I wrote this post specifically for the members of the Gender Queeries reading group in New Orleans. Our topic for November is Queer Performance and folks are coming to see the immersive performance that I have been working on for the past few months, Topos. I volunteered to pick a few readings but nothing I selected felt quite right so I decided to write a brief guide to feminist theater criticism. I specifically use the terms “feminist” and “theater” because my academic background is more heavily informed in these areas (as opposed to “queer” and “performance.”) At some points I use the terms feminist/queer and theater/performance somewhat interchangeably and I hope this doesn’t seriously bother anyone, but if it does you can tell me about it in the comments! Aaaaaaand here goes…
Much ado has been made of the “male gaze” in feminist film and performance theory. The phrase was coined by Laura Mulvey in a 1973 essay in which she describes how film is “a representation whose apparatus encodes ideologically gender-marked meanings by controlling the relationship between image and spectator…[and positions] the male spectator as a subject who is invited to identify with the film’s male protagonist” (Dolan, 13). The presumed audience for representational works ––film, theater, etc.––is traditionally white and male, so the theory goes, and white, male subjectivity is encoded in our voyeuristic, fetishistic ways of viewing. This is a conundrum for the female viewer in a white, heteropatriarchal culture: “If she identifies with the narrative’s objectified, passive woman, she places herself in a masochistic position,” explains feminist scholar Jill Dolan, “If she identifies with the male hero, she becomes complicit in her own indirect objectification. If…she admires the represented female body as a consumable object, she participates in her own commodification. Within the conventions of filmic pleasure, these are the only positions available for the female spectator to assume” (Dolan, 13).
In her work Dolan outlines a resistant viewing position for feminist spectators that I find relevant for Gender Queeries as we embark on the project of seeing performances in the New Orleans Fringe Festival and beyond. She describes a feminist critic who “analyzes a performance’s meaning by reading against the grain of stereotypes and resisting the manipulation of both the performance text and the cultural text that it helps to shape. By exposing the ways in which dominant ideology is naturalized by performance’s address to the ideal spectator, feminist performance criticism works as political intervention in an effort toward cultural change” (Dolan, 2). I am going to offer some of her thoughts mixed in with a heavy dose of my own perspective of what queer and/or feminist viewers might seek and ponder as they experience performance. I hope that you will take this as a jumping off point and make it your own.
Let’s start with an assertion: Performance is political. All performance is political, whether or not it claims to be about “important social issues” or “making an intervention,” every ritualized act takes place in the context of systems of power and domination and bears some relation to these structures, whether challenging, reinforcing or doing something else entirely. How we choose to parse out these relationships and bring them to the fore defines us as critics (not the critics who dole out cheers and jeers, lavishing praise on the scenery or disparaging the lead actress, but rather critics who experience and examine with a critical consciousness). Feminism and queerness are specific political orientations, or relationships to power, that can be applied as a lens to any aspect of the performance process and experience. Every level of the performance process is political in that it is situated within specific relationships to power and ideology that can either be challenged or reinforced through the content, form, context, and creative process of a performance. Let’s walk through some thoughts and questions we might ask about each of these elements.
Content (subject matter, plot, themes, characterization, etc.) is the most obvious vehicle for queer perspective in performance. The popular conception of “political theater” is work about political or social issues, such as the agit-prop Living Newspapers of the Federal Theater Project or the more recent interventions of the San Francisco Mime Troupe, which has been presenting political satire in public spaces since 1959.
Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues is a popular play with feminist themes, such as celebrating your cooch and letting it wear whatever the eff it wants, that has been performed on countless college campuses. The play falls under what Dolan describes as liberal feminism and what I would describe as mainstream, mostly-white second wave feminism. “Rather than proposing radical structural change,” Dolan explains, liberal feminism “suggests that working within existing social and political organizations will eventually secure women social, political and economic parity with men” (Dolan, 3). In a theatrical context this translates to plays about women, performed and produced by women using traditional Western theater techniques such as realistic portrayals of characters, naturalistic sets and lights and linear narratives (the master’s tools?). The Vagina Monologues have been criticized for portraying women of color exclusively as victims and reducing women to their genitalia. Although the play creates roles for women and preaches female empowerment, it does so within the visual economy of the male gaze. Women speak out against sexism and sexual violence while operating within a representational apparatus that some might claim is inherently objectifying.
The portrayal of female characters may of interest to feminist spectators who are aware of the stereotypes that objectify women. Whether it’s the persistent virgin/whore dichotomy or the particularly oppressive range of characters assigned to women of color (the hypersexualized Jezebel, obsequious Mammy, the angry Jezebel), queer women (the girl’s school predator, the tragic lesbian) and trans women, these representations in performance and popular culture both reflect and construct social roles. When a feminist spectator sees these tired stereotypes played out onstage she may wonder if it is a conscious choice of the artists in the service of some commentary, or simple adherence to the status quo.
When it comes to content, a feminist or queer approach need not be about gender of sexuality specifically, however, but instead may focus on deconstructing the material and ideological conditions that create categories such as woman, queer, black, disabled, immigrant, in order that they might be subservient. This is the task that Dolan assigns to materialist feminism, which “views women as historical subjects whose relations to prevailing social structures is also influenced by race, class, and sexual identification. Rather than considering gender polarization as the victimization of only women, materialist feminism considers it a social construct oppressive to both women and men” (Dolan, 10). Furthermore, Dolan write “materialist feminist criticism emphasizes the ideological nature of all cultural products. Dominant ideology has been naturalized as nonideology, since the perceptions of the more powerful have come to serve as standards for the less powerful, who do not have the same access to the media and artistic outlets” (Dolan, 15). Rather than celebrating women’s stories for their own sake, a materialist production might ask how these stories came to be gendered in the first place and how these stories are connected to other stories.
Here are some questions we can ask about content as feminist spectators:
-What happens in the piece? How does what happen support or challenge familiar narratives (about sex, gender, sexuality, race, class, etc)?
-How are characters portrayed in gendered (and racialized) ways? How do the characters play into or against stereotypes? What are the gender dynamics between the characters? What role does society play in shaping the gender expression of the characters?
-What are the themes of the piece and how are they expressed through the story? If the piece is explicitly about gender, what does it seem to be saying? If not, how does it speak to the conditions under which gender is constructed and performed?
If you go to see at play at a regional theater, community theater or high school anywhere in the United States there is a strong chance that the work will be presented in the style of Realism or Naturalism, aesthetic and dramaturgical forms that have been favored in Western drama since they emerged in Europe in the 19th Century. Realism attempts to present life “as it is,” holding a mirror up to nature and offering the audience a voyeuristic view into a situation as if it is really happening. In Realism the audience is separated from the performers by an imagined “fourth wall,” viewing the action on the other side of the proscenium in a darkened auditorium. Lighting, scenery and costumes evoke specific times and places and actors are cast according to the race, age and gender of the characters they play. A psychological method of acting is employed through which performers “get inside the heads” of their characters and “bring them to life.” Meaning is concrete and discernible by reading these signs according to their significance in the culture at large. When we say of a performance, “It just wasn’t believable,” we are evaluating on the basis of Realism.
Realism has been soundly critiqued by feminists. Dolan writes that “Realism is prescriptive in that it reifies the dominant culture’s inscription of traditional power relations between genders and classes. Its form masks the ideology of the author, whose position is mystified by the seemingly transparent text” (Dolan, 84). By presenting representation as reality, Realism reinforces the power dynamics that it portrays and leaves the audience limp after the (emotional) climax of the narrative. By presenting stories as complete and inevitable, realism is rarely poised to provoke change.
August Strindberg’s Miss Julie is one of the earliest historical examples of Naturalism on stage. Art Spot Productions’ roaming performance Kiss Kiss Julie commented on the oppressive nature of realism and phallic authorship. The play portrayed a group of vagabond gender outlaws molded and coerced through sexual/textual violence to fit within the strictures of a Realist performance, in this case a scene from August Strindberg’s Miss Julie, one of the first Naturalistic plays that is considered part of the canon of Western drama. When the characters rebelled they literally abandoned this form, guiding the audience into a playful wonderland where they were free to explore and create their own journey rather than adhering to a linear, proscribed experience.
Many, many alternatives to Realism exist and intermingle in contemporary performance. Perhaps the most influential theory is drawn from Bertolt Brecht, a German director and playwright who fled Nazi Germany and developed the concept of Epic theater as an alternative to realism. I will outline some of Brecht’s key ideas because they are pretty awesome and offer a lot of potential strategy for feminist performers and spectators.
According to Elin Diamond, “Realism disgusted Brecht not only because it dissimulates its conventions but because it is hegemonic: by copying the surface details of the world it offers the illusion of lived experience, even as it marks off only one version of that experience” (Diamond, 87). Brecht observed that realism pacifies the audience, lulls them into accepting a singular representation of reality rather than challenging the status quo, both onstage and outside of the theater. His central proposal is the Verfremdungseffekt, or Alienation Effect, which Diamond describes as a “technique of defamiliarizing a word, an idea, a gesture so as to enable the spectator to see or hear it afresh” (Diamond, 84). Anything that creates distance for the audience is a form of alienation. For instance, if a performer stops what she is doing onstage and enacts a sequence of stylized gestures this would take the audience out of the moment, reminding them of the contructedness of the experience. Alienation gives the audience agency by forcing them to think and reflect, rather than absorb and accept.
“Feminist practice that seeks to expose or mock the strictures of gender usually uses some version of the Brechtian A-effect,” writes Diamond, “That is, by alienating (not simply rejecting) iconicity, by foregrounding the expectation of resemblance, the ideology of gender is exposed and thrown back to the spectator” (Diamond, 84). An example of gender being alienated is Caryl Churchill’s Cloud 9 in which characters are intentionally cast with actors whose race and gender identities do not match the roles they are playing. Through this “mis”-casting, Churchill invites the audience to reflect on how race, gender and sexuality were mutually constructed according to the strictures of heteropatriarchy and empire in colonial Africa and 1970’s England. This unnatural arrangement affords the performers the opportunity to embody a different style of acting that furthers the alienation effect. By “quoting” their characters rather than fully identifying with them, performers and audience alike are “free to analyze and form opinions about the play’s “fable”” (Diamond, 84). I consider drag and camp to be prime examples of quotation-style performing in which “the appearance, words, gestures, ideas, attitudes, etc., that comprise the gender lexicon become so many illusionistic trappings to be put on or shed at will” (Diamond, 85).
Another technique of alienation is exposing the representational apparatus. According to Dolan, “part of the materialist critical project is to denaturalize the psychological identification processes implicit in representation. When the representational apparatus is foregrounded, its once mystified ideology becomes clear” (Dolan, 14). In realist theater it is frowned upon to break the illusion in any way. Once the lights dim, the action onstage is to be as engrossing and uninterrupted as possible. Brecht’s Epic theater invites us to go ahead disrupt the illusion in order to disrupt the audience’s identification with the illusion as immutable reality. Performances might take place outside of a traditional theater setting or might bring elements of “backstage” into the foreground.
In Topos the apparatus is exposed by framing the entire performance in a storefront window on Carondelet street in downtown New Orleans. Passers by peek through the glass pane into the feast room, reminding actors and audience alike that they are in a performance, not a seamless alternate reality and that the performance itself might be a window back on society.
An additional tool of alienation in the Epic theater is gestus: “a gesture, a word, an action, a tableau by which, separately or in series, the social attitudes encoded in the playtext become visible to the spectator” (Diamond, 89). The gestus is a social gesture, an embodied expression of social relationships that makes ideology visible to the audience vis-a-vis the body of the actor/character. A queer or feminist gestus reminds us of Judith Butler’s assertion that gender is “an identity tenuously constituted in time-an identity instituted through a stylized repetition of acts…and must be understood as the mundane way in which bodily gestures, movements, and enactments of various kinds constitute the illusion of an abiding gendered self” (Butler, 519).
In Topos, for example, take Mrs. Carlisle, the matriarch of the piece. As the audience enters the space after buying their tickets they encounter Mrs. Carlisle obsessively straightening the place settings on a feast table. She adjusts cups a few millimeters at a time so that they are all in line with each other and removes crumbs and pieces of lint from the table cloth with surgical precision. One audience member reported that this action reminded her of how in the past women who were hospitalized were allowed to go home when they could prove their ability to clean house. Mrs. Carlisle appears trapped by her own compulsions and social conditioning, even as she participates in holding the other characters captive to varying extents. There are many ways that Mrs. Carlisle’s gest could be interpreted based on the dialogic interaction between the spectator, the actor and the character on a given night. In Epic theater “what appears even in the Gestus can only be provisional, indeterminate, non-authoritarian” (Diamond, 90). Rather than rely on a fixed system of signs that provide stable meaning rooted in dominant ideology, Brechtian performance opens a dialogue with the audience and invites a multitude of interpretations.
A final feature of Epic theater that I will highlight is the episodic story structure. The classic narrative structure in Western literature follows a linear, usually chronological plot with rising action, a climax and a denouement, which are intended to draw the audience in and take them on a journey towards catharsis, or purging of emotions. An episodic structure breaks up the action into distinct moments that do not follow one after the other, sometimes with songs in between, serving as interludes to further distance the audience, preventing them from being fully immersed in the story.
Here are some questions we can ask about form as feminist spectators:
-What is the structure of the performance? Is there a linear story? If not, what structure is used and to what effect?
-What is the representational style of the performance? Was realism employed? Why or why not?
-What gestures, movements and physical characterization did you observe in the piece? How did they reflect the social positions of the character?
-What was the style of acting? Was it “believable”? Did the identity markers of the performers match the identities of the characters? How did this engage or distance you?
-How seamless was the production? Was your attention ever drawn to the performative nature of the event? If so, what did this make you feel or think?
Form and content are the traditional realm of theater critics but I would like to draw your attention to two additional categories for examination as feminist spectators.
CONTEXT AND CREATION PROCESS
We are often told that a performance is meant to “stand alone” or “speak for itself” but if this is not the case in our daily lives as consumers and citizens, why should it be true of art? We admire a new iphone but worry that it was produced by sweatshop labor in China. We savor a juicy hamburger but fret that the beef was raised with cruel and unsustainable farming practices. Whether we like to admit it or not, we consume art and performance as cultural products and we must be as critical of how, where and for whom the work is created as we are of the less material elements of form and content.
By context I refer to all of the external factors that contribute to the performance experience: where the performance is taking place, who is invited, current events that either inform the work or are ignored by the work. A performance of The Merchant of Venice––Shakespeare’s troubling tragedy about a greedy Jewish money lender who demands a pound of flesh from one of his debtors––would have had very different implications in Elizabethan England than a performance in Nazi Germany. Feminist spectators understand that a performance does not carry stable, universal (code for patriarchal) meaning. The complex interaction of audience, text and production generates layers of meaning.
The creation process itself is a factor that I have rarely seen examined in performance criticism yet it is intimately important for us to consider as viewers who seek to resist the capitalist structures that make the end product tantamount, discounting the labor and energies required to produce as incidental. If we seek not only to deconstruct the material conditions that support gender coercion but also to build liberatory realities, we must look to the ways we create for inspiration.
Here are some questions we can ask about context and creation process as feminist spectators:
-How was the piece created? Did one voice or personality dominate the process? If the work is about a real life situation, were the people affected by the situation involved in the process and how were their voices included/excluded?
-How were materials and labor used in in the creation of the work? Who or what was exploited for labor or resources in the process?
-Where is the performance taking place? Who is it accessible to in terms of location, language, cost of admission?
-What is going on in the world right now? How are these realities reflected on or ignored by the work?
There is more to be said on all of these topics and I am looking forward to discussing with everyone at our next Gender Queeries meeting. Please leave your thoughts in the comments if you feel like it.
Diamond, Elin. “Brechtian Theory / Feminist Theory: Towards a Gestic Feminist Criticism.” TDR. 32.1 (1988): 82-94. Print.
Dolan, Jill. The Feminist Spectator as Critic. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1988. Print.
Butler, Judith. “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory.” Theatre Journal. 40.1 (1988): 519-531.