Originally published on HowlRound on September 14, 2016

It’s a fascinating time to be a feminist in the theatre. Thanks to The Kilroys, The Count, and women like Sumru Erkut and Ineke Ceder, we’ve made incredible progress in raising awareness of the lack of equity for women in our field. Actual change has been slower than we might like, but change takes time because for many people, becoming aware of a social problem doesn’t necessarily come with the knowledge of what to do about it. Simply being “woke” isn’t enough; a newly raised consciousness requires that you also put in time and work educating yourself about ways to create change. Catherine Castellani and The League of Professional Theatre Women are curating a series asking what a feminist play is, and I’d love to build on that important conversation by also addressing how to direct a feminist production.

First, I must offer my definition of feminist theatre. It is heavily inspired by post-structural analyses, which built off earlier feminist film theory by Laura Mulvey, who argued that the camera “constructs a specifically male viewing position by aligning or suturing the male’s gaze to that of the fictional hero, and by inviting him thereby both to identify narcissistically with that hero and to fetishize the female (turning her into an object of sexual stimulation).” Feminist theatre theory, accordingly, identified ways to disrupt the male gaze and avoid objectifying women by making the female characters subjects rather than objects: In order for the audience to see the world from their point of view, women characters have to act rather than simply be acted upon.

These feminist theatre theories were also shaped by the prevailing feminist thought of the time that there are more than two sexes of people and no one, normative way to combine sex, gendered behavior, and sexuality exists. Accordingly, feminist theatre has long sought to disrupt the male gaze by dismantling the binary of man vs. woman itself as well as the associated binaries of masculine/feminine and gay/straight, acknowledging instead that there are more than two possible identities.

My first feminist theatre theory book, edited by Helene Keyssar, includes essays such as “Realism, Narrative, and the Feminist Playwright,” by Jeanie Forte, and “Frame Up: Feminism, Psychoanalysis, and Theatre,” by Barbara Freedman.

During the same period, Kimberlé Crenshaw and Patricia Hill Collins were postulating the intersectional theory that issues of sex, gender, and sexuality cannot ever be completely separated from issues of class, race, ethnicity, and all of the other identities that overlap with that of gender. In fact, due to the intersection of gender with other aspects of identity, equality among the genders cannot be achieved without also addressing racial, class-based, and other forms of inequality. To that end, my feminism seeks to dismantle not just sex and gender binaries but also the uber-binary of normative (male, straight, cis, white, Judeo-Christian, upper-class, abled, etc.) vs. other.

Feminist theatre, then, according to my definition of feminism, is theatre that provides an alternative not just to the male gaze but also to the normative gaze by intervening in cultural assumptions about identity, dismantling binaries, and creating equality.

I emphasize what feminist theatre does over what it is because even the most feminist play may not do the work of feminism—creating equality—if the process is authoritarian. Most theatres still operate along the patriarchal model in which a single person sits at the top of a hierarchy and controls, if not all of the decision making, then at least who gets to be involved in the decision-making. But presenting the world from a non-normative perspective requires the inclusion in decision-making of non-normative perspectives.

Jill Dolan’s Feminist Spectator as Critic was my Bible when I began teaching feminist theatre. Her distinctions between liberal, cultural, and materialist feminism and her strategies for reading the politics of performance have deeply informed my understanding of the difference between a subject and an object.

This is why feminist directing begins with the process of casting and selecting the rest of the artists for the production. Working with as many women as possible is obviously key, but so is creating diversity and avoiding casting that reinforces inequality. A feminist director, for example, cannot choose to do a Latinx play and then not cast Latinx actors or hire any Latinx artistic staff, as that would result in a production in which the world is presented only from the perspective of a white gaze that fetishizes, rather than represents, Latinx culture.

To be inclusive, a feminist director’s vision has to be more malleable and permeable than some artists are used to. In What’s the Story: Essays About Art, Theatre, and Storytelling, Anne Bogart talks about the difference between the director’s job and the actor’s job: The director’s job is to direct the play; the actor’s job is to direct the role. This means that just as the director must have a vision of the whole, the actor must have a vision of how her role can be played. (I would add that the designers must also direct the design.) The director’s vision, therefore, must be strong but flexible enough to encompass to the actors’ and designers’ ideas.

A vision that adapts to the ideas brought to the table by each member of the team exists in a state of “dynamic equilibrium” in which balance (equilibrium) is maintained through the ability of the director to shift (be dynamic) in relation to the constantly shifting circumstances in which she is working. Fear of destabilization can often make directors say no to the ideas of others, but a vision built on the idea of dynamic equilibrium can adapt and expand to include big ideas that come from actors and a designers without losing its center.

Elin Diamond appeals to my love of Brecht by using his theories to postulate a feminist theatre that makes familiar gender norms seem strange and strange ideas about gender seem familiar.

Maintaining dynamic equilibrium is difficult. In reaction to an overwhelming number of vastly different viewpoints, a director might understandably compensate by going too far in the direction of fidelity to her original idea. Or, in response to a plethora of great ideas, a director may lose sight of an original vision that would have been worth maintaining.

Dynamic equilibrium is also a challenge when not every artist responds well to having to “direct their role.” Young artists in particular might feel less inspired by the freedom to try their own ideas than terrified of the abyss that has thereby opened up in front of them. In the excitement of not only coming up with my own ideas but also being inspired by everyone else’s, I sometimes fail to notice the team member who is not excited, not coming up with her own ideas, and/or not feeling that her ideas would be accepted should she try them. An ability to hear that person despite her silence, to see her despite her fear that she is invisible, is a difficult to develop but important skill for a feminist director to have.

Rosemary Malague’s more recent An Actress Prepares: Women and “the Method” details the historical and contemporary ways the Method puts women in the control of dominating directors and turns them into over-sexualized hysterics. 

To that end, the most useful manual for directing I have read recently is not a theatre book at all: It is Daring Greatly, by Brené Brown, recommended to me by playwright Jami Brandli. Brown’s research into shame identifies the defenses that people commonly employ when they find themselves in a vulnerable position, such as being asked to try their own artistic ideas out in front of other people, helps readers get beyond their own defenses, and teaches them to identify and empathize with other people who use them. Now that I can tell when a collaborator is having a hard time jumping into the abyss, I hope that I can be more present to her in the moment and more willing to be vulnerable myself.

Because the overall mode of the feminist director is to empower artists to make their own choices, when dealing with scenes that include violence, sex, or nudity, a feminist director has a responsibility to get consent from participants at every step of the process. The human body sometimes does not know the difference between real violence or sex and the mimesis of violence or sex, meaning that staging those moments requires particular attention to the safety, both physical and psychological, of everyone in the room. Using trained fight choreographers, mindfully choreographing sexual moments while repeatedly seeking renewed consent as the ideas evolve, and checking in with actors about how they are doing are tools directors can use to make theatre in a feminist way.

For theatre to intervene in cultural assumptions about identity, the process must intervene in assumptions about who can lead and what kind of processes are considered leading. For theatre to dismantle binaries, the process must dismantle the binary of authority/follower. And for theatre to create equality, the process must empower all artists to take action—aka be subjects—in their own areas. In addition to the content of the play and the choices made about performance, feminist directors, in order to make feminist theatre, must engage in a feminist process.

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Originally published by The Atlantic

Last week, Swedish movie theaters created a media foofaraw when they announced that they would begin providing a rating based on the Bechdel test for the films they screen. The test, created by comic artist Alison Bechdel in 1985, asks whether a film has at least two female characters and at least one scene in which they talk to one another about something other than a man—if it satisfies these criteria, Swedish theaters give it an A. The goal, according to Ellen Tejle, the director of an art-house cinema in Stockholm that is implementing the rating, is to draw attention to how few films pass the test and encourage filmmakers to make more movies with three-dimensional women characters in them.

When the news broke, writers immediately began questioning whether the test is an effective way to judge whether a film is feminist. The answer to that is no—but it’s important to note that that’s not actually something the test was intended to do. The illustrated character in Bechdel’s comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For who first espouses the idea says she uses it to determine not whether the movies are feminist but simply which movies to spend her money on. For those of us with a limited movie budget and a desire to see representation by and of women improve, choosing which films to support can be a political act; I like to spend my dollars on films directed by and/or written by women—and, not surprisingly, those films also usually pass the Bechdel test.

But to actually evaluate whether a film as a whole is feminist requires much more than a tally of female characters and the conversations between them. A film may have some feminist elements, some sexist elements, and some elements that are neither, because—and this is important—”feminism” is not simply the absence of “sexism.” The most reliable way to determine whether a film is feminist is to see it—and even then, the question is not a simple one.

It is, for example, possible for a character to be a feminist creation without the film in which she appears being feminist. When Pacific Rim premiered earlier this year, sci-fi fans eager to support Japanese actress Rinko Kikuchi invented a test named after her character, the Mako Mori test. Though Mori is the only female character in the film with more than five lines, she has her own goal that’s separate from the male lead’s: avenging the wrongful death of her parents. Thus, the Mako Mori test asks whether a film has “at least one female character who gets her own narrative arc that is not about supporting a man’s story.” This test is one way to determine whether a character is feminist—by which I don’t mean that she espouses feminist philosophy but rather than she is a fully-fleshed out human being—by asking whether she is a subject or an object. A subject has her own thoughts and desires upon which she acts, whereas a woman who has been objectified is acted upon by others.

However, as the inventor of the Mako Mori test notes, the question of whether a film is feminist cannot be determined solely based on whether the characters are. For example, some critics have argued that although Sandra Bullock’s Ryan Stone, the central character in Gravity, is a feminist creation (director Alfonso Cuarón resisted studio pressure to define her by a romantic relationship and have her be rescued at the end), putting the solution to her problem—spoiler alert—in the mouth of a male character, hallucinated or not, actually reinforces patriarchal norms. Likewise, not every film that fails the tests can be said to be entirely sexist. In fact it is hard to find anything sexist in  The Lord of the Rings, which fails the Bechdel test, other than the lack of female characters. Same goes for The Avengers, which fails both the Bechdel and the Mako Mori.

Muddying matters further, whether one believes a film is feminist varies depending on one’s definition of feminism. Liberal feminists—who believe that women and men are created equal and should be treated as such even though they often aren’t—would likely consider the X-Men films to be feminist because they feature female superheroes who fight alongside male ones, even though they live in a world ruled by men. Cultural feminists, who believe women’s biology and instincts make them different from men in ways that should be celebrated, might consider Steel Magnolias to be feminist even though the characters only talk about men and family. Material (more commonly referred to as intersectional) feminists—who believe that sex, gender, sexuality, race, religion, class, and other factors are all components of internal identities and signifiers of privilege (or the lack thereof) in society—may consider Bridesmaids to be feminist: Though it avoids race and religion, it deals with class, body size, sexuality, and the intersection of the many pressures women face in choosing mates, friends, and careers. (Shout out to Jill Dolan’s The Feminist Spectator as Critic for the categories liberal, cultural, and material feminism.)

But in evaluating whether a film is feminist, it’s perhaps most important to understand that the question of whether a film itself is feminist is often confused with the question of whether it is sexist, whereas in reality the absence of the one does not imply the presence of the other. Dead Poets Society is not generally considered feminist: It does not pass the Bechdel or the Mako Mori tests, and it does not espouse equality, celebrate female biology, or detail the multitude of factors that determine identity. But unless we’re willing to call Bridesmaids sexist for having only one fully fleshed-out male character and not dealing with the concerns of men, it would be unfair to call Dead Poets Society sexist simply for being a male-driven film.

The truth is that the definition of feminism varies as much between feminists as it does between feminists, non-feminists, and sexists. For those of us in the artistic and theoretical realms, one focus of feminism has long been disrupting false binaries like male/female, masculine/feminine, and gay/straight so that equality is not something that’s measured by whether you treat women the same way you treat men but by whether you regard everyone as a unique yet fully human individual. Feminist criticism needs to work to disrupt a binary, too—the one that defines art as either feminist or sexist. Even the most socially conscious creator can be influenced by the sexism that pervades our culture, whereas a creator interested in telling stories primarily about men can still make a feminist film—or at least a not-sexist one.

The Bechdel test, the Mako Mori test, and whether the film was written and/or directed by women are all great ways to determine how to spend your movie-going money in ways that support women’s stories. But evaluating the feminism, sexism, and/or lack thereof in a film as a whole rarely results in an easy conclusion—and it definitely requires that you see the movie.

Cross posted at Ms.

Monsters in movies are us, always us, one way or the other. …

John Carpenter

My love of horror movies is a product of both nature and of nurture. My mother loves them. My older brother says I ended up in theaters as a child watching movies that were definitely not rated for my age group because he convinced Mom, who already wanted to go anyway, that we could handle it. We could, too–despite some interesting nightmares, we didn’t turn into serial killers or become permanently scarred psychologically. Unless you consider our desire to have the crap scared out of us by a good horror movie “scarred.”

Horror movies provide direct access to what Aristotle called catharsis: the release or balancing of pity and fear. They work directly on the deepest reptile parts of our brains to evoke and then resolve fear. Good horror movies also use plot and characters to draw the audience in on an empathetic level, so that where there is pity there is more fear. And all horror movies contain tropes that can tell us about the deepest fears of the society out of which they come.

As an adult, I watch horror movies as what Princeton University professor Jill Dolan calls a “feminist spectator,” which means that I look at what they tell us about how our culture thinks and feels. Recent horror movies focused on families and children, adolescent women and single women reveal an unsettling persistence of patriarchal norms. (But, then again, horror is supposed to be unsettling, no?). They also suggest that changing family structures–even when change is for the better–can scare the bejeezus out of us.

If you are looking for a good scare this Halloween season, cast your feminist eye on this recent rash of family-centered horror movies in which inattentive fathers leave their children vulnerable to being taken by aliens, monsters and demons.

The Possession, currently in theaters, centers on the character of Clyde (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), whose job distracts him from attending to the needs of his daughters in the aftermath of his divorce from their mother, Stephanie (Kyra Sedgwick). He’s so distracted, in fact, that his youngest manages to get herself infected with a Dybbuk. This pre-pubescent girl in possession of an “open box,” “ring,” and “thing growing inside her,” speaks to our lingering cultural discomfort with women becoming sexually active before marriage. To do so is to marry a demon. The takeaway message: No matter the presence or skill of the mother, children can never be safe without their biological fathers around.

In Super 8 (2011), it takes an alien invasion to get distracted father Jackson Lamb (Kyle Chandler) to engage with his son. The mother in this family is out of the picture before the movie even begins: She died in a work-related accident. Literally, the consequence of her working outside of the home was death. Though both father and son are struggling with the loss, Lamb cannot connect with his son until the child’s life is threatened. That the alien has to take the son’s only remaining connection to his mother–a necklace–before it can cease threatening this community speaks to an underlying belief that mothers are expendable and replaceable; fathers are here to stay.

Finally, if you’ve seen Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, you will recognize his trademark trope of turning real childhood fears into metaphorical monsters in Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (2010). The central child of this movie, Sally, has been sent by her mother to live with her disinterested father Alex (Guy Pearce) and his new wife Kim (Katie Holmes). Kim is perfectly clear with her husband that she would not have chosen motherhood at this moment in her life and that she expects him to step up as a father. But, busy with his career, he doesn’t, and Sally’s fear that neither her father nor mother loves her, made manifest by the tiny-but-terrifying creatures that live under the house, threatens to overcome her. Ultimately, it’s up to the only potential mother around, Kim, to do what she can to protect the child–although the consequences of her of taking on this role are dire. The ideology is clear, if not feminist: A mother can be a martyr, but only a father can be a hero.

Stay tuned for more recommendations on how to watch horror movies as a feminist spectator. Who knows, I may even uncover one that is actually feminist. Suggestions welcome!

Photo from Flickr user MamboZ under license from Creative Commons 2.0