The crop-top is back. This ghost of girl-power, this spectre of the Spice Girls, has returned, ready to objectify – yet emancipate – a new generation of women as they ‘gram their way to body confidence. But here’s a certainty: I will never again wear a crop-top. You can though; and you can choose from over a thousand different versions on ASOS. But one of my mother’s sartorial absolutisms was ‘don’t wear a fashion a second time around,’ and, while I’ve flouted this rule on occasion, I’ll acquiesce happily when it comes to the crop-top.
And, regardless of the fact I won’t be wearing one, this second coming of the crop-top has been just so great for me. It’s helped me remember that everything is déjà vu. Culture operates on this certainty: we’ve seen it all before. And this déjà vu, this rehashing-of-things that characterises our reality, is peculiarly problematic if you’re a woman.
Last night I was driving down the M4, knackered, and needing something to screech along to. Grace’s ‘You Don’t Own Me’ feat. G. Eazy came on, and, uncannily, I realised I knew the lyrics: ‘Don’t tell me what to do! Don’t tell me what to say! And when I go out with you don’t put me on display!’ Deeply impressed by my own power of recall and exceptional vocals, I wondered how these lyrics had met with my unconscious. And then I remembered.
I remembered that before I’d heard ‘You Don’t Own Me’ on the radio, I’d heard it on a House of Fraser advert (one selling sexy dresses). And then I remembered that I knew ‘You Don’t Own Me’ because Dusty Springfield sang it. And then I remembered that I also knew it from The First Wives’ Club. Later, around junction 15, I remembered that ‘You Don’t Own Me’ wasn’t even Dusty’s, but was, in fact, recorded by a 17-year-old, Lesley Gore, who released the original in ‘63. And it’s also been reappropriated a helluva lot of other times. But, when I got home, I googled the song and was shocked/not-shocked to discover that ‘You Don’t Own Me’ wasn’t written by Gore; it was written by two men, John Madara and David White. Go figure, Kesha. ‘You Don’t Own Me.’ Oh, yes, actually, you probably do.
But it’s not just that these cultural artefacts are persistently recycled and sold to us again and again and again and again; it’s that, for women, they resurface for a particular reason. ‘You Don’t Own Me’ operates just like the crop-top: referencing both the emancipatory potential of the thing while, paradoxically, utilizing objectification as the vehicle for this emancipation. And this balancing act, between emancipation and oppression, is another sure thing about women’s existence. We’re not just presented eerily with the same things; these things work to reinforce a patriarchy we like to pretend is no longer part of the deal.
But instead of burning our crop-tops (advisable but optional), what about doing away with the root of the problem instead? ‘You Don’t Own Me’ implies that the problem is men. Or the man to whom the female singer is addressing when she says things such as ‘you don’t own me; don’t say I can’t go with other boys.’ Some separatists might argue that men – or their attitudes – are the problem. But, generally, that’s not the case and we shouldn’t reach for our SCUM Manifestoes just yet. If we put the implied man of ‘You Don’t Own Me’ to the side for one minute, the song still carries with it the problems I’ve been discussing. So where are the problems if they’re not with the man? Are they in the self-presentation of the female singer? Is it okay to objectify oneself at the same time as reminding men they shouldn’t do the same? Is it okay to wear a crop-top while at the same time saying ‘don’t put me on display’ – as the song does? Well, it kind of has to be okay, doesn’t it? Emancipation has to be self-determination – however problematically that may manifest.
Perhaps the problem is in the words themselves. Some feminists have argued that language is not a neutral medium and is, in itself, an instrument of patriarchy. It’s not the man in ‘You Don’t Own Me’ who oppresses the woman and it’s not the woman who oppresses herself; it’s the language through which she has to express herself and relate to the world. Language is about communication, and we tend to think that in an effective communication meaning is certain and constant. But if meaning is to be certain and constant then it needs to be anchored to something other than language. It needs to have a proper place, to be present in a particular moment, not floating about in a sea of words. Some people, like that Derrida, have argued that all of Western metaphysics is based on this false idea of presence, and they call this way of thinking logocentrism. If Twitter had been around when Derrida was writing then he probably wouldn’t have explained logocentrism thus: if I jokingly call my friend a total slut then the communication is effective because she gets that I’m being all, like, ironic. But, if I tweet the same thing then I am suddenly a bully and a sexist because the communication has been separated from its present moment. Right? Wrong! Because, according to Derrida, speech is no more ‘present’ than writing. In case that’s still confusing then he makes things clearer by throwing in the term phallogocentricism – which describes a way of thinking based on a binary between presence and absence, where in symbolic terms the penis is present, and the woman’s thing is… At least I think that’s what it means. Maybe.
But the key point is that Phallogocentricism implies that logic, presence and certainty are dominant and inextricably linked to maleness. Écriture Féminine, a strain of feminist theory, argues that there is a way in which we can counteract the patriarchal in language; we can privilege non-meaning, cyclical, non-linear writings that disrupt the certainty of communication. Cixous reminds us that these techniques are not at all limited to female writers; Genet and Joyce, for example, write an Écriture Féminine, but it is the women that I want to talk about here.
In her glorious poem ‘From The Garden’, Anne Sexton sums all this up rather well. She says: ‘Put your mouthful of words away/ and come with me to watch/ the lilies open in such a field,/ growing there like yachts,/ slowly steering their petals/ without nurses or clocks.’ I like the idea of summing up Écriture Féminine with this compelling image: moving away from ‘mouthful[s] of words’ and ‘clocks’ – ideas of linear time and logic. But stylistically the poem isn’t a piece of Écriture Féminine; its language – and meaning –is clear. The point of Écriture Féminine is to find a way of articulating something other than meaning through words and to break with male traditions intrinsic in language and literary systems.
And, now, finally, I get to Cleansed. The reason I quoted Sexton, above, is because I’d gone back to her work after listening to the Radio 4 interview with Mitchell on directing Cleansed. Here, when discussing Kane’s work, Mitchell aligns the language projects in Cleansed and Kane’s other plays with both Sexton’s and Woolf’s work. It’s an interesting comparison that works to consciously contextualise Kane in a particular taxonomy of writers who did (female) things with language – either confessionally or stylistically. The other thing about Mitchell’s comparison, though, is that Woolf and Sexton, like Kane, all struggled with clinical depression and all three committed suicide. I’m not sure which is more important a comparison: the language projects or the suicides or whether, indeed, there’s a relationship between the two. And, although criticism has, so far, focussed on the violence in Mitchell’s/Kane’s Cleansed and audience reaction to it, I think Mitchell’s alignment of Kane to Sexton and Woolf is interesting because it highlights another type of violence here: linguistic.
One of the most important techniques for writing poetry is linguistic violence: taking a word out of context and repositioning it in a phrase; for example, to use a noun instead of an adjective, or to use a speech-based adjective in the written form. My to-hand example of this is a line from a poem by a friend, Dan Sluman: ‘Back then, you were so London.’ The use of the concrete noun as an adjective is colloquially acceptable but feels fresh on the page. It’s a form of linguistic violence that simultaneously alienates, repels and appeals; it works in the same way, perhaps, as objectification does. Through the distance we can create desire and jouissance. This violence is where we find innovation amongst all the spectres of language and culture.
Kane deploys this technique on a much larger scale. Cleansed cracks open an Anglophonic metaphor, or idiom, or simile (‘Love is Torture/Violence/Auschwitz) and, in the crack, forces a mise-en-scène that is entirely spawned from language but actualised visually. We pretend that language is our world, but Kane’s technique prevents us from seeing through language and forces us, instead, to see language. The metaphor is played out instead of looked through.
This language project of Kane’s is a challenge to both the theatre-maker and the spectator. Firstly, the linguistic violence of cleaving open a metaphor is further compounded by Kane’s choice of metaphor. The metaphor hasn’t just been cracked open; it’s been brought to life, Frankenstein-like, with people and stories and actions, to literally play it out. But just because the language has been violently actualised, it still only exists on the page: the mise-en-scène, while existing in the metaphor, is still only an idea of one, written down. Mitchell’s job then, in a metaphorical sense, is to scrape Kane’s cracked open metaphor off the page and fully realise the linguistic violence by showing us that which we normally look through. And the linguistic violence is even more complex than that; in order to force the mise-en-scène into the metaphor, Kane deploys a whole string of Écriture Féminine techniques (non-linearity, repetition, fragmentation etc.).
The result: everything about Cleansed felt wrong. Even the design felt wrong – at first. But this wrongness, this uncertainty, is the whole point. And the cultural value of this uncertainty is big: it disrupts the certainties – particularly linguistic certainties – in which we are ordinarily bound. More specifically, Kane and Mitchell’s work in uncertainty is important because – in many different ways – it provides some antithesis to a system of certainties and repetitions that engulfs (women’s) realities and usually characterises women’s cultural ephemera.
And the scary thought is that if what pop songs and fashions mean isn’t fixed and determined by presence, if their meaning can’t be attributed to one singer or wearer or gazer, if a crop top can mean – must mean – both emancipation and objectification, then aren’t even our deepest emotions open to the same interminable play of supplementarity? If the idea of emancipation is inseparable from the idea of oppression, isn’t the idea of love inseparable from the idea of violence?