3 thoughts on “The Feminist Spectator as Critic

  1. I am woefully late to “The Feminist Spectator as Critic,” but after completing it early this spring must share the myriad, provocative ways it’s changed my thinking about American plays and playwriting, and audience/reader responses, forever. If I could focus on just one example:

    For years I’ve run playwriting workshops for new writers, not in academic settings but connected to community programs or niche populations. I use “Night, Mother” in almost every class. Yet until I read your extraordinary explication of its complex issues (particularly vis a vis the cannon) I never fully understand the reactions it engenders in my class discussions. I employ the Norman play to discuss dynamic protagonists, those who pursue goals perceived as positive only to themselves, not necessarily the audience. I make a case that Jessie’s planned and executed suicide is a radical, positive (if only to her) act, not a weak or passive one. I cite her demonstrated resourcefulness, her ability to take action on her own behalf throughout the 90 minutes, despite strong opposition from her mother, who runs through a kind of Kubhler-Ross scale of reactionary arguments.

    Rather than compare it to “Death of Salesman” (though I will from now on), as “The Feminist Spectator” does, I place the script in a far more predictable sub-category: classic American plays of mother-daughter contention/struggle, citing Williams’s “The Glass Menagerie” and Paul Zindel’s “The Effect of Marigold’s on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds.” Both of those plays center on mothers’ attempts to fully shape futures for (seemingly) stranded, paralyzed daughters; in the former, failure to secure employment (in a subservient-to-male profession, clerical work; and in an arranged marriage) creates pathos; in Zindel’s, a daughter’s intellectual triumph results, but at a cost to the family’s tenuous unity. In both, one might argue, the mothers “lose,” and are diminished by the end. Critically, to my thinking: In both plays, the daughters are drawn with considerably less dimension, whereas the mothers are etched with intricate detail — and with palpable ambivalence. Since both plays are prize winners, and one is a beloved classic, these are unpopular, seemingly overly reductive readings. Yet stepping back from the artistry of the playwrights, it’s certainly fair to view both Amanda and Beatrice are part of the (arguably misogynistic) American obsession with misplaced maternal zeal.

    In my little workshops, I have attempted to argue that Norman’s Jessie is a radical departure from that male-conceived tradition, a woman who takes her life — and its end — into her own hands with agency and guilt-free clarity of purpose. Whether we agree with suicide or not, we are asked to accept it as a particular human being’s viable, maybe even morally sound option, and on its own terms, (in the male-determined canon:) heroic. Thelma, her mother, though perhaps narcissistic and oblivious to much of Jessie’s quotidian allotment of pain, is not in the male drawn tradition of monster mothers. Her own humanity is not compromised, even as she finally reveals her impotence in stop her daughter’s death. Of course my posing all of this results in much stimulating discussion. And outrage.

    Until I read “The Feminist Spectator as Critic,” I was unable to fully understand the many ways “Night, Mother” provokes gender-specific responses. Looking back at several workshops (particularly 3 in Phoenix, AZ in the middle of the last decade) I remember the ways Norman’s play was marginalized by some students, particularly by the men in the classes. It has been characterized as “a gimmick” (the clock on stage ticking away the minutes until the suicide) and far more pejoratively, “a Lifetime movie,” “Lifetime movie” code for a particular female-centric, domestic story with (presumed) limited universality. And (understood) far less artistry. In every workshop at least one male calls me out in a distinctly man-to-man (and sexist) tone, simply for my embrace of the play. Why haven’t I (another guy) chosen, say, Mamet’s “Glengarry” or Shepard’s “True West”? Why select an unhappy “woman’s play?” My choice simply to study the play with my students raises questions, including about my inability to see the play’s shortcomings.

    Whatever those shortcomings, I made a hopefully persuasive case that the play’s handling of Jessie’s action moves it away from the stereotypical controlling mother that so dominates the American cannon: Norman asks us to view these two people facing the highest stakes with clear-eyed compassion.

    Since reading “The Feminist Spectator,” I now see the piece as even more of a lightning rod. And must look at my own supposed compassion as less clear-eyed than I originally thought. The discussion about casting, gender, weight and body image introduced layers of new meaning to the drama’s reception, and a bigger topic about issues in interpretation and perception. And I’ve begun to look more deeply at my own obviously male responses to the play, my heretofore unexamined — for lack of a better word — “pity” for the very protagonist whose strength I touted in my class. As a 63 year-old male, do I smugly pat myself on my back for my stirred compassion? Is my emotional response something closer to patronizing? Do I feel I’ve earned some sort of feminist street cred via the tears wrung for this unhappy young woman stuck, alone, in her meager lower middle class living room? Hard to own those thoughts, let alone write them for contemplation.

    I don’t have easy — comfortable — answers. Yet I do know that when the drama was revived a few years ago with a wildly different and less compelling interpretation, I was more impatient, less willing to care. It was startling, no matter the myriad staging problems (two acting styles at cross purposes, albeit from gifted actors) in that production. The text seemed to make a less persuasive case. Was that because I personally (i.e. as a male) find it easier to “feel sorry for” the Kathy Bates created Jessie? Burnished in my memory? Wait — didn’t I early say I admired Jessie for her iconoclastic flavor of heroism? Yet now I’m owning my own ability to find her — again, for lack of a better word — pathetic? Yes, contradictions abound. I have more thinking to do, starting perhaps with re-reading the script without any image of existing actors (a radio or recorded version, without cover art, would be ideal). Thanks to “The Feminist Spectator as Critic,” I know I can’t divorce my gender and class-specific biases from my responses. “The Feminist Spectator” has deeply inspired me, for starters to move beyond Norman’s play, and find similar contradictions in my responses to the rest of the American canon. The book has forever ruined my arrogant illusion that any reading of any text, or viewing of any performance, might be an objective experience. I remain in its considerable debt.

  2. Thanks so much for this thoughtful comment, Hal, I much appreciate it. Those of us who write criticism can only hope it’ll have the effect that that chapter in THE FEMINIST SPECTATOR AS CRITIC had on you. Warm wishes, jd

  3. I came across this book at William and Mary as an exchange student in 2009. Dr. Laurie Wolf taught this book in her feminist theory class, and since then it has been with me, after I returned to taiwan. I regularly re-read it, quote it, cite it, and share it. It was one of the first books that led me into feminist and gender studies. When I first read it in 2009, I did not have any prior knowledge about feminisms and those debates. After 8 years of research, with many understandings of the feminist debates (on sex, pornography, “women’s literature,” postfeminism…etc.), I re-read this book, and have found that it remains illuminating. It is groundbreaking because it deals with so many theoretical and political struggles of feminisms in such a careful way. Thank you so much for writing this book.

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