(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.