly be studied as performance art in the medium of hating your ex-boyfriend.
The old story of Medea sending a poisoned dress to her former lover’s new bride before murdering their shared children sets, definitively, a dark standard best not emulated. Violent revenge is never acceptable; the creativity of a symbolic gesture of disdain is, perhaps, far more potent for the moral empathy its performance evokes from others.
It was a 1991 book called Love Gone Wrong, edited by Wendy Harmer, that introduced me to the real-life genre of women’s post-relationship scorn.
I assume it was a gift from my prescient mother to my 16-year-old self, encouraging some passive learning around what lay beyond the romance narrative pop culture fed to my age group with some aggression. The story that stuck with me was the cheated-upon woman who collected her absent lover’s beautiful tailored suits, piled them on their bed and sprayed them with water. She then scattered them with live chia seeds and turned the apartment heating up to full, with the the satisfaction of knowing that when he returned from a trip it would be to a bed filled with sprouting chia pets in precisely his measurements and size.
After Coleen Rooney v Rebekah Vardy, how do we know who our friends are in the social media age?
It was a matter of legend when I was at university that a popular local newsreader had thrown a party for her unfaithful boyfriend, presenting him with a huge cake iced with the words “Get fucked, Darren”, as she regaled the crowd with the details of his many infidelities.
My response to a lover who’d unwisely sent me a letter penned in his blood, addressed to “Devil Bitch Whore”, was to scribble “Half a page? Lame.” in biro, and mail it back to him.
The act only barely compares with the chutzpah of a Birmingham radio DJ’s wife, who – after her partner propositioned a model live on air – auctioned his luxury sports car on eBay for an asking price of 50p; or the wife who took out an ad in the local paper congratulating her lying husband for impregnating someone else; or the wife who, according to reports, sent several sacks of manure to the office where her husband worked. It was his lover, the receptionist, who had to sign for them on delivery.
Too far? That’s for the audience to decide, but it’s also what makes the interpretative dance of the TikTok girls so perfectly judged.
These are not the bold brushstrokes of expressionist madness, but more of a shared quilting project in which, patch by patch, their bastard boyfriends stitch themselves. The one consolation of technology’s invasion of our most intimate spaces is that it’s recording accounts of love gone wrong – accounts which, lacking primary evidence, used to be reduced to she-said/he-said accounts, unreliable narrators, legend, hearsay.
The significant evolution of the Disdain Dance is that, like #MeToo, individual admissions of suffering are flowering into a collective experience of solidarity. It’s a powerful resistance to the ugliness of the voice messages, which themselves blur into an indistinguishable chorus of unearned entitlement.
We in the audience can listen to these boys whining, screaming, abusing, and know how richly the disdainful dances by their exes are deserved.
For the girls, surely, some comfort and great liberation result from swaying their defiance in front of a camera lens, with the internet’s reminder that they don’t dance alone.