Editorial: The Feminist Killjoy Goes to the Theatre
by Michelle MacArthur
“What is the power of anger, I wondered? What can come of it?”
-Editor-in-Chief, Michelle MacArthur
After the American election, I, like many others, experienced a flare-up of feminist rage. This was not my usual level of everyday feminist rage—the twitch I feel when people use all-male pronouns, the silent (and sometimes audible) screams that escape me when I read news articles on gendered violence and witness the refutations that follow. This was off-the-charts feminist rage: rage towards voters whom I felt made the wrong choice; rage towards the apathy and/or ignorance and/or misogyny and/or racism and/or xenophobia underlying that choice; and, of course, rage towards the new administration that had capitalized on these sentiments. My anger reached a fever pitch when I noticed a distant relative share a propagandist video produced by right-wing Conservatives on Facebook; I proceeded to spend the better part of a Saturday trolling her feed and picking fights I would never win with Trump voters. By the end of the exchange I felt exhausted, defeated, and slightly ashamed. Ashamed because, as someone who professes to be open-minded and compassionate, I resorted to some low blows in order to feel superior over my interlocutors and temporarily quell my rage. (It didn’t work. I was still angry.)
I have been thinking a lot since then about the place of anger—in my life, in activism, in theatre. On the one hand, it feels empowering to express anger, as women as well as other marginalized peoples are often encouraged to suppress that emotion, or, if they choose not to, they are dismissed and stereotyped as mad, bitter, unhinged. On the other hand, anger can be stifling if left to fester, as it was for me in the winter. What is the power of anger, I wondered? What can come of it?
Sara Ahmed takes up these questions in her formative 2010 article “Feminist Killjoys (And Other Willful Subjects).” Ahmed reflects on the alienation that feminists experience when they do not find happiness in the “right things” and the ways in which their ensuing disappointment and discontent unsettle dominant power structures. She writes, “To be unseated by the table of happiness might be to threaten not simply that table, but what gathers around it, what gathers on it. When you are unseated, you can even get in the way of those who are seated, those who want more than anything to keep their seats. To threaten the loss of the seat can be to kill the joy of the seated.” To Ahmed, feminists kill joy by exposing how happiness is sustained by the suppression of dissention, discord, and feelings of discontent. Perceived as humourless saboteurs of happiness, people who name themselves as feminist are “already read” as “not easy to get along with” and expected to disprove this assumption through displays of good will and happiness (Ahmed). These expectations are also placed on oppressed peoples more broadly, as Ahmed points out by drawing on the work of Marilyn Frye, who writes, “It is often a requirement upon oppressed people that we smile and be cheerful. If we comply, we signify our docility and our acquiescence in our situation” (qtd in Ahmed).
But what if instead of conforming to these expectations, we willfully defied them? Ahmed concludes her piece with a manifesto, urging her readers to reclaim the maligned figure of the feminist killjoy and find agency within her: “Don’t look it over: don’t get over it.” Moreover, she encourages killjoys to recognize the implications of being (mis)understood as the cause of unhappiness and to dialogue across difference about our experiences occupying that role. She concludes, “There can be joy in killing joy. Kill joy, we can and we do. Be willful, we will and we are.” For me, the theatre offers a space to take up Ahmed’s manifesto—to kill joy, and to find joy in killing it. That is what politically engaged and activist theatre can do for its audience: it simultaneously destabilizes our conventional ideas of happiness and fosters moments of pleasure through the experience of communing with others and watching live performers make art on stage. And so, in February, at the height of my election anger, on a trip to the US to see theatre, I reveled in the work of fellow feminist killjoys.
I traveled to Chicago, a five-hour journey from the border city where I live, to see two shows: Young Jean Lee’s Straight White Men and the collectively created Gender Breakdown. Lee’s play was being produced by Steppenwolf Theater, directed by the playwright herself in a revised version of the script (first produced in 2014). The premise of Straight White Men is simple and familiar: a father gathers with his three adult sons over Christmas; they rib each other and reminisce about their childhood; drama ensues. But in Lee’s hands, the kitchen-sink family drama is not what it seems, and even before the show’s official start the familiar is made unfamiliar. Audiences entering the theatre are greeted by two non-binary, Brechtian stagehands dancing to the loud, infectious Nikki Minaj music pumping through the auditorium. Once we are all seated, they introduce themselves and their preferred pronouns, swiftly explaining the social construction of gender in lay terms. They go on to acknowledge that Lee’s pre-show music choice may have made some people uncomfortable, explaining: “We are well aware that it can be upsetting when people create an environment that doesn’t take your needs into account. As for those of you who liked or didn’t mind the music, please know that we deliberately set up our pre-show to cater to your experience. We wanted to make sure you’d feel welcome in this theater” (Lee 9). This framing device, like the play itself, asks the audience to develop an awareness of identity and privilege in their own lives. Indeed, the family at the play’s centre is not blind in this regard—the (now deceased) matriarch has evidently imparted them with liberal values, reflected in everything from the doctored version of Monopoly called Privilege that she created for them as kids to the Hilary 2016 sticker conspicuously adorning their wall. But they also grapple with what to do with their privilege, and as the eldest son Matt’s existential crisis is slowly revealed, he elicits varying degrees of outrage from his brothers and father at his refusal to “do more” with the power he has been afforded by his identity as a straight white man.
As a playwright of colour, Lee takes a deliberately anthropological approach to her creative process, researching her subject through conversations with collaborators of diverse identities (“Cross Paths” 16-18). Informed by this work, she temporarily “inhabits” the identity of a straight white man in order to ask her audience to consider it as an identity like any other (rather than the unquestioned norm against which all others are measured). She does not attempt to solve the inequities that are borne of privilege, but rather, through a process of making strange, she asks audiences to “notice their own responses and think about their relationships to their own privilege” (17). Lee takes on the role of the feminist killjoy, in Ahmed’s words, “getting in the way of those who are seated” at the table of happiness: in this case, mainstream theatre audiences, whose comfortable position is unsettled from the top of the show. It is perhaps no surprise that Lee describes her audiences as often leaving the theatre feeling bothered, upset, and angry (17). But at the same time, there is an abundance of joy to be found in Straight White Men—from the music at the top of the show, to the physical comedy between the brothers, to the laugh-out-loud humour laced through the script. There is joy in killing joy.
Like Straight White Men, Gender Breakdown also works to (joyfully) unsettle power. Inspired by researcher Kay Kron’s 2015–16 study of gender parity in the Chicago theatre community and based on interviews with 220 people, the play is a devised piece that stages the experiences of a broad spectrum of female identified theatre practitioners in the city. Gender Breakdown is also, in its creators’ words, “a public conversation on race, gender, sexuality, class, privilege, and intersectional feminism” (“A Note”). It draws particular attention to the barriers faced by women of colour and transgendered, gender nonconforming and/or non-binary individuals and highlights differences in privilege between women. In an unintentional reference to the play happening across town at Steppenwolf, show creator Dani Bryant shares that she began the project with an assumption that “Straight white men take up too much space,” but soon realized that “so do cisgendered, heterosexual white women, including myself.”
At the top of the show, Bryant’s voice welcomes the audience over the sound system: “I have a question. Do you find it embarrassing that we had to make a play titled Gender Breakdown? I’m embarrassed and it was my idea. . . . I am hopeful we will not need to make plays titled Gender Breakdown in the future. So congrats. Congrats on seeing the world premiere and universal finale of this theatrical production” (Bryant et al.). This mix of humour and exasperation is laced through the show, which comprises vignettes featuring the whole ensemble representing elements of their shared experiences in the Chicago theatre community, interspersed with monologues spotlighting individual stories. Ensemble scenes explore issues such as the impossible beauty ideals placed on performers, harassment and abuse in the rehearsal hall, and the stereotypes that pervade roles available to female-identified actors. Even when commonalities are identified, Gender Breakdown avoids purporting a universal experience. For example, in a simultaneously hilarious and depressing scene, ensemble members stand in a line as actual casting calls are read—“Left-wing bitch. Sexless,” “Past her prime. Aged 23-30,” “Topless scientist”—stepping forward if they fit the description and in so doing exposing the dearth of roles available to women whose bodies do not fit the (light-skinned, thin, big-breasted) norm.
Monologues, in turn, also tackle a range of issues, from the systemic sexism and racism in theatre schools to the underrepresentation of the experiences of migrant women and women of colour on stage. In an impactful moment near the end of the play, dramaturg Kate Hawbaker-Krohn shares their experience of exclusion as a non-binary member of the theatre community, questioning what it means to put a casting call out for a female actor. Adding another layer of meaning to the title Gender Breakdown, Kate says, “It’s important to acknowledge the stories we are not telling in our show. I dramaturged this work, and well, it’s clear that even in our own breakdown, we did not attract the gender diversity necessary to give you a full scope of the challenges, and the hope, of our Chicago theatre community.”
Both Gender Breakdown and Lee’s revised version of Straight White Men were developed and performed in the wake of November 8, 2016, a time characterized, for many of us, by anger, confusion, alienation, and sadness. Yet, these plays also sprang from a place of compassion and a drive to foster understanding across difference, as both involved collaborative creative processes and sought to create dialogue with audiences through events such as post-show talk backs. These plays demonstrate that when the feminist killjoy goes to the theatre, s/he can claim a space to talk about “injustices, violence, power, and subordination” (Ahmed) and pull the seats from under those whose privilege has secured them a place at the table of happiness. And s/he can also find joy. As Aimy says at the end of Gender Breakdown, “We’re told in times of pain, struggle . . . and now in a fucking political dystopia to make art! Find your tribe. Find a space. Make your own work. Produce it yourself. That can feel good for a time. It can feel wonderful. It can feel better, at least. It can feel right.”
This issue of alt.theatre includes several feminist killjoys. Among them, Sarah Waisvisz, our Reviews Editor but also a talented theatre maker and performer, shares the script for her one-woman show Monstrous, which looks at the intersections of gender, race, and culture; Rebecca Benson and Tracey Guptill discuss their work bringing the feminist punk group Pussy Riot to Kingston, Ontario; and DM St. Bernard concludes her excellent Principles Office series with a reflection on what it means to purposefully claim space. I want to thank DM for curating Principles Office for us, as this issue marks the end of the series. She pitched her idea to alt shortly after I came on as editor, and I was so excited by the opportunity to collaborate with an artist and activist whose work I have admired for a long time. Many of you have commented on your enjoyment of the series, and I know the myriad conversations it has sparked will continue on beyond the pages of the magazine.
This issue marks another change for alt. After thoughtful deliberation with our editorial team and the board of our publisher Teesri Duniya, we have decided to shift to three issues per volume and focus more of our energies on developing original content for our website, including features and reviews about theatre happening across the country (and beyond) with a focus on the intersections of politics, activism, and identity. We are still committed to producing a high quality print magazine, but feel this shift will help alt adapt to the current realities of the publishing industry and also allow us to harness the potential of our digital platforms to reach out to more readers. We will be sending subscribers more information in the coming months and look forward to bringing you the first issue of Volume 14 in October.
“We’re told in times of pain, struggle . . . and now in a fucking political dystopia to make art! Find your tribe. Find a space. Make your own work. Produce it yourself. That can feel good for a time. It can feel wonderful. It can feel better, at least. It can feel right.”
–Aimy, Gender Breakdown
Ahmed, Sara. “Feminist Killjoys (And Other Willful Subjects.” The Scholar and Feminist Online, 8.3 (2010), http://sfonline.barnard.edu/polyphonic/print_ahmed.htm .
Bryant et al. Gender Breakdown. Unpublished script, 2017.
Bryant, Dani, and Kay Kron. “A Note from Dani Bryant (Show Creator) and Kay Kron (Theater Data Researcher).” Program for Dane Bryant et al.’s Gender Breakdown at Collaboraction Studios, Chicago, 2017, np.
“Crossing Paths. A Conversation between Playwrights Lucas Hnath (The Christians) and Young Jean Lee (Straight White Men).” Program for Young Jean Lee’s Straight White Men at Steppenwolf Theater, Chicago, 2017, pp. 16-17.
Lee, Young Jean. Straight White Men. ePub, Dramatists Play Edition, 2017.