The Scholar and Feminist Online
Published by The Barnard Center for Research on Women

Issue 2.1 - Public Sentiments - Summer 2003

States of Play: Feminism, Gender Studies, and Performance
by Janelle Reinelt

In a recent book, Framing Identities: Autobiography and the Politics of Pedagogy, Wendy Hesford writes about the relationship "between self-representation and historical realities and the implication of this relationship for understanding 'the complexity of the momentarily situated subject'" (4). Her emphasis on the importance of integrating the personal into an exploration of how identities are "negotiated among conflicting and multiple discourses and how power is constituted and claimed rhetorically" (35) poses a pedagogical challenge to anyone teaching material from a past time that one has also lived through. Hesford's challenge demands a response to the knowledge that personal narrative inflects historical narrative. She recommends a mode of critical pedagogy that displays to students the process of identity-negotiation concurrent with a critical representation of the subject matter being treated.

This book is on my mind as I consider the history of two decades of feminism through which I lived, and its relationship to the field of gender studies as it is currently constituted and to theatrical performances both then and now. I cannot avoid the deeply personal background of this topography, nor the inevitable ways in which my historical account will be marked and shaped by my subjective positioning in it. So following Hesford, perhaps I'll start with a few autobiographical comments. Like many women of my generation, I came to feminism in the early 1980s, drawn by the combination of political objectives, female community, and an intellectual critique of patriarchy. For me, this meant forming a collective with seven other women to start the first Women's Center for the city of Stockton, California, while simultaneously pursuing graduate studies in theatre at University of California Berkeley where I was reading for the first time Kate Millett, Shulamith Firestone, and very soon, Michelene Wandor, the British feminist who was also a playwright and who chronicled the first phase of Women's Theatre in Britain. What I want to stress is the continuity of purpose and lived experience between my everyday life, political practice, scholarship, and art. If many of us are nostalgic for the early days of Second Wave Feminism, it is for that sense of wholeness and possibility, and for that I do not apologize. If there is any one way to characterize the current period, whether one uses the term "post-feminism" or not, it is that the continuity between scholarship and activism has been disrupted, and that the sense of a feminist community is exceedingly hard to preserve for most women - in and out of the academy.

In seeking to understand this present moment, I think it is important to acknowledge that "times have changed," that an analysis of feminism as it exists today in relationship to theatrical performance cannot signal an attempt to return, but rather to forge ahead toward an as yet unforeseen future. Yet there will also be in this essay a stubborn insistence on the necessity to hang on to those parts of feminist history from second wave feminism that establish the context for the present, and in some cases the basis for its critique. In that sense, I am an unreconstructed second wave feminist, a nag and a scold, perhaps even a crone, to invoke the old sexist terms that feminism tried to reclaim, much as "queer" has been reclaimed positively in recent years.

To begin with a definition of terms seems appropriate, because "feminism," particularly in the popular press in the U.S. and the U.K., has often been defined in sensational ways to mean man-hating and bra-burning. Even within feminism itself, a great variety of nuanced understandings of what it means to be a feminist exists, and for my young students who today often want to admit to an interest in women's studies, or gender issues while simultaneously insisting they are NOT feminist, the question is, what understanding of feminism do they so strongly reject? So, for the purposes of this discussion, here is what I mean by feminism:

Feminism is a political commitment to three things:
    · to women's issues
    · to a way of life
    · to an intellectual critique

Each of these three may be defined differently at different historical moments, but I believe this definition will stand up to transhistorical usage. For example, if equal pay, abortion rights, and childcare were and in some ways remain women's issues to be struggled for politically, other issues may emerge as more important or more central over time. (In part, I shall be arguing that something like a supercession of these issues by global issues and issues of technology marks the present state of feminism.) The second commitment, to a way of life, is also highly malleable and culturally constructed. I think for North American women, to a greater degree than for British women, the way of life to be struggled for includes great personal freedom, independence in terms of both financial security and emotional autonomy, and access to power in the workplace and in the public sphere. These aspects of personal life can be shared by heterosexual women, lesbian women, women of color, and women of all ages. Note however, that the ideal is heavily marked by the entrepreneurial capitalism that defines U.S. socio-economic organization, and the great focus on individualism that defines so much ideology and tradition in the U.S., and to a degree, in Canada. In a radically different context, for example, in India, the way of life to be struggled for may be significantly different. A United Nations report on the status of women in India (1975) found the key issues of the average Indian women's existence to be female infant mortality, child marriages, illiteracy, and dowries. Aspects of personal life to be struggled for may not focus on independence on the American model, but may be concerned with protection from domestic violence, financial security for widows or after divorce, and educational opportunities. The third commitment, to an intellectual critique, is perhaps most strong among highly educated women, but the early premises of second wave feminism included the necessity to analyze life under patriarchy, to come to understand how women are socialized into certain roles and how they come to internalize their oppressions. Consciousness-raising groups among a variety of women, not only white middle-class women - although criticisms about the early days of the Movement are justified - carried out this specifically conceptual critique as well as shared women's lived experiences in a climate of support. Today, to be a feminist with a political commitment to intellectual critique means following and analyzing the changing context of women, and the political and personal modifications of all three of these areas. It is, in short, to develop a feminist critique of the present, even as it transforms into the future.

What is "Postfeminism" and Are We In It?

There is little debate that we are no longer in the period of Second Wave Feminism. Its origins are easier to establish than its demise, since 1970 marked an explosion of feminist theoretical books that have since defined the movement conceptually. Kate Millett's Sexual Politics, Shulamith Firestone's The Dialectic of Sex, and Robin Morgan's Sisterhood is Powerful were all published that year, as was Germaine Greer's The Female Eunuch in Britain. Postfeminism began to appear as a term in the media by the mid-1980s, but perhaps began to be significantly present as a concept in 1991 when Susan Faludi published Backlash: The Undeclared War Against Women. This book acknowledged the concept and from a feminist point of view, tried to dispel it as a media-inspired attitude that feminism was passé because women had arrived at their goals, while the truth was that a massive mainstream defense of the status quo was producing the ideology of postfeminism. Slowly, however, this situation gave way to several highly articulate anti-feminist but assertive independent women who, in the early 1990s, attacked feminism and/or proclaimed postfeminism as appropriate and established. I'm thinking especially of Camille Paglia, Rene Denfeld, and Katie Roiphe. Several of these women claimed to speak from within a position informed by or at least sympathetic to feminism, so their criticisms were harder to dismiss. Typical would be someone like Naomi Wolf whose first book in 1990, The Beauty Myth, is a familiar analysis of how women are coerced by society to pursue the beauty ideal. However, her second book, Fire With Fire, moves to call for "power feminism" that rejects an old bad feminist "hardline" for a kind of "seize the day" program that claims equality and economic empowerment are attainable for women with enough drive and self-confidence. Rather than parsing these arguments in detail, what I would observe is that as more women entered into the discourse of postfeminism from an ambiguous position (claiming to be within feminism on the one hand and calling for a move beyond it on the other) the rhetoric of postfeminism and the public perception that we are in it steadily increased. A pro-feminist book recently published, The Routledge Critical Dictionary of Feminism and Postfeminism, instantiates postfeminism in its title, even while arguing that looking to a "third wave feminism" may be better because it "stands on the shoulders of other, earlier, feminist movements" (54). My conclusion, however, is that avoiding "postfeminism" is impossible and unproductive, and that there will be no "third wave" until a genuine popular movement with political objectives is visible on the horizon, and unfortunately, it's not yet discernable.

So in answer to the second part of the question first, "Yes" we are in Postfeminism. What is it exactly? It is a time when the residue of feminism is still with us in terms of its history and some of its commitments, but without the overarching umbrella of an organized social or political movement at either grass roots or national levels. (I will primarily be speaking here about the U.S., and sometimes about the U.K.) This does not mean that local, grass roots groups and political campaigns do not exist, but the identification of women with a Movement has virtually vanished. Some lesbian and queer women identify with the gay/lesbian/queer Movement, which still has some identifiable status as a Movement, but the relation between feminism and this movement is itself historically troubled and in no case is the assumption of a cross-over justified today. NOW, the National Organization for Women, is just another political pressure group, and while not irrelevant to national politics in the U.S. it is extremely weak and disunified.

Secondly, the lack of identity of the term "woman," so well interrogated by the intellectuals of the Second Wave, has meant that there is not an umbrella term under which particular women can identify and organize. Not only the critique of someone like Julia Kristeva who taught us that "Woman" is a cipher under which real women cannot find a place, but also the concrete criticisms of women of color and lesbians that white liberal heterosexual women were claiming to speak for them erroneously, and the cultural ethnocentrism of first-world feminists have meant that by the mid 1990s, feminism had a hard time forming a focal point because identifying with any common properties held by all women seemed impossible. The desire for a unified subject of feminism was finally part of what held the feminist movement back. Even if many feminists mourn the loss of shared ideals about what is possible, this is a different thing than mourning the loss of a narrow ideal of what woman is or women are.

Third, some of the criticisms of second wave feminism persuaded young women that feminism was old fashioned or too rigid. For example, the charge of extremism, that feminism had become old fashioned and intolerant in upholding in Denfeld's words, "a moral and spiritual crusade that would take us back to a time worse than our mother's day - back to the nineteenth-century values of sexual morality, spiritual purity, and political helplessness . . . current feminism would create the very same morally pure yet helplessly martyred role that women suffered from a century ago" (46-47). The reference here is to campaigns against sexual harassment, date rape, and pornography, associated with some forms of feminism. Along the same lines, Denfeld, Roiphe and Wolf also claim that feminism has portrayed women as victims and that this is self-defeating and untrue. These arguments against a perceived puritanical morality and a culture of victimization are persuasive in contemporary American culture because of their intersections with certain entrenched traditions of libertarianism and self-sufficiency. Having a long history of American Puritanism in its past, there is also an impassioned commitment to personal freedom and first amendment rights shared by significant constituencies on the left and also on the right of the political spectrum. This phenomenon has produced odd allegiances between right-wing Christian groups and feminists on some issues like pornography, and has alienated the more libertarian feminists or gay/lesbian/bisexual feminists for whom the struggle for sexual freedom has been the highest priority.

As for the discourse of victimization, it must be seen against a larger U.S. tapestry of social injustice for poor, non-white people across society. How can middle-class women claim the status of victim when compared to the homeless or otherwise downtrodden? However, on the other hand, conservative politicians have successfully overthrown the appeal to injustice by treating victims as those who should be held responsible for their situation, and have recoded "victim" as a term only appropriately belonging to victims of crime. In death penalty arguments in the United States, one argument of the pro-death penalty people is that the victims have a right to witness the retribution for their injuries in the form of execution. Thus the rhetoric of victims and victimization is highly volatile in the U.S. No one wants to be a victim, but if one is, retribution is the desired outcome. This complicates and strengthens the perception that feminists indulge in an unwarranted discourse of victimization.

These things, then, the lack of an energetic and robust political movement, the lack of an identity "woman" with which to align, and the perception of restrictive and detrimental positions associated with feminism have contributed to bring about a state of postfeminism, a state in which there is nothing to join and no clear "woman" to be, but in which many of the concerns of actual women about equality, free expression, power, respect, and sexual subjectivity are still present and compelling. This is what I have earlier called the feminist residue from the Second Wave - these concerns have been identified and are still present, but it is more difficult to figure out how to tackle them. Is there a way to harness the energies from Second Wave feminism to intervene in the current situation in a new form? Perhaps, but let us first now turn directly to performance.

What do We See in Performances Today?

Most of the feminist theatre companies, like the feminist book store collectives, had disappeared in the United States by the mid 1990s. Not only is it always difficult for small theatre companies to survive on what amounts to no fiscal support from the government, it has become even more difficult to survive in recent years in a conservative climate and with fewer and fewer dollars available for arts funding. Similarly in Britain, the Thatcher years took a heavy toll on left-wing and feminist theatre companies, perhaps the most well known casualty of that era being Monstrous Regiment, who for over twenty years had managed to thrive and produce many pieces created by and for women with explicit socialist feminist politics as their artistic mission. In 2001-2002, on off-Broadway and in regional theatre's two thousand productions, 16% were written by women and 17% had female directors. Solo performers have managed to survive the best - one thinks of Bobbie Baker in Britain or Karen Finley or Holly Hughes in the U.S., and most prominently, of Anna Deavere Smith whose solo work has been widely seen in the mainstream through television broadcasts of her work and Broadway and major U.S. regional productions. In Britain, some women playwrights have remained well established through the 90s - Caryl Churchill and Timberlake Wertenbaker, for example, are feminist writers from the Second Wave who still write and are produced in major venues such as the National Theatre and the Royal Court. As for directors, Ann Bogart or JoAnn Akalatis in the U.S. and Deborah Warner and Di Trevis in the U.K. have achieved a great deal of critical acclaim and work in the major professional theatres in both countries. "Feminist", however, would not be a descriptive term brought easily to their work, although two of them would self-describe as feminists in their "private" life. Only Warner consistently thematizes gender issues in her directorial work, and that is complicated by her well-known lesbian partnership with Fiona Shaw, with whom she has created many projects such as the cross-dressed Richard II. Dance companies such as DV8 in Britain or Bill T. Jones's company in the U.S. thematize gender and sexuality, but both are more identified with queer performances than with anything that might be called feminist, and both are heavily concerned with masculinity and its representations.

One of the early concerns of feminist representation was to get women in central roles represented as legitimate protagonists of dramas - not just in order to create more roles for women, but to treat their lives, in a gloss on the words of Erich Auerbach in Mimesis, as serious subjects, to ensure "the rise of more extensive and socially inferior human groups to the position of subject matter for problematic-existential representation."[1] Along with this objective came the reclaiming of women's history. To some extent, these features continue to be present in the contemporary work of most of the women artists mentioned above, but they may not be as central or as sufficient as they once were. Di Trevis's stunning production of Proust's Remembrance of Time Past (2001), for example, foregrounds a gay male imagination perhaps, but no particular stress on female representation or feminist features can be claimed for it. Ann Bogart's recent tour de force, Bob, is a solo piece about Robert Wilson. It goes a long way to explaining a great deal about this theatrical artist and his work, but obviously has nothing to do with women, nor are there any on the stage.

I want to speak briefly about three playwrights for whom some claims, the claims of the residue of feminism if not more, can be made. The most straightforward is Caryl Churchill whose recent work from The Skryker to 2001's Far Away still involves women at the center of the action, and still concerns itself with the quality of women's lives in contemporary society. Far Away, however, is questionably about women's issues. Set in a world of some undisclosed future, it appears to be about species alienation and warfare, where all God's creatures are divided into warring camps. One of the characters explains who the bad guys are: "Mallards are not a good waterbird. They commit rape, and they're on the side of the elephants, and the Koreans. But crocodiles are always in the wrong" (33). In this Brave New World, conflict is ever-present and loyalties keep changing. The one overtly feminist through-line is that the little girl of the first scene, Joan, raises questions about immigrants who appear to be being beaten by her uncle. In the course of the play, she grows up into the world of this global species warfare. Consistently through all of Churchill's work, and often figured specifically as a child character, there is a concern for the experiences and future of young girls. What kind of world will they inhabit and inherit, might be her constant question. Is this enough to count as a feminist text? Or is the concern with globalization, usually taken to be at the heart of her play, beyond feminism?

The second play is Sarah Kane's last play, 4.48 Psychosis. Kane has come to prominence in the U.K. but also in Europe, especially in Germany where her plays have received many productions. She is generally recognized as a great talent, with power in her writing that compares to Edward Bond and even Samuel Beckett. She was born in 1971, just at the start of second wave feminism, and she died of suicide in 1999. Young, gifted, and dead. Certainly not a feminist, but a woman writer. What are we to say of her? Her plays have been received as shocking because of her depictions of brutality and violence and the seeming lack of redemption in her imaginary universe. Critics puzzle about the nihilism of her plays (whether they really are), and about the style and her expression - poetic, anti-realistic, dramaturgically unique. They haven't written about her in terms of feminism. Her last play, 4.48 Psychosis is itself about depression and suicide, and it is almost impossible to resist seeing it as her last words. Here is an excerpt: "I can't think/I cannot overcome my loneliness, my fear, my disgust/I am fat/I cannot write/I cannot love/My brother is dying, my lover is dying, I am killing them both/I am charging toward my death/I am terrified of medication/I cannot make love/I cannot fuck/ I cannot be alone/ I cannot be with others/ My hips are too big/ I dislike my genitals/ At 4.48 when desperation visits I shall hang myself to the sound of my lover's breathing/I do not want to die/I have become so depressed by the fact of my mortality that I have decided to commit suicide/I do not want to live" (207). This excerpt is full of the very sort of self-loathing expressions second wave feminism tried to fight - preoccupation with the imperfect body, lack of self image or sense of self value, depression, guilt, masochism. The typical narrative for women in drama, we were told, is transgression followed by death - thus Hedda Gabler, Marie in Woyzeck, all the opera heroines, of course Carmen. We must stop representing death as inevitable for women who dare to be different, we feminist critics thought. And here is Sarah Kane, who makes a definitive performance of her life, by creating her art and doubling it in her tragic actions. She willed it, she chose it, yet she didn't, yet she provides an example of the seeming lack of escape from the deep desolation of the feminine psyche. How can I call her feminist? The via negativa of her example is a protest. Kane was angry at the world as well as at herself. She demanded her audiences pay attention to real suffering, her own but also others. Blasted is often described as Kane's response to Bosnia - not literally, not citationally, but to the situation of violence and disengagement of the West. Like Churchill in Far Away, the global demanded the foreground of her response. Might we not see the residue of feminism, its ethical and political commitments, even in her seeming rejection of it?

The third play is by Suzan-Lori Parks an African American playwright who in 2002 received the Pulitzer Prize for her play, Top Dog/Under Dog. Sometimes her work has been very close to second wave feminist work - I am thinking specifically of Venus, her 1996 play about the historical figure Saartjie Baartman, the "Venus Hottentot," who was exhibited in side-shows in London in the 19th century because of her large buttocks. Here, Parks raises questions of representation (both how she was represented historically and how to represent her today - Saartjie sometimes appears in a padded suit to avoid realistic portrayals that would invite voyeurism by providing an unmediated object for a male racialized gaze.) Parks offers a kind of socialist feminist analysis of the economic and racial causes of Baartman's exploitation, combining race and gender in a devastating critique of white capitalist and masculinist culture while inserting Baartman firmly into history. Yet this play is not typical of her work, which has ranged over many topics and expressions, including The America Play and The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World, both of which feature only supporting female characters and treat men as explicitly central. Top Dog/Under Dog has no female characters at all, although African-American performance scholar Harry Elam has remarked that the play ironically contains a female voice in its absence and silence. Parks commented in an interview, "Just being an African-American woman on Broadway is experimental. As far as I know, there are only four of us: Lorraine Hansberry, Ntzoke Shange, Anna Deavere Smith, and me. It's also experimental to write a play that just involves two men and to write it so well that people think a man wrote it!"

What I am suggesting, of course, is that while these plays seems to lack the overt marks of explicitly feminist commitment, they are informed by and filtered through the perspectives of women who have been familiar with and lived in relation to second wave feminism. Even Sarah Kane, youngster of the group, knew the themes and preoccupations of Second Wave Feminism. She sometimes satirized them, as in Phaedra's Love, and sometimes charted their inadequacy to capture real lives of suffering, as in Blasted or Cleansed. Suzan-Lori Parks doesn't consider herself feminist, and has what she must define as larger questions of race and nation at the center of her work, but when she writes a play like Venus, she reveals how well she knows the socialist feminist critique and adapts it for her own purposes. Churchill continues to identify as feminist, but her work is becoming more diffuse, less epic and more lyrical, and more removed from the familiar feminist writing of Cloud 9 or Top Girls. So while none of this work is overtly feminist, it is imbued with second wave residue, the presence of the "post," the effects of coming after and of having encountered Second Wave feminism. And, I would submit, this is not a negligible legacy.

Where Do We Go From Here?

In this last question, "we" refers to unreconstructed feminists like myself or fellow travelers who want to preserve and continue the commitments of feminism while also moving on into a present and future where the exact entailments of those commitments are not clear. Let me offer two senses of direction. One is moving on into an uncharted future, the second might be designated "Back to Basics." In the last few years, American playwright and performer Eve Ensler has had an enormous popular hit with The Vagina Monologues. Playing in New York and London and other major cities to sold-out houses, the play is a series of solo performances composed of material from interviews Ensler conducted with a wide variety of women about their attitudes toward their vaginas. Since 1998, it has been accompanied by a yearly celebration of V-Day, a set of demonstrations and activities aimed toward ending violence toward women. It has a website and is more or less a genuine movement. 18,000 women raised $2 M in 2001 at Madison Square Garden in NYC. In 2002 there were over 500 events world-wide. The monologues include women from different races, social classes, and nations. The thrust of the performance, while detailing instances of violence toward women and deep suffering, is nonetheless celebratory.

I must tell you that I was annoyed by the performance when I saw it in San Francisco in 2001, and quite frustrated. It seemed to me to simply repeat very basic Second Wave feminist concerns, and I had "been there, done that." My displeasure was not at the affirmation of bodies or the naming and attention to vaginas; that was fine with me, if somewhat of a cliché. It was the universalizing and essentializing gestures of the piece I found problematic. The common denominator for women in the play is the vagina, with its biological properties and its essentializing tendencies. And although difference was represented through the range of women's stories presented, there was also a tendency toward equivalency, toward balancing one story of a Bosnian woman with an African woman and a middle class American woman. As often happens with multicultural inclusions, the difference turns into a certain homogenized sameness under the sign of vagina.

But I came to criticize my own criticism of this performance. I turned to look around me in the theatre, and there I saw in San Francisco a range of women, and many of them were young - the very sort of young student I was disappointed in, because they won't identify with feminism. And they were enjoying the performance tremendously. I noticed many of them there with their mothers or older women I imagined to be their mothers. I noticed the audience was ethnically diverse - a large number of Asian American women in particular in San Francisco. And while they were probably all middle-class, because of the price of the ticket, they were not narrowly elite to judge from their clothes and their mannerisms. There were a number of men in attendance too, having come with female friends or partners, and they were attentive and responsive to the performance as well. And I began to think, if this play goes all the way back to the beginnings of Second Wave Feminism, and even if it makes some of the same undertheorized mistakes about representation, isn't it a good thing if young people are having this experience and if us older ones are reminded of the early feminist work on the body? What can it hurt? Even stronger, why is it such a successful phenomenon at this time - is there an opening in culture for a new wave of feminist consciousness? Perhaps it won't take the form of previous struggles. And perhaps scholars like me will need to interrogate its practices in our classrooms and our writing, but along with the dark and sober musings of Sarah Kane, whose work I champion and defend, could I perhaps get behind the organizing potential of something less profound but perhaps no less valid in a play like The Vagina Monologues? I think it's worth a try.


1. Erich Auerbach, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, Trans. By Willard R. Trask, Princeton University Press, 1953, 491.
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Works Cited

Auerbach, Erich. Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. Trans. By Willard R. Trask. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1953.

Churchill, Caryl. Far Away. London: Theatre Communications Group, 2001.

Denfeld, Rene. New Victorians: A Young Woman's Challenge to the Old Feminist Order. New York: Warner Books, 1995.

Gamble, Sarah. Ed. Routledge Critical Dictionary of Feminism and Postfeminism. New York: Routledge, 2000.

Hesford, Wendy. Framing Identities: Autobiography and the Politics of Pedagogy. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999.

Kane, Sarah. 4.48 Psychosis. London: Methuen, 2001.

Wolf, Naomi. Fire with Fire: The New Female Power and How it will Change the 21st Century. New York: Random House, 1993.

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