“On ne naît pas femme: on le devient.
(One is not born, but becomes, a woman.)”
– Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex (1949), Book 2, pt. 4: “Childhood”
Like most men – nay, most people – of my generation (early-30s, somewhere between “X” and “Millenial”), I have something of a tricky relationship with the word “Feminist”. Having grown up with a steady dose what we might call “straw Feminists” (the Wymynists of PCU, Queen Latifah’s “Zora” from House Party 2, Marcy D’arcy from Married… with Children, to name but a few), I’m part of a generation that was taught to think of Feminists as a bunch of angry, unshaven, bra-burning lesbians who’d be a whole lot happier if they got themselves, to quote Kevin Smith’s Chasing Amy, “some serious deep-dicking”. I was taught that if a lady wanted to get anywhere in life, she had to be less ass-kicking Riot Grrl and more “Girl Power” Spice Girl. Most of all, I was taught that Feminism was an outdated idea that was out-of-place in its time as the fight which it represented has long since ended with both sides pleased with the outcome.
I began to realise that was bullshit when, as a young adult, I was encouraged to compare those lopsided arguments to those about another idea which I hold dear: Afrocentrism. Like Feminism, it’s constantly stereotyped as philosophy of demonised militants who are picking a fight that was long-ago won in their favour. Now whilst I’ll grant you that militants exist – not just for these two philosophies, but all – it’s myopic to regard them as the final word on such a philosophy and an outright lie to say the fight is over. Afrocentrism, like Feminism, is rudimentarily about fighting a never-ending battle for inclusion, not domination; it’s a group of people with common traits speaking out about the fact that other people are trying so hard to shut them the fuck up. And growing up I was told that Feminism and Afrocentrism were two somehow philosophies at odds with one another. And yet Huey P. Newton, founder of the militantly Afrocentric group The Black Panthers, acknowledged his own hang-ups sought to unite his group with Feminists and Gay Rights activists. (I should know, I performed a reading of his 1970 speech in which he promotes that very course of action.) I counted myself as one of the many enlightened Black men who openly embraced the word “Feminist” rather than cringing at its mere mention.
And yet, for the sake of full disclosure, I haven’t identified myself with the word in nearly three years. Not because I felt uncomfortable with, but because I felt I hadn’t earned it. For one thing, I have only a tangential knowledge of the history of Feminism (although THIS is an excellent place to start). What’s more, I’m pretty unapologetic in my love of things that don’t exactly line up with what I do know of the philosophy: my love of Kanye West; my enjoyment of stories that miserably fail the Bechdel test; and yes, objectifying women. Hell, I’d often refer to myself as “a Russ Meyer Feminist” as a piss-poor means of justifying my actions. But I’ve come to realise two important things. 1) thinking a follower of a philosophy is required to live their life only way adds to the problem of them being stereotyped. And 2), more importantly, I’m surrounded by passionate, intelligent people whom I love because they ALWAYS call me out on the shit I do. I don’t apologise for my Afrocentrism, nor for calling out White friends on racist bullshit. As such, I love that my Feminist friends take me to task when I unknowingly say something insensitive.
I sincerely believe in Gender Equality and will gladly do my part to bring it about. But I have no idea what it is to be in a woman’s skin and welcome any opportunity to have my eyes opened to it. Perhaps one day I’ll actually earn the term. Someone has to, what with so many pop stars and Oscar-winners running from it in droves. To say nothing of overrated sci-fi writers who blather on about how much they hate the word (seriously, this guy is pissing me off lately).
That’s where Young Jean Lee comes in.
I’ll admit that I hadn’t heard of Lee or her work before deciding to see the show. The quotes found with her name identify her as “the most adventurous downtown playwright of her generation”, whatever that means? A recent interview with Lily Janiak reveals that her intention with the show was to create “a Feminist utopia”. I was also told in advance that the show had no noticeable narrative, was laugh-out-loud funny, deeply moving, and indescribable all at once. That, and the press photos of naked women, was all I knew to expect.
So what can I tell you about it? Well it begins with six “female-coded” performers (one is transgender) over various bodily dimensions walking out from the audience onto the minimalist stage. The only props I recall are six pink parasols. There are no words spoken, though some are sung. There is music throughout. There’s a slo-mo fight sequence. The show lasts just over an hour. And yes, all of this is done with the six wearing not a stitch of clothing.
I realise that such a rudimentary description doesn’t exactly inform you of the piece’s merits, but that’s the trick in reviewing a show like this: its minimalist approach is something of a Rorschach test for each member of the audience. What do each audience member think of the female body? What do they want from it? What do they think it should or shouldn’t be doing? Whom do they think should be allowed to see/hear/touch/smell/taste it? Perhaps I’m reading too much into it, but I walked away from the show having seen a showcase of the female form in its most basic state (naked as the day you were born) and run through the gamut of emotions with no filter. It was a sight to see.
Lacking any narrative, the project reminded me of a Richard Linklater-esque series of vignettes connected only by the performers’ transitioning from one piece to another. An early piece set to Classical strings seemed to focus on societal hierarchy, with those adorned with pink parasols representing refinement and those without the unrefined. Another sequence set to Hip-Hop featured the performers acting (or rather dancing) out the daily grind of a domestic goddess: cooking, childcare, laundry, etc. And yet set to Euro Electronica features the performers’ bodies vibrating – seemingly uncontrollably – and making cat-like movements. No judgment is placed upon anyone, no grand sweeping statements are made. Rather the audience is a fly on the wall of a woman in motion, whatever said motion might be.
Well… the audience is mostly a fly on the wall. Nearly all of the performers get one solo spot on stage. Said sequences have them interacting with the audience. Regina Rocke dedicates her spot to a playful “la-la-la” vocalisation of SWV’s “Weak” that reminded me of The Delfonics’ “La-La (Means I Love You)”. Amelia Zirin-Brown flirts with various audience members by pantomiming a series of explicit sexual gestures. And Hilary Clark’s punk rock slamdance takes her off stage into the audience itself, where a few members join get to see her one-woman mosh up close. All of the sequences seem to represent the mind saying what it truly feels when there is no barrier between you and the person to whom you’re speaking.
As minimalist as the stage is, the technical aspects aren’t at all lacking. As previously stated, the performance area is identified only by a giant white square in the middle of a black stage. A thin projection screen hangs above, onto which designer Leah Gelpe shows a series of psychedelic images that complement the movements well. The near-ubiquitous music (the solo sequences are usually silent) creates a wonderfully atmospheric effect. The genres (as I could identify them) consisted of primarily Electro, with Hip-Hop, mod, ‘80s synth, ‘90s rock, and the aforementioned Punk and Classical. It’s something I’d love to have as a playlist, if I could.
So what, when all is said and done, does one take away from entitled Untitled Feminist Show but tells you nothing explicit about Feminism? Quite a lot, actually. I personally took away the reassurance of the idea that the female body is only limited by the restrictions placed upon it. The restrictions her were clothes and words. How would our impressions of these women have changed if we’d seen them, say, in petticoated dressed in the parasol sequence? In spiky punk attire during the slamdance sequence? Fully naked or clothed during the lovemaking sequence? As I said above: I’m not the greatest expert on Feminist theory or history. But I do know enough to know that it’s about a woman’s body being accepted for what it is; not what someone else thinks it should be. If you spend an hour watching six naked female body is motion, it just might change your mind of those bodies can do, say, and represent.
One More Thing: Because I believe the best way to end this post is with a few laughs, here’s the pants-pissingly hilarious web series Vag Magazine. If you’ve never seen it before, your life is incomplete. That it only lasted one season/series is a crime.