Controlling the Narrative
Gendered Violence on the Contemporary Stage
It’s always depressing when stories about gendered violence appear in the news—not only because of our astonishing lack of progress on the issue, or because it hurts to see trauma performed and re-performed as evidence of its own existence, but because it brings the trolls, the crappy takes, and the “reasonable” replies out of the woodwork (for recent critiques of “reasonableness” as a concept, see Professor Jody David Armour’s interview with Cenk Uygur and Dr. Kirsty Sedgman’s Twitter thread).
I recently spoke on this issue and my work on the subject at a graduate student conference at the Shakespeare Institute in Stratford-upon-Avon, where I encountered a strident defense by an attendee of accused rapists during the Q&A period. This person felt it was unreasonable to compare Angelo, the sexual predator from Shakespeare and Middleton’s Measure for Measure, with modern-day #MeToo cases where the guilt of the accused has not been proven in a court of law. The panel chair, the wonderful Emma Bessent, succinctly and eloquently addressed the comment in a Twitter thread shortly after.
The phrase that stood out to Bessent—the idea that an assailant has “more to lose” than the survivor when such accusations are made—also stuck in my side. This was the primary reason I never reported the man who assaulted me, in broad daylight, in a crowded market, in a town where nothing ever happens. He was an acquaintance, and I knew that his immigrant wife and children would be at risk if his business failed or if he was imprisoned. And I knew that, despite my Middle Eastern heritage and my own status as an immigrant, my white-presenting face against his darker complexion would increase the odds of someone in power believing me when I told them that he’d cornered me in the market and forced his tongue down my throat. I made these calculations in the moments between texting my partner to come and meet me, and his arrival mere moments later. When he asked what I wanted to do, I said, “Get a drink, and then forget about it.”
Despite my complete agreement that “he has more to lose” is horrifically flawed logic, I have experienced assault not in terms of loss but rather as a kind of acquisition: it will never leave me, and I cannot forget about it. The smell and taste of his cigarette and his insistence that my boyfriend should “learn to share” are indelible on my memory, to paraphrase Dr. Christine Blasey Ford. Being assaulted is not unique or even unusual: one in four women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime; at least one in five will experience sexual assault (many suggest that this number is higher); trans, lesbian, and non-binary women experience assault at much higher rates than cis and straight women; women of color are attacked much more often than white women. Creating responsible cultural representations of assault, therefore, is not a fringe concern but urgent an intersectional issue.
Creating responsible cultural representations of assault, therefore, is not a fringe concern but urgent an intersectional issue.
More recently, much of my work on performing gendered violence has stemmed from my desire to find a mode of expression that is neither stereotypical nor sensationalized. For much of theatre history, the scripts we have used to address such concerns in performance have been created by demographics more likely to perpetrate than experience gendered violence. This, happily, is beginning to change—although somehow we’ve got a play by David Mamet about Harvey Weinstein this year. Baby steps, I guess?
It’s time to be bolder in our approach to this topic, particularly when we’re working with well-known subjects or canonical plays. These cultural touchstones are also powerful sites of meaning-making and (as I argued at the conference mentioned above) they get people in the door who otherwise would not necessarily take themselves to see a play that’s “about” rape culture or sexual assault or survivor trauma. So there’s an enormous responsibility as a practitioner working with these texts and characters to present them in ethical ways. And while I’m always all for casting more women (and people of color, and LGBTQIA+ folks) in every kind of role, it’s not enough to just put a body on stage. We have to also ask what the dramaturgy, the design, and the rehearsal-room atmosphere of a production are saying with and about that body. For example, does presenting an imaginary repressive matriarchy—which nonetheless speaks the same language as the all-too-real oppressive patriarchy—tell us anything new or useful?
This series takes as its starting point the idea that bravery in staging gendered violence today is best represented not by sensationalized or spectacular demonstrations of that violence, nor by simple casting substitutions that do nothing to address the underlying scaffolding that cements a play squarely within a patriarchal worldview. Rather, the contributors suggest ways forward that account for the systemic, insidious nature of a culture that facilitates this kind of violence.
It is high time that we wrest back control of the narratives of rape culture and gendered violence.
In the first article of the series, Rebecca Benzie Fraser points out that even plays ostensibly about women’s violent struggle for equality can represent femininity in problematic or reductive ways. Her analysis of the National Theatre’s production of Her Naked Skin compares representations of violence done by women and violence done to women: the former is stylized and anesthetized while the latter is vividly naturalistic, suggesting greater discomfort with militancy performed by women activists during the suffrage movement. What does it mean that we’re happy to stage a realistic scene of forcible feeding, but not of activists smashing windows?
In Jess Pfeffer and Emer McHugh’s conversation, they examine the ways in which gendered violence is often used as a shorthand or shortcut in performance. Beginning with the treatment of Ophelia in productions of Hamlet and moving to more recent popular culture performances, including Game of Thrones and the BBC series Bodyguard, they interrogate the use of violence as, ultimately, entirely about the perpetrator and (usually) his mental health or his own trauma. Their call to action recognizes the inherent violence of gendered language and posits strategies for presenting trauma through performance in honest but still responsible ways—for both audiences and practitioners.
Charlene V. Smith is working with these principles in practice through her theatre company Brave Spirits. Last year, the company raised nearly five thousand dollars toward the costs of creating a video archive of their production of The Changeling, a seventeenth-century tragedy that centers on a young woman’s struggle to control the boundaries of her own body, because of the tactics it used to disrupt the play’s victim-blaming narratives. (For further reading on this fascinating play, check out feminist performance scholar Kim Solga’s work.) By breaking her company’s process with The Changeling into actionable steps that can be applied to any production, she offers a roadmap for theatremakers looking to take the first steps toward a more responsible practice.
As Sharanya reminds us in her article, “acts of sexual violence […] have the power both to be scripted and to script.” We, collectively, construct the narratives that become our unconscious assumptions, the voices in our heads, and the “common-sense” laws of society. Sharanya’s toolkit offers both practical details—such as her dramaturgical exploration of time with dancer Namaha Mazoomdar—and strident calls to action, reminding us that the monstrosity and fragility often painted onto the survivor’s body are constructs, too. And that which is constructed can always be dismantled.
Let us take up that call. Our political and cultural landscape reminds us every day that the ability to control narratives—to be the arbiters of that which is “true” and that which is “fake”—is the ultimate power. It is high time that we wrest back control of the narratives of rape culture and gendered violence. The essays in this series offer, I hope, some actionable and accessible ways forward for artists of all kinds who want to join us on this journey.