Two actors on stage
Karla Benitez Orellana and Olga Bezpaltchikova in Brooklyn Bridge by Melissa James Gibson. Photo by Tim Trumble, courtesy of the ASU Herberger Institute for the Design and the Arts.

Catherine Castellani’s “What Is a Feminist Play, Anyway?: Getting Specific” was a wonderful way to create dialogue about contemporary feminist theatre and feminist playwriting practice. However, advocating an “open definition” permits almost any play or playwright to claim a work is feminist. As Kim Solga writes in theatre and feminism, men and women who use feminism as “a marker of identity” must “push its boundaries by critically investigating its meanings and impacts.”

This essay proposes criteria and ways of thinking about what it means for a play or other theatrical work to be considered feminist.

1. Fights for Liberation/Struggles Against Patriarchy: Feminist plays dramatize women’s resistance and marginalization within social and cultural systems of straight white male supremacy and dominance. Characters may be in engaged in these struggles on a small or large scale whether it’s a fight for women’s rights or discovering one’s voice or true talent in a world that does not acknowledge women’s achievements. A feminist play could also present a different (anti-patriarchal) way of seeing and being. Brooklyn Bridge by Melissa James Gibson is about a girl from an immigrant background who enlists the help of her neighbors in writing a school paper about the Brooklyn Bridge. The play redefines community among strangers in a world that increasingly alienates us from one another. Plays that challenge patriarchal systems and the status quo are feminist plays.

2. Women Characters in Nontraditional Roles: Typical jobs and positions held by men include scientists and doctors, mechanics and garbage collectors, mathematicians and physicists, business peoples and scions of industry. When these same jobs and positions are held by a woman, she resists being defined by her “femininity” or “a woman’s place.” Often women in nontraditional roles face opposition from society (both male and female) for their chosen profession or calling. Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls has a slew of women who defied traditional roles in a play that redefines women’s success. David Auburn’s Proof, features a female mathematician and Sylvia Milo’s The Other Mozart features Mozart’s’ composer sister. Women in plays featuring the working class include D. W. Gregory’s Radium Girls and Josephina Lopez’s Real Women Have Curves (play and movie).

3. Women not Defined by being Mothers, Wives, Daughters, or Doormats: They can be these things, but that should not be the primary role that defines them. Women should also not be defined in relation to men. In the first play of Mac Rogers Honeycomb Trilogy, Advance Man, Amelia, the wife of Bill Cooke and mother to two children, has no independent identity outside her role as wife and mother. She plays a supporting role and antagonist that enables and gets in the way of the more important action of the male protagonist. A good example of a woman not defined by her relation to other men is Wendy Wasserstein’s American Daughter. The protagonist Lyssa Dent Hughes is the daughter of a senator and the great-granddaughter of Ulysses S. Grant. She is also a wife and mother. However, Lyssa is also an accomplished hospital administrator and is being nominated for surgeon general. Her friendship with Judith, a Jewish African-American, likewise shows her connection to others outside the nuclear family.

4. Welfare of the Community Above the Individual: In his essay “A Plea for Radical Children’s Literature,” Herbert Khol stresses that radical stories have the following characteristics: “the major social force in the story is the community or some natural social group larger than the family” and that “collective action is involved.” A good example comes from the recently released stage play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. When Scorpius Malfoy realizes that the past he and Albus Potter change is better for Scorpius but worse off for the world (“I am better off. But the world is not better.”), the son of Draco goes back to correct the past, even at personal cost to himself.

5. It’s All About the Eco-System, Sustainability, and Balance: In a April 22, 2016, HowlRound essay, Chantal Bilodeau in “Why I’m Breaking Up with Aristotle?” argued that the hierarchal pyramidal worldview in which Western drama is based “justif[ies] a slew of abusive behaviors such as feudalism, colonialism, slavery, genocide, violence against women and children, economic injustices, the plundering of natural resources, etc.,” and goes on to state that the this worldview promotes values of competition, control, and scarcity. Instead, she advocates for a more egalitarian “heterarchical worldview,” one which organizes relationships “laterally instead of vertically.” Such a system “promotes innovation, collaboration, and creativity” and “works on the assumption of abundance.” A good example which falls under the previous heading is How to End Poverty in 90 Minutes (HTEP), which brings attention to poverty in a community and utilizes community resources (in the form of the price of admission) in order to work towards solutions.

6. Characters Who Eschew Violence and Utilize Nonviolent Problem Solving. This doesn’t mean that a woman never picks up a sword to slay the proverbial dragon, but violence is always a means of last resort, and feminist heroes will engage in nonviolent, nonaggressive, nonoppressive options, especially when the customary response is aggressive or violent action. Jennifer Stuller in the book Ink-Stained Amazons and Cinematic Warriors: Superwomen in Modern Mythology stresses female heroes who incorporate “redemption, collaboration, and compassion” when battling enemy forces. In the early suffragette play, Votes for Women by Elizabeth Robins, the public square, not the battlefield, is the contested territory in the fight for women’s rights. Robins’s play not only brought “street politics of women's suffrage to the stage,” it also displayed women’s transition from silence to speech at a time when women were discouraged from speaking in public

7. Characters Who Favor Cooperation over Conflict: Conflict is not the only form of drama. Contrast, mystery, revelation, surprise, and suspense are other types of dramatic plot structures that don’t necessarily include conflict. An example is the relationship between Bennet sisters Elizabeth and Jane in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Their relationship is more a study of contrast than conflict. Jane sees the good in everyone while Elizabeth is more discerning and quick to judge. There’s not a lot of friction between the two sisters. Each wants what’s best for the other although both have different ideas on how this is achieved.

8. Volunteers/Not Chosen Ones: Katniss Everdeen in the book series The Hunger Games wins the award for best volunteerism when she offers herself as tribute in place of her sister Prim at The Reaping. King Arthur, Luke Skywalker, Harry Potter, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Neo from The Matrix are all examples of chosen ones. Chosen Ones imply that there is something special about a person that sets him or her apart from everyone else. Volunteerism, on the other hand, demonstrates that anyone can be a hero. In Harry Potter and The Cursed Child, Albus Potter, unlike his famous father, is not a chosen one.

Two actors on stage
Jax Jackson and Nancy Opel in the world premiere of Taylor Mac's Hir directed by Niegel Smith, at Magic Theatre in San Francisco. Photo by Jennifer Reiley.

​9. Different Points of View and Dissenting Perspectives: Plays that contain narrative polyphony or present plot or themes from differing points of view foster greater tolerance and acceptance of dissenting perspectives. A multiplicity of voices is an opportunity for the playwright to highlight the limited, flawed, and even unreliable subjectivity of the protagonist or give voice and agency to an otherwise minor character, especially if that character is from a marginalized or disenfranchised group. Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues is a good example of polyphony and the television series Orange is the New Black presents a multiplicity of perspectives from its mostly diverse female ensemble cast.

10. Nonideal/Nonconformist Women: Young Jean Lee’s Untitled Feminist Show features women (mostly naked) of all shapes, sizes, colors, and persuasions. The theatrical version of Josefina López's Real Women Have Curves features the struggles of a family of five plus-sized Latina immigrants, who are successively described as plump, plump, large, huge, and a bit plump. Suzan-Lori Parks’s In the Blood recounts the travails of an African-American homeless mother and her children, and Taylor Mac’s Hir features a newly out transgender character. Most women cannot fit the ideal of a Hollywood actress or a billboard supermodel or even want to.

11. Women Who Are More Than Victims: Women should be more than the battered ex-wives and ex-girlfriends from an episode of Law & Order: SVU. An example that shows a woman as more than a victim is George Brant’s Grounded. This one-woman solo piece is about an Air Force fighter pilot assigned to pilot weaponized drones. She’s both victimizer and victim, as she drops bombs on targets and later becomes traumatized by the experience. At the end of the play, the unnamed pilot becomes a martyr as she takes a courageous stand and pays a terrible price.

12. Intersectionality: Feminist plays are not just about sex and gender, but also create dialogue around class, race, privilege, and other forms of oppression. Annie Baker’s The Flick isn’t simply about the depressing lives of twenty-somethings in dead-end jobs trying to connect. It’s also about race, as the two white movie theatre employees betray their black co-worker. Intersectionality recognizes that sexism is connected to many other forms of prejudice and that the struggles of seemingly disparate groups for fair treatment are actually intertwined.

13. Good and Evil Are Not Absolutes: The idea that good and evil are two diametrically opposed opposites is a binary patriarchal way of thinking and has led to some of the greatest atrocities in history. Any category of person can be labeled as wicked and in need of reform if not outright eradication. For centuries, unconventional, rebellious, and inconvenient women have been condemned as witches or accused of hexing others with a curse or evil eye (see Caryl Churchill’s Vinegar Tom).

14. Explores Nonlinear, Cyclical, Experiments with Form: Some writers have eschewed the Aristotelian model as oppressive and epistemically flawed. Jill Nolan in the The Feminist Spectator as Critic notes the “gender-specific nature of theatrical representation” of traditional theatre. Yet to this day most drama follows the principles set out by the Greek philosopher and political thinker over 2,000 years ago. Augusto Boal labelled Aristotle’s Poetics, the sourcebook for dramatic structure, a “Coercive System of Tragedy.” There are several Aristotelian-structured “feminist” plays as well as “feminist” plays that do not conform to the Aristotelian way. Many feminist plays seek to subvert or contravene Aristotle’s principles or explore other ways of dramatizing the experiences and stories of women. Some experimental, elliptical, episodic, nonlinear, nonnaturalist or nonrealist, even nonliteral theatrical works produce drama where there is no cause and effect, no protagonist, or no central argument. Several plays by Caryl Churchill and the work of Augusto Boal and the Theatre of the Oppressed experiment with form and content and even the idea of theatre itself.

15. No Pointless Sexualization/Violence: Having a sex kitten or boy toy on stage just for the sake of titillation objectifies women and men and dehumanizes the actors who portray those roles. Young Jean Lee’s Untitled Feminist Show, in which the characters perform nude, is an example of when the naked female form isn’t pointlessly sexualized. As Vulture points out, Lee’s show is a “gloriously goofy rebuke to the monobody beauty myth.” Violence for the sake of violence or violence as a means of solving the world’s problems is not feminist. In Advance Man, Bill Cooke approves of his daughter’s Ronnie’s defense of her brother using physical violence. However, later in the play it’s revealed that she unleashed a series of blows against Abbie’s oppressor—i.e. extreme violence. In another moment in the play, Bill decks Lily, a female detective investigating the goings on of Cooke and his former astronaut associates, as a way of getting rid of her. Finally, Bill makes a choice for all humanity by letting loose an alien race on Earth with no regard for the consequences.

As “a place for artists to provide feedback, learning, expertise, frustration, and vision,” HowlRound, is a perfect stomping ground to engage questions of feminist theatremaking. We owe it to ourselves as theatremakers to endeavor to end oppression and liberate all peoples (regardless of sex, race, sexual orientation, etc.). Anything less defends the patriarchy and upholds the status quo.