The Feminist Gaze by Megan Vaughan

 

This is the second time I’ve read for Bruntwood. In the two years since the 2015 competition I’ve been struck by images from those plays at the most unexpected times. It’s the images you remember, long after specific lines have dissolved in your memory. A flock of crows, a deserted train station, deck chairs in a lethargic summer. Moments of action or of stillness which somehow encapsulate all the surrounding words at once.

Characters too, who you see queuing at the post office or driving an uber or sitting outside the British Library. There are others, of course, but maybe you never meet them because of where you go or who you are, or maybe it’s because those people don’t really exist; they were just narrative tools, plot devices.

The one I remember most clearly is the girl who arrived in a new place, searching for someone or something. It all felt very dreamlike, very unclear, but the specifics didn’t matter to me. I felt like she did: as if there was a certain jigsaw piece just out of reach, and a hard-working, methodical approach would surely complete the puzzle. I remember feeling overwhelmed with sadness when she never found the thing, whatever it was, enough to make me wonder if the whole story was really an exorcism of grief.

I’ve mostly forgotten the shit ones. The ones that bored me or made me angry or made me want to march out the door and have it out with the writer, ask them if they realise the damaging effect their words can have. I’ve moved on from them – something I try to remember now, as I start my 2017 reading and immediately hit a seam of new plays that trample on women, patronise us, imprison us, use us as therapists and secretaries and cum socks. Plays which specify the body shape of actresses, right down to how ‘perky’ the nipples should be, then write more developed roles for intergalactic mutant frog-men. I look forward to forgetting all these too, as soon as I possibly can.

As I read I think about the male gaze, and what that might mean for images that aren’t even quite images yet. In the visual arts, John Berger wrote about the way femininity has been defined in by its surveyor, by its collector, something which is somehow made strange by the act of reading. In film, Laura Mulvey explained how the camera lens becomes gendered – a heterosexual man. Women’s active spectatorship is taken from them by angles that position their bodies as objects of desire

In the most troubling of the plays I read, I feel myself becoming complicite in this gendered viewpoint. As I read I am being stripped of my own femininity, made to think like a teenage boy, forced to look down on the women who are my equals and comrades. I try to resist ‘watching’ the characters as I read, instead hoping that they might live as they wish, that they might retain some kind of fluidity – perhaps they will perform differently for another reader.

The critic and academic Jill Dolan, author of the Feminist Spectator blog at Princeton University, exercises ‘critical generosity’ when she writes about theatre, or art, or tv. In the past people have balked at this – it’s not ‘real’ criticism if you only talk about what you like (etc etc YAWN) – but Dolan’s ‘generosity’ has allowed her to prioritise work which is underrepresented in the canon, or deserves celebrating for its fair representation or progressive politics. She expends her energies only where they are warranted, redistributing attention and praise. As I sit in judgement of each play I read for Bruntwood, I ask myself what the most critically generous decision would be. What do I want to celebrate? How do I want to redistribute attention and praise? What responsibility does a playwriting prize even have to the world?

When they arrive, the answers to those questions appear almost unexpectedly. They hit me like sudden rain, like seeing an ex in the supermarket, or hearing a favourite song from my school days through an open window. Or in a different way: like a discovery, a cure for an ailment I didn’t know I had, a secret that I’ve uncovered but that I’m not allowed to tell. I type a feverish love letter into the feedback portal, press submit, then go and read it all over again.

Perhaps they clean a lens for me, shake the ground I stand on a little. Perhaps they take my feminist gaze and they turn it, point it towards another intersection, to another voice and another perspective. Remind me of my class privilege, my insider status, my whiteness. These are the stories I yearn for but could never articulate my need for. The plays that make me question everything, starting with myself… these are the plays that are most urgent of all.

7 Aug 2017

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  1. I can’t help but think this is a depressing post to share on a playwriting competition’s reading process.

    Of course, too many female characters are underwritten. Of course references to how perky parts of women’s body should be are crazy. But there is not the same obligation to truthful representation in a play, film or novel as there is in an article or piece of reportage. You cannot approach a piece of art asking whether you politically agree with the representations of its characters whilst also remaining open minded about its artistic merit. The idea that you would disregard a play or a piece of writing because you disagreed politically with the way the characters are presented narrows a reader’s capacity to appreciate the art on its own terms.

    Nor is it a playwright’s job to incite any political reaction in the reader. The author suggests the ‘most urgent’ plays will ‘remind people of their whiteness’. Black people should not feel the need to write any particular kind of politics into their play and nor should men should not feel the need to write any feminist content into their play. The idea that this is an ‘urgent’ priority for a playwriting competition is bonkers.

    A playwriting competition owes it to the world to review and present plays on their own terms. Nothing else. Playwrights don’t have to write articles or manifestos. Don’t judge plays on how they treat women, or whether there are enough ethnic/gender/pshyco diverse people in them. Don’t judge them on how they explore particular social issues. Definitely don’t judge them for how they make white people think about their whiteness. Judge them for artistic value. Otherwise a playwriting competition, uniquely placed to judge plays on their merits, will completely miss the vital point it could play in a world so dominated with identity politics.

    by James Wang
    5:44 pm, 8 Aug 2017
  2. Thanks for your comment James. I did wonder if this blog might provoke some thoughts about the connection between identity and quality – it’s always an interesting question.

    I guess it comes down to what you think theatre is for. If, like me, you believe it is a form which is inherently hopeful in its outlook and its mission, then this will be fundamental to any judgement of artistic quality.

    I see quality in plays which show us how the world might be, or which offer an alternative story or an alternative lens, or which alert an audience to their collective, social responsibility in some way. Often, the plays which fulfil these markers of excellence involve marginalised characters or perspectives, something which I focused on for my blog post, but I am equally able to find the hope I am looking for in plays about middle-class white men and their middle-class white experiences, provided they do one of those other things – show me how the world could be, or show me why I should change it.

    Which brings me to your comment about ‘truthful representation’ and theatre as ‘reportage’, which seems to imply that you think the subjugation of women (and other marginalised groups) is somehow fantastical, manufactured in order to make a political point. I can’t quite believe that you think this, and can only imagine I’ve misunderstood your meaning. Therefore I will give you the benefit of the doubt, as I have done with several of the plays I have marked for a third read during phase 2. It is not for me to say, categorically, what meanings might be unlocked in production. I guess this is what is great about Bruntwood: there is a team of people reading each play, and others in the team might interpret artistic quality (and indeed, politics) differently.

    by Megan Vaughan
    12:51 pm, 9 Aug 2017
  3. Thanks Megan for responding to James. I share some of his concerns but also some of your aspirations. That said, I’m confused by this emphasis on ‘hope’. While ‘hopeless’ drama would probably be very boring, ‘hopeful’ theatre feels a little bit prescriptive and overly determined. Humans tend to be too messy (and good art even messier) for the confines of a certain type of utopian identity politics your comment perhaps implies.

    by Ed
    6:05 pm, 17 Aug 2017
  4. Thanks Megan, for the honesty of your blog. For many, it is impossible to understand how the creation of character, intrinsically and inherently key to the drama of any play, has been and is guided by the invisible force of an historical attitude which has stereotyped so much of female representation and left femaleness, often unconsciously, bound and gagged by all who now create women characters and the narratives wrought around them.

    All those years of influence that reach into the dark recesses of the creative brain and stunt the possibilities without anyone being the wiser. All we need to do us re-watch Mash the movie to understand how far we’ve come and how far we’ve yet to go. Watching the film in 2017 shocks because of what is at its core – an idea of women that all took as normal and acceptable at the time. So much so that the film was a huge hit – enjoyed by both sexes. I remember laughing at it as a young girl and being accepting of the premis that women are lesser and so to be treated as lesser. I always thought of myself as lesser because that’s what so much of film and theatre showed me. Now I know differently and am very keen to see the world of culture tell truths about the society of today rather than uphold a legacy of history. We can’t just accept plays as plays without questioning the core – if that core propagates a problem without holding it up to question itself.

    by Susan
    3:52 pm, 2 Sep 2017
  5. I’m with you 100%, Megan Vaughan.

    It is not difficult to write plays treating women and men equally. In fact, it comes naturally — if the playwright automatically thinks and feels it every day; it would feel repellent, offensive, an anathema, for the writer to exploit and degrade women characters.

    Your objection to sexist writing needs amplifying. Bruntwood needs to push the issue to the forefront in its list of qualifyingly submittable plays as well as in the voices of the Bruntwood judges and in the readers’ reports.

    Humane treatment of people through the portal of plays’ characters is top priority. Always.

    My appreciation for your strong well wrought article.

    by Judy Prince
    6:27 pm, 3 Sep 2017