Character, feminism, & the paradox of representation (corrected – 07/02/2014 @ 9:57 AM)

(Correction: an earlier draft of this post identified Darrah Teitel as both a playwright & an actor; this was mistaken – she is a playwright.)

Or, my original title: Can We Just Cut Michael Healey Some Slack, Please?

A few days ago, Spider Web Show’s theatre & politics blog CdnCult Times released its “Feminist Issue,” (already, it seems, drawing a clear distinction between a “feminist issue” and a “feminism issue”), a component of which was an I-think-it’s-pretty-fair-to-say rather angry review of Michael Healey’s play Proud, by Ottawa-based playwright Darrah Teitel.

This excerpt I think captures the vibe:

After watching the play I was mortified and my MP guest was horrified. She turned to me flatly and said: “That was the most misogynist thing I’ve seen.” Given her exposure to misogyny and sexism since her election, that is saying a lot.

It certainly is saying a lot. It is, in fact, the review’s upshot, & the rest is given over to variations on similar themes.  Now, I live in Toronto (where Proud was, apparently, born in sin: the whole Tarragon Theatre snafu is still fresh in the mind [though possibly undeservedly so]) so I have not – nota bene – seen Proud. It is possible that Teitel’s friend’s claim is accurate & fair; I’m not interested in pronouncing on that particular point (though, having seen the average beer commercial, I’m somewhat dubious), except to say that even if they are being generous, & the play really is a kind of Jew Süss of anti-woman propaganda, this would not mean, ipso facto, that Healey is himself misogynistic. We ought to at least be able to discuss a work of art in good faith.

That caveat aside, I’m struck by the actual substance of Teitel’s criticism not because it is wholly beyond the realm of possibility, but because it seems to be a) a echoed rather a lot among the more political factions of the theatre community, & b) it seems to create a kind of nightmarish double-bind for playwrights everywhere: the problem of representation on the stage.

Quoting again from Teitel’s review:

         The point is this:

Throughout history, women in positions of power have made people very uncomfortable. This has empowered a stereotype of a woman who is as sexually manipulative as she is thirsty for inappropriate power. Healey’s character Jisbella Lyth, may be based on the shamefully recent phenomenon of young women in Parliament, but there is nothing new about the stereotype we are presented with.

The issue is apparently that Healey’s character reinforced certain negative stereotypes about women, particularly women in positions of power. Teitel appears to be suggesting that Michael Healey has, as an author, a moral responsibility to generate characters that conform to politically agreeable (to Teitel) gender politics, & that to not do so is not only a moral transgression, but apparently an aesthetic one as well.

Darrah Teitel is not the only one to have expressed these concerns. In a recent podcast (also a Spider Web Show initiative), Small Wooden Shoe’s Jacob Zimmer & Neworld Theatre’s Adrienne Wong discussed the need to check one’s politics at the door of most theatres. As Wong asks: “How many times you have seen a show and thought, ‘That was a pretty good show if you just ignore all the gender politics stuff’?” Again, there appears be this curious intersection of politics & aesthetics – as if, bad politics equals bad art, or that the art can only be “good” if you ignore its implicit (even subliminal) politics.

This creates huge retrospective problems for the history of art in general, & its logic appears to unravel pretty quickly. There is a long history of really great art being made for really bad reasons: one thinks of the entire Evelyn Waugh canon or Wyndham Lewis’s Apes of God (fascism), Wagner’s music (q.v. “Das Judenthum in der Musik”), or the notorious woman-hater August Strindberg, whose Miss Julie has become a kind of stalwart of feminist theatre for the very reason that it’s so overtly misogynistic (Strindberg’s autobiographical writings, particularly the surreal & horrifying Inferno, must surely pin him as one of the most brazenly phallocratic dramatists, ever). Even worse, the intersection between religion & art before the industrial revolution creates a politico-aesthetic conundrum I defy anyone to reason their way out of: how can we justify the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel when it was built as a monument to theocracy & the glory of a man among whose achievements can be included the atrocities of the Spanish Inquisition? How the Parthenon, built as it was by slave labour?

So if, then, a misogynistic play doesn’t necessarily have to mean bad play, exactly, how can we parse Teitel’s criticisms of Proud in ways that make sense? Or rather – what exactly is Teitel asking for?

On this I’m torn; on the one hand, it is undeniably true that negative portrayals of women can & do reinforce negative attitudes towards them; this is especially true of commercial art in the mass market of film & television. I think it would be pretty hard to argue that there isn’t tremendous moral & aesthetic value in creating female characters who subvert the sexist clichés so much of the culture has imposed on us.

The difficulty is, what would these characters be & look like? Darrah Teitel includes as an epigraph to her review a quotation from a friend of hers, Adam Nayman:

Representation of women with power are as problematic as representations of women without, mostly because they are written and directed by men.

This strikes me as an incredibly acute observation. One of my own projects as a writer is to create interesting & unique parts for women; I find myself at all times hedged in by privets of paradox, contradiction within contradiction. There does not seem to be a way to present female characters that could not, conceivably, be viewed through the lattice of patriarchy. After all, even no less a feminist playwright than Caryl Churchill (who is probably my favourite living playwright in English) can be accused of perpetrating gender stereotypes: surely Top Girls’s Marlene is the personification of the business woman who abrogates children & family in pursuit of career & success, only to find the latter just as cold & empty as the former?

There might be two reasons for this seemingly unresolvable tension. The first, I would suggest, is that feminism as a discipline or theory has its own internal contradictions (there are many stops along the Wollstonecraft-Dworkin continuum) & stereotypes (I’m reminded of Germaine Greer’s bourgeois fantasy of the feminist utopia – a pre-industrial Italian village like something out of Amarcord where everyone just seems to spend the day farming & having promiscuous sex), which make it extremely difficult to write a “feminist play” in the same way one can, conceivably, write a “Marxist play,” or at least a play rooted in Marxist theory. For example, Naomi Woolf, whose book The Beauty Myth is actually really good & recommendable, presents a problem for artists in that she seems to imply that any female character whose looks are in some way important to her relation a work of art’s overall scheme is going to be, on some level, misogynistic. But to only write plays in which a woman’s looks or sexual allure are ignored or risk the label of “misogyny” is to be disingenuous – whether we would want them to or not, looks do matter in the world in which we live, & they have mattered, historically. The pretension to only write plays in this idealist vein is no less restrictive than the fantasies of Ayn Rand’s Romantic Manifesto; it is to disengage with the world as it is; it would render us, at least in some ways, mute. & all that’s before you even get into the entire branch of feminism that exists in opposition to Woolf’s claims, that of Camille Paglia et. al. (The mind reels.)

(N.B.: I am perfectly aware that all of this is sort of just an echo of the great phallocrat John Updike, whose salvo to Andrea Dworkin [about whom my opinion I think you can infer] was: “New Puritan.”)

The second reason I think feminist portrayal of women on stage is so difficult is something Michael Healy himself hints at in his riposte to Teitel’s review (in the comment section, just scroll down on the article’s page):

I’m going to suggest that when the play wasn’t what you were hoping for, you stopped engaging with the play itself.  I wasn’t going to immortalize your boss in my art, as you say you hoped. I was doing something else. There was an enormous disconnect between the play you hoped for and the one you got.

Proud is about a woman who arrives in a sexist environment and learns to thrive as a modern conservative. Her intelligence, ruthlessness and amorality are the qualities the prime minister exploits. She’s in no way a role model. She’s the worst aspects of the Conservative agenda incarnate. Given your unique perspective and that of your seatmate’s, I’m guessing this was impossible for you to get out of the play.

This smacks of the “author’s intentions” fallacy, but I suggest that it strikes at something deeper. Yes, text is open to interpretation, but this cuts both ways. The truth is, plays are not populated by people, they’re populated by characters; people are judged by what they do, characters are judged by what the author (& actor) has them do – & therein lies all the difference. No matter how exhaustive the backstory, how detailed the program notes, a character in a play is always a simulacrum, a representation – in other words: a character is a stereotype by definition.

In his essay on Peter Handke’s play Kaspar & Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, James R. Hamilton writes,

[Handke sets] up a distinction between the world outside the theater- where there are serious things going on – and the events inside the theater – where everything is transformed into ‘play.’…[W]hat drives the argument is the connection Handke makes between “play” and “form.” “Theatre formalizes every movement, every insignificant detail, every word, every silence; it is no good at all when it comes to suggesting solutions, at most it is good for playing with contradictions.”

               …Handke claims, “the theatre is not then portraying the world…”

You don’t have to buy Handke’s conclusion to see the truth of his premise: theatre doesn’t portray the world, but pictures of it, stereotypes of it.  Internally, these stereotypes have as their justification only the symbol system of the play; externally, they are subject to whim of the interpreter’s politico-aesthetic templates. It is difficult – perhaps impossible – to create a truly feminist character exactly because of the author’s intention fallacy. Because to do so would be to create a feminist stereotype, & that, surely is not what Darrah Teitel would want.

All of which is a very long way of saying, can we just cut Michael Healey some slack, please?

& also, my mind is in no way made up on this, so a call for responses: prove me wrong. Identify a female character in any work of fiction which could not, under any framework, be interpreted as a kind misogynistic stereotype.

Till then.

4 Comments Character, feminism, & the paradox of representation (corrected – 07/02/2014 @ 9:57 AM)

  1. Craig Walker

    Hi Alexander.

    I’ve been thinking about what you wrote here and I agree with much of it, but I want to part company when you reach your conclusions, which seem excessively bleak to me. And yet, I’m not sure that I can answer your challenge in the terms that you’ve set it. “A female character in any work of fiction which could not, under any framework, be interpreted as a kind misogynistic stereotype?” Well, the problem with that is that even if you come up with something that virtually all reasonable people agree is a beautifully rounded, non-stereotypical female character—say, Jane Austen’s Emma—it will always be possible to imagine some hypothetical jerk who wants to tell us that seen through this or that ideological screen it is an insidious and repellent construction. But why should we be bothered by that? We don’t make art with that kind of intellectual vandal in mind, do we? Or, at least, I would say that we shouldn’t do so. So, I offer Emma up as an example of a great female character, and the person who wants to argue that she’s actually a misogynist stereotype can go on on living in their hell of negativity; I won’t be joining them. That’s not very sophisticated, I know, but it feels like a sufficient response to me, even if it does break the rules of your challenge.

    But let me go back a bit further to where I think I started to part company with you. I think what you say about characters in plays being always more or less subservient to their function within the structure of the play is true. However, I don’t see that it necessarily follows that this makes them stereotypes, unless you accept that we are all operating as prisoners of some vast inescapable, preordained ideology. Sure, they might be less fluid, less real than actual human beings (although not always), so the risk of stereotype is always there, but there are occasions in which characters seem to chafe against their circumstances in ways that can surprise all of us, even their authors. I’m not sure that offers a coherent argument, but I guess I want to press the validity of that experience as being at least equal to ideologically based readings.

    I’m struggling to make my point, so I will try to put this another way: it’s true that the number of possible readings produced by all the different critical approaches is, if not infinite, at least relentless, and it will inevitably include some that are ideologically hostile. However, the work needn’t be regarded as being identical with any of those readings. It’s like Zeno’s paradox, in which Achilles can never catch the tortoise. Zeno mistook the point that the distance was infinitely divisible for the idea that the distance itself was infinite.

    I’m still not sure that I have properly articulated my point, but for now, I’ll post this as my response.

    Thanks for your provocative thoughts.

    1. AlexanderAlexander

      Hi Craig,

      Some really interesting thoughts here, & think they’re well-articulated. I agree with you completely – a work is not necessarily (or perhaps at all) identical to its potential ideological readings. But I’m not sure this does, in fact, indicate a departure from my conclusion.

      The terms of my challenge were obviously zero-sum, & deliberately so, since if such a character could be identified, we’ve basically solved the problem of interpretation in art. The truth is, although hostile readings such as you indicate might feel like “intellectual vandalism” (well-phrased, that), I’m not sure this makes them any less valid. Even Emma Woodhouse’s seemingly feministic abrogation of traditional marriage is, if I’m not mistaken, a luxury of chance – she happens, through no action of her own, to have a source of independent income: she’s an heiress, & as such abides in a fundamentally different economic reality than the vast majority of the women of her time. Her feminism is, in under a particular kind of reading, a feminism of convenience, belonging only to the upper classes, & it represents a failure to engage with the realities of life for the 19th century’s 99%.

      You & I think would agree that the forgoing is a pretty hostile & generally mean-spirited reading of that particular text; but does this necessarily make it wrong, or not worth engaging with? To add another level of complexity, it could also be argued that feminist ideas still can be educed from such a reading, provided we’re willing to shift focus – if it’s true that Emma is, under this framework, not a “feminist character” (whatever this may be), it could be that Emma serves a kind of feminist metacommentary – in other words, Austen uses a deliberately non-feminist character to make a comment on the unviability of feminism in a world dominated by money, class, & male power.

      Now, none of these complexities need concern us except as objects of intellectual curiosity – unless, of course, you start to apply the implication of Darrah Teitel’s argument, which is that politically incorrect characters make for politically incorrect (& therefore bad, or at least, morally unjustifiable) art. You don’t need to agree with my use of the word ‘stereotype’ to see what I’m getting at; the point surely is, given the great number of ways any particular character or textes can be interpreted, how on earth are we to distinguish the moral theatre form the immoral? Even a play acknowledged to be misogynistic as Oleanna almost universally is, can still be read or played (the way a play can change in performance adds yet another level complexity, surely) in a way that is not, especially given the schematic for potential metacommentary given supra.

      So you & I agree on the main point. Where I think I need to clarify myself is: I’m less concerned with whether or not a truly “feminist” character is possible, & more concerned with the actual ramifications of what Ms. Teitel & others have argued – that writing politically incorrect characters is some kind of moral transgression, and ought not to be done, ever. This strikes me as restrictive, reductive, &, ultimately, totally impossible, given the paradoxes of interpretation we’ve discussed.

      Does that make any sense?

  2. Sarah Garton Stanley

    Hi Alexander,

    Nice work here.

    I was happy to see this as I found your tweet that stated “@nestruck She must not have ever seen a music video…” really troubling/confusing

    In truth I was surprised by the tweet as it seemed dismissive of the MP’s response. But I see here that you have a much richer response and I am really glad for it.

    I hope you get to give the play a read. It would be really interesting to see how (or if) your thinking changes once having done so.

    And I hope you get to read one of Darrah’s plays too. I think you would be well situated to look at the works of these two writers through the lens you are working with in your post.

    Regardless of what you choose to do, I enjoyed your post.

    @Brendan-Healy re-tweeted @BruceLaBruce “When a person becomes an artist, when a person becomes stronger than their indifference &overcomes their inertia

    The quote caught my eye, it links to the acts of artist Petr Pavlensky as captured in a The Guardian. But before I knew this I was reminded of the actions of some wordsmiths I have encountered this week. And you were top of mind. Great to have your voice out here.

    1. AlexanderAlexander

      Hi Sarah,

      Nice to hear from you again. Of course, you’re right – the tweet was glib & facile; I wrote it as a response to the actual quotation itself, without realizing there was a sustained, reasoned argument behind it. So mea culpa, as ever.

      I wasn’t aware “Proud” was in print yet, but I will be sure to swing by Theatrebooks today to pick up a copy of that play, & some of Darrah Teitel’s too!

      I’m glad you enjoyed the post – there are still some things I need to work through in my own head, so there might be an elaboration to come. Thanks also for your kind words – in truth, this blog would likely not exist in its present form if not for Spider Web Show, so I owe you one there as well!



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