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 www.firt-iftr.org) 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 http://www.mothertongue.co.za/).

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 www.athe.org and www.athe.org/wtp.)

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 http://www.palgrave.com/products/title.aspx?PID=270197) 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