The history of feminist performance is of course inextricably bound to the political movement in which it began. Most people point to its genesis at the beginning of second wave American feminism in the late 1960s and early 70s. As many of you know, second wave feminism developed in part from a growing awareness that women were step-children of the Civil Rights and anti-war movements of the moment. As it grew from intimate consciousness-raising into a broad-based social justice activist movement, feminism splintered into different ideological camps. Those “discourses of the feminisms,” as they came to be called, were roughly characterized this way:
“Liberal” feminists were intent on making change within existing social and political systems and on achieving women’s equality. “Cultural” feminists believed in the distinct and often innate, binary differences that gender makes to culture, so that men, for instance, were considered warriors and women pacifists.
“Materialist” feminists saw gender and identity markers like race, class, sexuality, and ethnicity as historical, changeable, and fluid, determined by convention rather than biology. And “third world” or “womanist” feminists emphasized the intersection of race and gender in their political and ideological interventions. (The great writer Alice Walker coined the term “womanist.”)
These categories were always much more porous, fluid, and multiple than I’ve made them sound in this broad and necessarily generalized taxonomy. But these various strands of feminism were acknowledged by 1980s academics as those most visible and prevalent in the social movement and in the growing discipline of women’s and gender studies.
Early in the history of feminist performance and its attendant criticism and scholarship, these distinctions among feminists seemed salient and important to enumerate and theorize. In the 1980s, when much of this critical work was popularized, feminism was mobile and visible enough that distinctions among its strands seemed necessary.
The goal for those of us determined to parse these differences was to prevent “feminism” writ large from becoming hegemonic. We wanted to insure that all feminist work wouldn’t be mistaken for liberal feminism, the most often white, straight, middle-class, college-educated brand that seemed to dominate the movement. Those determined to spark more profound social change considered liberal feminism too accommodationist and not nearly radical enough.
Different kinds of feminist performance at the time were also categorized by way of these distinct feminisms. Liberal feminist theatre came to describe work by women playwrights and directors determined to make their way through conventional avenues of production. They hoped to work on and off Broadway, at regional theatres, and other mainstream locales that often provided stepping stones to film and television.
Playwrights like Marsha Norman, Wendy Wasserstein, Diana Son, Lynn Nottage, and Theresa Rebeck come to mind here, as women whose plays have been produced across a spectrum of mainstream theatre and who’ve also worked frequently in other forms. Many women theatre-makers continue to strive toward visibility and success in these contexts. And why shouldn’t they? These conventional theatre venues offer one of the only ways to survive economically as a theatre person.
Cultural feminist theatre and performance was distinguished in the 1980s by its attention to a “feminine aesthetic” or to “women’s forms.” At the Foot of the Mountain Theatre in Minneapolis and the Women’s Experimental Theatre in New York distinguished themselves by creating ritual theatre. They rejected realism and conventional dramaturgy as confining and “male-oriented.” They turned instead to oral histories, rewritings of mythology, and story circles to create more collective, experience-based, sometimes confessional genres and styles.
Critics later accused this work of literally white-washing feminism by privileging commonalities among women at the expense of their differences. But these ritual forms provided a trove of cultural interventions. Cultural feminist theatre in the ‘80s was a part of a thriving “women’s culture,” which developed subcultural venues for a host of women-organized ventures. For example, it promoted women’s music, at large-scale, women-only gatherings like the Michigan Women’s Music Festival, as well as through recording companies like Olivia Records, and music distribution structures like the Ladyslipper mail-order catalogue.
The subculture supported neighborhood women’s bookstores and women’s coffeehouses and performance spaces around the country. It also promoted women’s publishing houses. And most of these projects operated on anti-capitalist business models. (Which is why many of them no longer exist!)
The arrival of French post-structuralist theory in American colleges and universities, however, meant that cultural feminism and its alternative commerce were quickly dismissed as “essentialist.” Post-structuralist theorists like Foucault and Derrida influenced feminism’s shift towards a healthy suspicion of fixed ideas and master narratives, and proposed a hearty skepticism about claims to truth. Experience, which early second wave feminism had presumed as a foundational truth, was now considered only partial, and dubious in its claims to power. Post-structuralist-inflected feminism insisted on fluidity, relativity, and the inevitability of change.
As a result, the subaltern female utopianism of women’s culture, and its commitment to changing patriarchal and white supremacist social structures, was deemed unproductively mired in binary gender commitments that replaced a male master narrative with its female counterpart. What had been the celebratory, empowering productions of women’s culture became instead the butt of jokes delivered by the dominant class and by post-structuralist-inspired feminists alike.
In addition, “post-feminism,” the “movement” of the 2000s that dismissed early feminist activism while taking full advantage of its achievements, also played a role in diminishing many of cultural feminism’s projects. The harsh critique landed with stinging condemnation. Women’s subcultures and their idealistic community-building moved farther underground when they didn’t disappear altogether.
Materialist feminist theory and practice tempered post-structuralism’s tenets with a Marxist-socialist attention to real effects and actual cultural productions. Collectives like Split Britches and playwright/performers like our very own Holly Hughes, as well as Robbie McCauley, Coco Fusco, Carmelita Tropicana, and many others, exploded old forms with new contents. They pointed to the apparatus of theatre and called attention to how they constructed their representations so that no one could mistake them for “the real."
In the process, these artists foregrounded the intersections of gender, race, class, and sexuality as historical and ideological assemblages that could be played with, their meanings changed in performance and then, hopefully, in the world.
A lot of important work was generated under the many categories of feminism. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, women’s studies programs and departments established themselves in universities and colleges. Forming these academic locations was in itself a deeply activist project, meant to build knowledge about women, gender, race, and sexuality fully into the academic curriculum. But ironically, the new visibility of the courses and research these programs produced made them ripe for the backlash that Susan Faludi described so well in her 1991 book of that name.
By the mid- to late-1990s, feminism’s momentum as a wide-spread, diverse political movement had waned considerably. It was defanged largely by its derogatory treatment in the media and by the public platform newspapers and broadcast outlets gave to anti-feminist white women like Camille Paglia, Nora Vincent, and Christina Hoff Summers. Feminism took such a beating that by the turn of the 21st century, many people had actively disaffiliated from the movement.
Few students, especially, called themselves “feminists” anymore. Thanks to the media’s stereotypes, to “be” a feminist meant claiming a radical “man-hating,” hairy-legged agenda that would—so feminism’s detractors proclaimed—end single-sex bathrooms and locker rooms as we knew them.
Of course, feminism also contributed to its own decline. The social movement’s various strands fractured and few leaders could rally large, coalitional activist communities. Without a public attention-getting feminist retort, the ridiculous media stereotypes hardened and claimed the popular imagination. Feminism began to diffuse rather than build strength from its distinctions, and to lose political power in the most visible public forums.
The debate about pornography, which began in the early 80s and continued into the 90s, also created a bitter divide among feminists. Activists such as writer Andrea Dworkin and lawyer Catherine McKinnon created legislation around the country to ban pornography, spurred on by groups like Women Against Violence Against Women. At the same time, other activist groups, like FACT, the Feminist Anti-Censorship Taskforce, railed against what they saw as Dworkin and McKinnon’s alliance with right-wing anti-porn advocates who also agitated against abortion, LGBT rights, and racial equality.
The anti-porn debates also widened the rift between heterosexual and lesbian feminists. Anthropologist Gayle Rubin’s foundational essay “Thinking Sex” went so far as to suggest that the “sex-gender system” she had once ably theorized through feminism couldn’t completely account for sexual variation. Rubin argued that lesbians, “queers,” and those we now call “LGBT” folks needed a new explanatory paradigm that would consider sexuality as distinct from gender.
Meanwhile, in theatre and performance, by the 2000s, women working in mainstream forms and contents had reached a kind of stasis. A study sponsored by the New York State Council on the Arts in 2002 and an economics thesis by a Princeton graduate in 2009 suggested that the status of especially women playwrights was the same or worse than it had been much earlier in the 20th century.
Artists who’d attempted the liberal feminist goal of achieving parity in existing forums were stymied by entrenched power structures that tokenized them, rather than fully enfranchising their work. The number of women playwrights produced on Broadway and in other mainstream forums hovered at a woeful 17%.
Advocacy groups like the League of Professional Theatre Women and 50/50 in 2020 have recently determined to redress this imbalance once again. But frankly, the power-brokers of American culture seem unwilling to shift these intractable percentages. Women and people of color (and those who are both, and/or LGBT) remain under-represented in the most visible theatre and performance venues.
But what of the subcultural, alternative, community-based contexts where feminist theatre has continued to thrive, branching out from its cultural, materialist, and third-world feminist or womanist roots? The picture here—which Lenelle, Holly, and Rhodessa so wonderfully represent—is more hopeful, as a wealth of artistic mediations into dominant ideology continue to be made through feminist solo performance and collective and devised theatre. These forms determine to tell new stories in new ways, and to make visible people and experiences who mainstream contexts continue to erase or exoticize.
Playwright/performer Deb Margolin once said that as soon as a woman opens her mouth to speak on stage, she’s performed a radical cultural intervention. Deb is right. We still aren’t accustomed to women taking up space, to women filling our visual fields, to women holding our attention with their stories.
Solo performance is a richly evocative genre that does all of these things with clarity and power. It’s also a fast and dirty, usually cheap and expedient mode of production (and I mean that as a compliment). Solo performance typically requires one, unadorned body on stage, normally without a lot of spectacle. And its narrative style gets directly to the political heart of whose stories are being told, by whom, to whom. This, I think, is why it’s been so popular in feminist theatre.
In addition, academic feminist theories of what was once called “the male gaze” argued that women’s bodies are the ones at which theatre, performance, film, television, and other media encourage us to look. Feminists like Laura Mulvey, in 1975, suggested that the psychological pleasure derived from spectating objectified women’s bodies by centering them under the male gaze.
Performed only to-be-looked-at, they were prohibited from being the subjects of their own stories and the engines of their destinies and desires. Much politically-conscious feminist performance of the last three decades has worked against the tradition Mulvey described, to empower women as full human agents in front of audiences.
But even so: At whose bodies are we still asked to gaze on a regular basis, inside the theatre and out? Think about it. In my everyday life, the people in power are still usually male. Men—and usually white men, at that—deliver the speeches and the radio and television sound bites. White men convene the meetings, calling us to attention with their power and authority.
I’m shocked and pleased when this isn’t the case. In fact, the president of Princeton is a woman, and every time she gives a speech or runs a meeting, I pinch myself because I still can’t believe that this is who I get to pay attention. I still can’t take a woman’s power and presence for granted, at work or at the theatre.
This, then, is the pleasure of watching performers like Rhodessa and Holly and Lenelle: to see them literally take the stage, to hold our gazes, to capture our attention, to tell their stories—whether about themselves or others—to gather us as however temporary a community, and to create for us a forum in which to think and feel together in new and hopeful ways.
Although I was one of the early advocates of “the feminisms” and their distinctions, it no longer matters to me what kind of feminism these performers or others like them might espouse. We can no longer afford to parse the feminisms; we’ve lost the critical mass necessary to make fine distinctions. We can look at performance prismatically, from many feminist directions, to tease out its numerous layers of meaning. But it’s important, now, not to privilege one way over another, not to value one feminist intervention at another’s expense.
My own critical project has become admittedly more liberal, after many years of using post-structuralist theory to propose more radical solutions to the problem of women and especially lesbians in representation. Perhaps I’ve just simplified my outlook.
I don’t disparage or deny the work that I and others did on complicated questions of representation. The focus on theatre’s apparatus that drove materialist feminist theory; the questioning truth and authority that post-structuralist feminism instructed; the essentialist ideals and their critique, which cultural feminism promulgated and prompted; the equity on which liberal feminism staunchly insists; all of these continue to influence my own thinking about performance.
In fact, many of these ideas have at this point been absorbed into mainstream thought—just as many students (male and female) really do practice feminism, even if they disparage the term.
But on some basic level, I’ve returned in my critical work to the question of who’s speaking and who’s listening, of who is seen and who is seeing (which, as theatre scholar and director Herb Blau taught me 30 years ago, remain deeply theoretical inquiries). These queries now form the basis for my feminist investigations of performance, along with—the where, when, why, how, and what questions about modes of production we must continue to ask.
I recently learned of graphic novelist and cartoonist Allison Bechdel’s test for gender bias in films, which she published in 1985 in her Dykes to Watch Out for comic strip. Bechdel’s assessment poses three easy questions: Does the movie contain two or more female characters who have names? Do those characters talk to each other? And, if so, do they discuss something other than a man?
That’s a good place for a feminist critic to start, especially with mainstream films in which the answer to all three questions is often, “No.” In theatre and performance, perhaps we need a few extended questions, such as these: Does the play or performance tell a story about women equal in import to the one it tells about men? Is everybody straight, white, middle-class, and/or able-bodied here? If so, why is the story so one-sided?
Do I learn something new about how to see the world from this story? Do I learn a new way to tell a story from this performance? Do I feel myself part of an audience community based on this performer’s or performance’s invitation? Do I leave the theatre transformed in some way? And, will the performance persuade me to transform others?
In other words, the questions remain pretty much the same, regardless of which discourse of “the feminisms” they’re filtered through. But the precision with which we ask and answer them makes all the difference. We need to pay attention; we need to speak out when a play or performance doesn’t answer these questions to our satisfaction.
We need to ask, publicly and insistently and constantly, why are there no plays by women nominated for Tony Awards? Why is it so difficult to make a living as an artist unless you’re adopted into the mainstream, where even then, artists often scrape by or migrate toward film and television, which offer more lucrative paychecks? Why can’t artists make a sustainable wage in subcultural or community-based settings?
Why does the government always decrease arts funding while defense spending goes forever up? And why does federal funding mostly just go to elite mainstream arts organizations anyway?
Why are most American theatre and performance critics white men? Why do theatre producers pretend that no one wants to hear stories about women when the statistics say otherwise (although spectators do seem to prefer stories about women that are written by men, like David Lindsay-Abaire’s Good People)?
I have so many questions about the way things are, and so many ideas for the way things might be. I see my relationship to theatre- and performance-makers quite differently now. I no longer consider myself an arbiter of varieties of feminist theatre and its meanings, but as an advocate for women’s work and for a feminist perspective on the arts and culture in general.
One of the historically consistent problems in feminist performance is the utter lack of informed critical perspectives in the popular press. I’ve started to proselytize among my students for high quality arts writing from alternative view points, so that we can enhance the public discourse about performance.
I’ve maintained a blog since 2005 called The Feminist Spectator, on which I write, several times a month, critical essays of various lengths on current theatre and performance, as well as film and television. My one rule of thumb is to write only about work that I like. I write about work that I feel deserves my time and critical attention, or work that’s touched a cultural nerve and hasn’t yet been addressed from a feminist perspective (for instance, the films The Black Swan and The Social Network, which I did criticize).
For these past few years, I’ve determined to use a practice of what I call “critical generosity,” very much influenced by my friend and colleague David Román. This is also based on a form called "colleague-criticism," which I developed with Jaclyn Pryor and Paul Bonin-Rodriguez when we worked together at the University of Texas at Austin. To be critically generous means to be responsible for a deeper knowledge of the work you engage; means that you take into account its production context and resources, its history and goals; and means that you consider its players and producers as people laboring to create meaning with the materials at hand.
The terms “good” and “bad” have no purchase here. Feminist criticism shouldn’t produce facile value judgments or consumer reporting; it shouldn’t adjudicate taste. It should strive to consider what theatre and performance might mean, what it might do, and how it might be used in a world that requires ever more and better conversations about how we can imagine who we are and who we might be.
This is the work that Lenelle, Holly, and Rhodessa do for American culture. I’m thrilled that we’ve gathered to hear them talk this afternoon and to see their work, as we did Lenelle’s last night, and as we will Holly’s tonight and Rhodessa’s tomorrow. Each of these women has put themselves on the line to tell new stories in new ways; to give voice to those silenced by dominant culture; and to transform how we imagine social relations between ourselves and one another. I’m delighted to share this panel with them today.
Thanks for listening.
My questions, to start us off:
1. What is your goal as an artist? That is, what do you want your work to do in the world?
2. Do you call yourself a feminist? Does that label refer to a meaningful practice for you? Do you qualify it in some way? Ie., African American feminist? Womanist? Lesbian/queer feminist?
3. Are there other words you prefer to describe your artistic practice?
4. How do you see the politics of what you do? That is, do your politics appear most in the form, content, or context in which you work?
5. How do you see your audiences? Do you “preach to the converted”? Or do you imagine people unlike you—politically, socially, etc.—in your audiences?
6. Is your goal to change people? What do you want audiences to do after your performances? How do you want them to react, emotionally and politically?
7. What stories do you think remain to be told? What do you want to see other performers do on stage and what do you want to do? With whom would you like to work? Which other artists or which communities?
8. For whom would you like to perform who you haven’t yet?
9. How do you fund your work? Where do you look for resources?
10. What gives you hope about feminist performance today?