Why did the bus driver pull over on the side of the highway?… and other tales from our field trip to Toronto’s Nuit Blanche 2016

“To be honest, I have no idea where I am right now…”

I knew we were in trouble when the bus driver (SCHOOL bus driver… it was “reunion” weekend at Western, which I reasoned explained why there was not a motor coach to be had within 50km for the night of 1 October) turned off the freeway leading into downtown Toronto and onto the suburban highway that goes North. I had clocked the traffic jam warning on the LED sign we’d just passed; I let myself imagine he’d made a snap decision to go up and around the snarl. Smart.

But no. As it turned out, his GPS had taken him off course. And since he hadn’t been to Toronto in, oh, 25 years… well, here we were astride the 401, North America’s most congested highway, and the bus driver was a puddle.

So began the excursion I led to Nuit Blanche, Toronto’s all-night art “thing”, a couple of weeks ago. NB, for those not familiar, is an art and culture over-nighter that officially started in Paris in 2002 (although it traces its routes to Nantes, a small French city, and back to 1984); the idea is to set citizens free in the city from sundown to sunup, and to turn otherwise uninviting (or frightening) urban spaces into welcoming hubs of creation in order to entice their visits. Toronto has had a Nuit Blanche since 2005; I’ve been following it closely since 2008, when my friend and colleague Laura Levin and I went in search of zombies… and discovered instead the festival’s intrinsic ties to the rhetoric of urban creativity then sweeping North America – the one pushing former manufacturing centres to convert to zones of hipster gentrification OR DIE TRYING.

BUT. It was still a lot of fun!

I’ve taken students to NB in Toronto before, and we’ve had a wonderful, illuminating time (click here for more). But this year I had a record number: 20 undergraduates in my performance studies class, plus 10 grad students studying the vicissitudes of art-making in the global city. Together, we made a bus load’s full – and at $30 a head return (downtown Toronto is 100 miles/200km from our university) a full bus was all I needed to break even. So I doubled us up and booked the big yellow submarine (though I won’t be doing THAT part again…). And then I thought:

How do I wrangle 30 student cats??!!

Herewith, the story of the strategy.

(All photos by Camille Intson)

To start, I decided on the buddy system. Twenty undergrads, mostly sensible, mostly engaged with the idea of performance as a public good, mostly sensible. (Did I mention sensible?!?) Plus 10 grad students, eager to demonstrate No Longer Undergrad Status (NLUS), and sensible in every way necessary. Partnering up seemed a win: give a couple of grads to a quadrille of undergrads and voila – nobody gets lost, nobody dies.

And on the whole it worked! With one exception (the bunch of ’em are still arguing over who ditched whom… though my sense is nobody is holding a grudge), the groups hung together and helped one another to find a pathway through the event, discovering food, coffee, and some firm ideas about what, exactly, this event DOES for both the city and its citizens along the way. Everyone turned up at the rendezvous on time at 1am, and in general they seemed sated, if exhausted. WIN, WIN.

Next, I minimised the prep. Last time out, we spent a class (me + the undergrads) planning the trip. That made sense in context: we were 8 total, and we all hung together (mostly) as a result. What to see? Everyone got to choose something to hit over the course of the night, and we charted a route together.

This time, given the ad-hoc groupings, I decided to let the students work it out for themselves: I gave them the event URL and encouraged some light research. I also imagined spontaneity would be a boon. Why overplan when, really, the point is fun?

Ten years on, Nuit Blanche TO is quite commercial, a bit underwhelming, and largely an exercise in thinking about who the city is for, and who benefits from a “carnival” atmosphere. Better just to go full carnival and think about it later…

Finally, I figured out my part in it. This took me a while. Which group would I join? It seemed nonsense to be with only one (and patently unfair). But obviously moving through the event alone was silly too: the point was not for me to “do” Nuit Blanche (mostly, they’re all the same…), but to watch the students do it for the first time, experience the excitement of the big gets, and feel the let-downs of the pieces that promised the moon prematurely.

I cracked it only the morning of, in fact: I’d circulate, just as I did in class during group exercises, but with a bit more (physical) space between the groups. I duly made sure all the grad students had my mobile number and vice versa, and then we made a plan to text each other coordinates at various points in the night. I’d text something like, “I’m at X, where are you?” and according to responses I’d plot a route to the next group. I worked out that I could spend roughly an hour with each bunch, excluding commuting time, and that turned out to be perfect; at the end of the night I even had 45 minutes to spare (which I used to grab hot cocoa from Dark Horse’s pop-up in 401 Richmond, and then hit the Spacing Store for a Halloween present for a good friend’s twins).

The bus driver was, no word of a lie, SERIOUSLY freaked out by the Nuit Blanche traffic, even well after midnight, but planning ahead meant we boarded by 1:30am, and I was home at 4am. Sure, the white-nighter (hello, past self!) fucked me up a bit…


But it was worth it.

Sleep well!


Talking to students about Clinton vs Trump

I’ve not been watching any of the U.S. presidential debates – neither of the two main events, nor the VP candidates’ debate. This isn’t because of disinterest or distance; on the contrary, as a Canadian I’m uncomfortably close to and heavily invested in the outcome of this contest, and as a woman and a feminist I could not imagine the stakes to be higher. The campaign has become nothing less than a referendum on misogyny: a man who revels in violent language, casually admits to sexual harassment, and displays bald-faced ignorance of raced and gendered realities (alongside a swath of sociopathic behaviours) is up against a talented, openly feminist woman with three decades’ worth of experience in federal politics. There’s just no other way to sign it.

The reason I’m not watching the debates is because they cause me profound, deeply-felt anxiety; it’s just so exhausting, upsetting, too hard. (For many women, it has been triggering. Trump is a bully and a predator; watching that behaviour in others, when you’ve been personally victimised, can leave you emotionally shattered and physically ill.) Of course I eat up the commentary afterward – in the Guardian, the Globe and Mail, the New York Times and the Washington Post. I obsessively check Twitter and Facebook for reactions. I look for balance – what did the left think? What the right? – in an effort to figure out what a cross-section of us are really thinking. I know this is a fool’s errand, but it has become compulsive behaviour for me.

I’m terrified.

When I walk into my classrooms, I look at my students and wonder hard what they are thinking. Are they watching? Are they fearful like me? Is Clinton v. Trump on their radar? Are any of them Trump supporters – or simply not sure? (How can you not be sure?!?! I fear blurting out to them…)

Given the raw abrasion I’m experiencing, I’m understandably very much afraid to bring the election, in any detail, up in classes. Quite apart from the fact that it’s not professional for a university professor to express her specific political views in the classroom (we have enormous influence, and students still believe, sometimes quite rightly, that profs want them to parrot views back to them), I honestly can’t imagine mediating a reasonable conversation about this election campaign with students right now. It’s too hot a button – for me if not for many of them.

And yet. And yet. At this moment, in America and its spheres of influence (which, let’s be honest, is still most of us), nuanced conversation is under siege. Reasoned debate has flown the coop – Trump is working hard to suffocate all space for it. As Kenneth Pennington wrote in the Guardian Monday morning, the Trump circus is depriving Americans of exactly the kind of discussions citizens of an advanced democracy deserve to be having at a crucial juncture in their nation’s political and economic history. They are already losers in this contest, but, if there is anything yet to be salvaged, it’s the future of difficult ideas in the American public sphere.

Which means that now more than ever, my students – students across North America, and beyond – need to talk about this election. They deserve the tools of critical engagement and nuanced expression our arts and humanities classes foster, precisely because Trump mocks the notion that complex, nuanced arguments are a social good. They have a right to dissect the orchestration and dissemination of his, as well as Clinton’s, political performances. They have a right for a strong basis for careful judgement.

APTOPIX Campaign 2016 Debate

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton speak during the second presidential debate at Washington University in St. Louis, Sunday, Oct. 9, 2016. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

As a teacher, it’s my responsibility to give my students the intellectual means to make sense of what is happening right in front of them, even if I choose not to invite an open discussion of debate specifics, or of Trump’s most astonishing, demeaning statements.

The question, of course, then becomes: how?

This autumn I’m teaching a second-year core theatre studies course called “performance beyond theatres”; it’s essentially an introduction to performance studies, the interdisciplinary field that examines the performative dimensions of social and cultural behaviour in a wide array of contexts. Luckily, one of those contexts is politics; politicians are rhetoricians, after all, and rhetorics is talk-as-show.

Performance Beyond Theatres gives me a natural opening for political discussion, but it also offers me the chance to ground that discussion in forensic description and textual analysis, which together let us unpack political behaviours with a (relatively) objective eye. I find this relative objectivity very useful: nobody need openly stake a claim to a “side” in order to participate in the discussion. Rather, we examine together how politicians enact their personae, how they use language to inculcate the realities they want us to believe in, and how we, as interested and critically attuned audiences, might react in turn. (Between fire-brand high-fiving and utter disbelief, there are a number of options.)

How does this work? When we explored ritual performance near the beginning of term (with anthropologist Victor Turner), we looked to Barack Obama’s 2008 acceptance speech (available on Youtube) to help us understand the moment of a ritual subject’s “reintegration” into a community. (The context, from our reading, was a new leader preparing to take up the mantel of authority.) Paying attention to Obama’s tone, his affect, the stage set-up, and his choice of words, we were able to talk about the role his “community” – voters; actors on social media; producers and consumers of more traditional media; denizens in the audience in Chicago that autumn night – played in shaping and affirming his status as winner of the election, an ordinary man who had been through the fires of the campaign to emerge victorious as “their leader”. Today in class, we are watching Justin Trudeau’s 2015 acceptance speech alongside our reading of J.L. Austin’s theory of performative language; we will be analysing the ways in which Trudeau’s vocal performance was crafted to enact his governance ethos and promise all-important “change” to Canadians – in other words, to “do” political things, even before he had done a single, real thing as the new prime minister.


Did you know Justin was once a drama teacher? Outstanding training for PM. (And: he has an arts degree. THAT is what you do with it.)

I sincerely hope that, a year from now, I won’t be switching Obama out for Trump’s victory speech; frankly, Hillary Clinton’s will be (WILL BE) both more inspiring and far more instructive for future students of political performance. At the end of the day, that’s what makes me most angry about this season of Trump trash: he is an utter waste of time, space, and energy, and my students and I have far better things to do with ours.

All this said, I know many of you, especially those of you reading from the U.S., will have brought the election up directly, and at length, in classes; I’d be very keen to hear how you’ve done it, and with what results. Please leave comments! You have my respect and admiration. (And to those of you reading from a campus where guns, concealed or not, are allowed by law, I cannot fathom the risks you take every day to bring up matters critical, if not political.)

Stay strong!



Relaxed alertness… and big brother.

A couple of weeks ago I received an email blast from Tomorrow’s Professor, a great newsfeed I’ve been following for about 15 years, that discussed “relaxed alertness” as an optimum state for teaching and learning. The post is an excerpt from the book 12 Brain / Mind Learning Principles in Action: Teach for the Development of Higher-Order Thinking and Executive Function by Renate Nummela Caine, Geoffrey Caine, Carol McClintic and Karl J. Klimek. As it explains,

People in a state of Relaxed Alertness experience low threat and high challenge (Caine & Caine, 1991/1994, 2010). Essentially, the learner is both relaxed and to some extent excited or emotionally engaged at the same time. This is the foundation for taking risks in thinking, questioning, and experimenting, all of which are essential to mastering new skills and engaging higher-order thinking.  In this state the learner feels competent and confident and has a sense of meaning or purpose.

I’ve long been an advocate of “low stakes” learning; this means, essentially, that I try to put students at ease in the classroom, and I encourage failure in minor stuff as a route to success in the bigger things. My experience as a student (not SO long ago…and I try to return to learning whenever I can, to stay fresh and empathetic) was one of constant panic around the possibility of failure; that panic produced results, sure, but it also meant I literally threw up before essays were due and tests written, out of the terror of messing up FOREVER.

A big part of me doubts that the throwing up part needs to be correlated to the succeeding part; certainly, failing a test or an essay won’t ruin your life, and it is on us as teachers to remind students of this every day.


So seeing this TP post in my inbox reinforced for me my pedagogical belief system: I cultivate low stakes (most of the time), encourage students to speak up even if/when they are wrong, and I try to model error as a way of discovering the correct (or a better) answer. Cheering inside as I read, I passed the message on to some of my colleagues who also think actively about teaching and learning strategies; I was in the moment also uplifted by having read some wonderful letters of support from former students (I’m going up for promotion right now) who reinforced for me the value of the low-stakes-high-energy approach in the classroom.

But – …

(There’s always a but.)

One of my colleagues – though supportive and loving as always – nevertheless helpfully reminded me about the politics underlying the “relaxed alertness” approach to teaching and learning. As she wrote to me,

It concerns me somewhat … that pedagogy talk is increasingly becoming counselling talk, which is tied inextricably to “therapy culture,” which is tied inextricably to neoliberalism’s refusal to recognize that individuals are not solely responsible for accommodating themselves to the direction the world goes in: maybe the world could make some changes and not expect the individual to compensate for the world’s flaws….


And she’s not wrong. When I dug deeper into the post I’d received from TP, I discovered this moment in the piece, connecting “relaxed alertness” to “resilience” and “self-efficacy”:

Resilience and self-efficacy have a great deal in common. Resilience refers to the ongoing, deep capacity to bounce back from failure or setbacks. People who struggle against enormous obstacles, say, to survive by struggling to find their way back from being lost in the wilderness, have resilience. The term often is used to describe students who survive poverty or abusive environments. Resilient kids survive and thrive despite the odds (Gillham, 2000; Reivich & Shatte, 2002).

Students with resilience (see Davies, 2002) are likable; they have social skills and are socially competent, have coherent moral or spiritual beliefs, have problem-solving skills, are self-directed, and have a sense of autonomy…

(All emphases my own)

There’s a problem here: on one hand, yes, “relaxed alertness” in the classroom means we are all invested but not overly so; we all can talk without the stakes getting too much in the way (and making us feel sick). If somebody goes offside, that’s fine; the larger conversation includes us all and we all know our value within the community, and the value of our risk-taking contribution.

BUT, on the other hand, if relaxed alertness is meant to cultivate “resilience” and “self-efficacy”, and if the latter two are explicitly connected to the bootstraps-pulling-up that we associate with libertarian independence, then we are in danger of arguing that a low-stakes, shared, empathetic classroom environment is – or could, or SHOULD – work in the service of a neoliberal reality in which everyone is supposed to learn to be resilient because nobody else is, or should be expected to be, around to help.



What we’ve got here is a classic Catch-22. We all, I think, want to teach our students to be active and engaged but not SO invested that they panic and deflate (or worse). But few of us, I imagine, would advocate that we are teaching our students to become resilient in the face of a world in which governments’ abilities to support the citizenship properly are decimated, and it’s every-person-for-themselves… and yet, the rhetoric I quote above suggests that’s a desirable, and somewhat inevitable, outcome. (And frankly, the current US presidential debate suggests it’s a necessary precaution, too.)

I have no resolution, no answer to offer here. But I’d love to hear others’ thoughts. Is “relaxed alertness” something to cultivate, or to be wary of? For me, I’d like to do the former, and yet also explain to my students the logic of the latter, in “teachable moment” fashion. To demystify the strategy while I use it, I guess.

But maybe that’s too much to dream of… or maybe there is no longer any getting outside the text of neoliberal realities. Although that’s an outcome too depressing to contemplate.

On an uncertain note,



…and then, we performed the syllabus!

We are back at it with a vengeance: classes resumed at universities across Canada just over a week ago. And we all know what that means:

Far and wide, professors were performing The Syllabus Show.


You know, The Syllabus Show! It’s where we hand the course outline* to our incoming students in the first class of the term, and then proceed to do one of three things:

  1. Ignore the syllabus altogether – insisting students go home and read it with a magnifying glass, committing all the important dates to their diaries and all the rules and regs to memory – and jump right into The Course;
  2. Take the class through each section/sentence/carefully-crafted phrase with punishing focus, boring all living creatures in the classroom to near-death in the process;
  3. Speak to only the most important information (assignments; schedule; textbook list) using some cheeky technique designed to make The Syllabus Show just a bit less tedious.

I’ve never done #1 – I just cannot stomach Course Content Proper on day one. (I live in denial.) I’ve done #2, specifically early in my career, when I knew no better – and I nearly put myself to sleep, never mind the students. Number 3 was my stalwart for ages; I replaced “Kim Reads The Syllabus To You” with “Kim Offers Her Top Ten Tips for Getting an A” until I realised I was using that basically as a cover for reading the syllabus to them.

In the last few years I’ve gotten a bit more creative; my favourite Alt Syllabus Show, until this September, featured me dividing up the outline and asking pairs or trios of students to explain it back to the class, with the most important information highlighted. This technique allowed me to give in to the inevitable – whatever I’m doing at the front, on the first day nervous students are reading their damn syllabus, of course they are! – while also modelling the kind of active learning students could expect in the weeks ahead. As a bonus, it allowed me to get a fast read on what kinds of readers the students were: if they couldn’t pick up the key bits in the syllabus, I knew to be prepared when we started in on Henrik Ibsen (dour Norwegian playwriting hero) or Michel de Certeau (French wanderer-philosopher).


(In my imagination, the dude on the left is de Certeau, and the dude on the right is Ibsen.)

Then, this year, in the week before school started I got a tremendous idea from my friend Charlotte Canning, a theatre historian at UT Austin. Via Facebook, she revealed that she had gotten the students in her undergrad course to perform the syllabus for one another.

As in: they made the syllabus into a script and turned it, fast and furiously, into a piece of improv theatre.

Sheer genius!

Think about it: The Syllabus Show is, already, a “show” of sorts – just a genuinely important and yet utterly boring one. Why not give in to the subtext and put it, literally, on its feet?

I sent Charlotte an email query asking for the basics; she sent me back the simple Powerpoint slides she’d created for the first day.

The logistics were easy. First, divide the syllabus into small chunks or “sides” (this term comes from Shakespeare’s era; it means the individual scripts actors received, with just their cues and lines on them); I opted for about 1/2 page per side. In class, divide the group quickly into teams of 3-4 and give each team their “side” separately from the syllabus proper (which, obviously, they also need). Ask them to work quickly: start by introducing themselves, then read the side; decide what information is most important and needs to be communicated, and then figure out a scenario to stage it. Brevity is the soul, here: given the constraints of a first class and the fact that, to be fun, this task has to keep moving, I gave each team only 8 minutes to talk and devise, and 2 minutes to perform.

I opened the class with five minutes of basic but key information (I’m Kim; this is Theatre Studies 2202; are we all in the right place? Etc.), then gave them their course outlines and told them they were to tuck them away in favour of what I was giving them next. I said we were going to perform the syllabus; after we all acknowledged how absurd and also totally awesome the idea was, I numbered them into teams and set them on each other.

Instantly, the room was buzzing. This was the opposite of the first-class norm: total energy, smiling faces. (Way better than blank stares and glowing smart phones.)

The time constraint panicked everyone, of course, but it also concentrated their focus. After eight minutes every group had about a minutes’ worth of performance to share, and though they ranged in quality there were some outstanding, memorable gems. I’ll never forget the team that “yada yada-ed” plagiarism (I haven’t laughed that hard in a while)! But my favourite was the piece on “participation”. It began as invisible theatre, with the two performers pretending to fudge each other’s names and programs (TOTALLY convincing – they had me); they then adopted the personae of two very typical undergrads (the outgoing know-it-all and the shrinking, shy, anxious one) as they demonstrated – embodied, in fact – what “participation” means to each. Slam-dunk.


I would never do that. Nope. Never.

Did performing the syllabus convey to the class the key information ON the syllabus? I highly doubt it – but that was not at all the point. And this is what I loved best about performing the syllabus: rather than me pretending that whatever I do in the first class is going to stick like glue, we used the syllabus as a tool to have fun, to begin building our shared classroom community, and to make knowing jokes out of perennial teacher-student expectations. That doesn’t mean the class won’t be held to the standards in the syllabus; if anything, I suspect performing the syllabus made my students more likely to remember the syllabus, and maybe even read it at home. It certainly made for a memorable first class for me: for the first time ever, I managed to memorise all of their names by week two.

Coincidence? Doubtful.


*A word of clarification for readers who don’t teach at universities: the course outline, at uni-level, is a legally binding document. At my school, instructors cannot, for example, introduce a new assignment half way through the course; at the same time, instructors are meant in the syllabus to state all expectations regarding absences, late assignments, classroom behaviour, etc, and those expectations thus become binding on students. The syllabus is also the place where professors say what plagiarism is, that it will not be tolerated, and that student papers may be fed without further warning through plagiarism-detection software if a teacher deems it fit to do so. You get the idea.

On costume dramas, redux: girls to the front*

(*A reference to Sophie Mayer’s terrific new book, Political Animals. Get it here. Read my review of it here.)

Last year around this time I wrote a post about enlightened sexism, framed by my viewing of the sci-fi-driven costume drama Outlander and the more straight-up bodice-ripping Poldark. (Both showed their first seasons last year; Outlander season 2 is now available, and Poldark season 2 began Sunday night on BBC.) In that post I talked about how easily I was seduced by the pleasures of both shows (hot guys! amazing views!), but also about how both, in their plot lines and also their female characters, slid an awful lot of patriarchy-as-usual into the mix. Too much, for me. The pleasure I took in their superficial attractions, I suggested, papered over this problem, and led me to become frustrated with myself – and with their writers and producers – by seasons’ ends.

I took some flak for that post from friends I admire – notably my colleague Bridget Escolme, a costume historian and lover of the costume drama genre’s complexity, and feminist film heavyweight Mayer. Both reminded me, helpfully, that historical costume drama is a genre like any other, and that means it is neither good nor bad, sexist nor feminist. Rather, it holds all kinds of potential – for politics across the spectrum; for pleasure and delight and disgust. As with any genre, it’s all about how it gets used in practice: the stories individual dramas choose to tell and the means they use to tell them.

This year, then, I’ve decided to write in celebration of three historical costume dramas currently surging among Anglophone viewers (and beyond, I expect): Outlander (yup, season 2 gets it another chance); Orange is the New Black (contemporary costume drama is still “historical” – it’s a history of the now); and Strange Empire (which has been cancelled by the CBC but given new life on Netflix).

All have strong feminist chops, and together they reveal how much historical fiction can offer feminist spectators, teachers, and students.

Mayer opens her terrific chapter on costume drama in Political Animals with commentary on Belle, the 2013 film directed by Amma Asante about a free black gentlewoman in 18th century England. She reads Asante’s use of costume drama for-and-against itself, “simultaneously drawing the viewer in and critiquing the ‘chocolate box’ style of the genre and its literary sources by revealing the bitter ingredients on which they depend” (this quotation comes from Mayer’s review of the film for the BFI, available here). In other words: while Asante’s camera revels in the styling of the period and the love affairs always central to such dramas, she finds key ways, Mayer argues, to “[intertwine] love and justice, private and public, personal and political,” allowing the film to comment on the ways in which women’s dependence on men, and black people’s dependence on white (racism), shapes but does not fully limit the lives of the characters nor the framework of the film itself.

Historical dramas always face one key problem for non-cis-male viewers: our shared human history is largely a history of patriarchy, and there’s just no getting around that. What can we do within those constraints, though? The smartest costume dramas, like Belle, charge the genre to face its limits and prejudices, and to highlight, in their complexity, the compelling stories of characters usually cast as no more than romantic interests or plot devices.

There are lots of ways to play both with and against costume drama and its patriarchal histories; herewith, three strategies I’ve noted this summer while watching Outlander season 2, Strange Empire (only one season was made, sadly), and the latest from the blockbuster OITNB.

1. Fuck the Bechdel test. 


It’s patriarchy, boys and girls; that means lots of times women talk together about men, and it ain’t got nothing to do with romance. A much better measure is this: how large is the group of women talking together? In what depth are they talking about the issues – related to men or not – at hand? Are they given opportunities to support and strengthen one another, as well as to challenge and rival one another? (IE: to be humans together?) Basically: are more than two women allowed to speak together at a time, and are they allowed the full run of human intelligence when they do?

Strange Empire, hands down my favourite of the three shows I’m addressing here, is a feminist Western created by Laurie Finstad-Knizhnik and set in the middle 19th century on the Alberta-Montana border. The premise is deceptively simple: a wagon train is attacked by the men of one John Slotter, who owns a nearby mine; only the women are left alive, and they form the fulcrum of the new town that emerges around the mine’s labour. They also, ultimately, author its demise, when they go after Slotter in revenge for the killing of their husbands. As you’d expect from a program driven by the survival of women alone, there are lots of rich roles for the girls here, in no way limited to Cara Gee as Kat Loving, mother to three adopted children and the town’s Sheriff; Melissa Farman as Rebecca Blithely, an autistic doctor with a penchant for gore; and Tawtianna Jones as Slotter’s wife Isabelle, a Hapa woman with twice Slotter’s business savvy and no love for the other women in the town.


Farman, Gee, and Jones in Strange Empire.

Despite the fact that Strange Empire pivots on Slotter, his mine, and his machinations, it is only superficially about these things – it recognises that a patriarch is necessarily somewhere near the centre of any story about survival on the 19th century American prairie, but then turns that recognition inside out by framing Slotter’s actions through the perspectives and experiences of the women who must constantly negotiate around him in order to thrive. The endgame of the series is a group of women building a community, in solidarity but also constantly in tension with one another, as they try to organise around their differences and channel their shared experiences into political energy. This is Bechdel 2.0: they might always be talking about Slotter, but Slotter is almost never the real point of their conversation.

The same thing happens with Orange is the New Black: like Strange Empire, the entire premise of the show is built on a group of very different women, many openly enemies, stuck together in one physical space that they need to turn into some kind of functioning community. Each episode turns on a series of negotiations among the women, choices made and consequences absorbed. Bad shit happens. Great stuff happens. Women love each other – openly, in what is arguably the most queer-positive space on English television right now – and women hate each other’s guts. Women have complex relationships with each other, unpredictable relationships. Alliances form and dissolve. Guards are outwitted. Men are the major jail keepers here, so, again, lots of talk revolves around them – but, again, it’s not usually talk about them. It’s talk about living and working and managing in a physical and social context in which the men exist in positions of power and therefore must be accounted for and dealt with. When it is about men as objects of sex or love, it’s complicated: by pregnancy (Daya), by rape (Pennsatucky), by feelings that exceed romance by a very long way indeed.


Taryn Manning as Tiffany “Pennsatucky” Doggett, in one of my favourite promo images for OITNB.

(Here, incidentally, is one point on which I find Outlander wanting. Claire Fraser is a remarkable woman, but her female companions are predictable and her scope for smart female conversation very limited. I’m hoping for a change in season three.)

2. Enjoy the soft-core. 

Can a costume drama be sexy and still be feminist? OF COURSE. Feminists do not hate sex, and they do not hate men. They often want to have sex with men! They just as often want to have sex with women! Many feminists, also, are not gender-norm identified, and those people want to have sex with men, women, and other non-cis people! Get over it already.

My favourite recent thread on Orange is the New Black sees Suzanne (“Crazy Eyes”) author a sci-fi style porn serial with some of the most hilariously extreme characters imaginable (one based, notoriously, on a not-especially sexy male guard). The other inmates go mad for it, hounding her for fresh work; Suzanne discovers what it’s like to be an artist in demand and nearly packs it all in. Then copycat fan fic starts appearing! Although this plot line is primarily funny rather than sexy, it reminded me how openly the show revels in queer, as well as some straight, sex, and how instructive it can be to see love and sex outside your own desire matrix represented on screen. I am a heterosexual woman, and I’m not turned on by watching Alex and Piper or Washington and Soso embrace, but I always appreciate those scenes very much. OITNB reminds hetero viewers over and over what it’s like to see not your preferred kind of sex on screen; this is the reality non-hetero viewers live with constantly, and it’s exactly the reason we need much more work just like this getting made.


Kimiko Glenn and Samira Wiley as Soso and Washington on OITNB.

Outlander is much more straight(-laced) soft-core, with a pregnant Claire getting bigger and her breasts underneath her night shifts growing more and more visible throughout season 2. If you’re on Team Jamie, and/or you’re into Claire, then god knows there are plenty of terrific sex scenes for you to enjoy. But the real visual joy of Outlander‘s second season is the wardrobe styling, with Claire and Jamie sporting some extremely impressive 18th century French fashions while they try to game Bonnie Prince Charlie out of the war he’s about to lose. My favourite thing about this season is watching Caitriona Balfe parade around in dresses designed to show off her boobs and downplay her pregnancy, seemingly styled as no more than eye-candy, while she and Jamie work out a variety of strategies to trick the prince and beat the clock on the Highland Rebellion. Defying the costume drama stereotype – nice to look at! Wish they’d give her more to do… – Balfe gets to wear her cake and eat it, too.

Outlander Season 2 2016

Caitriona Balfe as Claire Fraser. Genuinely killer outfit. (Shame about the prerequisite male gaze.)

And Strange Empire? It revels in the gruesome that is hardscrabble township life on the American frontier. Kat has some great hetero-sex. Rebecca doesn’t quite let herself have some great queer sex with the cross-dressed Morgan – but mostly because she’d prefer to caress the literal hearts of the cadavers she cuts open, to study the inner workings of the human body. Isabelle has all kinds of sex – including the kind she wants, with the Chinese immigrant Ling who helps her undermine John, and the kind she doesn’t, in which John fucks her on his terms while the camera shows us her ennui, her understanding that she must tolerate this, too, in order to progress her own agenda. Soft-core with a strongly critical eye, an eye always trained on the challenges of the female-centric world the series is crafting. Best kind.

3. Embrace the improbable.

The Greek philosopher and theorist of theatre Aristotle famously said that drama should prefer the “probable impossibility” over the “improbable possibility”. What does this mean? Roughly translated: if the choice is between 1) a town beset by a plague because of the hubris of a man and the workings of the gods – however weird it might be to have a god drop down from above to create or cure a plague! – and 2) women or slaves as main characters with complex backstories… well, he’ll take the god-given plague any day. Women and slaves shouldn’t be so overtly encouraged.

Obviously, that was then and this is now, and I do not blame Aristotle (384-322BC) for not being a feminist. But his wisdom is best, for me, when reversed: odds are, if we embrace what our culture deems improbable, cool stuff will happen and our imaginations will open wider. All three of these shows are driven by improbability in the first instance: girls come to the front! But they also revel in historical weirdness, to wondrous effect. They begin from the very premise most costume dramas like to cover up: the fact that they aren’t actually all that historically accurate. The fact that they are, mostly, sensationalised.

On Strange Empire, the murder that sets the plot in motion creates a haunted atmosphere in the town that is augmented by a handful of ghostly appearances as well as a general sense of dis-ease. The dialogue takes this further: it includes a mix of “spaghetti Western”, “literary-speak”, and something akin to modern that makes every interaction just a bit stilted, and leaves viewers constantly aware that they are viewing a historical fiction, a dream of a world in which women are given the freedom to shape their universe (and what complex freedom it is, too).

Strange Empire, Ep. 107, Day 1 of 7 - August 15, 2014, Langley, BC

Rebecca Blithely (Melissa Farman, right) gives in to her one true passion. With Joanne Boland as Morgan Finn (centre), and Marci T. House as Ruby Slotter (left).

Outlander begins and ends with Claire traveling through a standing stone circle to another moment in historical time; while she’s never free in her 18th century body to be the modern woman she was, that woman is always within. And more: she is constantly visible and audible to us in Claire’s voice-over narratives, chafing against the “realism” of the show’s 18th century stylings and reminding viewers that the Claire from 1743 is as much structured by her social and historical circumstances as is the Claire from the mid-twentieth century. (And that both are, for better or worse, inventions.)

Orange is the New Black, meanwhile, turns the most improbable trick of all. It maintains that a show set in a prison full of women is the most interesting thing you’ll ever see, because the vast diversity of experiences, knowledge, and ambition shaping and sustaining these women offers more than enough fodder for multiple seasons of gripping television. I wonder what Aristotle would have thought about that!


Is it a coincidence that these three great programs are made by women? I don’t think so. I also don’t think it’s a coincidence that the one I remain most uncertain about – Outlander – is the one written by a woman (Diana Gabaldon) but developed for TV by a man (Ronald D. Moore), and produced by a major Hollywood heavyweight (Sony). OITNB is the brainchild of the wickedly smart Jenji Kohan in partnership with what was, at the show’s inception, the upstart Netflix, and Strange Empire was created by Finstad-Knizhnik and produced by the CBC, a public broadcaster working with public money and a mandate to tell Canadian stories.

The lesson here? We don’t need to trust our stories to the mainstream, ladies. There are a lot of people willing to take risks on so-called improbable content – we need to look for them, and we need to trust ourselves to write that work, direct it, and produce it too.

There are, I know, a thousand different ways to make amazing feminist period drama; above are only three, and they are of course subjective. I’d love to hear from y’all about your favourites – strategies as well as series – and as always your feedback on the stuff above is very welcome indeed.

Happy beginning of the new school year!