Tag Archives: queer performance

Talking with Rhodessa Jones, Holly Hughes, and Lenelle Moise

In May, I participated in the Feminist Performance Festival in Chicago, organized by E. Patrick Johnson and their Northwestern colleagues in performance studies and women’s studies.  (Seemy blog post with a description and my remarks.)  I’m posting here the transcript of the conversation I moderated with performers Holly HughesRhodessa Jones, and Lenelle Moise on May 20, 2011.  After this teaser, the conversation continues in the full transcript on jilldolan.org.

Jill Dolan:  Thank you so much. I’m very happy to be here. I want to thank Patrick, Ann and Ramón for the invitation and also for doing this work. It’s important to devote time to feminist performance in this day and age, so I’m really happy to be part of this whole project. . . . There are many different things we can talk about today. I thought we might start with the question of feminism. Do you call yourself a feminist? Is the label meaningful to you in terms of your practice? Are there other labels you prefer? I know a lot of artists prefer not to label their work at all, but I’m curious how you situate yourself around this issue. Anyone want to start?

Rhodessa Jones:  The piece I’m going to do Saturday night — Big Butt Girls, Hardheaded Women— I made it almost 20-22 years ago. I made the piece because I was inspired by my work with incarcerated women — which was based on interviews and inspired by Anna Deavere Smith — talking to women inside and making a piece. I was invited to the Women and Theater Program annual convention in Boston. They wanted to work with women who were working in institutions like jail. I made this piece for that particular event, and then when I returned home, it already had caused a big stir across the country. When I got back to the San Francisco county jails, they already were talking about this piece I had made. Some men from the jail came to me — the educational facility — and said, “Would you be willing to show this piece, Big Butt Girls, to the community as a way to introduce yourself in” something I had called “‘living on the outside’“? I was going to be working with men and women from the work-furlough program. I said, “You have to remember it’s a feminist theater piece.” They said, “We’ll remember.”


For my very first show, they brought me 70 men. 70 men watched Big Butt Girls in a public performance. I said “feminist” because I wanted it understood it was going to be from a woman’s perspective and a woman’s voice, so that was where “feminist” worked. Most of the time I think of myself as a womanist. When my daughter, who is 46, gets upset with me, she says, “Oh, mom, you’re a feminist.” It’s like, That’s supposed to make me understand how I’m a little kooked. “You’re a feminist.”

Holly Hughes:  I came to art marking, really, as a feminist. I went to an alternative feminist art school. I can’t believe 30-something years ago the women who ran the Heresies Collective in New York for quite a number of years — who were artists and scholars and activists and made this amazing magazine — felt education really was the link between our practice and our political beliefs and donated their time to start The New York Feminist Art Institute. Feminism had such cultural power The New York Feminist Art Institute was featured in all the papers and politicians came to the opening, even though we didn’t have any tables or chairs.


I was new to New York and I didn’t know the trash was very good. Who needed the store when you had the streets? But, probably, if you had asked me this 20 years ago, I would have been aware of all the problems of feminism, particularly around pornography and the sensorium. I would have been, “Yes,” but with an eye roll. Of course today — the spectacular week of men behaving badly with Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and the head of the IMF [Dominique Strauss-Kahn], which I think stands for “I am fucked” —


and then the story in Psychology Today. Do people know about this story in Psychology Today? The story about some guy who got research funded to have his ratings system of women, so it’s already rating women and their attractiveness, but it’s all stacked to have the idea why, scientifically, African-American women are not as attractive, so that’s bad enough, but then it’s a cover story inPsychology Today. This week I am particularly a feminist.


Particularly after I got my first adult job at the age of 46 after being a waitress and a temp worker, and then a freelance artist, oddly enough, which allowed me to be a feminist queer person because nobody paid any more attention to me than a person with a real job. Then it was, like, “Oh yeah, this is still going on.”

JD:  Lenelle?

Lenelle Moise:  I’m comfortable with the word “feminist.” I’m more comfortable with the word “womanist.” I am a poet, so I recognize these are words. I really get frustrated sometimes when I go to a feminist circle or conference and the discussion stops with whether or not young women in the room are calling themselves feminists and honoring the feminists who came before. It seems to be a generational conversation, but it stops there. It’s always, “Why aren’t you calling yourself a feminist?” That’s what makes me uncomfortable because it’s a stagnant point and feminism to me is about doing, so if we’re just talking, that’s a removed, easy, passive discussion. So yes, I’m comfortable with the words, but now what?

JD:  Right. That’s a very good point. I’m thinking too from all your remarks about how much this word and what it means has changed over time both for all of us and for the culture. I’m wondering, How at this point does or doesn’t feminism enhance or make possible your larger goals as an artist? What are your larger goals as an artist? How do politics in general inform your goals as an artist? Go ahead, Holly.

HH:  Um.


Yeah, get the solo. One quick thought is in 30 years it’s a lot easier — in certain circumstances, although not necessarily in the place where I work — to say, “I’m gay” or “I’m a lesbian” or whatever — “a fucking dyke” — whatever it is, depending on my mood ring


than it is to say, “I’m a feminist.” At the same time, queer politics has gotten bogged down to whether you’re LGBT or you’re gay or do we have enough letters? These are important — we’re writers — these are important, but everything stopped there. A political reading of situations is present in every moment of our lives. Like a visual reading — like readings and interpretations and ways of understanding every other moment — thinking about gender and sexuality and other political realities is present in our daily actions and to say not also is a political act, so that’s something that’s very present for me.

RJ:  I remember the meetings in San Francisco on Valencia Street — feminist meetings — and men (crazy, truck-driving, straight, basically white guys) who would hear about a meeting and attempt to disrupt a meeting. I am 62 years old, so I remember. I would say to women, “My brothers are going to come,” because my mother would say to my brothers, “You go in there and get your sister after ten o’clock,” and having women want to argue this was not political with me (my brothers coming to get me). My mother would say, “If them white people going crazy over there, you go in there and get your sister out of there.”


They said, “He’s your brother, he’s a man and he’s a male figure.” I said, “No, let my brother through,” and then I let my brother, Gus, come. Her is six-five and 300 pounds and nobody can stop him.


That was one of the first things that really dawned on me about where we were with feminism, who it’s for, who gets to wear it, its flavor, how it fits into my existence and being told there was something wrong with me because I still associated with my brothers. At the same time, Alice Walker introduced the word “womanist.” All women bleed. I remember being in London — oh, this was 20-25 years ago — and running through the airport trying to catch my plane. An English woman comes up to me — an English rose — and says, “Darling, you have a spot on your skirt.” “Oh, my God, a spot on my skirt.” Which was very feminist to me because she said, “Come, come, come, I’ll help you.” She escorts me into the restroom and I say, “Anybody got a Tampax?” Every woman in the bathroom —


Pakistani, African, everybody — had sponge, cotton and twine.


I thought, This is feminist, this is feminist to me. Nobody said, “Oh, girl, please.” No, it was like, “Oh, darling,” and everybody was willing to help me get the stain out of my skirt, so it’s that basic to me. Even when I talk to incarcerated women, I go there because, as you pointed out, the word “feminist” has been diminished and even in a population like jail don’t nobody want to hear that. That’s slang.

I also remember Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues. I’ve still gotten a lot of trouble by saying “vagina” in women’s prisons by other women who take an affront to it. I’m asked not to read “My Angry Vagina.” I remember the first time I read an article in which Eve Ensler was saying she was having trouble with her publicist about using the title The Vagina Monologues. She said, “What do we call it? The Cunt Chronicles?


The Pussy Papers?” All this stuff is a part of how I engage when I think about feminism, feminist theater and feminist approach, and then I’m right in it. I’m in it. I’m one of the gang.

LM:  I notice they call our work “political” when we know we’re human beings. I notice that. So yes, my work is political because I know I’m a human being and I know the people I love and grew up with, and care about and see, are people.

JD:  You want to add anything, Holly?

HH:  No.

[Full transcript continues on page 6, jilldolan.org.]

The Feminist Spectator

Link to original post on Blogspot.

Feminist Performance Festival, Chicago

On Friday, May 20, 2011, I moderated a panel discussion on feminist performance at Northwestern University’s “Feminist Performance Festival,” organized by E. Patrick Johnson, Ramon Rivera-Servera, and Ann Orloff for the Departments of Performance Studies and Gender Studies. E. Patrick asked me to discuss the history of feminist performance, and to offer contextualizing remarks prior to a conversation with Lenelle MoiseHolly Hughes, and Rhodessa Jones, all of whom also performed during the three-day festival on campus. I’m sharing my remarks here, which are followed by some of the questions I posed to the artists. Holly Hughes taped our conversation; we’re hoping to make the recording or a transcript available soon.

The history of feminist performance is of course inextricably bound to the political movement in which it began. Most people point to its genesis at the beginning of second wave American feminism in the late 1960s and early 70s. As many of you know, second wave feminism developed in part from a growing awareness that women were step-children of the Civil Rights and anti-war movements of the moment. As it grew from intimate consciousness-raising into a broad-based social justice activist movement, feminism splintered into different ideological camps. Those “discourses of the feminisms,” as they came to be called, were roughly characterized this way:

“Liberal” feminists were intent on making change within existing social and political systems and on achieving women’s equality. “Cultural” feminists believed in the distinct and often innate, binary differences that gender makes to culture, so that men, for instance, were considered warriors and women pacifists.

“Materialist” feminists saw gender and identity markers like race, class, sexuality, and ethnicity as historical, changeable, and fluid, determined by convention rather than biology. And “third world” or “womanist” feminists emphasized the intersection of race and gender in their political and ideological interventions. (The great writer Alice Walker coined the term “womanist.”)

These categories were always much more porous, fluid, and multiple than I’ve made them sound in this broad and necessarily generalized taxonomy. But these various strands of feminism were acknowledged by 1980s academics as those most visible and prevalent in the social movement and in the growing discipline of women’s and gender studies.

Early in the history of feminist performance and its attendant criticism and scholarship, these distinctions among feminists seemed salient and important to enumerate and theorize. In the 1980s, when much of this critical work was popularized, feminism was mobile and visible enough that distinctions among its strands seemed necessary.

The goal for those of us determined to parse these differences was to prevent “feminism” writ large from becoming hegemonic. We wanted to insure that all feminist work wouldn’t be mistaken for liberal feminism, the most often white, straight, middle-class, college-educated brand that seemed to dominate the movement. Those determined to spark more profound social change considered liberal feminism too accommodationist and not nearly radical enough.

Different kinds of feminist performance at the time were also categorized by way of these distinct feminisms. Liberal feminist theatre came to describe work by women playwrights and directors determined to make their way through conventional avenues of production. They hoped to work on and off Broadway, at regional theatres, and other mainstream locales that often provided stepping stones to film and television.

Playwrights like Marsha Norman, Wendy Wasserstein, Diana Son, Lynn Nottage, and Theresa Rebeck come to mind here, as women whose plays have been produced across a spectrum of mainstream theatre and who’ve also worked frequently in other forms. Many women theatre-makers continue to strive toward visibility and success in these contexts. And why shouldn’t they?These conventional theatre venues offer one of the only ways to survive economically as a theatre person.

Cultural feminist theatre and performance was distinguished in the 1980s by its attention to a “feminine aesthetic” or to “women’s forms.” At the Foot of the Mountain Theatre in Minneapolis and the Women’s Experimental Theatre in New York distinguished themselves by creating ritual theatre. They rejected realism and conventional dramaturgy as confining and “male-oriented.” They turned instead to oral histories, rewritings of mythology, and story circles to create more collective, experience-based, sometimes confessional genres and styles.

Critics later accused this work of literally white-washing feminism by privileging commonalities among women at the expense of their differences. But these ritual forms provided a trove of cultural interventions. Cultural feminist theatre in the ‘80s was a part of a thriving “women’s culture,” which developed subcultural venues for a host of women-organized ventures. For example, it promoted women’s music, at large-scale, women-only gatherings like the Michigan Women’s Music Festival, as well as through recording companies like Olivia Records, and music distribution structures like the Ladyslipper mail-order catalogue.

The subculture supported neighborhood women’s bookstores and women’s coffeehouses and performance spaces around the country. It also promoted women’s publishing houses. And most of these projects operated on anti-capitalist business models. (Which is why many of them no longer exist!)

The arrival of French post-structuralist theory in American colleges and universities, however, meant that cultural feminism and its alternative commerce were quickly dismissed as “essentialist.” Post-structuralist theorists like Foucault and Derrida influenced feminism’s shift towards a healthy suspicion of fixed ideas and master narratives, and proposed a hearty skepticism about claims to truth. Experience, which early second wave feminism had presumed as a foundational truth, was now considered only partial, and dubious in its claims to power. Post-structuralist-inflected feminism insisted on fluidity, relativity, and the inevitability of change.

As a result, the subaltern female utopianism of women’s culture, and its commitment to changing patriarchal and white supremacist social structures, was deemed unproductively mired in binary gender commitments that replaced a male master narrative with its female counterpart. What had been the celebratory, empowering productions of women’s culture became instead the butt of jokes delivered by the dominant class and by post-structuralist-inspired feminists alike.

In addition, “post-feminism,” the “movement” of the 2000s that dismissed early feminist activism while taking full advantage of its achievements, also played a role in diminishing many of cultural feminism’s projects. The harsh critique landed with stinging condemnation. Women’s subcultures and their idealistic community-building moved farther underground when they didn’t disappear altogether.

Materialist feminist theory and practice tempered post-structuralism’s tenets with a Marxist-socialist attention to real effects and actual cultural productions. Collectives like Split Britches and playwright/performers like our very own Holly Hughes, as well as Robbie McCauley, Coco Fusco, Carmelita Tropicana, and many others, exploded old forms with new contents. They pointed to the apparatus of theatre and called attention to how they constructed their representations so that no one could mistake them for “the real.”

In the process, these artists foregrounded the intersections of gender, race, class, and sexuality as historical and ideological assemblages that could be played with, their meanings changed in performance and then, hopefully, in the world.

A lot of important work was generated under the many categories of feminism. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, women’s studies programs and departments established themselves in universities and colleges. Forming these academic locations was in itself a deeply activist project, meant to build knowledge about women, gender, race, and sexuality fully into the academic curriculum. But ironically, the new visibility of the courses and research these programs produced made them ripe for the backlash that Susan Faludi described so well in her 1991 book of that name.

By the mid- to late-1990s, feminism’s momentum as a wide-spread, diverse political movement had waned considerably. It was defanged largely by its derogatory treatment in the media and by the public platform newspapers and broadcast outlets gave to anti-feminist white women like Camille Paglia, Nora Vincent, and Christina Hoff Summers. Feminism took such a beating that by the turn of the 21st century, many people had actively disaffiliated from the movement.

Few students, especially, called themselves “feminists” anymore. Thanks to the media’s stereotypes, to “be” a feminist meant claiming a radical “man-hating,” hairy-legged agenda that would—so feminism’s detractors proclaimed—end single-sex bathrooms and locker rooms as we knew them.

Of course, feminism also contributed to its own decline. The social movement’s various strands fractured and few leaders could rally large, coalitional activist communities. Without a public attention-getting feminist retort, the ridiculous media stereotypes hardened and claimed the popular imagination. Feminism began to diffuse rather than build strength from its distinctions, and to lose political power in the most visible public forums.

The debate about pornography, which began in the early 80s and continued into the 90s, also created a bitter divide among feminists. Activists such as writer Andrea Dworkin and lawyer Catherine McKinnon created legislation around the country to ban pornography, spurred on by groups like Women Against Violence Against Women. At the same time, other activist groups, like FACT, the Feminist Anti-Censorship Taskforce, railed against what they saw as Dworkin and McKinnon’s alliance with right-wing anti-porn advocates who also agitated against abortion, LGBT rights, and racial equality.

The anti-porn debates also widened the rift between heterosexual and lesbian feminists.Anthropologist Gayle Rubin’s foundational essay “Thinking Sex” went so far as to suggest that the “sex-gender system” she had once ably theorized through feminism couldn’t completely account for sexual variation. Rubin argued that lesbians, “queers,” and those we now call “LGBT” folks needed a new explanatory paradigm that would consider sexuality as distinct from gender.

Meanwhile, in theatre and performance, by the 2000s, women working in mainstream forms and contents had reached a kind of stasis. A study sponsored by the New York State Council on the Arts in 2002 and an economics thesis by a Princeton graduate in 2009 suggested that the status of especially women playwrights was the same or worse than it had been much earlier in the 20th century.

Artists who’d attempted the liberal feminist goal of achieving parity in existing forums were stymied by entrenched power structures that tokenized them, rather than fully enfranchising their work. The number of women playwrights produced on Broadway and in other mainstream forums hovered at a woeful 17%.

Advocacy groups like the League of Professional Theatre Women and 50/50 in 2020 have recently determined to redress this imbalance once again. But frankly, the power-brokers of American culture seem unwilling to shift these intractable percentages. Women and people of color (and those who are both, and/or LGBT) remain under-represented in the most visible theatre and performance venues.

But what of the subcultural, alternative, community-based contexts where feminist theatre has continued to thrive, branching out from its cultural, materialist, and third-world feminist or womanist roots? The picture here—which Lenelle, Holly, and Rhodessa so wonderfully represent—is more hopeful, as a wealth of artistic mediations into dominant ideology continue to be made through feminist solo performance and collective and devised theatre. These forms determine to tell new stories in new ways, and to make visible people and experiences who mainstream contexts continue to erase or exoticize.

Playwright/performer Deb Margolin once said that as soon as a woman opens her mouth to speak on stage, she’s performed a radical cultural intervention. Deb is right. We still aren’t accustomed to women taking up space, to women filling our visual fields, to women holding our attention with their stories.

Solo performance is a richly evocative genre that does all of these things with clarity and power. It’s also a fast and dirty, usually cheap and expedient mode of production (and I mean that as a compliment). Solo performance typically requires one, unadorned body on stage, normally without a lot of spectacle. And its narrative style gets directly to the political heart of whose stories are being told, by whom, to whom. This, I think, is why it’s been so popular in feminist theatre.

In addition, academic feminist theories of what was once called “the male gaze” argued that women’s bodies are the ones at which theatre, performance, film, television, and other media encourage us to look. Feminists like Laura Mulvey, in 1975, suggested that the psychological pleasure derived from spectating objectified women’s bodies by centering them under the male gaze.

Performed only to-be-looked-at, they were prohibited from being the subjects of their own stories and the engines of their destinies and desires. Much politically-conscious feminist performance of the last three decades has worked against the tradition Mulvey described, to empower women as full human agents in front of audiences.

But even so: At whose bodies are we still asked to gaze on a regular basis, inside the theatre and out? Think about it. In my everyday life, the people in power are still usually male. Men—and usually white men, at that—deliver the speeches and the radio and television sound bites. White men convene the meetings, calling us to attention with their power and authority.

I’m shocked and pleased when this isn’t the case. In fact, the president of Princeton is a woman, and every time she gives a speech or runs a meeting, I pinch myself because I still can’t believe that this is who I get to pay attention. I still can’t take a woman’s power and presence for granted, at work or at the theatre.

This, then, is the pleasure of watching performers like Rhodessa and Holly and Lenelle: to see them literally take the stage, to hold our gazes, to capture our attention, to tell their stories—whether about themselves or others—to gather us as however temporary a community, and to create for us a forum in which to think and feel together in new and hopeful ways.

Although I was one of the early advocates of “the feminisms” and their distinctions, it no longer matters to me what kind of feminism these performers or others like them might espouse. We can no longer afford to parse the feminisms; we’ve lost the critical mass necessary to make fine distinctions. We can look at performance prismatically, from many feminist directions, to tease out its numerous layers of meaning. But it’s important, now, not to privilege one way over another, not to value one feminist intervention at another’s expense.

My own critical project has become admittedly more liberal, after many years of using post-structuralist theory to propose more radical solutions to the problem of women and especially lesbians in representation. Perhaps I’ve just simplified my outlook.

I don’t disparage or deny the work that I and others did on complicated questions of representation. The focus on theatre’s apparatus that drove materialist feminist theory; the questioning truth and authority that post-structuralist feminism instructed; the essentialist ideals and their critique, which cultural feminism promulgated and prompted; the equity on which liberal feminism staunchly insists; all of these continue to influence my own thinking about performance.

In fact, many of these ideas have at this point been absorbed into mainstream thought—just as many students (male and female) really do practice feminism, even if they disparage the term.

But on some basic level, I’ve returned in my critical work to the question of who’s speaking and who’s listening, of who is seen and who is seeing (which, as theatre scholar and director Herb Blau taught me 30 years ago, remain deeply theoretical inquiries). These queries now form the basis for my feminist investigations of performance, along with—the where, when, why, how, and what questions about modes of production we must continue to ask.

I recently learned of graphic novelist and cartoonist Allison Bechdel’s test for gender bias in films, which she published in 1985 in her Dykes to Watch Out for comic strip. Bechdel’s assessment poses three easy questions: Does the movie contain two or more female characters who have names? Do those characters talk to each other? And, if so, do they discuss something other than a man?

That’s a good place for a feminist critic to start, especially with mainstream films in which the answer to all three questions is often, “No.” In theatre and performance, perhaps we need a few extended questions, such as these: Does the play or performance tell a story about women equal in import to the one it tells about men? Is everybody straight, white, middle-class, and/or able-bodied here? If so, why is the story so one-sided?

Do I learn something new about how to see the world from this story? Do I learn a new way to tell a story from this performance? Do I feel myself part of an audience community based on this performer’s or performance’s invitation? Do I leave the theatre transformed in some way? And, will the performance persuade me to transform others?

In other words, the questions remain pretty much the same, regardless of which discourse of “the feminisms” they’re filtered through. But the precision with which we ask and answer them makes all the difference. We need to pay attention; we need to speak out when a play or performance doesn’t answer these questions to our satisfaction.

We need to ask, publicly and insistently and constantly, why are there no plays by women nominated for Tony Awards? Why is it so difficult to make a living as an artist unless you’re adopted into the mainstream, where even then, artists often scrape by or migrate toward film and television, which offer more lucrative paychecks? Why can’t artists make a sustainable wage in subcultural or community-based settings?

Why does the government always decrease arts funding while defense spending goes forever up? And why does federal funding mostly just go to elite mainstream arts organizations anyway?

Why are most American theatre and performance critics white men? Why do theatre producers pretend that no one wants to hear stories about women when the statistics say otherwise (although spectators do seem to prefer stories about women that are written by men, like David Lindsay-Abaire’s Good People)?

I have so many questions about the way things are, and so many ideas for the way things might be. I see my relationship to theatre- and performance-makers quite differently now. I no longer consider myself an arbiter of varieties of feminist theatre and its meanings, but as an advocate for women’s work and for a feminist perspective on the arts and culture in general.

One of the historically consistent problems in feminist performance is the utter lack of informed critical perspectives in the popular press. I’ve started to proselytize among my students for high quality arts writing from alternative view points, so that we can enhance the public discourse about performance.

I’ve maintained a blog since 2005 called The Feminist Spectator, on which I write, several times a month, critical essays of various lengths on current theatre and performance, as well as film and television. My one rule of thumb is to write only about work that I like. I write about work that I feel deserves my time and critical attention, or work that’s touched a cultural nerve and hasn’t yet been addressed from a feminist perspective (for instance, the films The Black Swan and The Social Network, which I did criticize).

For these past few years, I’ve determined to use a practice of what I call “critical generosity,” very much influenced by my friend and colleague David Román. This is also based on a form called“colleague-criticism,” which I developed with Jaclyn Pryor and Paul Bonin-Rodriguez when we worked together at the University of Texas at Austin. To be critically generous means to be responsible for a deeper knowledge of the work you engage; means that you take into account its production context and resources, its history and goals; and means that you consider its players and producers as people laboring to create meaning with the materials at hand.

The terms “good” and “bad” have no purchase here. Feminist criticism shouldn’t produce facile value judgments or consumer reporting; it shouldn’t adjudicate taste. It should strive to consider what theatre and performance might mean, what it might do, and how it might be used in a world that requires ever more and better conversations about how we can imagine who we are and who we might be.

This is the work that Lenelle, Holly, and Rhodessa do for American culture. I’m thrilled that we’ve gathered to hear them talk this afternoon and to see their work, as we did Lenelle’s last night, and as we will Holly’s tonight and Rhodessa’s tomorrow. Each of these women has put themselves on the line to tell new stories in new ways; to give voice to those silenced by dominant culture; and to transform how we imagine social relations between ourselves and one another. I’m delighted to share this panel with them today.

Thanks for listening.

My questions, to start us off:

  1. What is your goal as an artist? That is, what do you want your work to do in the world?
  2. Do you call yourself a feminist? Does that label refer to a meaningful practice for you? Do you qualify it in some way? Ie., African American feminist? Womanist? Lesbian/queer feminist?
  3. Are there other words you prefer to describe your artistic practice?
  4. How do you see the politics of what you do? That is, do your politics appear most in the form, content, or context in which you work?
  5. How do you see your audiences? Do you “preach to the converted”? Or do you imagine people unlike you—politically, socially, etc.—in your audiences?
  6. Is your goal to change people? What do you want audiences to do after your performances? How do you want them to react, emotionally and politically?
  7. What stories do you think remain to be told? What do you want to see other performers do on stage and what do you want to do? With whom would you like to work? Which other artists or which communities?
  8. For whom would you like to perform who you haven’t yet?
  9. How do you fund your work? Where do you look for resources?
  10. What gives you hope about feminist performance today?


Fox TV’s Glee began its formal run two weeks ago, after attracting a great deal of buzz from its summer premiere teaser. And rightly so. Produced by Ryan Murphy, the creator of the much racier but equally off beat and refreshingly bizarre series Nip/Tuck, Glee’s pleasures come from its characters’ slightly insane quirks and the actors’ fully committed, somehow fully tongue-in-cheek performances. The smart writing creates plausible but slightly skewed situations as, for only one instance, when Mercedes Jones (Amber Riley), the African American diva/belter, (“Effie,” as in Dreamgirls, as a snide subsidiary character calls her) yearns to have a boyfriend and actually thinks she can hook up with Kurt Hummel (Chris Colfer), the obviously gay chorus boy. Their cross-purposed relationship quickly fails, but offers the kids (and Murphy) a chance to underline the series’ “I’m okay/you’re okay and it’s good to be different” message.

Somehow, the relatively obvious and insistently repeated moral of each episode so far doesn’t feel heavy-handed or get stale, in part because it, too, is delivered with just the right satirical touch, as though Murphy is poking open fun at all those movies in which the “believe in yourself and your dreams” motto is dragged out for the inspirational ending. Each episode of Glee trades in these platitudes satirically enough that you’re encouraged to respond both cynically and sincerely. Glee’s fun comes from its willingness to find earnestness endearing and necessary, rather than allowing the forces of skepticism and apathy to win out.

The narrative threads that develop these meanings are predictable, but always just wrong enough to point out how absurd they’ve always been, not just here in Glee but in any film or TV show that continues to want us to invest in the “follow your dreams” kind of truth. For instance, Finn Hudson (Cory Monteith) the hunky but soft and vaguely feminine quarterback who sings like a dream and joins glee club despite his teammates’ fear for his masculinity, might easily remind viewers of the Zac Efron character in the High School Musical films.

Finn, though, is taller and has more bulk, which ironically makes his performances that much more fey. He anchors the club, which consists of a Bad News Bears-style assemblage of mis-matched singers and dancers. Along with the African American diva, Mercedes, and Kurt, the drama queen she thinks she can seduce, glee club includes Artie McAdams (Kevin McHale), a young man in a wheelchair, who rolls and does wheelies while others do their steps; Tina (Jenna Ushkowitz), an Asian-American young woman who stutters; and Rachel Berry (Lea Michele), a serious singer who’s in love with Finn and an outsider to the more popular cheerleader crowd that rules McKinley High where the series is set. Rachel, the character’s on-line bio notes, has two fathers.

In fact, Glee flaunts its incipient queerness quite happily. Stephen Tobolowsky performs in a recurring role as Sandy, a proudly swishy teacher who wears pastels and a sweater constantly tied around his shoulders. In the premiere,Sandy was fired for fraternizing with an under-aged male student, but in a recent episode, he returns to McKinley High, since the restraining order requires only that he stay 50 feet away from students. Sandy’s more flamboyant over-the-top middle-aged gayness contrasts nicely with Kurt’s teenage queer style. Although these two are the only explicitly queer characters, Glee addresses in many ways how masculinity is performed and what it means, and each character, happily, stretches the envelope of normativity.

The series’ tone is colored with wistfulness, since the glee club at McKinley High is lead by the tenacious and idealistic Spanish teacher, Will Schuester (Matthew Morrison), who was the club’s star back in his own high school days. Part of the first three episodes’ comedy come from Will’s insistence that his students replicate his early 80s successes by performing disco numbers. Will is clueless but sweet, and his faith in his ragtag band of performers gives them the courage to, of course, pursue their dreams. Will’s wife, Terri (Jessalyn Gilsig), who was his high school sweetheart, desperately wants a child, and concocts a fake pregnancy to pursue her own dream. Will, meanwhile, has an unarticulated crush on his colleague Emma (Jayma Mays), an OCD-plagued, germ-fearing teacher at McKinley who admires Will from not that afar enough for Terri, who notes their mutual affection and uses the fabricated pregnancy to keep Will close.

These adult relationships play out among those of beleaguered high school students fraught with all the typical hormonally-induced crises; among teachers confined by their routines, hoping for something more to grace their lives; and among administrators who suffer funding cuts and a lack of parent confidence that inspires bizarre conciliatory efforts. The school principal plays Moses in each episode, choosing between the conflicting desires of Will and his glee club and the evil Sue Sylvester (Jane Lynch) and her cheerleading squad, offering resources to whichever teacher seems most likely to endear him to the school’s parents.

Lynch plays one of her best roles outside of the Christopher Guest movies in which she’s a regular, demented ensemble member. As the scheming, megalomaniacal gym teacher, Lynch is costumed in matching Adidas track suits, which change only in color from episode to episode (or scene to scene). She works out on the elliptical machine behind her desk as she instructs her hench-girls—Quinn (Dianna Argon), who’s Finn’s plastic blond girlfriend, and Quinn’s look-alike sidekick—to infiltrate and destroy the glee club on her behalf. But when she climbs down from the machine with a towel thrown jauntily around her neck, it’s clear Sue hasn’t broken a sweat. She doesn’t want to work hard; she just wants herself and her cheering squad to be the center of the school’s attention.

Sue is jealous of any dollar the principal gives to the glee club, and will go to any lengths possible to see the club fail.Lynch’s dry one-liners are hysterical (“I haven’t seen performing that tasteless since I saw an elementary school performance of Hair,” she scoffs after the glee club students perform a sexually explicit dance to “Push It” for a school assembly to encourage more students to join). Lynch is expert at the droll remark, and at making outlandish characters like Sue seem logical and righteous despite their insanity. (That Sue is clearly a big ole dyke goes without saying.)

In last week’s episode, Victor Garber and Debra Monk, two veterans of the American musical theatre, showed up as Will’s loving parents. Garber plays his father as a schleppy would-be lawyer who never pursued his own dreams, and Monk does a perfect comic turn as Will’s sloppy, alcoholic mother. Terri’s pregnancy, which Will and his parents think is real, inspires some heart-to-heart between Will and his dad, as Garber tells Will that being a good dad is what makes a man a man. The two men’s masculinity couldn’t be more dubious, held up against conventional norms—Garber teaches Will about manhood while wearing a red bow tie, and Will embraces his dad fervently before running off to choreograph a number for the boy-group he’s formed. But under the terms of Glee, masculinity includes a love for music, for dancing, for community, and for family. There might be irony in the script and its delivery, but there’s earnestness in the characters’ interactions that’s sincere and even moving.

In last week’s episode, the glee club kids’ impatience with Will’s anachronistic music choices forces them to hire the director of a rival group to choreograph their numbers. Will, dejected, decides to start his own men’s group, which the four guys decide to call “Acafellas.” Turns out that Will, Finn, the gym teacher, and a maintenance man really know how to rock out when they perform their white boys’ hip-hop number for a school assembly. The fun of Glee is that it assumes even the most macho guys want to get up and sing. For instance, Puck (Mark Salling), Finn’s buff, gruff, and pushy teammate, can’t resist putting on a tux and crooning with the other guys. And his singing and dancing only make him sexier (in a hetero way), even when the flamboyant Sandy joins the act and gets the group a chance to open for Josh Groban. It’s as though the canvas of a musical act is capacious enough to let desire manifest itself along a continuum of sexual options.

Sandy botches the gig with Groban, who arrives backstage (playing himself) with his body guard to serve Sandy with still another restraining order. But Glee doesn’t consider Sandy pathetic—just overly romantic in his mis-directed desires. Groban hooks up with Will’s mom, insisting that although people think he’s got a cabal of teenaged girls following him around, Groban actually prefers blowsy middle-aged alcoholics. Monk’s character giggles wetly as they flirt to the episode’s end.

Meanwhile, the glee club kids realize that hiring a hot new director comes with costs too high to finance. The fascist, little-person director is so mean he makes kids at his home high school vomit with fear and dismay during rehearsals. But when he brings his cutting, derogatory style to McKinley’s glee club, the kids resist his derision. The new guy, of course, wants to kick out all the misfits, and doesn’t waste time before he dismisses Mercedes as an Effie-wannabe, Artie as “crippled,” Kurt as queer, and Rachel as needing a nose job.

But as they turn to leave, Rachel realizes that it’s the new director who should be fired instead, as he’ll never replace the liberal, democratic Will in the kids’ affections. Rachel is a Jewish girl—Lea Michele looks a lot like Idina Menzel—who cites Barbra Streisand’s refusal to get a nose job as her own cri de coeur, insisting that her difference is what will make her a star. In fact, she proclaims, the glee kids’ uniqueness comes from their differences, which she embraces as the source of their talent and their pride.

In the face of her rallying cry, all the kids puff out their chests—Artie in his wheelchair, wearing his ubiquitous driving gloves, Mercedes in her radiant, zaftig, belting divadom, Kurt in his queer elaborateness, which only he thinks is a secret, and Finn in his femme-y football hero straightness. They can all get behind being different as their club’s distinctive reason for being. When Will sheepishly but happily returns as their coach, he sets the best earnest example of what it means to ride that difference to your dreams.

Glee’s actors all boast backgrounds in musical theatre, although some have more professional experience than others. Matthew Morrison, who plays Will, performed on Broadway in Hairspray, was nominated for a Tony for his work in Light in the Piazza, and played Lt. Cable in the recent revival of South Pacific. Lea Michele, Glee’s Rachel, received a Drama Desk Award nomination for her performance in Spring Awakening in 2006. Each of the show’s glee clubbers has performed live somewhere, and bring to their roles the authenticity of awkward young people who find themselves electric and at home when they’re on stage.

Glee’s jokes come fast and furious, but always with affection and never truly at a character’s expense. The show is designed in bright, candy colors that underline its satire, and shot at angles that pointedly indicate who’s the good guy and who’s the villain. But often, the villains turn out to be good guys, transformed by the power of singing to find their glowing inner decency.

That’s a moral for a story I can get behind. And the songs are great, too.

The Feminist Spectator

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