Feminism Reconsidered

Do excuse the long silence for the month of July. During my absence from this site, I attended, among other things, two different theatre conferences. I spent a week at the International Federation for Theatre Research Conference, held this year in Stellenbosch, a small town in the wine country outside of Cape Town, South Africa. At the month’s end, I spent 24 hours at the Association for Theatre in Higher Education’s annual conference, held this year in New Orleans.

The IFTR feminist working group focuses on diverse performance practices, histories, and theories of international feminist theatre-makers and academics. While the constituency varies yearly, depending on the meeting’s location, the group tends to attract women from countries around the globe. This year’s group was small, but participants hailed from the US, the UK, Korea, South Africa, and Sweden.

Papers addressed various topics, from plays about immigrant women performed in Germany, to African-American/Jewish relations represented in the musicals Caroline, or Change and Parade, from representations of feminism in Eve Ensler’s The Good Body as performed by a new generation of feminist women in Seoul, to reconsidering American playwright Wendy Wasserstein’s contributions to feminist thought in the mainstream, Broadway forum—and much more.

The working group meetings addressed the status of feminism as a practice and a theory around the world, as represented through theatre and performance. Since my current work addresses Wasserstein’s oeuvre, I’m interested in rethinking the tools of feminist criticism of the 1980s and 1990s. The “feminisms,” which parsed the ideological and practical differences among liberal, cultural, and materialist feminists, now seem to me limiting, and in retrospect, steered feminist critical thought away from more “popular” playwrights toward more subaltern, avant-garde, subcultural performance artists and collectives.

Thanks to the group’s internationalist perspective, I was lead to expand my thinking about these binaries. In Korea, for example, the mainstream/alternative dichotomy doesn’t hold, and in the EU, it’s difficult to single out gender without considering how immigration, race, and ethnicity influence funding decisions that determine a production’s fate. Participants also pointed to Sarah Kane, Caryl Churchill, Elfriede Jelinek, and Timberlake Wertenbaker as non-American playwrights who’ve achieved a certain prominence outside of the hegemonic American distinction between mainstream and alternative.

The South African theatre-makers present at the meetings—from Themba Interactive Theatre and from Mother Tongue, the only registered women’s theatre collective in South Africa—suggested that there’s little distinction between applied theatre, community-based theatre, and professional theatre in their country. Mother Tongue, in fact, sees their work on a continuum between mainstream and applied theatre, although both groups suggested that their primary goal is not to entertain people but to bring to the forefront stories that aren’t visible in the cultural mainstream.

HIV/AIDS persists as a health and social crisis in South Africa. The one conference-wide performance presented at IFTR, in fact, was a Forum Theatre piece about the pandemic performed by a national company. Although the group didn’t usefully frame the event for international theatre educators—sticking instead to a structure they use to present the issues to school children—watching them use Boal’s methods to address the social stigma around HIV/AIDS was compelling and important.

During my short stay at the ATHE conference, I caught a Women and Theatre Program-sponsored panel called “The Future of Feminist Scholarship.” Chaired by J. Ellen Gainor (Cornell), the roundtable discussion featured seven graduate students—Gwen Alker (NYU), Lisa Hall (UC-Boulder), Diana Looser (Cornell), Adrienne Macki (Boston College), Jennifer Popple (UC-Boulder), and Meghan Brodie and Megan Shea (both Cornell), who organized the panel, which proved a provocative, thoughtful conversation about the status of feminism in theatre and performance studies.

I’m surprised that in this and in other venues (such as Elaine Aston and Gerry Harris’s edited volume Feminist Futures? out recently from Palgrave) so much time is spent contemplating the definition of feminism. While I agree that its meaning has and should change, some of this debating seems to stall, rather than advance, the discourse. As Deb Margolin told her students, in an inspirational class on feminist theatre I watched her teach at Yale this spring, if you think that women deserve to be equal in every way, then you’re a feminist. On some level, simplicity serves us best.

Nonetheless, the ATHE roundtable’s discussion advanced some important points about feminist theatre and performance scholarship. The foundational texts of the field are still those that were published in the mid-80s and the 1990s. And while, as the discussion stressed repeatedly, feminist concerns have now been woven inextricably into the larger field, explicit feminist projects seem to be on the wane. At the American Society for Theatre Research conferences, for one example given, only one working group is called “Feminist Historiography.” Many other groups and seminars address theatre and social change or politics and performance, but without doing so under a specifically feminist rubric.

Gwen Alker pointed out that the effects of feminist scholarship have been “omnipresent and subterranean,” and that the institutionalization of the field (witnessed most recently by Routledge’s decision to adopt Women & Performance Journal, the journal of feminist performance theory that I actually helped to found at NYU in 1981) means that it has “solidified” as a method and “infiltrated” the field as a viable approach. I wonder, though, what the pros and cons of such institutionalized status might be. Meghan Brodie pointed out that feminism is being subsumed by its own interdisciplinarity, which I find a very valid point. What does this mean for the future of the field? Why do we feel the need to name feminism explicitly in our work? On the other hand, why don’t we? How and why might we bring feminism back to the surface of critical thought in performance?

Much of the roundtable addressed teaching feminist theatre and performance. Many participants worried about their students’ refusal to proclaim themselves “feminists” despite their obvious commitment to gender equity. But what does such naming do to advance our inquiry? Is it necessary to cajole students into calling themselves feminists? What does such identifying achieve? Isn’t it more important to stress feminism as a critical practice rather than an identity, as bell hooks challenged us to do a decade or more ago?

The damage done to feminism by the mainstream media can be felt and observed most keenly perhaps in our classrooms, when students think they know something about us when they can attach us to a feminist label. How our identities as teachers are seen remains something of a knee-jerk reaction from our students, one in which identity is always suspect as political advocacy. For instance, in our large (400-student) Introduction to Theatre class here at UT, a gay/lesbian theatre unit is regularly offered by the graduate students who teach the course. But the instructors who are heterosexual receive much less grief for this content than those perceived or self-admitted to be lesbian, gay, or queer. As much as we try to unloosen identity from essentialism, our students still equate our choice of plays as advocacy if we appear to be teaching “about ourselves.”

The roundtable drew a healthy audience at the ATHE conference (mostly of women, but also a few committed men, including the esteemed theatre scholar Marvin Carlson, who has always been a promoter of the subfield). Spectators offered their own cautions and concerns. Sara Warner (Cornell), the president of the Women and Theatre Program (WTP) of ATHE, reminded us that feminism as the panel articulated it is a western notion, and urged us to reconsider feminism as a transnational and post-colonial project, as the WTP has done so deftly in its recent pre-conferences.

Ann Elizabeth Armstrong (Miami University of Ohio) offered that feminism tends to be a liability in community-based theatre work and “engaged” scholarship, which I find fascinating. Why wouldn’t a method that should illuminate these endeavors be found suspect to them? Is it because feminism implies a specificity of inquiry that CBT theatre and “progressive” scholarship wants to belie? On the other hand, is “feminist” explicitly or implicitly activist, as many roundtable participants seemed to imply? Or is it a method among others, without an activist social corollary?

Gay Gibson Cima (Georgetown) reminded us of the establishment of “feminisms” as a critical discourse, which was one of the most important contributions of the 1980s and 90s, as it allowed us to make distinctions between various feminist ideologies and practices. And yet in my own recent critical thinking, it’s seemed to me that those feminisms at the same time installed a hierarchy of value against which feminist work was measured that perhaps hasn’t served us over time. For instance, “liberal feminism”—defined as an ideology that seeks equity for women within existing social and government structures—was derided as accommodationist, which left many women playwrights writing for mainstream forums outside the “rightful” purview of more incisive feminist thought.

Likewise, as another roundtable participant suggested, the critique of essentialism, which derogated the achievements of “radical” or “cultural” feminism, left many women dazed, confused, and alienated from the feminist critique. While social constructionist theories of gender, race, and sexuality offer trenchant, necessary analyses of identity and its ideological operations, how might we reopen the discussion of specifically women’s work in theatre without denying the importance of how even the term “women” is historically and socially contextual, paving the way for considering globalization’s effects on feminist work transnationally?

I found myself quite cheered by the ATHE roundtable, mostly because I worry that feminism is passé in the academy and in progressive social movements. Listening to smart, committed young academic women try to tease out the necessary complications of doing this work, and hearing them parse out the themes feminism has forwarded and how they’re being taken up across fields, gave me great hope for the future of the field.

The academy is, of course, a place of commodification, in which scholars continually seek out the next cutting edge on which to make their reputations and their contributions to contemporary thought. Feminism, some might say, had its moment. But if we truly believe in the importance of a critique that seriously considers gender, race and ethnicity, sexuality, class, and other identity markers as viable sites of cultural generation and critique, feminism needs to be continually reinvigorated as a method and a movement.

Yours, in sisterhood, still,
The Feminist Spectator

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4 thoughts on “Feminism Reconsidered

  1. Hi Jill,

    It was great to meet you at the IFTR conference (I babbled to you a little before the Themba performance), and this article is also really great.

    In some sense, I think it’s important to identify as feminist (if you want equality for men and women, as you so succinctly stated) even just to clarify what that actually means. The more people say it, the less mystified it becomes and the better name we can bring to it. There are still many men and women who believe that feminism is about women OVER men, and are scared away. Naming and identifying as femininist could alleviate some of this misconception, I believe. And maybe this could even help us to move on from the bogged-down definitional discussion, and onto more useful ideas?

    I’m also glad that you thought the Themba performance was insightful. I thought so as well, although I was ashamed at many scholars in the audience who seemed to make light of it, joke around, or even be embarrassed at the issues presented. I thought that was rude and counter-productive. I found the performance very interesting and in some ways, shocking to think of the lack of education already existing in South African schools about HIV/AIDS.

    Anyway, that’s enough of a rant from me! Glad you’re back and writing…

    Tessa Needham

  2. Tessa, thanks for your insightful response. I do agree that “feminist” is a word that needs to be claimed and reclaimed continually. I was simply struck, at both these conferences, about the energy put toward the question of naming, especially in pedagogical situations.

    Also, your comment reminds me that the Forum Theatre-style conference-wide performance regarding HIV/AIDS was performed by Themba; I’m not sure I made that clear in my post.

    Please do keep writing and responding. The dialogue is what it’s all about. Nice to meet you in S.A.

    My best,

  3. Dear Jill,

    I found “feminism(s)” as a concept and a word to spark a particularly intriguing conversation in a history of solo performance art course I taught last semester in NYU undergrad drama. While only one woman in my class actively considered herself a feminist–and many other women in my class, and men for that matter, read “feminism” to be a dated, if not antiquated, term–the response of the women who did not call themselves feminist to potentially misogynistic situations was more violent and, in some ways, more crude than to anything else we discussed in the class. (I haven’t heard so much swearing from 20-year-olds in the classroom in quite some time as when they were discussing sexual discrimination and difference in theatre, and in college life in general.) Clearly there was a lot of aggression underlying the conversation.

    I think, particularly with the Brooklyn Museum of Art’s recent addition of its Elizabeth A. Sakler Center for Feminist Art, we need to encourage discussion and discourse about and around the term with a new generation of scholars and practitioners, as well as challenge what the word “feminism” carries with it, and what it might develop into, in the new century. And, as well, we need perhaps to offer a better means of integrating it with the other theories that too often tend to be tokenized within syllabi.

    Thanks so much for this post–
    T. Nikki Cesare

  4. Nikki, thanks for this comment, I appreciate it quite a lot. It does seem that our collective job is to keep the conversation about feminism growing and going, and to make exactly the kinds of connections you’re suggesting. I do think that the “word” carries so much baggage, even though as your story clearly indicates, young women still need feminism to help them channel their anger and frame their concerns. Good luck with you work, all best, jd

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