Some thoughts on calling plays ‘Feminist’ & A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing

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The ubiquity of the term ‘feminist theatre’ does my head in a bit. Last week, I saw three plays, each described by their makers or critics as ‘feminist productions’ (Escaped Alone, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, and A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing). And, I’m not going to argue here that they weren’t, but, other times I hear the term ‘feminist production’, I get this fretfulness, mostly about how the phrase is bandied about pre-emptively, especially as some kind of tag to assure us of a play’s relevancy or significance.

It’s mostly my problem. And, normally, I’m okay about productions being heralded as feminist – once I’ve seen them and I think ‘alright, fair play, sure’, but, sometimes, worse case scenario: I’m infuriated that I’ve been enticed to spectate something on the basis of its emancipatory potential, only to find the entire thing politically repugnant i.e. Peter Bradshaw on Bridesmaids a few years ago, when I left, super melodramatically, in front of a cinema full of other women otherwise pissing themselves. That’s embarrassing to admit, but I think it’s really, really important that, culturally, we resist defining things as feminist if they’re decidedly the opposite or even not quite the thing.

But then again the term is so heavily problematised that it’s no wonder we’ve lost any sense of what it is, or when to use it. A kind of working definition of a ‘feminist production’ seems to be anything about women, or casting women in central roles, or focused on ‘women’s experiences’ (whatever they are) or, more properly, playmaking that constitutes a response to women’s marginalisation within cultural, historical or social contexts and probably, therefore, explores the effects of male privilege simultaneously. And all the plays I saw last week were feminist by these definitions. But, is it enough?

One of the things about a mid-year academic job change is I’ve had to pick up lots of teaching where the subject matter has been predetermined. This has meant that, for first year students, I’ve been delivering a practical module with a special emphasis on Naturalism. And, one of the things I like to focus on when I talk about Naturalism is its persistent examination of women: Térèse, Julie, Nora, Hedda Gabler, Nina, Blanche, Mrs Warren, Candida, Major Barbara etc. Of course there were central female characters before the 1800s, but this movement constituted a significant shift in how visible women were in narrative and how they were portrayed. But this focus on women within this particular aesthetic doesn’t depart from a conventional or contemporary definition of a feminist work as something, that, however haphazardly and to whatever purpose, puts a woman CS.

The crucial difference, though, is these plays’ material importance to social transitions in the same period. Naturalist theatre was contemporaneous with significant shifts in women’s rights: in Norway, women’s inheritance rights were changing (1854); unmarried women were granted independence from male guardianship (1863) and the right to work in any trade (1866). Later, when Naturalism had become the dominant form in theatre, women secured the vote (1913 in Norway; 1918 in England). And I’m not suggesting anything particularly causal about these plays and their significance to social changes, but, then again, I do kind-of think, I know, I know, idealistically, that if we’re going to call something feminist, it has to constitute more than just a crie de coeur; it has to contribute to a call for action.

And who knows: maybe Escaped Alone and A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing will contribute something to the feminist movement, but, fuck me, I’m sick of swallowing the suggestion that something is feminist on the basis that it forces me to watch women suffer and the implication that that in itself is transformative. Because it just isn’t.

And yet, I can’t get A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing out of my head or my heart. So I’ll just posit this most visceral and mesmeric monologue from it here: read it, watch the youtube clip. And I’ll say that, while I’m not sure it will straightforwardly raise any of that feminist revolutionary action I’m clearly angling for as part of any definition, it is the most incredible empathy-inducing piece of prose, burdened by such a disturbing rhythm, such barbarous image work, such ferocious repetition and the play slings it at you, unexpectedly, and now it’s sticking to my other thoughts about women and feminism and theatre and it has this richness, this energy, that might inform them. And maybe, maybe, that’s how art becomes feminist – intangibly, poetically, through a kind-of Kristevean semiotics.

I met a man. I met a man. I let him throw me round the bed. And smoked, me, spliffs and choked my neck until I said I was dead. I met a man who took me for walks. Long ones in the country. I offer up. I offer up in the hedge. I met a man I met with her. She and me and his friend to bars at night and drink champagne and bought me chips at every teatime. I met a man with condoms in his pockets. Don’t use them. He loves children in his heart. No. I met a man who knew me once. Who said come back marry me live on my farm. No. I met a man who was a priest I didn’t I did. Just as well as many another one would. I met a man. I met a man. Who said he’d pay me by the month. Who said he’d keep me up in style and I’d be waiting when he arrived. No is what I say. I met a man who hit me a smack. I met a man who cracked my arm. I met a man who said what are you doing out so late at night. I met a man. I met a man. And I lay down. And slapped and cried and wined and dined. I met a man and many more and I didn’t know you at all.

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