Ruminations for the Next Generation of Feminist Spectators

I had the pleasure of also receiving last week a lifetime achievement award from the Women and Theatre Program (WTP) of the Association for Theatre in Higher Education (ATHE).  My membership in the WTP goes back to the early 1980s; I served as President in the late 80s/early 90s, following my friend and colleague Vicki Patraka.  I was thrilled to be acknowledged by an organization that was so formative to my own career and character.

This keynote is a draft of the new introduction to the reissue of The Feminist Spectator as Critic, my first book, originally published by UMI Research Press in 1988, then by the University of Michigan Press in 1991.  The book will be reissued in July 2012.  The new introduction-in-process tries to think through what it means to be a feminist spectator in the 21st century, reflecting on what’s changed since I wrote the book in the mid- to late-80s, and what’s sadly, infuriatingly the same.

I’m happy for comments on this draft, which I’m “teasing” here.  The full text is available on my new web site, where I’ll archive longer documents that I’d like to share with readers.  Check out the full keynote address/intro draft at

I’m delighted to be giving this keynote address, and more honored and appreciative than I can say about receiving this Lifetime Achievement Award from WTP.  Fifty-four-years-old seems a little young for such an honor, but on the other hand, feminist generations and cycles move so quickly, even in our relatively small field of feminist theatre and performance studies, in many ways I do feel like an elder stateswoman.

I began coming to the WTP pre-conferences in 1982, at the end of my first year as a graduate student in performance studies at NYU.  The Women & Theatre Program was a formative site for my thinking then, and thirty years later, remains one of my “homes,” a place to which I return eagerly to see friends and colleagues and to meet new feminist scholars and hear their work.  I’m gratified that despite the vagaries of the feminist movement in the intervening years, the WTP continues to exist and to produce scholarship that represents the diversity of our field.

My talk today is drawn from the new introduction I’ve written to my first book, The Feminist Spectator as Critic, which the University of Michigan Press plans to reissue in July 2012.  I’m gratified that this book, which was written in the mid-1980s as my NYU dissertation, has what University of Michigan Press editor LeAnn Fields would call “legs,” since it’s remained in print for these last 23 years.  I hope the upcoming reissue will continue to make it a useful text for teachers, students, practitioners, critics, and scholars still interested in thinking about performance and theatre through a feminist lens.

I’m sharing this introduction draft with you today as a kind of rumination on the state of feminist criticism—as Heidi Holland said apocryphally in Wendy Wasserstein’s The Heidi Chronicles, where have we been and where are we going?  I look forward to your responses, which I’m sure will influence the trajectory of my work—it always has and it always will.

Thinking back over these years since The Feminist Spectator as Critic was first published, I’m amazed at how much has changed in American theatre and performance, as well as in the American academy and in other aspects of culture.  In theatre, film, television, and the new media explosion wrought by the internet, even the most prescient feminist spectator couldn’t have foreseen how dramatically the forms and contents through which we imagine our lives might change.

Compared to the cultural landscape of the mid-80s, when women at best played second-banana to male leads on television, or sexy but irrelevant girlfriends in film, or predictable mothers, virgins, or whores in theatre, complicated, central female characters full of quirky agency have now become more and more common.  Examples of women’s advances in popular culture are happily too numerous to list.[i]   The last three decades’ watershed moments offer heartening signs that gender equity is at least progressing in entertainment and the arts.

Yet as I’ll detail in this talk, we still have a long way to go.  Women’s gains and losses in theatre and performance, in particular, are more complicated and perhaps, on the aggregate, less positive. And all these culture changes have occurred within a historical moment that’s oscillated wildly across the political spectrum, from a more progressive pole at one end to a much more dangerously conservative one on the other.

With that context in mind, I’ll do six things in this talk today:  I’ll offer a rethinking of “the feminisms” and how I use them in the book; I’ll think again about the question of experience as a narrative of feminism and performance; I’ll discuss liberal feminism in the context of “popular” or mainstream theatre and its possibilities; I’ll revisit the feminist critique of form, content, and context; I’ll check in on “the ideal spectator,” to see how he’s doing; and finally, I’ll end with an argument for feminist performance criticism as a tool of advocacy and activism.  Ready?

One of The Feminist Spectator as Critic’s primary original contributions was Chapter One’s explanation of the “discourse of feminisms,” and the book’s insistence that rather than offering a monolithic approach to politics or culture, feminism should be parsed into various sub-strands.  I structure the book’s argument, in fact, according to the three different strains of feminism that predominated at the time.  This taxonomy gave me a much more precise way to discuss the work accomplished differently by feminist theatre and performance artists and critics who approached gender (as well as sexuality, race, class, and other identity vectors) from diverse and often diverging ideological perspectives.

The distinct strands of liberal, cultural, and materialist feminism were meant to be descriptive and explanatory.  And they did, at first, lend precision to the political implications of performance.  The feminisms helpfully extended the performance critique, providing language that probed deeply into the apparatus of representation, its modes of production, and how it generated meaning.  But over time, the feminisms hardened into prescriptive and judgmental, rather than critically generative, categories.   The critique of cultural feminism, especially, became hegemonic, along with post-structuralism’s insistent (and persuasive) analysis of its attendant gender essentialism.[ii]

Cultural feminist values also began to align with a vociferous anti-pornography activism, which some commentators saw as entirely anti-sex and censorious.  The division between anti-porn and “pro-sex” feminism helped demonize cultural feminism, especially in the academy, where materialist feminist theorizing was on the rise.  As a result, the pleasures of women’s culture became associated with the dogmatism of cultural feminism and were derided as exclusive, predominately white, and politically and aesthetically old-fashioned.  “Cultural feminist” became a derogatory label, applied most often by materialist feminists touting sexier, more radical social interventions.

Cultural feminism takes some hard knocks in The Feminist Spectator as Critic.  While I stand by my critique of essentialism, my deliberate rejection of cultural feminist theatre and performance came from the historical context in which I wrote.  Describing and analyzing work by the Women’s Experimental Theatre and At the Foot of the Mountain, for instance, I accused them of legislating that all women respond to their productions with the same affective and political investments.  This might have been a fair assessment of how some cultural feminist theatre exchanges happened.

But much of what I called the works’ “constraining ritual systems” came from an historic need for affirmation and community against the harsh reality of a culture that made no room for women and their histories outside of patriarchal rule.   When I wrote this book, “patriarchy” itself was an old-fashioned word, which had been replaced by the more gender-neutral phrase “dominant culture” to mark the axis of social power and ideological control.  (It strikes me that now, even that language is a bit quaint.)

The Women’s Experimental Theatre and At the Foot of the Mountain, however, were two of the first feminist theatres to use performance to counter the claims of a society that was openly and arrogantly run by white men.  The cultural feminist theatre work of the moment wanted to reach a community of women, to find a common theme within the politics of gender that might provide a site of recognition and further political agitation.  The ritual “sacraments” to which I objected in this theatre practice came from a place of real need, it seems to me now, and a desire to honor women and their connections underneath a deeply felt, daily, material oppression.  That the differences among and between women were soft-pedaled to privilege gender was a sign of the times, rather than a malicious, intentional white-washing or exclusion.

The critique I launched also came partly from my own experiences feeling excluded by some of these performances’ rigidity.  I was then honing my proudly post-structuralist critical perspective and was younger by at least 10 years from many of the women whose cultural feminist theatre work I engaged.  I held myself separate from what I perceived as a rather presumptuous bid for community, attaching myself instead to the materialist feminist and post-structuralist instabilities of unknowingness and refusing cultural feminism’s forceful master narrative.

I wasn’t alone in feeling the constraints of a feminism that saw itself as righteous and “true,” or of performances that blindly assumed everyone would feel only positively about their mothers, for example.  Cultural feminism at the time tolerated little debate or disagreement, and tended to chastise those incredulous enough to want to argue with its values.

When I criticized those aspects of the work, I neglected to describe its consistent emotional appeal. In fact, I’ve been working on and off for years now on a project called From Flannel to Fleece, which details my own experiences in women’s music production and other aspects of lesbian feminist women’s culture in the mid-1970s.  In all the recent academic work on memory, I’m surprised that we haven’t been authorized to remember, fondly, the affective import of women’s culture, which did indeed stem from a kind of cultural feminist impulse.

I still viscerally remember attending my first Holly Near concert on the Harvard campus in Cambridge in the late 70s, and how utterly stirring emotionally and inspiring politically that event was for me.  I was hailed by her voice, by her politics, by the community I felt grow around me in the auditorium where she performed.  So much of cultural feminist production prompted these affective revelations, which led many of us to fashion politically, sexually, and intellectually progressive identities.

It was only five or so years later that I would learn the critique of a culture in which I had participated so happily.  Now, when I’ve presented work-in-progress from this project, I’ve sometimes been accused of valorizing an exclusively white, middle-class, college-educated moment in U.S. lesbian feminism.[iii]   This false claim promotes the continual misrecognition of cultural feminism’s contributions to feminist and American progressive culture.  Women’s culture in Boston was diverse and a site of continual struggle rather than one of sameness and happy agreement.

In fact, I’m interested, again, in the intersection of experience and politics, art and ideology, in a way that was once also verboten in feminist critical theory.  Post-structuralism taught us to be suspicious of claims to authentic experience, but in the process, helped shut down an important aspect of how we understand subject formation and perpetuate our own interventions in knowledge.  I’m certainly not interested in returning to some notion of experience as fully “true,” but I am eager to return to a way of narrating the events of our lives that allows us to respect their meanings in our histories.

I’m interested in retelling, for instance, my own early experiences with materialist feminist performances at the WOW Café in New York, as well as my women’s culture days in Boston, in part because these are histories that need to be continually retold.  As culture changes and history moves on, we forget that even the tenuous strides we’ve made weren’t always in place.  Doesn’t it help to rehearse how it felt not to have numerous cultural avenues for seeing our lives reflected, in however partial and refracted a way?

Or doesn’t it help?  Or does it only help, well, me?  I dread becoming the finger-wagging lesbian feminist who tells her younger colleagues, “You have no idea what it was like then!”  But isn’t the point that if we don’t recall, and learn, and remember then, we can’t truly appreciate or expand or push further with the now?  Why is it that every year, gay pride celebrations across the country commemorate the events of Stonewall, but so few public, national, annual events celebrate specifically lesbian or women’s historical watersheds?  Is it because this history continues to be quotidian instead of cataclysmic?  Isn’t it in the very stuff of the everyday that history also lives?

[Continues on the middle of page 6 at . . .]

[i] In television, for only two examples, Edie Falco plays a drug-addicted but supremely competent and empathetic ER nurse on Showtime’s Nurse Jackie; Kyra Sedgwick plays the southern-bred chief of a major Los Angeles police crimes squad on The Closer, a TNT network show she also produces.  The proliferation of cable channels—including Showtime, HBO, TNT, the CW, and others— in addition to the three traditional television networks means a broader array of outlets with producers looking for fresh ideas.  Showtime, in fact, sponsored producer Ilene Chaiken’s lesbian soap opera,The L Word (2004-2009), which broke ground as the first show on television to feature mainly lesbian characters in its on-going storyline.  In film, although “rom coms” and buddy movies still dominate the American box office, women filmmakers’ inroads have at least been acknowledged over the last two decades.  For only one example, Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to win Best Director Academy Award for The Hurt Locker (2008), a war film that barely featured women at all.  Among the 21 women who’ve won Academy Awards for screenwriting since 1929, Diablo Cody won for Juno (2007), Diana Ossana won for Brokeback Mountain (2005), and Sofia Coppola won for Lost in Translation (2003).

[ii] See Echols, Born to be Bad and Diana Fuss, Essentially Speaking:  Feminism, Nature, and Difference (New York:  Routledge, 1989).

[iii] See my From Flannel to Fleece:  Lesbian Cultural Production from 1970-1990 for a recuperation of the project of women’s culture (forthcoming).

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