Gender and Theatre at the Margins
By Nikki Shaffeeullah
“At the margins” is where alt.theatre tends to spend its time. Dedicated to performance theory and practice from traditionally marginalized communities, with political foci, and of activist intent, the average issue of alt explores theatre at the margins of form, content, process, and perspective. Our tag line being “cultural diversity and the stage,” pluralism and anti-racism are themes we feature most prominently. This issue was born from our editorial staff’s desire investigate in depth how gender and related issues—gendered performances, misogyny, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, etc.—intersect with the topics that alt traditionally explores. The featured pieces were selected based on their collective ability to engage in critical conversation on gender performance and performativity, to showcase innovative work with gender-based impetuses, and to explore how processes of gendering impact theatre and the performing arts, on and off stage.
Even before unpacking ways the parameters of “gender” and “the margins” can lead us to diverse conversations about the theatre, at the most obvious and uncomplicated starting point—the question of equality between men and women in the theatre industry—we already encounter a mountain of things to say and work left to be done. It’s no secret that even though women make up the majority of audiences and theatre school graduates, men still dominate the professional arena. In particular, male-identified people are more likely to occupy high-status roles: artistic directors, playwrights of mainstage works, leading actors. Conversely, just as helping professions outside of the arts continue to be seen as low-status and inherently “female,” stage management, dramaturgy, and arts administration are theatre’s motherly roles. A quick look around reveals that the lack of gender parity permeates theatre cultures and economies across the globe. Theatre companies in the US have their internalized preference for male-penned plays kept in check by the Guerrilla Girls. This anonymous collective of female theatre artists publishes an annual list of companies to boycott (or “Girlcott,” as the list is called). In 2011-2012, the list featured over one hundred professional theatres in the US that failed to program at least one play written by a woman during the season. Across the pond, we see that those at the helm of the industry fail to take the gender gap seriously: a recent article in The Guardian reveals that the artistic directors of England’s two biggest theatres, the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company, have never directed a play by a woman (Higgins). In Canada, we are entering a season where women lead both the English and the French theatre sections of our National Arts Centre, and we are just coming off the NAC’s first season in which all plays programmed were written by women. But as real as these victories may be, the overall picture is still grim. Rina Franticeli in 1986 and Rebecca Burton and Reina Green in 2006 published findings of comprehensive studies on inequities faced by women working in the Canadian theatre, reports which Shelly Scott references in “Talking to Each Other at the Margins.” And in another recent investigation, Sarah O’Conner reports that women make up only 29% of artistic directors, 36% of working directors, and 29% of produced playwrights in the Canadian theatre industry (2).
Manifestations of gender-based inequality exist, of course, not just in practices and systems of work but also in narratives that form our cultural landscapes. Often stories are told through a male gaze, where that which is female or non-normatively gendered is seen as object and other. But the male gaze does not operate in isolation of other constructs of narrative power. Indeed, patriarchal and neocolonial structures work to uphold each other in a variety of ways in the popular imagination. In particular, empowered femaleness is constructed in ways that only permit entrance from Western doors, which results in the racialization of gender-based power structures in non-Western societies; misogyny and gender-based violence that exists in Western societies are swept under the rug. Margaret Wente provides an epitomic example of this cultural cognitive dissonance in her 2011 Globe and Mail commentary about SlutWalk: “Embrace your inner slut? Um, maybe not.” She ridicules the Toronto-born international movement, which sets out to counter victim-blaming in situations of sexual assault, and maintains that violence against women is no longer an issue—in mainstream white Canada. Just as she dismisses rape culture as non-existent in dominant society, she eagerly volunteers that gender-based violence “is a very large problem in a number of Canada’s South Asian communities,” speculating that “[s]ome of York’s first-generation immigrant students are no doubt safer on campus than they are in their own homes,” and further offers that “violence against women across the North, and in certain aboriginal communities, shocks the conscience.” Wente capitalizes on popular xenophobic imagining of non-white cultures as backward and misogynistic. In her racist construction of gendered violence, she frames the Western walls of the ivory-white tower as sites of refuge for South Asian-Canadian women, and also ignores the colonial dimensions of sexual violence against First Nations women on Turtle Island, where 86% of sexual assaults are perpetrated by non-Native men (Chekuru).
This colonial pseudo-feminism appears time and again: the Ukrainian protest group FEMEN uses nudity as a primary activist tactic, and in doing so decries conservatively clad cultures as being oppressed. Their events explicitly seek to “liberate” Muslim women from themselves and their cultures, without consulting the ostensibly oppressed. Such attitudes are not unique to racist journalists or protest groups; they are endemic in neocolonial, neoliberal cultures. Throughout the spring, North Americans were up in arms about rape cases in India, decrying this “cultural problem,” while at the very same time debating whether the 16-year-old gang rape victim in Steubenville, Ohio, deserved to share in her rapists’ culpability because she had been drinking and at a party. Upon the sentencing, a CNN reporter mourned that the all-American assailants would have their lives ruined by jail time and a criminal record, saying they were “two young men that had such promising futures, star football players, very good students” (Ross). The cultural double standards of white-washed “feminism” rob non-Western women of their agency and deny Western women of their lived experiences of misogyny. In short, it hurts everyone.
Manifestations of gender-based inequality exist, of course, not just in practices and systems of work but also in narratives that form our cultural landscapes. Often stories are told through a male gaze, where that which is female or non-normatively gendered is seen as object and other.
In this issue, Marjan Moosavi and Jean O’Hara explore how racism and colonialism intersect with the construction of gendered power. In “Memoir of Tehran, Theatre in Toronto, and the Orientalism in Between,” Moosavi unpacks how liberalistic narratives of success manifest in Western feminism, where liberation and the lack thereof is framed within Oriental/Occidental binaries: “fundamentalism/liberalism, East/West, and veiled/unveiled.” When stories of women in the Middle East are told in English, it seems they tend to play to understandings of the West as “the ideal place for women to recognize their agency—as opposed to all the other uncivilized Muslim societies, which victimize them through the hands of their husbands and the country’s politicians.” She explores the phenomenon of “native informants,” Iranian women memoirists writing for European and North American audiences, and assesses how one such memoir, Marina Nemat’s The Prisoner of Tehran, translates on the Canadian stage.
Jean O’Hara reflects on the gender diversity in Waawaate Fobister’s hit play Agokwe. “Agokwe” refers to a man who has “a balance of female and male spirits within him.” Fobister says that before colonization, the Annishnabe “had enough wisdom to realize that there was enough room for more than two sexes in their world and so they welcomed every new agokwe born into their community.” O’Hara demonstrates that the systems of oppression that we know as homophobia and cissexism are in fact colonial imports. Sandy Grande would agree: colonialism disrupted “not only the social, political, economic and cultural systems of indigenous peoples, but also the balance of gendered relations” in communities and families (151). This analysis suggests that the roots of patriarchy rest not simply in gendered systems, but in the colonial assembling of gendered systems. For such communities, liberation from gender-based oppression is a matter of decolonization, and not “whitestream” feminism, as Grande calls it (124). Self-identifying as a non-Native queer theatre artist, O’Hara notes that many preceding analyses of Agokwe have engaged with two-spiritedness within a Western understanding; she draws from the production, her time working with Fobister, and Indigenous scholars and artists to explore the play through a queer Indigenous lens.
O’Hara’s analysis encourages us to not only consider colonialism in our reflections on gender roles, but also to question the legitimacy of a gender binary itself. As Fobister’s imagining of Nanabush reminds us, gender is, after all, a performance. Exposing gender as performance is the modus operandi of the drag king duo, Ben&Pony. Angela “Pony” Meyer and photographer Shirley Tse guide us through the performativity of gender in their photo essay. Meyer and performance partner Elaine Gail (Ben) have created a series of drag characters that queer gender, race and class, and they explore how identities—in particular hegemonic identities—go unnoticed, are accepted as “normal,” and thus remain invisible.
To challenge normative behaviours and practices is to transgress, and to transgress is, necessarily, risky. Is the risk worth it? Yes or no? Two of our contributors reference this tension. In “No. Just . . . No” Kelsy Vivash argues that the reasons the abject performance art of Millie Brown (nicknamed the “Vominatrix”) is often met with refusal from audiences are the same reasons it succeeds as feminist praxis. As Vivash says, Brown’s work “operates as a gesture towards the de-stratification of the ideological structures that enable the objectification of women.” Through the “no” that the work provokes, it destabilizes normative expectations and understandings of the female body. In her Dispatch article “Saying “Yes” and Owning It,” Amy Shostak delivers a short sermon on making strong choices as a woman in the male-dominated world of improvisational theatre. Anyone who has taken an improv class knows that saying “yes” is the first rule of this theatre practice. Players must work together to expand on each others’ offers in order to create clear, cogent, and tenable narratives. Improvisers are trained to believe that they should never say “no” to a scene mate’s offer. So what is one to do in a mid-scene moment when fellow performers and audiences wait for you to implicate yourself in a misogynistic framework? Shostak explores the potential of saying an empowered “yes” —not by conceding to on- and off-stage sexism, but by re-imagining the unspoken questions altogether.
This issue also celebrates the ways in which female relationships inspire artistic exploration and theatrical work. Shelley Scott discusses women’s theatre festivals, maintaining that all-woman networks are not just sites to work toward gender equity, but intrinsically valuable in the gendered space’s ability to facilitate community and mentorship. J. Paul Halferty speaks with Tawiah M’carthy about the critically acclaimed Obaaberima, M’carthy’s play chronicling a young African-Canadian’s journey across continents, genders, races, and sexualities. M’carthy shares that to create the show, he used modes of storytelling and other performance conventions inspired by visits with his grandmother. Marilyn Norry and Jen Griffin describe their community-based theatre project My Mother’s Story, which engaged over one hundred women in the Vancouver area. They emphasize that the act of a group of women speaking on stage about their mothers is in itself feminist, and they reflect that the project allows participants to “confront and embrace” both their mothers’ lives and their own.
This is the second time alt.theatre has put out a themed issue, after our two-part special in 2011 entitled Oral History and Performance. We plan to pursue more special issues in the years to come. We will also, certainly, continue to integrate considerations of gender into our exploration of theatre at the margins.