In the aftermath of the presidential election, economist and political science professor Maria Guadalupe of INSEAD wondered, like so many people, whether Clinton would have lost if she were man and whether Trump could have won had he been a woman. Hypothesizing that in a gender-flipped race, Clinton would have come out the winner, she devised an experiment: To restage the debates with the roles flipped, so that Trump is a woman who not only said everything Trump did, but also acted the same way he did, with Hillary becoming a man who spoke and acted just like her. Guadalupe turned to NYU professor Joe Salvatore to direct while she created the script for Her Opponent, a debate between Brenda King (a female version of Trump) and Jonathan Gordon (a male version of Clinton), performed on January 28.
Guadalupe selected moments from all three debates and wove them into one 35-minute play, then Salvatore worked with the actors using Anna Deavere Smith’s ethnodramatic technique in which the actor memorizes the exact inflections and exact gestures/movements of a real-life subject. A 25-minute post-show discussion followed in which Guadalupe and Salvatore were amazed to find that even as a woman, Trump still came out the favorite.
In the discussion and in an online survey completed later, audiences found King/Trump to be concise, authoritative, and commanding. Alternately, they found Gordon/Clinton’s incessant smiling to be totally off-putting. When King attacked, Gordon didn’t fight back; she just nodded and smiled. In the body of a man, this response was disconcerting at best and at worst, one audience member found him “extremely punchable.”
Cut to one-month later and an article about the show on NYU’s news page goes viral. Salvatore is drowned in press inquiries and requests to see the footage they captured when they filmed the performance. Much of the coverage is from right-wing sites and individual bloggers, where they rejoice that two liberals were proved so wrong by their own endeavor. This proves, they argue, that Trump’s win was not the result of sexism but rather of the strength of his message and the inherent unlikability of Clinton.
That Guadalupe and Salvatore’s hypothesis was wrong does not, by itself, prove that Trump deserved to win. Rather, it shows that we are so programmed to see femininity as weak and masculinity as strong that even when masculine behaviors are embodied in a woman, she comes across as authoritative and confident. Feminine behaviors on the other hand, make even men read as subordinate and even a little laughable.
In fact, even though in real life, Clinton does not come across as all that stereotypically feminine, her behaviors are so inherently feminine that audiences assumed that the actor playing Gordon had been directed to act feminine or even to play gay. (Commenters on right-wing websites that picked up the story were thrilled to call him a faggot.) In reality he had not been directed that way; that impression arose purely from him exactly imitating Clinton.
Whereas people who have met Clinton up close find her easy to connect to and personable, her debate performances and speeches are so heavily coached that she comes across a bit stale. Like most women, she has probably been told all of her life to smile more, and even planned when to smile during the debates. Unfortunately, smiling and nodding in response to being attacked may be feminine, but it didn’t make her any more likable than she would have been had she fought back. In fact, the audience response to King – a woman who speaks and behaves with all the bravado, aggression, and sweeping masculinity of Trump – may imply that women have far more freedom to behave that way than they think without being thought of as a bitch.
Guadalupe and Salvatore are remounting the experiment for an off-Broadway run beginning March 22 at the Jerry Orbach Theater and are working on a film that replicates, shot by shot, the debate broadcast. They hope that the discussions after the next round of performances can help them further unpack why Gordon’s femininity was quite so off-putting and how even people who reject Trump’s policies could have found themselves inclined to vote for King, whose policies are exactly the same, rather than Gordon, whom they had in many cases already voted for in the form of Clinton.
Guadalupe told me that her theory is that their experiment says nothing about the appeal of the two candidates’ platforms, because when audiences watch a play instead of an actual debate with real world consequences, they are free to react almost entirely emotionally rather than intellectually. She believes that this decontextualization reveals not the power of Trump’s ideas but rather the power of the way he conveys them. The film, she hopes, can be used as a teaching tool, whether in political science or gender studies classes, to show how deeply reception of content is shaped by context.
Though Guadalupe and Salvatore’s hypothesis that Clinton would have would won were she a man was wrong, their experiment still proved that it is sexist assumptions – in this case, the one that women can be liked only when they act super feminine – that brought her down. Had Clinton had the liberty Trump had to act in a manner as bold as her ideas, or had Trump been forced by coaching to smile the whole time and nod even as his opponent beat the crap out of him, the election might have turned out differently. Trump didn’t win based on the power of his message, nor did Clinton loose on the issues. Trump won because he came across as the most direct, strong, and yes, masculine, candidate.
Exactly eight days after Donald Trump was elected president, Oxford Dictionaries selected “post-truth”—defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”—as 2016’s international word of the year, citing a 2000 percent increase in usage compared with 2015.
However, those of us who followed the second Bush administration closely became familiar with what Stephen Colbert called “truthiness” much earlier. The sixteen words George W. Bush used in the 2003 State of the Union address, for example, claiming that Saddam Hussein had sought “significant quantities of uranium from Africa,” could have been called a lie, but, given that Bush says he believed they were true when he spoke them, they have instead gone down in history as “contested.” As playwright Jacqueline E. Lawton explores in her new play Intelligence, the ensuing Plamegate scandal—involving the outing of covert CIA officer Valerie Plame—was full of its own deep truths not just about American politics but also about life in America at the time.
Our audiences were flocking to—hungry for—stories about politics and power in the whole diversity of how those are told—drama, musicals, all of that. These were the stories we were seeing our communities be inspired by. I think we’re all really hungry to understand who we are as Americans, in all of the delicious complexity, contradiction, beauty, and joy that that identifier can hold.
Lawton’s play is inspired by real events, but the truths she gets at are deeper than any literal retelling could uncover. She never spoke to Plame or her husband Joseph Wilson, the ambassador sent to Africa to determine whether Hussein really had attempted to acquire uranium there. (He had not.) Though historical events like Bush’s State of the Union and Secretary of State Colin Powell’s presentation to the UN are referenced, Lawton told me that she was primarily interested in what it is like to be a woman working in the CIA. Historical incidents, then, became the sparks that flamed her imagination:
I wanted it to be historical drama because I wanted to be able to dream, I wanted to be able to ask what if, what if. I wanted to be able to imagine all the different things that could possibly happen, and I wanted to have my say. I wanted to put myself in the story in as strong and powerful a way as possible. This was my opportunity to dream very big about what I want the world to look like.
As director Daniella Topol put it in an email, “The characters are surrounded by a constant swirl of news and clips of speeches that are the catalyst and the instigator of this drama, [while] the characters are very clearly Jacqueline’s creation and invention.”
For example, Lawton invented a boss who is an African-American woman, because just because there isn’t a high-ranking black woman at the CIA doesn’t mean there can’t be or shouldn’t be. She also created two Iraqi characters, a fashion designer and her uncle, the (fictional) former head of Iraq’s mobile weapons program, which Lawton says she uses to “show very intimately the immediate, devastating, and lasting impact that this war had on people on the other side of the world.”
To inform Lawton’s curiosity about what it’s like to be a woman at the CIA, Arena invited two real agents, Gina Bennett and Lindsay Moran, to attend performances during different points in the development process. Both of those women found that what resonated as truthful for them was what it is like to be a woman in a workforce composed mostly of men who, in the interest of national security, has to put her job before her family.
Sueko says whether a Power Play is closer to docudrama or historical fiction is up to the playwright, and that bringing in experts is something Arena is happy to use its positioning in DC to do. For another play in the series, Camp David, which dramatizes the thirteen-day meeting between President Jimmy Carter, President Anwar Sadat of Egypt, and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin to work out what became the Camp David Peace Accords, playwright Larry Wright interviewed every surviving member of all three delegations and even secured access to Rosalynn Carter’s diary.
Lawton raves about the support she’s received from Arena, which is using the series to commission a diverse, inclusive, and equitable roster of playwrights:
It’s very exciting that as a woman of color and an unknown playwright, two weeks before we even went into rehearsal we extended. We are told in the American theatre that women’s plays don’t sell and that women’s plays are only for women audiences and that plays by people color are only for people of color. I hope playwrights and artistic directors stand up and take notice: We aren’t a negative risk. Invest in our stories. Audiences want our stories. They’re curious. They’re hungry to know how we’re viewing the world and what we can possibly show the world that they may not know because they might have a different way of seeing.
Sueko’s experience as a new resident of the DMV (the DC, Maryland, Virginia area) puts to the test the post-truth depiction of our nation’s capitol enumerated by President Trump in his inaugural address. While Trump claimed that DC, where “the establishment [has] protected itself, but not the citizens of our country,” is populated by an elitist cabal, reaping “the rewards of government while the people have born the cost,” Sueko has found that
Audiences here are really smart. They came to DC to change the world, and many of us who do theatre do it to change the world, too. My heart is so full of joy being here and being in this community of artists, arts advocates, audience members, and community members. There’s a life force here where people are striving to build a strong healthy society.
Lawton’s voice and the Power Plays in general may indeed prove a powerful antidote to the cacophony of voices emanating from the current White House, many of which contradict each other even while speaking on the same presumably factual basis, and most of which deliberately obscure truth by asking us to passively accept lies. Of her play, Lawton told me,
This is me being able to say, ‘Citizens of this nation, you are responsible for upholding democracy. You are responsible for holding your leaders accountable for their actions and inactions. And it is your responsibility to call out lies when they occur and call out the truth. I strongly believe that with every ounce of my being.’
Artistic Director Molly Smith told me she thinks this is exactly what theatre is for:
This is a critical time to consider the motives of those who hold political power, and what an individual can do—or should do or is forced to do—to fight for justice. Theatre involves a search for truth and a critique of power—an invitation to conversation, not a shutting down of dialogue. Hearing American stories of politics and power over the decades makes us more informed as a democracy—and also can shed light on how we can come together as a nation to face personal and political adversaries.
One of the many suborganizations participating in the march is the Pussyhat Project, a movement with a two-pronged mission to “provide the people of the Women’s March on Washington D.C. a means to make a unique collective visual statement which will help activists be better heard” and “provide people who cannot physically be on the National Mall a way to represent themselves and support women’s rights.” The idea is that pink, cat-eared hats worn by a critical mass of march attendees stand to reclaim the word “pussy” from our president-elect and his crotch-grabbing tiny hands. Knitters who can’t attend are knitting hats based on a pattern provided by the Project and sending them to be handed out to marchers (or, in some cases, selling them for a fairly high price). Judging from reports of a pink yarn shortage, that critical mass will be representing.
Not to rain golden showers down on the pussy parade, but I’m not sure that pink, cat-eared hats are a great symbol for the largest women’s march in years. The infantilizing kitten imagery combined with a stereotypically feminine color feels too safe and too reductive to be an answer to the complex issues facing women today. For example, while the March claims intersectionality as central to its platform, and the Pussyhat Project claims to be speaking for both cis- and transgender individuals, the latter’s conception of what it means to be a woman is remarkably narrow. According to the website:
“Pink is considered a very female color representing caring, compassion, and love—all qualities that have been derided as weak but are actually STRONG. Wearing pink together is a powerful statement that we are unapologetically feminine and we unapologetically stand for women’s rights.”
The pussycat, obviously, is a metaphor often used for female genitalia, but one far less evocative than, say, Georgia O’Keeffe’s flowers, with their depth and variety of colors. It is a metaphor particularly unsuited to responding to sexual assault. Grabbing my pussy is not an assault on my femininity—which implies that I am soft, delicate, and in need of protection, and that if I’m not explicitly feminine, it’s okay to grab my vagina—but an assault on my humanity, on my inherent right not to be grabbed regardless of my biological characteristics.
Furthermore, the Pussyhat Project is engaging in a form of gender essentialism, which asserts that the gendered characteristics of femininity are directly linked to the biological characteristics of femaleness and, specifically, the presence of a vagina. This binary is one that feminists have fought against for years, arguing instead that femininity is a social construction assigned to femaleness and that females can be feminine or masculine or any combination of the two, as can males.
This kind of essentialism reduces women to their biology and goes hand in hand with the notion that women are somehow naturally “caring, compassionate, and loving.” In reverse, this implies that women who are not caring, compassionate, and loving are flawed and possibility not women at all. At the same time, it implies that the absence of a vagina at birth makes it unnatural to be caring, compassionate, and loving. Yet many men and transpeople are in fact naturally those kinds of people.
This kind of gender essentialism has been used for centuries to enforce gender conformity. Women were denied the vote based on the idea that we were too soft and too unreasonable to use it wisely. Women’s supposedly inherent compassionate nature kept us confined to the home, tasked with raising moral citizens rather than acting as citizens ourselves. Once allowed to work, we have been limited to service areas and judged as incapable of the “hard” work of business, academia, and building.
Gender essentialism, a belief used to oppress throughout most of human civilization, can’t suddenly be used to support intersectionality, a concept which posits that people are defined not solely by their biology but also by their class, their culture, their race, their ethnicity, their religion, and their own unique, personal characteristics. Though the WMW website uses an Audre Lorde quote—“It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences”—the Pussyhat Project proposes that because we are women, we are all the same, and it reinforces this view by attempting to make us all look the same. Unfortunately, women’s movements that have claimed that we are all the same because we are all women have not, historically, turned out to represent all women.
Based on early Facebook posts about the event, my original fear for the WMW was that it would be more a celebration of femaleness than an act of resistance against sexism, Trump’s sexism in particular. Months later, the organizers have somewhat assuaged my fears by releasing a four-page guiding vision that connects the march’s feminism to economic and racial issues, inequities in policing and criminal justice, reproductive freedom, better workplace protections, unions, voting rights, immigration, and environmentalism. (A note: The platform, which originally called for solidarity with sex workers, has changed its wording to call for support for “those exploited for sex and labor.”) The Pussyhat Project, on the other hand, has one goal—for all marchers to subscribe to the stereotype of women as feminine. This is in direct contradiction to the guiding principle of the march, which articulates the need for freedom from “gender norms, expectations, and stereotypes.” Ideally, the variety of bodies, signs, and coalitions present at the march will reflect the emphasis on diversity that the organizers have put forward. Let’s hope those things speak as loudly as pink hats.
Originally published on HowlRound on September 10, 2016
The original idea behind Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s American Revolutions: The United States History Cycle was to commission a new play for every American president. But when Artistic Director Bill Rauch brought in his longtime colleague from Cornerstone Theatre Company, Alison Carey, to direct the program, she steered it towards a more inherently dramatic premise: To commission thirty-seven new plays about a moment of change in American history. Associate director of the program, Julie Felise Dubiner, told me she thinks the idea is working because “it lets playwrights follow their passions and that moment-of-change imperative implies dramatic action.”
If the number thirty-seven sounds familiar, it’s because that’s the number of plays generally accepted as written by Shakespeare. According to Rauch, “Both canons—Shakespeare’s and our American Revolutions plays—are composed of relatively large-cast epics that employ a variety of tonal and stylistic devices.” But, he added that the new plays offer at least one very important thing that Shakespeare’s plays are missing:
As a large classical theatre, with the overwhelming preponderance of male playwrights in the classical canon, we have to work even harder to include women’s voices in the work that we commission ourselves. Women are the majority of ticket-buyers, theatre attendees, and of course the population of the world in general. Our field’s lack of respect for gender equity is appalling.
Dubiner agrees that choosing which playwrights to commission has been at least partly a product of their desire to diversify their stages:
There’s a specific way of handling plot and drama, there’s a specific type of passion for history, there’s the kind of passion someone needs for character when writing a history play. And we are deeply committed to the idea that, when we’re done, we will have created diversity in every way—diversity of ethnicity and religion and gender as well as of style and storytelling.
Other than three targeted commissions, the American Revolutions Cycle has allowed playwrights to choose the moment of change about which they want to write. The process has been guided by what Dubiner calls “passive curation,” in which the theatre brings the writers together to talk to each other about their projects, ensuring as little overlap as possible. The program has yielded instant classics, like Robert Schenkkan’s All the Way, about LBJ passing the Civil Rights Law and running for reelection, which became a Broadway show and an HBO special, and Lynn Nottage’s Sweat about the deindustrialization of America, which was a co-commission and co-production with Arena Stage. Currently on OSF’s boards, audiences can find Lisa Loomer’s rollercoaster ride of a play about reproductive rights, Roe, directed by Rauch.
Roe begins just before the meeting of Sarah Weddington, the lawyer who argued Roe v. Wade, and Norma McCorvey, the woman who is usually known as Jane Roe. It tells the story of the case, the relationship between the two women, and the dramatic changes that McCorvey has undergone in her life, right up to the present. In fact, for a history play, the piece is very much a product of its current moment—Loomer even wrote a new line based on the Supreme Court’s decision in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, in which the Court ruled that Texas cannot place restrictions on the delivery of abortion services that create an undue burden for women seeking an abortion.
Neither Loomer nor Rauch initially realized that they had chosen a moment of change that not only makes a great story, with a number of little known twists and turns, but also provides opportunities for all kinds of diversity in addition to great roles for women. In fact, they didn’t know a lot about their topic when they started out. Rauch told me that,
Before directing this play I knew very little about the history including the divergent paths of Sarah Weddington and Norma McCorvey. Some of my colleagues at OSF also helped educate me about the role women of color in particular played in the battle for reproductive rights justice.
Loomer echoed those sentiments:
When I began to do research, I did not know the points of Blackmun’s decision, which have come to influence subsequent cases on abortion. I did not know that Sarah Weddington clearly stated, at twenty-six, in the Supreme Court, that she was not advocating abortion, she was not saying that it was “good” or “bad.” She was advocating choice. Something else that surprised me was how race and class are bound up in the larger subject of reproductive rights. In the very first moments of the play, one of the protagonists says that one’s account of “history” is colored by factors such as race, gender, class, and sexuality. This idea is a predominant theme in the play and I saw it played out again and again in my research.
Like the creators of the show, the audience for Roe might leave knowing a lot more about Roe than they came in knowing. They will discover, for example, that the Roe baby was McCorvey’s third child, but before that pregnancy, she had never even heard of abortion. With the third child, she tried to self-abort but failed, and, as the case took its time making its way through the courts, “Roe” eventually gave birth and gave the baby up in a closed adoption. Two weeks after giving birth, McCorvey tried to commit suicide. Audiences might also be surprised to learn how prominent a role women of color play in the reproductive rights movement and to see those women onstage alongside their white feminist counterparts.
Informed by all of this, Loomer has written a play that refuses to oversimplify what is obviously a very complex topic. Using a variety of structural components, such as narration, direct address, and on stage costume changes; other actors staying on stage to observe and help with transitions; projections; and suggestive props and costumes, Loomer has intricately depicted not just the complexity of the story, but also the complexity of telling a complex story.
The larger structure of the play is that of a memory, created by the characters beginning the play in the present, telling the audience who they are and what they’re going to be reenacting for us, and ending the play back in the present. These bookends dramatize the idea that memories, the material out of which history is made, are themselves imperfect and often contradictory. References to a variety of sources, such as books, historians, obituaries, and Wikipedia, remind the audience that even with a great deal of research, history is still a product of a many different forces and not fully understandable from any one point of view. An accompanying stylistic blurring of reality, especially in the scenes in which McCorvey is using drugs and drinking, reminds us that reality itself, at any given moment, might not be what we think it is.
This combination of epic devices, the structure of a memory, moments of surrealism, and a focus on the character of Roe all keep Roe from being didactic docudrama. In fact, Loomer and Rauch have been pleasantly surprised by how much empathy the audience feels for Norma, given her difficult life and sometimes questionable choices. Loomer says this came from her desire not to oversimplify:
A man I respect a great deal and conferred with, Father Greg Boyle, talks about the value of having a “reverence for the complexity of human beings.” What surprised me in my research, what never ceases to surprise me, is how complex we are. When you see that … well, for me at least, it’s the beginning of compassion. Even compassion for “the other side.”
Nevertheless, abortion itself is such a polarizing topic that OSF planned ahead for the potentiality of pushback and/or emotional responses to the play. They sought and received a grant from the General William Mayer Foundation to bring in a trainer to help them create emergency protocols and procedures to deal with, for example, a company or an audience member being triggered. Most of OSF’s post-show discussions are led by actors, but with Roe, the company decided to also always have a staff member from the education department or the Revolutions Cycle there to field questions that the actors might not want to or be able to address. Oregon is an open carry state, so OSF made sure to clearly define that patrons cannot bring guns into theatre.
Dubiner says most of these measures will remain in place as part of a larger effort to practice good “company and audience care” and better engage in all kinds of dialogue. In fact, though the connection has not been explicit, Dubiner sees this training as part and parcel of the work the theatre is doing on diversity, which also involves a lot of trainers, and is essentially about answering the question, “How do we talk to one another?”
What better play to do this work around than Roe, a play on a topic about which America has almost completely lost the ability to dialogue? Loomer says she gets letters every day from patrons telling her the ways in which seeing the play enabled them to talk about abortion, sometimes for the first time:
One woman who is “pro life” told me that she talked about the issues with a “pro choice” friend on the car ride back from Oregon to California. They had never broached the subject before. It is my hope to get people talking. In this country, we yell, we obstruct, we wave placards. We don’t talk.
Perhaps the quality of the play’s dialogue and the dialogue it creates are a result of how much dialogue went into writing the play and mounting the production. The American Revolutions Cycle was able to support Loomer on a research trip to the University of Texas at Austin where she did a reading of the play, solicited feedback from students, attended women’s studies classes, and otherwise engaged with the people and culture about which she was writing. Moreover, the production itself is a three-way co-production with Arena Stage and Berkeley Repertory Theatre, necessitating an additional layer of dialogue between three different institutions in three different cities.
In fact, all of the American Revolutions productions have been produced or presented elsewhere by design. Knowing that it may take quite some time to produce thirty-seven plays, the Cycle has been encouraging playwrights to identify where their home theatres are (or where they wish they were). Then the theatre reaches out on their behalf, ensuring that writers are getting the opportunity to work with people they want to work with and to have their plays seen by a wider audience.
The level of complexity involved in producing Roe was present in Loomer’s writing process as well, and she is celebrating that:
The more I thought about the issues in the play, the more I questioned why we want to take what is complex, what is difficult in life, and make it simple. Why should it be easy?
My guess is that none of the American Revolutions Cycle plays make history especially easy—because history is not, in fact, easy—but they do make it dramatic, present, and human. Rauch put it simply:
In these crazy political times, [these plays] are a reminder that who we are as a country and the choices we make are important and impactful, and will be affecting the lives of Americans for decades, if not centuries to come. Countries and their histories are serious business, and we treat them with the importance they deserve.
When what film critic David Edelstein called “torture porn” became a trend in 2004 and 2005, its relationship to the growing awareness that the US had become a country that tortures was clear. On screen representations of people being tortured by evil but human monsters served as a means of taking what had been kept secret about Abu Ghraib and putting it in full view in all its gore. Even films like Hostel and Turistas that deliberately built their stories around Americans in foreign locations served as a kind of collective catharsis upon accepting that our country, too, engaged in such practices.
Twelve years later, with the Saw franchise eight movies in, torture porn has made its way into television, and, between American Horror Story and The Walking Dead still going and Penny Dreadful just ended, it occupies a fairly important space in the supernatural television landscape.
For this year’s Feminist Guide to Horror Movies, I had the crazy idea that I would watch all three of these shows from beginning to end, determining, if not which show is most feminist, at least which is least sexist. I couldn’t do it. I made it through only one show all the way – Penny Dreadful – and in the course of just three seasons I watched women tortured by demons from the inside out, tarred and burned alive, branded, driven to cut her own throat, smothered and brought back to life, shot in the head by her father, poisoned by her lover, shot in the chest by her creator, and shot dead by her closest friend.
Bringing together characters from Dracula, Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and The Picture of Dorian Gray, with a werewolf thrown in for good measure, Penny Dreadful’s main theme is that we are all of us possessed by demons; we all have a monster lurking inside. Writer John Logan uses the Victorian backdrop to great effect. In Season One, the Grand Guignol delights audiences with its onstage violence and spurts of blood. Season Two features a subplot about a wax museum of gory crime scenes with ambitions of becoming a full-on freakshow. Season Three features the trusty horror trope of the insane asylum in which people are experimented upon. All three elements anchor the show firmly in its gaslit era and constantly remind us that, despite a lot of talk about faith and sin, Victorians were really obsessed with bodies and their physical limits.
The potential for feminism is high. The focus of the show on a woman, Vanessa Ives (Eva Green), as its protagonist gives the audience a chance to identify with and follow the story through a woman’s perspective. Patty LuPone’s second-season cut-wife character – unnecessarily violent depiction of abortion aside – is a strong, single mentor and good witch/doctor. Her third-season psychiatrist, a gender-flipped Dr. Seward from Dracula, is a smart woman succeeding in a man’s world who can handle herself in a fight to boot.
But the show’s feminism falters by treating the female characters differently from the male ones: Though minor male characters in Penny Dreadful are the victims of some pretty horrifying violence, too, the women really get the worst of it, and there are fewer of them to start with. Furthermore, for the male characters, the connection between what haunts them and their sexuality remains the subverted metaphor that it is in the Gothic horror novels in which they were created, with greed, ambition, and failure to be a good father/son mixed into an all-encompassing idea of their sins/demons.
For Vanessa Ives, however, acting upon her sexual feelings literally brings out the demon in her, creating a one-to-one relationship between her sexuality and her dark side. Though her suffering is centered, her character is actually less complex and therefore less fully human than the male ones. Other than one early sexual misstep, she has no flaws at all. To make matters worse, the female character who fully owns her sexuality, Lily, one of Dr. Frankenstein’s monsters, is also a fully evil murderer, even when she connects to the early feminist movement and becomes a leader of women.
Finally, the presence of the same female body (Patty LuPone’s) in two different characters (something that is not a recurring aspect of the show, as it is with American Horror Story, but rather only happens with this one actor) keeps female heroism in the realm of archetype. In fact, the most interesting character in the series is not Vanessa Ives but the werewolf, Ethan Chandler, whose relationships with three different father figures and his past as a soldier and an adopted Apache give him far more to grapple with than his sexuality, which, despite the Victorian setting, doesn’t seem to be a problem for him at all. And yet he’s got plenty of it.
No possible alternative to her fate is ever implied for Vanessa Ives, for whom acting on her sexual desires is to bring about the end of the world, and the audience is given little opportunity for hope. Accordingly, Penny Dreadful lacks a key component of horror: the moments of relief, whether in the form of humor or love, that are essential to keeping audiences vulnerable to the coming terrors – nothing is so rewarding when watching horror as a laugh that turns into a scream. Torture porn as a genre has very few of those moments, creating a rhythm that is not about suspense and jump-scares but merely about the ongoing horror of watching, head on, what terrible things people will do to people.
Penny Dreadful comes close to performing feminist work by showing how hard it is for women to live in a society that thinks of their sexuality as dangerous and their bodies as “nasty” and “disgusting,” with blood coming out of their wherevers. In the end, however, it doesn’t just depict the oppression of women, it reifies it, concretizing the idea in the audience’s mind by making the women’s suffering disgusting.
I couldn’t get further than one and a half seasons into American Horror Story, which puts even more torture on screen than Penny Dreadful. Though some bad things happen to the men in that show, too, the rape, mutilation, deliberate transmission of the bubonic plague, and unnecessary amputations in the episodes I’ve seen are reserved for female bodies. The buzz around this year’s season premiere of The Walking Dead indicates that it has gone from being a means of examining the variety of ways that people form societies and families to a means of examining the variety of ways people kill one another. Some scenes in the premiere were too graphic to be shown during prime time in the U.K.
At this point, our culture is no longer using torture porn to work out our guilt about our conduct abroad. Small screen torture porn, at least in the cases of American Horror Story and Penny Dreadful, seems to be serving rather to take our fear of sex and women out of the dark and into the light, giving us an opportunity to vicariously take women apart and show them as disgusting as a substantial portion of our society fears we might be.
Perhaps these depictions of torture are a necessary step to take before we finally accept that sexual women are not demonic, the women’s movement is not led by a superhuman killer with a vagenda of manocide, and our bodies don’t need to be tortured to be made pure. If anything good can be said about recent public discussions of sexual harassment, abuse, and oppression, it’s that they are public. Women all over the country are sharing their stories of being grabbed in the pussy and kissed against their will, are owning the descriptor of nasty as a badge of pride, and are refusing to be seen as anything less than fully human, inside and out.
Unfortunately, Penny Dreadful doesn’t ultimately reject the notion that women need to be tortured to be sure that they’re not evil. I can’t tell you where American Horror Story and The Walking Dead are going because, even though I am a hardened, life-long horror fan, I can’t take any more torture, and I don’t want to keep seeing bodies, and women’s bodies in particular, used to create disgust.
I watch horror because identifying what we are afraid of tells us a lot about ourselves, but also because it’s fun to be scared. As my Halloween binge-watching experiment draws to a close, I’m a lot more scared by what it means that torture porn TV is so popular than I am by torture porn itself.