Securing a Place of Power: Reinventing the Role of Women in Theatrical Representation

Securing a Place of Power: Reinventing the Role of Women in Theatrical Representation

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Securing a Place of Power: Reinventing the Role of Women in Theatrical Representation

In The Feminist Spectator as Critic, Jill Dolan examines the current hegemony of the “white, heterosexual, middle-class male” (121) as the subject of representation in theater. She examines why feminist attempts to expose this bias and use it to change the objectification of the roles of women have failed, when this has even been attempted, and furnishes her hypothesis on how this failure can be prevented.

In the dominant illusionist tradition of American theater, the individuality of the spectator is subsumed in the singular mass of the audience. The face most often given to this mass audience is that of the “white, heterosexual, middle-class male” (121). Women’s roles are objectified, and, in the process, the feminist spectator is alienated as her gender, race, class, and/or sexual orientation have no relation to what is presented onstage.

Feminism is a critique of the prevailing male-dominated social norm that seeks to change this norm and therefore is the platform from which to change its domination in theater. Dolan enumerates three segments of American feminism: liberal, cultural or radical, and materialist. She credits liberal feminism with the bolstering of female visibility and involvement in theater and acknowledges the women-affirming aspects of cultural feminism, but she finds them both flawed and unsuitable for an effective attack on the male domination of theater.

Materialist feminism looks at women as a class, oppressed by material conditions and social relations. It considers gender as a social construct, in the service of the dominant culture’s ideology and accepted as normative by the less powerful, which is oppressive to both men and women. It rejects the universality of the mythical Woman and instead views women as historical subjects whose position in the social structures of the dominant culture is influenced by race, class, and sexual orientation.

Materialist feminism sees as necessity the unmasking of the ideas of gender and power of the dominant culture and thus what most theater and performance represents. Materialist feminism does not aim to judge, but to examine the ways in which a performance delivers its ideological message, in order to formulate strategies for combating the oppressive cultural assumptions inherent in this message. Its goal is “to affect a larger cultural change in the ideological and material condition of women and men” (18), and it sees the necessity of politically analyzing the current condition and its representational

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replications in order to revision theater and performance for social change.

Dolan cites the theatrical canon as one of the main perpetrators in this cycle of female
objectification and oppression. As the standard against which theater is measured, the canon claims universality, while promoting male-oriented/dominated plays. The power invested in the canon allows it to perpetuate the “dictums of the dominant ideology it represents” (32) and therefore to perpetuate the objectification of women and the domination of men. In order for a feminist play to be accepted into the canon, it must subjugate itself to this male domination. The canon is an excellent illustration of the problematic concept of “universality”: rather than being truly universal, a canon is, in fact, promoted as universal by the dominant culture, thereby perpetuating female objectification and oppression, and denying historical, cultural, social, and sexual difference. For these reasons, Dolan’s goal is not acceptance into this canon, nor is it creation of a separate feminist canon as the concept of universality is still problematic and oppressive. In order to break the oppressive cycle of female objectification the concept of universality creates, Dolan sees the abolition of the canon as [a] necessary step.

Historically in theater, women have always been objectified by representation and denied
subjectivity because of the ideology of the underlying narrative, which is driven by male desire. To deconstruct performance from a feminist point of view necessitates uncovering this underlying ideology, which no performance is without. Perceptual stimuli cannot be without ideology, and ideology plays a large role in interpretation. In the ideology of the theatrical tradition, “women become objects pursued for the fulfillment of male desire” (49); they are treated as commodities which are theoretically equal but completely exterior. In order for this to change, women’s desire must obtain a place in representation like the one male desire already holds. However, representation is historically linked to real relations, and the male body does not have the same history of objectification that the female body does. To overcome this, an outside viewpoint must be sought.

Pornography has become the center of this debate over the role of sexuality in performance and the representation of women as objects or subjects. Dolan cites two groups of feminists split over this debate: those who are prosex and therefore, proporn as a cultural production of sexual fantasies, and those who are antiporn, believing that pornography contributes to sexual violence against women. Dolan believes that a victory on the part of the antipornography feminists is dangerous to the position of women in theater. For Dolan, the censoring of porn is equal to legislation against fantasy, which
would result in “the free expression of self and sexuality slipping into a totalitarian framework” (60). If women’s desire is to obtain the same place in performance as men’s, this would be a crucial blow.

Dolan also worries about the stance cultural feminism takes on the issue of sexuality in
performance. She sees cultural feminist productions as avoiding the issue by privileging spirituality. However, as the view of male desire leading to violence against women leads to the concept of desire as power, this privileging then removes the possibilities for representing women with power. Privileging spirituality does not remove the body from performance but does attempt to lower its importance.
Cultural feminists attempt to envision the nude female as outside of the system of representation that objectifies women, but this project cannot meet with success as it disregard the external gender codes and markings that operate on and within the body’s communication of meaning, and also ignores the power and importance of historical structures. The performance is still accountable to male-defined standards for acceptable display and is, therefore, caught in the ideology that objectifies women.
According to Dolan, “women always bear the mark and meaning of their sex, which inscribes them within a cultural hierarchy” (63), and disregarding this hierarchy does not exempt the performance from it.

To Dolan, it is necessary to work from an outside viewpoint that manipulates the structures of the dominant ideology. She uses lesbian performance as her example for the success that is possible within this strategy. Fantasy is an important element in the lesbian performance context, and, by playing with fantasies of sexual and gender roles, there is the possibility of changing the “gender coded structures of power” (68). The lesbian performance stage is motivated by different kinds of desire; therefore, it has the potential to manipulate the performance elements of style, role, costume, gender,
and power into alternative cultural meanings and values. Thus, desire does not have to be “a male trap that automatically objectifies and oppresses women” (80), if it is exchanged differently. The use of fantasy and experimentation with gender roles can be used to reclaim power, sexuality, and desire from the male-dominated sphere, with limitless possibilities for revision.

Dolan sees traditional theatrical representations as based on a collective male audience, which leaves women unarticulated and objectified. In this representation, the female body is presented only as the site of male desire; it is framed exclusively by a heterosexual contract. To disrupt this representation, spectators should be led to question the ideological nature of the interactions and relationships, and to be estranged from the illusions presented to them. The spectator must be led to question the traditional representation. As steps toward this, the generic spectator must be denied and the illusion of passivity removed, and illusion must be removed and the apparatus of theater revealed (i.e., the performer should merely display, and not become, the character). One way to force this questioning is through the use of the lesbian subject, as she can signify an existence outside of the structure of heterosexual culture and its representations. The representation of gender that is
oppressive is based on compulsory heterosexuality; therefore, the lesbian subject confounds “the sign system that denotes woman” (117), rather than simply ignoring it.

The process of social change through changing the dominant cultural ideologies is perpetuated by theater is, to Dolan, a work in progress. She sees the lesbian subject as the viewpoint that is as close as possible to being outside of traditional representation and therefore the “most radical position from which to subvert representation” (119). However, there must be a continual reevaluation of form,
content, and context for there to be success in this reinvention. Materialist feminism acknowledges “the varied responses of spectator missed across ideologies of gender, sexuality, race, and class” (121) and, by acknowledging the lack of universality, provides the perfect place from which to formulate (and continually reinvent) strategies to overturn the domination of the white, heterosexual, middle-class male as the subject of representation in theater and performance.

Work Cited

Dolan, Jill. The Feminist Spectator as Critic. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1991.
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