Monday, December 31, 2007

Once: More with Feeling

Once is a lovely independent film (mentioned in several Best Films of 2007 lists) that tells a simple, affecting story of two people who find each other through music, love each other and what they express, and mutually, wordlessly agree to follow the path their lives have already established (see Their choices take them away from each other, yet leave them with the poignant, wistful residue of their musical intimacy and affection.

Named only “Guy” and “Girl,” as though they’re an archetypal heterosexual couple playing out a tale that’s both mythic and utterly, appealingly ordinary, the couple is played by non-actors in simple and appealing performances. Both performers—Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, who were friends before filming began—are actually musicians, an appropriate casting choice, since music is what unites them and drives the film.

Writer/director John Carney is also a musician, whose understanding of how music moves people suffuses his unobtrusive filmmaking. Shot with mostly hand-held, low tech cameras in natural light situations, Carney paints the movie with an atmospheric earnestness that enhances the casual pleasure of the couple’s relationship.

Once feels like a casual documentary recording of a few weeks in the life of an Irish street musician and the young Czech immigrant to Dublin who’s attracted to his music when she hears him playing on a deserted street in a commercial area at night. During the day, the guy panders to the crowd he hopes will fill his open guitar case, but at night, he takes advantage of the flattering acoustics of his chosen alley (between a Laura Ashley store and another boutique) to howl his own music, filled with the heartache and ambivalence of his girlfriend’s recent sexual betrayal.

Girl is attracted by something she mutual hears in his lyrics, something primal, unguarded, and familiar in his tone, in the way he closes his eyes when he sings, and later, in the way his battered guitar seems an extension of himself, whether slung from a strap around his neck or carried like a talisman in a nylon case on his back.

To support his music habit, Guy works in his father’s vacuum cleaner repair shop, a fortuitous coincidence that Girl exploits by asking if he can fix her broken machine. The visually charming first few scenes follow the couple through Dublin streets as she pulls the canister cleaner along by its hose.

Carney establishes the cozy, quotidian domesticity of the girl’s life, which she shares in a small, cramped apartment with her two-year-old daughter and her widowed mother, who barely speaks English, but sews continually and cooks heartily.

The girl and her mother share their television—which she proudly tells Guy is the only set in their apartment building—with various young men who cram together on their couch to watch soccer and soap operas. Carney films these scenes, too, like home movies with non-actors, which gives them a guileless, irresistibly sweetness.

Guy and Girl’s mutual loneliness and their love for music draw them together. She drags him to a music store where the generous proprietor lets her play the piano when the shop isn’t crowded. Though they barely know each other, and though her English is accented with her Eastern European origins, they speak the common music of language. He talks her through his song’s chord changes and transitions, which she absorbs without a question, and they play a lovely duet, their voices blending beautifully. Their mutual respect and understanding, as well as the pure joy of making music together, shade their expressions.

Early on in the film, Guy makes a casual sexual pass, inviting Girl to spend the night with him. She’s offended for reasons that become clear only when she reveals that she’s married to a man who stayed behind in the Czech Republic. She feels emotionally as well as geographically far from her husband, and intimates that he doesn’t understand her music or her needs.

Guy, too, struggles with his feelings for his absent lover; she’s moved to London after betraying him with another man. All of his songs seem written for her, and all of Girl’s songs seem addressed to her husband. Yet in their partners’ absence, the couple’s music seems more and more to speak to one another, as their intimacy and affection grows.

The two settle into a warm friendship that begins to more gradually take on erotic overtones. He takes her to a dinner party where a motley assembly of people eat and drink and finally set aside their plates and pull out instruments, crowding around the makeshift kitchen table to strum guitars, bow violins, pick at basses, and sing to music that expresses something communal and personal yet public and urgent for them all.

Although Guy is older, Girl is savvier, and her street smarts and precociousness clearly helps her and her family survive a working class existence with few creature comforts. When Guy decides to make a demo CD, Girl negotiates the studio rental at a bargain price. To secure financing, they visit a loan officer, watching carefully as he listens to their rehearsal tape. The interview ends when the officer borrows Guy’s ubiquitous guitar and serenades them with his own music. In this utopian world, everyone is sympathetic to artists; everyone, in fact, is an artist, committed to supporting one another and their dreams.

Guy invites three fellow street musicians to join him and the girl as his band for his studio session, communicating with them in the same musician-speak that’s the film’s lingua franca. The five hole up in the rented recording studio with a reluctant hired engineer, whose initial sneer turns to more than grudging respect once he hears them play. A montage demonstrates that once again, music connects them all in a proto-familial group of support and affection.

The girl’s mother and daughter join them, bringing food and companionship during a break; they play together easily, with dedication and commitment, each one a part of the transformative whole. At the end of the rigorous few days, they pile into a car to hear how the CD sounds outside the studio, and wind up playing Frisbee at the beach, chasing each other as the music they’ve just created together provides the warm background.

Once is filled with subsidiary characters, a large cast of non-actors who comfortably, unobtrusively, convincingly fill out the frame. The guy’s father is a singular, supportive presence; the two of them work together in the vacuum repair shop like surgeons in an operating room, the son handing the father his tools with the long familiarity of an assistant who can predict the older man’s needs.

Each of the film’s characters is named for who or what they are and nothing else. In addition to “Guy” and “Girl,” the others are “guys on the stoop,” “guys watching television,” “mother,” “daughter,” and “old woman on the bus,” ordinary people graced here by sharing the music being made around them.

Once is a generous, humanist film, in which art lets people forge a connection, however brief and tenuous, that enhances their lives. Music makes them generous and kind with one another and lets them feel their lives in all their poignant pain and happiness. Singing and playing together becomes a model for a collective, utopian “as if.”

The film dignifies the ordinary without romanticizing it. What could be sentimental and sappy culminates instead as moving and persuasive, a slice of lives that remind us of how good our own can be when we listen for the lyrics and let ourselves be transported by the melody.

Happily singing to the soundtrack,
The Feminist Spectator

Friday, December 14, 2007

Jodie Foster Comes Out

The lesbian blogs and web sites are buzzing today with news of Jodie Foster’s long awaited, much desired coming out. On the occasion of a women’s power meeting in LA (the 16th annual Women in Entertainment Power 100 breakfast), Foster received the Sherry Lansing Leadership Award and, for the first time, referred to her partner, Cydney Bernard, thanking “my beautiful Cydney who sticks with me through all the rotten and the bliss” (see

The web site “After Ellen” (named in reference to Ellen Degeneres’ coming out) reports that people in the audience were visibly moved by Foster’s declaration. Ironically, Queen Latifah and John Travolta, both of whom are also rumored to be queer, keynoted the breakfast.

I found myself also moved by Foster’s gesture, and have spent some time after first reading about her speech trying to tease out why it’s politically and emotionally important to me to be able to claim Foster as a lesbian. I’ve long relished the rumors about her sexuality. The first I can remember hearing was that she and Kelly McGillis were involved in some sort of same-sex love triangle on the set of The Accused (1988), the film for which Foster went on to win an Academy Award for playing the working class victim of a brutal, public bar rape. McGillis played her lawyer, whose emotional response moves from indifferent judgment to empathy and respect as the story plays out.

After that, the rumors circulating (at least the ones that caught my ear) were less specific but always enticing, as we presumed that Foster’s sexuality was an open secret waiting to be told. She gave birth to two children, father undeclared; she never appeared publicly with a man at her side; she socialized with Mariska Hargitay of Law and Order: SUV (also rumored to be a lesbian, or perhaps that’s just my own wishful thinking); she looks at once butch and femme, tough and powerful, and supremely in control.

When we learned of Foster’s announcement yesterday, I asked my partner if she thinks younger lesbians and younger queer women will be as moved as we were by this public knowledge. I wondered whether the more (grudgingly) acceptable and public face of lgbtq culture means that these gestures of mainstream acknowledgement don’t matter as much as they did before Ellen, before gay characters dotted the landscape of network TV, before The L Word and Queer as Folk graced the premium channels, before Logo and Here gave those of us with good cable selections our own queer channels to watch, before Glenn Close played retired lesbian Army Colonel Margaret Cammermeyer in a made-for-TV movie.

Does Foster’s sudden willingness to stand publicly behind her private identity register as palpably for people who grew up with Out Magazine, or with Bitch, Bust, Curve, and On Our Backs, publications that play (or played) to a generation of women, lesbians, and queers with an already critical but committed relationship to popular culture, publications that regularly comment on queer sexuality not as aberrant, but as an acceptable part of the public landscape?

Does it matter to a generation for whom the political conversation about gay and lesbian lives plays out around our right to serve in the military (for those of us who want it) and our right to marry (for those of us who find matrimony a necessary benchmark of equality)?

Or does a public statement like Foster’s matter more for those of us who remember searching the public landscape and finding only veiled references to “deviant” sexuality, for those of us old enough to recall our own mortification and shame at how easily politicians could refer to the evil influence of “queers” (before that word was reclaimed with pride)?

Does it make a bigger impression on those of us who remember driving to marginal neighborhoods to find unmarked doors behind which stood the temporary, moveable feast of lesbian bars and nightclubs, places found only through word-of-mouth, doors that required screwing up your courage before you raised your hand to knock, peepholes that required a stalwart stillness as the eye peering out sized up your authenticity and decided whether or not to let you inside?

That appraising gaze implied that something could be seen about us that certified our lesbianism, whether it was the indifferent, perhaps masculine way we stood as we were scrutinized, or the clothes we wore, pointedly chosen to reject dominant culture’s assignment of femininity. We performed for that eye something resistant, something performative; that is, something that as we did it, made us who we were to those who could read the signs of our difference.

Isn’t that what we’ve been projecting onto Foster for the many years before this moment? Weren’t we studying how she stood, how she walked (in the dramatically high heels of the Hollywood glitterati, in the shimmering gowns of the red carpet in front of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion), how something wonderfully tough and unyielding and non-compliant (that is, something butch) graced her beautiful performance of femininity?

Didn’t we scrutinize all her film roles for surreptitious signs of her lesbianism? Didn’t we note how toughly she played her characters, how she chose roles in which she was a strong, significantly single mother (with no reference whatsoever to the absence of a male mate) battling invading malignancies to keep her child safe (see Panic Room, 2002, and Flightplan, 2005)? Didn’t we notice that her recent roles were getting tougher and smarter and somehow more wry, while retaining that aloof, single and singular allure (see Inside Man, 2006)? Didn’t it seem that her beautiful smirk hinted at secrets we thought we knew?

I’m not fetishizing a difficult past, but I do wonder if the experience of being what Sarah Schulman so rightly called the last painfully instructed generation (I’m paraphrasing her here, but see her important collection, My American History [1994]) means that Foster’s announcement sounds different to ears that from long habit continue cautiously to hope and yearn for statements like hers?

I still can’t believe that I can see casual same-sex PDA (public displays of affection, of course) on network television. I remember so keenly what it felt like to watch That Certain Summer (1972), the first made-for-television movie about gay relationships, in the same “family” room as my parents, holding my breath as I tried to hide my obvious empathy, my obvious likeness, as I suffered the antipathy they muttered as they watched.

When a friend forwarded news of Foster’s announcement, I emailed it on to family and friends, needing to share with them this “evidence.” I told them that I was moved by Foster’s acknowledgement. But I wonder if I wasn’t also sharing the news to reaffirm for my wondering self that a life like mine is touched, by virtue of our sexual practices and our choices of who and how to love, by a life like Foster’s. Thirty years after I came out, I’m still trying to find approving cultural mirrors.

Foster’s now public partnership is protected by the blanket of wealth. My own partnership might resist official sanction, since we don’t want to be married or to stage a ritual of commitment, but it, too, is secured by the privilege of a bourgeois lifestyle, in which neither the plumber nor the pest control man blink an eye at our obviously shared “master” bedroom. In such a forgiving personal and (in Austin) social climate, why does it still matter to me that Foster’s come out?

Perhaps because my life bears indelible marks of my own painfully carried history, I know that lots of people without my access to money, to community, to self respect, to an analysis of our subjectivity, to theory, or to practice could use the example of Jodie Foster to shore up their own courage and pride.

Shortly after I first came out in 1978, I made what only in retrospect looks like a decision. I would always be out, even though as anyone who’s queer knows, coming out is an infinitely repeated process, instigated every time you fill out a form that asks about marital status, every time you see a new doctor, every time someone presumes your heterosexuality. I’ve committed my energy to that always repeated performance, because I remember viscerally how much it mattered to me to see other people be open about their sexual identities.

I’m assailed by fatigue, doubt, and the frisson of potential danger every time I publicly identify myself as lesbian or queer, but I do it because it still matters. A celebrity only has to come out once; after that, everyone “knows” (although who “everyone” is and what they think they know is anyone’s guess; perhaps that’s a subject for another post).

But nonetheless, I think that’s why I’m moved that someone as visible and culturally powerful as Jodie Foster is now willing to make that gesture. We need people like her on our team, because they make it just a little easier for people who aren’t free to do the same.

Maybe Queen Latifah and John Travolta will be next.

Happy that we are indeed everywhere,
The Feminist Spectator

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Fiona Shaw in Beckett at the Kennedy Center

I’ve been lucky enough to catch the indomitable Fiona Shaw in most of her recent U.S. touring performances, including her stunning rendition of Eliot’s “The Wasteland” in 1996, at what was then the soon-to-be demolished Liberty Theatre on Manhattan’s 42nd St. She delivered the elegiac prose poem from the edge of the stage apron, crossing its width only occasionally to interact with the ghost light that stood stage center. The theatre itself smelled musty and cold, and at least half of its seats were covered in thick, dusty plastic in preparation for its transformation into an anonymous cinema. But Shaw’s virtuosity and charisma emblazoned the space and mesmerized spectators lucky enough to witness the performance. (She certainly has what Joe Roach might call the “It” factor; see his book, It, just released from University of Michigan Press). In 2000, I saw her perform as Medea in a British import production on Broadway (an occasion about which I write in my book Utopia in Performance).

Last week, I made a pilgrimage to the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in DC to see Shaw in Beckett’s Happy Days in a production imported from the National Theatre of Great Britain, directed by her long-time collaborator Deborah Warner. In the relatively intimate space of the Terrace Theater, Shaw once again captivated audiences, this time with her terrifically mobile, expressive face and torso, and her inimitable command of Beckett’s language.

In front of the curtain (which in this case is a fire wall that lurches a few inches upwards and then back down every few minutes, as we wait for the “action” to begin), the forestage is strewn with the debris of what looks like an explosion or a demolition, which resonates clearly with the post-WTC attack landscape of lower Manhattan. Twisted steel cables thread through concrete rubble in a terrain parched by unfiltered, ungelled white light aimed from intense canned instruments hanging on the extreme sides of the stage.

As the fire wall slowly rises, it’s clear that the wings of the stage are exposed so that the audience can see all the way to the theatre’s walls. When the “curtain” finally rises, it reveals a layer of opaque white plastic hanging from a horizontal steel pipe, which is reminiscent both of the way builders try to mask construction sites and, more prosaically, of a shower curtain pulled around a bathtub. The picture evokes the edgy mix of public/private scene that makes the play so compelling and devastating.

The whole stage remains open, floating within the frame of the theatre’s walls, rather than confined to the edges of the proscenium and its sides. Behind the mound of littered concrete in which Winnie is planted, immobilized from the waist down, a vaguely realist landscape painting of a muted, gray-blue/white-tan desert-like geography provides the backdrop for her monologue, as if a palpable scenographic reminder of a more natural environment that’s imperceptibly fading even as she speaks.

Dissonant, loud, and unpleasantly grating music plays to usher us with some trepidation into the play’s world. Rumbling, rattling sounds that could be the mechanisms of building or the apparatus of destruction echo through the air. By contrast, when the white plastic curtain lifts to reveal Shaw stuck in the mound, her lilting voice seems musical by comparison, projecting one of the many contradictory impressions that make the production so vivid.

Shaw’s Winnie is startlingly flirtatious, given her immobility and existential isolation; she appears to address the audience directly, since Willie—her mostly unseen interlocutor—resides behind the mound, just out of her direct line of sight. Shaw’s characterization at times verges on desperate, while she also plays at a kind of vaudevillian brightness of affect.

Her ability to engage these apparent contradictions demonstrates Shaw’s command of an amazing range of moods, all of which works to make Winnie a strong, layered, powerful presence onstage, instead of the dithering flibbertigibbet as which she is sometime portrayed. With her arms akimbo, wearing a sleeveless black dress and a set of black chunky beads that rest in the hollow of her throat, her gestures approach the operatic and theatrical, as if Winnie literally performs herself into being.

In this production, Happy Days is as much about the theatre as it is about an impossible philosophical condition. Winnie’s ever-present bag looms beside her on the mound like a bag of props. She draws from it the objects that sustain and engage her, personal artifacts that have long lost an external purpose, like her toothpaste and the toothbrush from which she tries repeatedly to read the meaningless words that situate it as both “genuine” and necessary. The revolver she casually pulls from the bag, without comment, although she kisses it rather intimately, signals foreboding; in a realist play from the modernist canon, a gun presented in the first act would inevitably be fired in the third.

But in Beckett’s absurdist world, the gun remains unfired, a potent symbol nonetheless of Winnie and Willie’s inability to assume agency over their lives or deaths. The second act reveals Winnie now buried to her neck in the rocky rubble and debris that seems to encroach further toward her still-moving mouth even as we watch. The gun sits just to the right of Winnie’s vision, an impossibly remote device of her impossible redemption and release.

But in the first act, Winnie’s bottomless bag seems as mysterious and hopeful as the suitcase Hermione carries through much of the last book of the Harry Potter series—as small as it appears, it contains limitless depths and the capacity to hold a whole trainload of stuff. At one point, she drags a mirror from its bottom, which she then cracks on a rock and tosses behind her. Winnie says smugly that it’ll be back in the bag, unbroken, the next day, sure of how unchanging and quotidian her life remains, even when it appears cataclysmic.

For instance, an unexpected, startling fireball appears out of nowhere in the middle of her diatribe, catching her parasol on fire and injecting the stage with a momentary sense of real and present danger and violence. But once the fire recedes, Winnie claims not to know whether the conflagration even happened; reality, here, is a figment of a rich theatrical imagination and little more.

In fact, in the second act, the formerly burnt parasol rests near the revolver, in sight but out of reach, perfectly intact once again, like a trick prop that’s been reset for the next performance of a play. The props mark the passage of time; Winnie parcels out her attention to them as a way of organizing her experience. What Andrew Sofer, in his book of the same name, calls the “stage life of props” are redolent with their own existential theatrical weight.

The theatrical metaphor is underlined when Winnie reports that a couple passed her and disrupted her routine, the man asking impertinently why Willie couldn’t just dig her out. The man wants to know “what it means,” referring disparagingly to her immobility, her metaphysical intransigence, but Winnie reacts to his perplexity with arch superiority, as though her condition should be self-evident. She denies these trifling intruders the satisfaction of an explanation she clearly finds unnecessary. That it’s the man of the couple who interrogates her allows Winnie to assert her own gendered presence against his; she’s no trifling woman, despite her physical disadvantage.

Winnie enacts Beckett’s disregard for his own detractors. Beckett presents Winnie’s effort to interpret the hieroglyphics on her toothbrush handle as equally as important as understanding the meaning of Winnie’s condition (and the meaning of his play). When she finally discerns the faint letters, her joy in putting the words together far exceeds what they mean. But the pleasure she takes in her effort mirrors the spectators’ own pleasure in engaging the possibilities of the play.

Time looms large in Happy Days. Shaw delivers some of her most poignant line readings around “the old style,” her label for time’s days and nights as they used to be delineated, since in this post-apocalyptic moment, when to sleep and when to get “up” is announced by an imperious bell and nothing more. Time is marked by action more than by meaning; in the first act, Winnie shifts uncomfortably and notes that the earth is getting tighter. Yet she soldiers on, always aware that things could be worse, a prophecy born out in the second act, when only Shaw’s rubber face remains free to express Winnie’s indelible presence.

Shaw’s performance is a physical, vocal, and emotional tour-de-force. She carefully marks every word and gesture and scores each nuanced emotional shift, so that Beckett’s repetitions and reiterations seem like a jazz improvisation with recurring themes always presented in surprising new ways. Shaw knows where she’s going each step of the way; her strength as an actor, and her willingness to be so bold and courageous in her performance choices, ameliorates her powerlessness as a character. She renders Winnie peculiarly hopeful (or is she deluded?), capable of creating her own sense when the world makes none at all.

To the end, Winnie’s memory brings her comfort, as she recalls lines from literature that preserve her, even though they seem only absurd. The old lines, like the “old style,” mean everything and nothing, just like Happy Days.

With existential awe,
The Feminist Spectator

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Performance Contexts: Wendy Wasserstein's Third in Los Angeles

I’ve promised myself not to apologize for those months when I don’t have time to post, but my guilt persists. Suffice it to say that October was filled with preparing for travel to give lectures and trying to get the two classes I’m teaching this semester up to speed. As a result, my theatre, film, and book consumption dropped precipitously, along with the requisite time for writing.

Still (now that I have broken my own promise and apologized), I did see one production during my trip to Los Angeles about which it’s worth sharing my thoughts. I was invited by my friend and colleague Sue-Ellen Case’s Center for Performance Studies at UCLA ( to participate in two public events at the Geffen Playhouse ( around its production of Wendy Wasserstein’s last play, Third. Because the play is about an ostensibly feminist professor and her hostile encounter with a white male student taking her Shakespeare class, the UCLA Center programmed a panel discussion on feminist pedagogy in which I participated with another guest, followed by a talk I delivered solo on Wasserstein’s life and her work, focusing on Third as exemplary.

Although the Center had scrupulously arranged for the Geffen events to appeal to public audiences, the theatre staff neglected to announce the ancillary program to its subscribers. Rather than addressing a mixed audience of academics and community folk, I found myself in a room off the Geffen’s lobby preaching to the converted—a crowd of mostly women faculty and students from UCLA. Nonetheless, as performance artist Holly Hughes once said, the converted need their affirmations, too.

I’ve long proposed that we stage “talk befores” in addition to “talk backs” during the run of our university theatre productions, since I believe that describing the context in which to consider a play might enhance spectators’ reception experiences. Whether or not you’ve read the play you’re about to see, and whether or not it’s a premiere or canonical, I find it helpful to discuss in advance the issues raised, the potential production choices and acting decisions available to be made, and ideas to watch for as the play unfolds before us in time and space.

Some artists insist that such pre-show discussions “cheat” spectators of a tabula rasa encounter with a play. Some even dismiss talk backs afterwards, accusing them of fixing interpretation or quarreling with the production, rather than seeing these occasions as a chance to tease out a play’s multiple meanings, to argue over conflicting perspectives, and to address the social affects any production leaves in its wake.

At UT, we’ve attempted to create a discourse community in which to embed production practice in a variety of ways. For several years, the students in our graduate Performance as Public Practice (PPP) program ran “After Words,” a series of talk backs that discussed university theatre productions once or twice each semester. They invited all students and faculty to join the conversation, but at a typical After Words, perhaps 20 people attended, most of them involved in the productions at hand, or other students for whom the plays raised issues or touched nerves.

Recently, to create a discussion context for a production of Maria Irene Fornes’s landmark feminist play Fefu and Her Friends, PPP students Carrie Kaplan and Ray Matthews, who co-dramaturged the production, organized what they called feminist “salons,” afternoon gatherings outside the show’s performance frame to which they invited faculty and others to engage in informal discussions about feminism and performance. I love the idea of salons, because they center attention on a play or production or performance in a social and intellectual context in which it can be examined and more widely and diversely connected.

Given my interest in contextualizing performance, I was pleased to be invited to participate in the pre-show discussion events at the Geffen in LA.

According to American Theatre’s October 2007 season preview feature (available at, in addition to the one I saw at the Geffen, productions of Third are planned at a number of regional theatres around the country. Wasserstein’s death 18 months ago brought attention to Third as the inadvertent finale of her career. In many ways, Third foreshadows Wasserstein’s death from lymphoma at age 55; the play takes an elegiac tone toward not only the feminist movement it critiques (rendering it a companion piece to Wasserstein’s 1989 The Heidi Chronicles), but to the choices all women make to shape and lead their lives.

Wasserstein once said that she distributes her autobiography among the characters in her plays. Her protagonist in Third, Professor Laurie Jameson, has a friend and colleague, Nancy, who suffers from cancer. At the beginning of the play, she’s come out of remission after seven cancer-free years and gone back into chemo, bitter that her reprieve ended so suddenly. Although Nancy’s illness no doubt represents some of the playwright’s preoccupations as she neared her own death, “heroine” Laurie Jameson’s crisis of confidence about feminism indicates another angle on Wasserstein’s final concerns.

Third launches its debate about feminist politics on the campus of an unnamed elite college somewhere in New England, where young white men with numerals after their names could reasonably be expected to come from families of wealth and power. Woodson Bull the Third, in fact, who becomes Laurie Jameson’s antagonist, seems made of such aristocratic stock. He’s a wrestler, an athlete on a campus that denigrates such sport. He’s also rather forward with Laurie, approaching her early in the play with his desire to set up a personal screening of a film version of King Lear she requires for her course. He’s not asking for special favors so much as he’s privileging his wrestling over attending her course screening. He manages to secure a copy of the film to see on his own time, but his ploy makes Laurie immediately suspicious.

Laurie’s instant dislike toward Third, though, seems predicated less on his rather over-earnest and somewhat entitled attitude, and more on “the Third” that ends his name (if not the “Woodson” that begins it, which she immediately and somewhat sexually shortens to “Woody” in their first conversation). When Third (as Woodson prefers to be called) eventually turns in a beautifully written paper with a sophisticated argument about Lear, Laurie jumps to the conclusion that he’s plagiarized his work.

Through the play’s subsidiary characters, Wasserstein indicts Laurie for her assumptions about Third. Her ill friend Nancy sides with the student, even as she runs the faculty investigation into the dispute. Her daughter Zoë aggressively rejects Laurie’s strident politics, and even her senile father dismisses her work as so much talk about nothing. In the process, Wasserstein once again damns U.S. feminism as irrelevant, trapped without resonance in a 20-year-old stasis.

As in The Heidi Chronicles, Wasserstein structures her perspective through multiple levels, which makes it difficult to disparage the play out of hand. In some ways, she gets feminism “right.” For instance, we find out (although much too late in the play) that Laurie was the first woman to be tenured on this fictional campus, an important part of her back story, since it explains her sensitivity and her tendency toward knee-jerk responses to politics instead of more rational thinking.

Throughout the play, Laurie and Nancy alternate between allying with and distancing themselves from a male colleague they consider a “neo-con pig.” But instead of exploring the emotional baggage that comes from being a pioneer in a conservative institution, Wasserstein uses Laurie’s history to criticize her hidebound perspectives on masculinity and entitlement, men and wealth. The journey toward emotional growth through which she ushers her character proves Third—the ingenuous, intellectually agile innocent—to be the agent of Laurie’s change, implicitly demeaning her in the process.

The Geffen production, directed by Maria Mileaf—who was recently profiled in American Theatre as an important young director—failed to ameliorate the play’s sticky ideological problems. Mileaf’s static direction left the actors physically frozen on the wide, empty set, and often forced them simply to talk to each other without doing anything. In fact, I’ve rarely seen a realist production with so few props, with so little “stuff” onstage to create atmosphere and place and to define characters in action. While this choice might support Wasserstein’s critique of feminism’s “empty” program, good theatre requires a more active, precise, and layered sense of scene, pace, and progression.

The production’s archaic scenic technology also hampered what might have been a more fluid, subtle study. At the end of each of the play’s short scenes, blackouts, filled with peculiar original music that sounded deaf to the play’s tone, covered stagehands moving furniture on and off stage. Christine Lahti, who’s in most of the scenes performing as Laurie Jameson, exited and re-entered each time. Watching her unfortunate comings and goings broke the through-line of the action and forced spectators to keep renewing their focus on and commitment to the character.

Lahti played Laurie with relative ease and warmth, considering that the character could easily come across as an ice queen. Diane Wiest originated the role in its premiere production at Lincoln Center Theatre (directed by Daniel Sullivan). Although painfully thin and probably 10 years too young for the role, Lahti’s congenial, affable presence softened the professor’s harder edges and nearly succeeded in making Laurie Jameson sympathetic.

Ironically, while Wasserstein’s script describes Laurie wearing flowing skirts and dangling earrings, in this production, Laurie dressed in close-fitting, stylish power suits that looked more corporate than old-fashioned feminist. While the sartorial appointments Wasserstein suggests at least mark Laurie within a cultural moment that refused the accessories of capitalism, the costume design embraced for the Geffen production visually positioned Laurie within the codes of “power feminism.” The choice both made her plight more relevant and extended the play’s indictment to contemporary feminists in business, as well as in the academy.

Ultimately, though, the play and the production intended to demonize Laurie, a goal too difficult even for a deft, smart actor like Lahti to overcome. By the play’s end, Lahti—a tall woman who towered over her fellow actors—seemed dwarfed by the other characters’ moralizing denigration of everything in which Laurie believes. If the script weren’t painful enough, watching Lahti apologize to Third in his dorm room as he packed to leave the college coul only make a feminist spectator grit her teeth at Jameson’s good-humored response to her humiliation.

Jayne Brook played Jameson’s friend Nancy, striking an easy rapport between the two women. She maintained enough critical distance on her colleague to let us know that not all women professors abuse their students—only feminist ones like Laurie who continue “holding the torch” instead of facing up to the so-called reality that feminism failed women. Nancy rejects Laurie’s attempts to help her friend through her latest chemo. Instead, Nancy transfers her affections to a Jewish rabbi also battling cancer with whom she argues about Israel and Palestine while they both receive their treatments. Nancy announces she’s taking an extended leave of absence at the play’s end to escape from the confines of the academy with the rabbi at her side.

Even Nancy’s choice to commit to a heterosexual marriage instead of dedicating herself to the academic feminist cause implicitly criticizes Laurie for her own determined beliefs. Laurie’s husband—whom the audience never sees—teaches political science, but their savvy, cynical daughter Zoë accuses Laurie of withholding her love for him because he’s not as successful or ambitious as his wife.

By contrast, Laurie’s Cordelia-like loyalty to her senile, Lear-like father, desperately overplayed in the Geffen production by M. Emmet Walsh, proves poignant and unshakeable, even as he blusters about the set descending into madness. Her father might demean her occupation and her intellect, but Laurie stays by his side, shoring up her patriarch while she otherwise rails against patriarchy. This calculated contradiction adds to the character’s deficits, subtly shifting the audience’s sympathy away from Laurie toward her nemesis.

This brings us to Third, the boy wonder who turns out to be nothing like Laurie expects. Although those numbers burden his genealogy, it turns out his father works as a small-town lawyer. Third attends this fancy school on scholarship, which he supplements by working as a bartender in town. Third’s insights into Lear come from a really good teacher he had in high school, an instructor remarkably pure and erudite, compared to Laurie Jameson’s obviously partial, biased concern with undoing hegemony through her analysis of literature.

Wasserstein endows Third, in fact, with all the graces Laurie lacks. His genuine curiosity about people leads him to take gay and lesbian studies classes along with courses in Shakespeare; he’s read widely in the subaltern literature of the day. He purposefully puts himself in situations that “other” him, and admits that even Laurie’s negative attention and accusations about his scholarship made him more interesting than he’ll ever be to anyone again as a conventional white, middle-class, heterosexual male.

The character provides a cheap foil, and at the Geffen, Matt Czuchry played Third as an immature frat boy with irritating verbal ticks that made his every speech sound like he was announcing a football game. He stood stiffly, posing without conviction, and appeared broad, butch, and boring, hardly an appropriate adversary for someone as strong and smart as Laurie Jameson.

And that, finally, is the play’s most heinous gesture—to reduce a woman of achievement to a petty, pouting lout forced into a skirmish whose outcome even she knows won’t affect society. Laurie demonstrates her political zeal throughout the play by listening incessantly to news reports of Bush’s invasion of Iraq and his subsequent dissembling about troop numbers and casualties. But the arena in which she wields her own political power has shrunk to a miniscule mat on which she and the finally insignificant Woodson Bull the Third wrestle with the white male privilege that Wasserstein had the nerve to portray as chimerical.

At the end, Laurie walks the many steps to Third’s dorm room to eat crow. She ruefully admits that she set out to change the world, and all she changed was the English department. She’s left regretting her own ideas, while Third redeems her with his casual forgiveness and suggests that she “stick with the hope” instead of the irony.

What a shame that The Heidi Chronicles’s Heidi Holland had to grow up into Third’s Laurie Jameson without learning anything about real feminism along the way.

Still holding the torch,

The Feminist Spectator

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Gray Matters and Puccini for Beginners: Love Triangles and All

I can’t resist dipping into what’s now quite a catalogue of lesbian-themed movies, even though most of them are light fluff or portentous melodrama. I find these films by reading about them in scattered reviews, sometimes in the Times or sometimes The Advocate, or I find them in queer browsing sites like Wolfe Video (, which also offers a weekly email update on new LGBTQ DVD releases and entertainment industry queer gossip).

I recently rented Gray Matters (2007,, for instance, which stars Heather Graham, Tom Cavanagh, and Bridget Moynahan in a slight, but diverting lesbian date comedy. I've also watched Puccini for Beginners (, a 2007 Official Selection at Sundance, which also opened the 30th annual Frameline [Gay] Film Festival this year in San Francisco. Gray Matters was conceived and executed by Sue Kramer, who notes in the DVD bonus tracks that her sister is a lesbian; Puccini was written and directed by out lesbian Maria Maggenti.

Maggenti garnered mainstream attention with The Fabulous Adventures of Two Girls in Love (1995), the film that launched the queer career of Laurel Holloman, who’s now playing Tina Kennard on The L Word. Puccinif, like Gray Matters, is another slight and diverting lesbian “date comedy” (two words I never thought would modify “lesbian” in films).

Gray and Puccini share a common plot thread: a love triangle among a lesbian, a straight woman, and a man. In Gray Matters, our heroine, Gray, and her brother, Sam, are so close they live together and are often misrecognized as a couple. Clearly, this arrangement is too queer to sustain, so it’s time to find Sam a “real” girlfriend. With Gray’s help, the siblings stumbled upon the androgynously, bi-friendly named “Charlie,” walking her dog in Central Park. Sam’s attraction is immediate, but Gray, too, and winds up falling in love with her.

In Gray’s critical “recognition” scene the night before Sam and Charlie’s (inevitable) wedding, Charlie insists on the old-fashioned ritual that Sam not see her until they meet at the altar. Charlie spends the night in a hotel with Gray. After a long evening of girls-only drinking, the two women exchange a series of physically affectionate gestures that escalate into a rather passionate kiss, after which Charlie promptly passes out.

Gray spends all night pacing the hotel room floor trying to figure out what happened; Charlie’s utter amnesia the next morning doesn’t help. When Gray confesses to Sam than she loves his wife, the siblings are temporarily estranged, until Gray lets go of her crush on their mutual object of affection and drifts off to ply her newly found lesbian desire farther from home.

In Puccini for Beginners, the unlikely but entertaining plot revolves around two love triangles, one among a lesbian and a straight couple, the other among two lesbians and a man. Here, Samantha (Julianne Nicholson) abruptly leaves our heroine Allegra (Elizabeth Reaser) to return to her boyfriend, because Allegra, her girlfriend of nine months, can’t commit.

Commitment-phobic though she is, Allegra soon meets Phillip (Justin Kirk), a Columbia philosophy professor with whom she begins a surprising affair. Shortly after, Allegra also meets and beds Grace (Gretchen Mol), the woman whom (unbeknownst to Allegra, but already clear to us) Phillip has been seeing for six years and recently left because of her insistence on marriage. Phillip, a stereotypically commitment-phobic man, finds a “man” like himself in Allegra and pursues his attraction.

Maggenti offers a prologue to preview the eventual recognition scene, letting the audience know well before Allegra that she’s sleeping with a former couple, after which a series of farcical set ups inspired by this triangle proceeds as only screwball film comedy can. The antics are interspersed with wry but supportive commentary from Allegra’s two best friends (Molly, a straight woman, and Nell, an ex who majored in German philosophy at Yale and pronounces her opinions in suitably fierce, uncompromising intellectual terms).

Both Phillip and Grace attach to Allegra quickly, and she jumps in and out of bed with both, fielding inopportune cell phone calls from one or the other as she tries to keep her lovers straight (and separate). She doesn’t realize until the film’s third act (each act title serves as a convenient, rather theatrical transitional device) that Phillip and Grace were/are involved.

Like any good farce, all the plotlines and characters come together in the final revelation scene that was previewed at the film’s beginning. This one happens at a party for Samantha and her fiancé, whom Phillip and Grace just happen to know. Allegra, despite being a writer who was a runner-up for the New York Critics Circle Book award, has been persuaded to work the party as wait staff for a loathsome gay caterer. In a classic “She’s my girlfriend”; “No, she’s my girlfriend” scene, Allegra’s gig is up and the competing relationships dissolve with her and resolve with each other. Phillip and Grace, mutually humiliated over Allegra’s betrayal, are thrown back together. Samantha, fondly recalling her love and appropriately impressed by how Allegra has (supposedly) changed, ditches her fiancé and returns to her girlfriend, and everyone, we assume, lives happily ever after.

Puccini recalls Woody Allen’s Manhattan, as its New York-set scenes brim with affection for its West Village locations and long shots of the Met at Lincoln Center, where Allegra takes her dates to share her love for the grand passions of opera (which here seem wonderfully, intentionally queer). The apartments in which the characters live (and in which the film was presumably shot) are realistically small, if set-decorated in saturated colors, off-kilter art, and objects tastefully arranged to provide shorthand character detail.

Maggenti films many scenes in public places—delis, restaurants, subways, benches in Central Park—where ever-opinionated, eavesdropping New Yorkers provide a Greek chorus for Allegra’s on-going dilemmas and don’t hesitate to tell her what she should do. Anonymous diners and wait staff turn to offer Allegra unsolicited advice. The sushi chefs at a place she frequents observe Allegra’s comings and goings with soap opera zeal and the insight of committed fans; their hilarious remarks are spoken in Japanese and displayed in English subtitles, which helps comment on the clueless spectacle of white folks in love.

Maggenti’s eye for New York character demonstrates a smart wit—the diners are “types,” including, among others, Babs Davy of the Five Lesbian Brothers playing, in a striped baseball shirt, an advice-wielding member of a dyke softball team arrayed at a nearby four-top in a restaurant. On the subway, the voice of an African-American woman stop announcer interjects her own reading of Allegra’s fortunes, and at the deli, a Latino cashier offers to take her out but looks on approvingly when Grace arrives and embraces her.

That people of color in the film only appear in these subsidiary cameos is unfortunate; what good progressive artist/writer/intellectual like Allegra in Manhattan in the 21st century would only associate with white people?

If it stints on the possibilities of racial diversity, Puccini does represent its characters as smart people who think about their emotions and their politics. Allegra and Phillip lie in bed talking about marriage, which Allegra articulately dismisses as a bourgeois institution of property, whether for heterosexuals or queers. Phillip and Nell joust about Kant. The opinionated diners describe the fluidity of gender, the pros of bisexuality, and the queerness of opera. When Samantha leaves Allegra, she heads to the bookcase to retrieve her belongings. Allegra and her friends go to the Met together (even though most of them hate opera, while Allegra swoons). They escape into bookstores and cinemas when they’re depressed, and come out with enthusiastic analyses of black-and-white films. Idle shoppers at bookstores interject observations from Freud into Allegra’s private conversations.

Allegra becomes a kind of lesbian everywoman, someone strangers want to steer and guide and help to find her way. The film’s affection for her warms the narrative and lets you appreciate the one-liners and sight gags that pepper each frame and fondly skewer upper-middle class white intellectuals like its characters while it moves through Allegra’s plight.

Puccini wouldn’t be half as affecting without Reaser’s subtly sexy, easy-going charisma. Reaser had her own plot line on Grey’s Anatomy last season as the amnesiac patient who falls for Alex during her long hospital stay. In Puccini, she invests Allegra with just enough self-deprecation to make her appealing, balanced with just enough sardonic self-knowledge and sophistication to balance what could have been a mopey, self-indulging role. Reaser’s Allegra is bright and adorable and appealingly open to the parade of New Yorkers with whom she effortlessly, casually shares her intimacies. Through Maggenti’s recurrent joke about the omnipresent and omnipotent New Yorker runs a vein of happy humanism, a vision of the city in which people are entwined in each other’s lives for a moment then move on, all gracefully touching one another with care and humor before they go.

Maggenti also offers a New York in which it’s easy to be a lesbian (even a lesbian sleeping with a man). None of the city’s talkative denizens—straight or queer—blink at the gender of Allegra’s attachments. In Gray Matters, the heroine only begins her search for lesbian love as the credits roll. At the end of Puccini for Beginners, Allegra and Samantha walk off together through Central Park, hands in each other’s back jeans pockets.

If Puccini needed to establish that male-female love triangle, at least it wasn’t to enable the heroine’s coming out through her attraction to her beloved brother’s desire. Allegra’s affairs with Phillip and Grace are instructive, just like those profitable Fill-in-the-blank for Beginners books from which the film adapts its title (Puccini could also be sub-titled Lesbianism for Dummies). Her relationships let her (and Maggenti) sort through the differences between men and women, not only as lovers, but as life partners.

Still, the repetition of the three-way love triangle (one lesbian, one straight man, and one alluring, mostly straight woman) bears noting in popular lesbian film. I’m not sure, finally, what to make of it: On one hand, lesbians have historically been vulnerable to the advances of bi-curious straight women, and many lesbians who suffer a dearth of safer objects of desire find themselves attracted there. Straight women are, in fact, a “type” or a “preference” for some lesbians—proselytizing has its attractions.

On the other hand, perhaps this plot structure signifies cultural anxiety about lesbians competing with men. Then again, maybe it’s aimed at straight women, suggesting it’s okay to have sex with girls as long as you go on to marry a man. In fact, a kiss, some sex, even playing at a relationship is kind of cool--for a while. I’m still not sure what the pattern means, but it seems worth tracking.

In Puccini for Beginners, happily, Allegra affirms her choice to be with women, even as no one judges anyone else for making other choices. Her decision to finally accept the potential of a long term monogamous relationship with Samantha seems a bit of a compromise, after her refreshing aversion to commitment (we all know the joke about lesbians bringing U-Hauls to their first dates). Puccini’s message is liberal, for sure, but delivered with a light touch and enough comic verve to make for a fun evening in front of the flat screen TV.

As an old-time (and getting-kind-of-old) lesbian feminist, I’ll keep mining those lesbian DVD catalogues, still amazed that I now have so many choices for amusing pleasures besides Desert Hearts.

Happy for eye candy,
The Feminist Spectator

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Revisiting Kyra Sedgwick in The Closer

I’ve been watching The Closer again, which brightened up the summer television season considerably. This year, Brenda Leigh Johnson (the inestimable Kyra Segwick) got some press for sharpening her wardrobe. True, she no longer looks like she shops for clothes at Walmart, but I enjoy that her clothes are still loud and flashy, way off the mark for a professional Deputy Chief (I would suppose). That is, while the men suit up in neutral ties and dress shirts and pants—and even Daniels, the only other woman on the squad, tends to wear dark, somber colors—Brenda Leigh flounces into the office in bold black and white stripes or flowery prints, often wearing the sombrero-style white straw hat that’s become a nearly permanent part of her ensemble. Yet for all her outré fashion choices, Brenda’s not terribly concerned with how she looks, and her outfits don’t get in the way of the professional respect she easily commands in her job.

Brenda’s also been eating a little less candy this season, although when her doctor recently suggested she’d feel better if she gave up sugar, Brenda’s face was a study in panic and defiance. Early onset menopause is her current idiosyncrasy, a condition that could have provided grist for plenty of low comedy, but instead has prompted Brenda’s humanization and a new performance of intimacy and respect between her and the crew.

Sergeant Daniels was conveniently out of the office, training for Homeland Security detail, when Brenda’s hot flashes began, leaving her male co-workers to scratch their heads over Brenda’s instantaneous mood swings, her irritability, and her prodigious sweating. Even Brenda has been flummoxed and outraged by her frequent spells of apparent heat stroke.

Accepting this story-line requires just a little leap of faith—who wouldn’t assume that a woman in her 40s (even her early 40s) might be feeling hormonal changes, especially given Brenda’s symptoms? But holding off on her doctor’s diagnosis allowed the writers to play out the huge effect her body has on her comportment (and her company), if never her on-the-job performance. She might snap at her squad and complain when information doesn’t come at her fast enough, but she solves her cases as efficiently and effectively as ever.

Brenda’s physical suffering illustrates how attuned the men are to her moods and maneuvers. Although they’re respectful of her power and bewildered by her swirling emotional currents, it’s clear they care about her. In a recent episode, Brenda and Lieutenant (I think that’s his rank) Gabriel drive a news crew through a deserted neighborhood and find themselves shot at by unseen, unsuspected snipers. As bullets riddle the car, the frenetic camera cuts again and again to Gabriel, throwing himself over the floundering Brenda to protect her. At the station, when Brenda finally confronts the sniping suspect, alone with him in a stopped elevator, she bawls him out, furious that he almost killed not just her, but her friend, Gabriel.

Gabriel hears her protestations through the technology that allows the show’s characters to snoop frequently on one another and the people they interrogate. In the sniper case, a video hook up to the squad’s audio/visual room shows Brenda and the perp on the elevator’s camera. Her crew gathers round the monitor to watch Brenda chew him out, exchanging murmurs and glances of admiration at the confession she extracts. When Gabriel hears Brenda call him her “friend,” he’s embarrassed but also proud. Declaring her affection for a co-worker doesn’t diminish the command she continues to maintain over her position and her staff.

In fact, the male detectives (and Daniels) often listen in and watch as Sedgwick grills a suspect, either sitting beside her at the table or from the technological remove of the a/v room where “Buzz” works the monitors, capturing images and speech. The constant watching establishes the men as Brenda’s spectators, as well as her colleagues; that they so often watch her on television monitors makes palpable the direction and intensity of what once might have been called their “male gaze.”

But in The Closer, these male spectators gaze, always impressed, always a little jealously, always with great generosity and even pride, at Brenda’s agency, at her ability to articulate her accusations and deftly manipulate a suspect’s emotions to pry out the confession they all expect is forthcoming. Brenda makes people talk not by employing empathetic feminine wiles but by challenging her suspects, shrewdly invading their psychology, and composing sharp, unassailable narratives of their own guilt. How could the men not be in awe? No objectification going on here.

My only hesitation with The Closer this season is Brenda and Fritz’s inevitable march toward marriage. Seeing them cautiously commit to their relationship has been a pleasure, as their choices provide a domestic counterpart to Brenda’s life in the police department that emphasizes her refusal to distinguish the personal from the professional (in fact, Fritz, her fiancé, is an FBI agent who works closely with the squad).

Where other women television characters relax into what too often seem to be “given” roles as mothers or wives, Brenda’s scattershot approach to home-making leaves Fritz to pick up the slack. She’s always relieved when her cell phone rings to fetch her to a crime scene, always eager to put her work above everything else, despite her obvious feelings for Fritz. The yoke of marriage, then, comes as a bit of a surprise and a bit out of character. Likewise, mourning her female fertility, when she thinks she’s suffering early-onset menopause, treads a bit too closely to stereotype.

On the other hand, when’s the last time a popular, critically acclaimed television series followed a story arc about a menopausal woman? And even though her wedding will most certainly end the season (as weddings always do, in television, theatre, and film), Brenda still seems pragmatic, rather than romantic, about the whole thing. When her visiting mother slips and shares Brenda and Fritz’s wedding news with the squad, Provenza gives Brenda a big, back-slapping hug. But instead of happily showing off her ring, Brenda grits her teeth, eager to get back to the problem at hand.

That’s my kind of woman.

Happily hot flashing,
The Feminist Spectator

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Feminism Redux: Attacked, Again

Shortly after my post on The Bourne Ultimatum, I received the following comment. I moderate incoming comments, to avoid spam, and usually post everything that comes through. This one, however, I mused over for almost two weeks, debating whether to post it and respond, or to just reject it and move on.

Finally, given my recent post about reconsidering feminism, I decided to share this in the blog proper:

8/8/07 Carol Smithers has left a new comment on your post “The Bourne Ultimatum”: My god you’re a pompous thing. Your editorials are so biased at their core that reading them makes me angry. The only problem with men is women like you who alienate and destroy them. As a self-proclaimed superior force on this planet your writings are tainted. I'm all for feminism if it is coupled with hominism, or better yet, let’s just call true search for equality and fairplay as humanism and forget the splinter self-interest groups of neuroses and damaged psyches that pro-female or pro-male groups promote. The editorial disseminates an unbalanced view of the world under the veil of being sophisticated, enlightened, and thus “politically acceptable,” all the while it is just so much dribble.

I receive a fair number of letters like these, occasionally on the blog, frequently when I write letters to the editors of various publications, and of course more subtly in the classroom. (At UT, a colleague who’s since left the department once wrote me an angry email in which he called me a “feminazi” simply because I’d circulated an email announcement citing dismal statistics about women in professional theatre that asked people to take action.)

I know my skin should be thick enough to slough off these comments. I know I should have just rejected this comment on the blog and forgotten about it. But somehow, each of these attacks, so inconsequential in the larger scheme of things, winds up smarting. I’m always surprised to receive these communications, nearly all from strangers, nearly all worded like the one here: mean-spirited, ad hominem, not terribly thoughtful or reasonable, but vicious and self-righteous, from people who are clearly mad enough to take the time to write.

Partly what's hard is that people forget they're writing to someone, to a person with feelings. I am a "critic," but I do try to write in a spirit of critical generosity in the hopes that real dialogue might come from respect and caring. Calling someone "pompous" and their writing "dribble" is just so haughty and mean--I'm always, literally, physically and emotionally shocked to read these comments.

Carol Smithers misreads my Bourne post (if that’s the one she read; she implies that she’s read others). I don’t believe I’ve ever suggested that women are a “superior force on this planet,” nor have I suggested that men are the problem. But for writers like these, it most likely doesn’t matter what I really write. They see “feminism,” and bring to what they read their own prior assumptions, then damn a perspective they conjure, rather than one that really exists.

As a writer, I’ve long accepted that people understand what they will about what they read. Part of writing is being misread. We speak knowing that what we say may or may not be truly understood; that’s part of the contract, I think, of public exchange and commerce. I wouldn’t maintain a blog if I wanted every reader to agree with me, and in fact I relish debate and disagreement.

But Smithers’ attack is an entirely different thing. Hers are words that those of us who teach feminist subjects or methods often hear—the knee-jerk, willful misreading, drenched in stereotypes of feminism propagated by the media and fearful conservative politicians. The pain in receiving posts like these comes from the writer’s unwillingness to engage in real dialogue, and her eagerness to damn a stranger based on something she already thought about feminism.

The comment reminded me of the conference panel on feminism about which I recently wrote. This kind of angry, self-righteous presumption is what feminist teachers regularly confront in their classrooms. I think about the young women who organized the panel and spoke so eloquently about their commitments, and it pains me to know that they, too, will suffer these attacks for trying to consider theatre and performance from a gendered, activist perspective.

This is why our pedagogy and our writing and our thinking, spectating, and reading is so important.

In sad solidarity,
The Feminist Spectator

Monday, August 06, 2007

The Bourne Ultimatum

For an action-hero fantasy flick, The Bourne Ultimatum offers head-spinning editing and thorny plot complications along with a savvy political parable about the outrageous arrogance of our present administration. Bourne, as we know from the first two installments in the trilogy (The Bourne Identity and The Bourne Supremacy) is a killer-for-hire out to retrieve his real identity, which has so far lead him right back to the government protection agencies like the CIA, FBI, and NSA that here look as nefarious as they probably are but much more efficient and effective. Bourne is on the run—although through much of the film, he actually walks remarkably slowly, for a man with killers breathing down his neck—from the “assets” of these agencies, hired guns charged with obliterating Bourne before he uncovers the secret operation through which he was trained and set loose by a loose-cannon organization as a US-backed agent of terror in his own right.

Our man Bourne walks/runs through the film riddled with regret for his occupation, suffering frequent and debilitating flashbacks that hint at the brutality of the training that turned him into an assassination machine. Across Matt Damon’s face run subtle hints of regret, from a man haunted by the ethics of a person he doesn’t even really know he is. Because of Damon’s nuanced, always interesting performance, the film becomes less about state-sponsored terrorism and more about a man intent on avenging the obliteration of his own soul. Every fight Bourne engages brings him a step closer to his own morality, to the ethics of being truly human.

The film’s villains represent government agents who take power way too far into their own hands. Much as our current president, who just succeeded in muscling through legislation (however temporary) that increases his powers of warrantless surveillance, these CIA spooks are outfitted with computers connected to listening and covert spying devices that cancel the presumption of privacy. They harness surveillance video cameras trained on street corners, in stores, and in stairways to instantly create ever more precise and clear pictures of Bourne and his allies trying to escape their gaze and their control.

Nearly on demand, director Paul Greengrass (director of United 93, about which I blogged last year, and The Bourne Supremacy) implies, the CIA and FBI can track a subject’s intimate movements in public or private places, and access cell phone records whether or not a subject’s placed a call (in fact, a powered down cell phone leads them to the source who leaked information about Bourne’s true past to a British journalist). This micro-access to a man’s movements, the film argues, robs him of his soul, but because Bourne’s super-intelligence (honed by those he now defies) outwits his handlers, he’s able to preserve not only his physical but his psychic integrity.

Psychology, too, falls into the wrong hands in Ultimatum. A villainous psychologist (his PhD from Stanford highlighted in one shot) originally conceives the training that breaks Bourne down into a lethal, remorseless assassin. The psychologist in the service of evil, like most men who break the ethical rules of scientific inquiry, gets back some of his own when Bourne retraces his past and arrives where he began, in the doctor’s oily, imperious presence.

One of the pleasures of Ultimatum is watching Bourne outmaneuver his enemies with little more than his hands and his head. For a contemporary action film, this hero carries very few toys. His hands, of course, are weapons enough, but he accomplishes most of his escapes with quick, creative thinking (and a cell phone or two) instead of violence, simply outsmarting his competitors. The fight scenes, though, are choreographed with a balletic style (apparently, Greengrass meant them to look dancerly) that makes them seem much more about skill and precision than about violence.

In a scene close to the film’s end, the man sent to kill Bourne has apparently been badly hurt in a car accident. Bourne, who (miraculously) wiggles free of his own wrecked vehicle, limps to the assassin’s car window, stares at him with something that might be compassion, and walks away. When, of course, the killer revives and returns for one final face-to-face confrontation with Bourne, he asks why Bourne didn’t kill him. Instead of answering, the hero asks, facing the muzzle of the killer’s gun, “Do you even know why you’re killing me?”

It’s a poignant, rather than cheap, moment, partly because Damon asks with just enough irony and intelligence, and partly because this assassin-for-hire is man with swarthy skin and a perpetual shadow of a beard, which makes him look vaguely Middle Eastern. As he and the white hero confront each other on a rooftop, perched at an edge ten stories above the East River, the man is unable to answer Bourne’s question, and slowly lowers his gun. Although the exchange provides a necessary plot point, it also inevitably refers to US involvement in the Middle East, in which so many men have no idea why they’re killing each other, except that they’ve been sent to do the dirty work by other men with more power. When they stop being cogs in someone else’s wheel, they recover their humanity and their empathy.

There’s something almost feminine in Bourne’s woundedness and perpetual grief (his girlfriend, another agent, was murdered in the first film), despite the thoughtful virility with which he eludes those who would kill or capture him. His real name, in fact, turns out to be David Webb, not a bad choice for an individual who single-handedly confronts the Goliath of the US intelligence community. Jason Bourne (named perhaps for Jason, the Greek god whose mother saved his life as an infant by pretending he was dead, who grows up to retrieve the Golden Fleece) is consigned to history, the once new-born progeny of an evil machine intent on winning at all costs. Webb prefers the connectedness of history to the eternal present of psycho-military techno-industry that created Bourne.

If Damon/Webb proves strangely feminine, the film forces its actual women to demonstrate their masculinity or be killed themselves. Joan Allen, playing a capable high-level officer from another agency, finds herself set up by those she’s come to assist, so that if their effort to stop Bourne fails, she’ll take the fall. Striding through her scenes in sensible slacks and sweaters, Allen’s perpetually pinched expression keeps her thinking but also makes her look rather comical. She’s obviously the ethical center of the film, but she’s given nothing to do but wait for Bourne to deliver the goods she needs to uncover the agency’s misdeeds and get the villains arrested. That she finally testifies before a panel of senators in an empty legislative chamber underlines that she can’t truly be visible and powerful in this eternally male world, even though she’s succeeded in rooting out corruption.

Likewise, Julia Stiles walks (and runs) smartly through a throw-away part as Bourne’s temporary helpmate, turning against the agency that employs her to help him move. The couple narrowly escapes death and soon part ways. Stiles’s only effective action seems to be cutting and dying her hair over a stained and rusty bathroom sink, finishing with a surprisingly chic new cut in which to board her train for elsewhere.

But then, as all the excessively patriotic, masculine, testosterone-driven trailers before Ultimatum emphasized, these action hero movies really aren’t about the women, and at least here, the film forces neither Stiles nor Allen to bear the indignity of being Bourne’s romantic interlude or simply eye candy.

So I’ll take the flick for what it is, and be happy to embrace its brilliant photography and kinetic editing along with its refreshingly pointed allegory about the imminent downfall of powerful, headstrong men who think they can get away with anything. Would that it were true.

Bourne again,
The Feminist Spectator

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

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 (see 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 (see

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. (See and

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, see 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