On Political Animals, by Sophie Mayer: writing as activism

(An Activist Classroom Book Review)

This blog is called “The Activist Classroom” because I believe that teaching, writing about teaching, and thinking about teaching and learning (especially in relation to performance) are all activating practices. They are things we do to inspire, stimulate, and charge others to engage in public debate, thoughtful reflection, and critically aware acts of citizenship.

I don’t talk overtly about activism a lot on the blog, largely because I see this as a space in which to explore what “activism” means: the different valences of the term, and what acts it can signify beyond its more obvious, old-school, and – it must be said – always courageous and essential roots out on the streets. So, when an exceptional example of non-traditional activism crosses my desk, I’m keen to investigate it, and usually to share my thoughts about it.

Political Animals: The New Feminist Cinemaby Sophie Mayer, is one such example. It offers a comprehensive, enthusiastic, generous, elegant, smart and forceful look at nearly 500 films from 60 countries. It is written for the widest possible audience but pulls no intellectual punches along the way. It opens with a discussion of Frozen telescoped through the reflections of a young female viewer (Mayer’s god-daughter); those reflections become a model for its inclusive, girl-positive ethos. It ends with a formidable call to action for cinema lovers of all ages, backgrounds, sexes and genders – but with girls called first to the front line.

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On the front line: Elle Fanning and Alice Englert in Sally Potter’s Ginger and Rosa (2012).

Before I go further, full disclosure: Mayer is an old friend of mine. We attended Massey College at the University of Toronto together, and we shared a PhD professor, though not a PhD program (hooray for interdisciplinarity!). She is the reason I own a Wheelock’s Latin primer, and the reason I believe that Buffy the Vampire Slayer is the greatest television program ever made. (OBVIOUSLY.)

But our personal connection is beside the point in this review – truly. I requested a copy of Political Animals from Mayer’s publisher, I.B. Tauris*, because I knew when I saw the abstract online that it would be essential reading for me. I also knew, given my academic expertise in feminist performance, that I’d be able to provide a balanced and informed reading of it, whatever the weather. Moreover, knowing something of Sophie’s work as a film curator, popular culture critic, and voracious and eclectic film consumer, I strongly suspected it would seriously kick ass.

I was right.

In a nutshell, Political Animals is a book about what Mayer calls “representational justice” (after “reproductive justice” [20]): she looks at but also very far beyond mainstream cinema in order to locate the images, narratives, and techniques that allow the feminist filmmakers she tracks to paint for us a picture of our world that is critical of our patriarchal present but also full of hope, “love, vigour and courage” (8). What’s a feminist filmmaker, for Mayer? Her definition:

A stance of ongoing public activism, rooted in but not limited to gender equity, underlies my definition of a film, filmmaker, film theorist or film viewer as feminist. …Drawing on the modes of criticism laid out by Jill Dolan in The Feminist Spectator in Action – argument and advocacy, forming an activist criticism engaged with artistry – I suggest what lies beyond: activist viewers of an activist cinema. Where the active viewer makes connections to and within the film, the activist viewer connects the film and the world. (8, final emphasis added)

Mayer’s book has numerous strengths, but chief among them is this: it shows performance criticism at work, as activism. (Or, to put this another way: it does feminism as criticism, and it does feminist criticism as activism.) Mayer sees herself as an activist, to be sure, but her book positions us – ordinary audience members, film fans everywhere, you and me – as the ultimate activist agents in the public sphere, central players in the debates that shape the making, doing, sharing, and viewing of art in a moment of political precarity. (Or, indeed, in any political moment. I’m not sure we’ll be getting less precarious anytime soon.) This is probably the most inspiring thing about Political Animals, especially for student readers. It fills reading, watching, and thinking with a sense of true agency.

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Sophie Mayer, photo by Ian Mantgani

Beginning from this democratic premise – that VIEWERS become activists when they have (and use) the tools to “connect the film and the world” – Mayer surveys an absolutely staggering amount of cinema, grouped into themed chapters. The first offers an “alt” reading of feminist film history – one in which the typical story of scarcity (“not enough feminist work!”) is replaced with a sense of “plenty” (“look at all this feminist work we’ve not been talking about!” [14-18]). Following on, chapters two and three take on ecological issues, examining films that engage animals, earth, and other forms of “bare” life in political solidarity with women’s concerns. Chapters four (on women making movies about war) and five (on the many faces of modern British feminist cinema) are more traditionaly geopolitical, while chapters six (feminist costume drama! My favourite!**) and seven (on the political power of female fantasy) explore “trad” women’s art and craft practices for those practices’ radical possibilities, when they are coopted effectively for (and by) the feminist imagination.

The final three chapters look to topics at once “done” and not nearly done (well) enough: girls (taking up space), homes and family life, and love. Mayer concludes with a vibrant, inspiring “open letter” (modelled after the open letters of some of her filmmaking heroes) to viewers, artists, critics, and curators as she peers into a future that is in the shaping, right now. That future is being imagined, created, filmed and talked about by the girl(s) she and I once were (the Riot GRRRL generation); the young female-identified artists watching, thinking, and making today, at home and at school and on their smart phones; and the thoughtful pioneers still all around us, in no way done with their essential work. Mayer invites us every one into the tent of her activist writing and viewing practice: channeling Kathleen Hanna, she cries out: “Girls to the front: let’s go” (203).

There is so much material to admire in Political Animals, and if you are a cinema-hound or a film scholar (or aspiring to either, or both!), I urge you to grab a copy and dive in. What I want to emphasise in the rest of this review, though, isn’t content but form. I want to highlight the para-textual dimensions of Mayer’s work that make it a model for the kind of scholarship I know I want (and want more of us all) to write more often.

1. Political Animals risks accessibility, gorgeously. 

Mayer’s writing is intellectually rigorous but also fluid and lucid and full of heart. It takes seriously the notion that writing about art is a creative thing, not less than (or better than) the art it discusses, but a parallel document that exists in an intellectual and social relationship to its subject and forms a crucial part of our public engagement with that subject and the potential it holds to “remak[e] the world” (8). Mayer is a proper scholar-artist in her working life (that is: she makes art, curates art, and writes about art, moving seamlessly between these labours every day); here, she turns her phrases with the talent of a sculptor, reminding us that scholarship cannot be dry because it is creative, and as creative material it needs to inspire. As she writes at the end of her galvanising introduction:

Political Animals is written in homage and gratitude to the feminist scholars, curators, critics and bloggers whose work opened, and opens, up a world of film to me, and preserves it for us all. Above all, B. Ruby Rich’s feminist film history Chick Flicks brought news of films I couldn’t yet see (and had never dreamed possible). Her search, delivered in effervescent style, for ‘the kind of riveting, soul-replenishing work that can give girls and women the confidence and spirit to change the world’, is the shoulder upon which my book stands. (11)

2. Political Animals is rigorously inclusive.

In its inclusivity, this book reminds us that we must make our futures together, respectful of our differences yet committed to solidarity across difference, or we have nothing at all. The quotation above is an apt example of how Mayer’s critical generosity extends outward to those who have inspired and supported her; she pays that generosity forward in the exposure she grants the hundreds of filmmakers whose work she discusses – in many cases exposure long overdue.

Mayer’s scope is broad, always international and intercultural, and her language choices carry with them her deep understanding of the responsibility writing across cultural difference brings. She consistently chooses the terminology used by minority communities (trans, LGBTQIA, Indigenous – for example) as she addresses work from those communities, and she pays constant attention to the ways in which labels carry unconscious privilege, the privilege to decide who is “us” and who “them”. This might seems like a small thing, but I assure you it’s not: the research required to ensure naming and pronoun preferences are correct on a subject-to-subject basis, and the additional care needed in writing and copyediting in order to make sure casual errors are not left in the manuscript, is painstaking. Taking these pains indicates a willingness not to settle for “normative” language as normal, a desire to use words literally to speak a different and more inclusive world, page by page, into being.

3. Political Animals is evidence that reviewing film, theatre, performance – art, period – is essential cultural labour, labour we need to support and maintain in these rough political times.

By choosing to go long rather than deep in her engagement with most of her cinematic subjects, Mayer models film scholarship’s relationship to popular-culture reviewing, helping to break down the barriers between “criticism” and “reviews” – artificial and unhelpful as they are. In a moment when I often despair of the quality of performance reviews in the media outlets I rely on for information about the cultural zeitgeist (500 words, maybe; maybe written within an hour or two of the show, on the hoof, maybe on the phone!), this book represents film reviewing at its highest calibre. It takes the measure of trends, makes political connections, and articulates a vision for what yet may come. This is reviewing that takes time. It is reviewing that recognises its responsibility to support, engage, critique, and also adore that which it speaks of. It is reviewing as political activism.

Mayer’s kind of sustained, cultivated, invested engagement is essential for artists, and through them for the societies they both reflect and shape. Work like this forms part of a conversation artists need to have, in public, in order to move their practices forward. It forms part of a conversation spectators need to have in order to learn what it means to go to the cinema or the theatre with a world-making eye. And it forms part of a conversation we need to promote, urgently, online, louder and stronger every day, so that one day we might drown out the trolls – or, even better, render them hopelessly irrelevant. Perhaps we might even teach a few of them something about art, feminism, and inclusivity along the way.

Thanks, Sophie!

Kim

*If you’re concerned about where you send your money when you click to buy online, consider purchasing Political Animals direct from the publisher here.

**I have talked before about costume drama on the blog. I will again – very soon. Look forward to more from Mayer’s book in that upcoming post, as well as thoughts on season 2 of OutlanderOrange is the New Black, and the crazy-cool feminist western Strange Empire.

 

 

 

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Half term pulse check (part 2)

Last week I wrote about the crazy blended learning experiment that I’ve been undertaking in my performance studies class this term, along with my colleague at Brock University Natalie Alvarez. This week, I offer a post about another half-term reflection exercise – this one perhaps with less “argh!” in it.

On the (extremely blizzardy!) Thursday before reading week, my 20th Century Theatre students and I had the enormous privilege of hosting three talented female artists from the Shaw Festival, the big modern theatre shindig that takes place down the highway from us every summer. (Not the Stratford Festival – that’s another highway, in another direction!). These three women – director Vikki Anderson, actor Fiona Byrne, and actor Julia Course – worked together on the Shaw’s terrific 2015 production of Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls, a play about women fighting their way, sometimes quite brutally, up the career ladder in Thatcher’s Britain. (I wrote the program note for that production, I’m proud to say; you can read it here.)

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The ensemble in Top Girls at the Shaw Festival, 2015. Fiona Byrne (in the blue) and Julia Course (in the wig) are centre.

Top Girls is very dear to my heart; it’s probably my favourite feminist play of all time, and it’s definitely in my British drama top-10. (And yes, that means it bumps a good load of Shakespeare. Though not Titus Andronicus.) What I love best about Top Girls is that its feminist politics are in no way straightforward; in fact, far from being sisters in solidarity, most of the characters in the play are total bitches to one another. As another talented Canadian director, Alisa Palmer, notes in the documentary chronicling her celebrated production of the play for Soulpepper Theatre in 2007 (revived in 2008), even calling this play feminist is in no way a given. Its main character, Marlene, is a Thatcher supporter and, like her hero, a total patriarch both at the office and at home with her family.

(Watch the trailer for the documentary, called Girls on Top, below. It’s a superb, uplifting piece of filmmaking.)

Now, I do not support the line of argument that says women need to be nice to each other in feminist plays. In fact, I think it’s enormously instructive to write angry female characters being jerks to each other, because that’s one way we get to disrupt the tired, inaccurate argument that feminism is just another word for male-bashing. (Feminism pursues structural equality – political, social, economic… you name the structure – for all human beings according to gender identity and sexual orientation; part of that pursuit means understanding that “patriarchy” is not another word for “guys”, but is in fact a system of oppression that deploys both men and women as its instruments.) But I can get behind Palmer 100% when she explains that, for her, the most feminist thing about Top Girls was the staging of the play itself – and the welcome opportunity it afforded for a group of women artists to work closely together for an extended period of time, building a fictional community (however imperfect) and developing networks of love and support with one another in the process.

Imagine my delight, then, when Vikki, Fiona, and Julia reported the same experience making Top Girls for the Shaw, and explained at some length to me and my students what it meant to them to work in one another’s company through the 2015 season. Vikki noted how incredibly rare it is to work with an all-female team on any play anywhere, let alone on a play with a substantial budget at a major theatre festival. (Much more typical, she said, are situations where she is the only woman in the rehearsal room.)

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Vikki Anderson

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Fiona Byrne

She also made the point that the women of the cast and creative team behaved differently when no men were present to watch or judge; as she said, it really doesn’t matter whether or not the men in a rehearsal room are good, generous people or not, because human nature dictates that men perform for women, and women for men, in most social situations – and that women in particular carry the stakes of performing “well” in those situations close to the bone. Working on a show with all women thus meant a degree of social and emotional freedom for the actors on this project, and a welcome opportunity to experiment and play without worrying overly much about how things looked the first time around. Again, this is not to celebrate female “community” uncritically, paying no attention to the problems that arise within such communities (as in any others); it is, however, to mark both the rarity of getting to work on a team laden with talented women in an industry that still tips the scales heavily toward men, and the pleasures that come from knowing your coworkers have gone through similar kinds of embodied experiences as you have – and that they have your back.

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Julia Course

Having one another’s back is particularly important for those who work in the theatre industry, where actors put their bodies on the line constantly and must become vulnerable again and again in order to do their jobs well. Julia shared a remarkable experience on this score when she described what it was like for her to go from a heavily made-up role, that of the semi-fictional character Lady Nijo (a 13th century Japanese concubine and later Buddhist nun) in Top Girls‘ magic-realist first act, to the role of Angie, Marlene’s awkward and angry teenage niece (actually, daughter), early in the second act. Julia described a really tough quick change, in which she was divested of her wig and all her makeup, jumping into jeans and then appearing on the stage of the small Courthouse theatre as a gangly, uncomfortable teen wearing no makeup at all. For a female performer in a repertory company like the Shaw’s, such a situation is almost unheard of: the festival produces much early 20th century drama, and thus usually costumes its actors in the corsets and dresses more typical of the late Victorian and Edwardian periods. Julia talked about how exposed she felt in jeans and a simple top, her face bare, in such close quarters with the audience. To be revealed in such a way is excruciating for any actor, but it is especially so for a woman, who is judged throughout her career on her looks and is expected to conform to a relatively rigid set of rules governing physical attractiveness.

My favourite part of our chat with Vikki, Fiona and Julia arrived as class ended. Although we’d been a reduced crew as a result of the massive snowstorm, when the clock ticked over to 10:20 I realized that few students were prepared to leave. It was at this point, too, that Fiona had really energised the conversation, speaking about the challenges she faces as a working mother in an industry that doesn’t really care too much about stuff like who is looking after your kids while you rehearse (or how much it costs to pay them). Releasing the class, I invited those who wished to stay behind for an informal chat to do so; we gathered at the front of the room and Fiona, Julia, and Vikki offered some career coaching for anyone interested in pursuing acting or directing. One student shared a horrific story of discrimination based on appearance at her summer job the previous year; the group opened up as the artists made clear both that such experiences are in no way rare in the performance industry, and that it’s up to us not to tolerate them, to stand up together against them.

We finally broke up about 20 minutes after class officially ended – and then only to take Fiona and Vikki for coffee with most of the students who had lingered! (Julia had attended by Skype.) I cannot thank these talented women enough for giving so generously of their time to us, and especially for wearing their feminism so boldly and actively during our talk. Both men and women in the class were galvanised – and it’s a visit I certainly won’t soon forget.

With gratitude!

Kim

Top Girls at the Shaw Festival, part 1: 1982 and all that

This year’s Shaw Festival, the big summer theatre event that takes place each year in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, features a new production of Caryl Churchill’s landmark feminist play from the Thatcher era, Top Girls, and I’m proud to say that I have written the program note for it. The play is a personal favourite of mine – I teach it most years, and I have seen several productions of it in the UK and in Canada. It’s also weirdly still topical: though it was written in 1982, near the beginning of what we might call late-modern neoliberal capitalism in Britain, it resonates even more loudly today because, well, neoliberalism is alive and kicking more of us in the ass than ever before. That’s what my program note is about, in fact: how Churchill’s “ball-busting” post/feminist icon, Marlene, seems as familiar as ever in 2015, and what we can and should learn from her today.

With kind permission of the Festival (and with big thanks to its dramaturg, Joanna Falck, who commissioned my essay) I’m reproducing the program note here; I’ll also do a review of the production (and the opening night dinner and party!) shortly after I see it later this month. Stay tuned.

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Top Girl Power

By Kim Solga

When I began teaching contemporary theatre to university students just over ten years ago, I put Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls on my syllabus even though I was certain that choice would prove to be a disaster. Churchill is one of the most important British playwrights living today, one of the most influential political playwrights in British history, and she is arguably the most significant British woman playwright of any generation; for students of the genre, her work is not to be missed. Top Girls, however, is a tricky play. Written in 1982, during the first wave of Margaret Thatcher’s power and influence, Top Girls is a child of its moment, steeped in Churchill’s strong brand of socialism and littered (like so many of Churchill’s major works of socialist realism, including Serious Money, first performed in 1987 and produced at the Shaw Festival in 2010) with topical references that can easily prove confusing for contemporary audiences. These things make the play a major historical drama, of course – no different from all of the other historical dramas we ask our students to read all the time – but that is not all this play is. It is also a work of ardent, forceful feminism, and in its unflinching representation of women’s lives on both ends of the socioeconomic spectrum it explores the unsavory possibility that feminism could not then, in 1982, and should not now, in 2015, be declared “over”, because too many women are still being left behind.

Top Girls snapshots a few days in the life of Marlene, a high-flying corporate executive who has just been promoted to Managing Director of the employment agency that shares the play’s name. In the famous first act, Marlene presides over a lavish dinner party celebrating her good fortune – a party to which she has invited a variety of notable female figures from history, mythology, art and literature. This set-up makes for one of the funniest, most memorable openings in modern theatre (pay attention to what each woman orders for dinner or dessert!), but as the evening progresses and everyone becomes more and more drunk, fault lines open up. Here, audiences may catch a first glimpse of Churchill’s larger dramaturgical strategy: sharp, dialectical irony. Marlene’s famous guests have been remembered by history for their female exceptionalism – Gret is a warrior; Joan outsmarts the smartest men in Europe; Isabella is an unstoppable adventurer – but it is precisely this specialness that makes them hilariously unsuitable for everything from small talk to political debate with other women. Each guest brings to Marlene’s table a unique and valuable perspective on what it means to live a woman’s life in different places and times, but things finally fall apart because not one of them is able to imagine what it’s really like to be anyone else in the room (least of all their waitress). These remarkable women, it turns out, are all remarkably self-important, and with the possible exception of Gret, the least articulate member of the group, they seem to have absolutely no idea what it means to be part of a female community.

Many of Caryl Churchill’s most celebrated plays were written over the course of the 1970s and 1980s, when she was playwright in residence at the Royal Court Theatre (1974-5) and when she collaborated regularly with the Joint Stock and Monstrous Regiment collectives, the latter an expressly feminist theatre group. Churchill has always openly declared her feminist affinities, but her plays combine feminist concerns for social and political equality with other forms of political commitment, making her work rich, multi-faceted, and broadly resonant for a range of viewers. Recent Churchill plays have explored issues as varied as ecological crisis (The Skriker, 1994; Far Away, 2000), the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (Seven Jewish Children, 2009), and human connectivity (or the lack thereof) in a fully digitized world (Love and Information, 2012). The work she was producing in the hot-house Thatcher years, however, focused primarily on the complicated relationship between gender and economic rights – on how, for example, women’s limited (but much celebrated) social, political, and economic gains through the 1980s were marching in lock-step with the radical shifts remaking postwar Britain in the image of neoliberalism. This is the model of government in which corporate rights and business interests are protected by the state above all, in the belief that private, for-profit firms will “trickle down” their wealth to employees and help achieve social equality more quickly and efficiently than any form of government could do.

We still live, today more than ever, with a bad neoliberal hangover, and the dangers neoliberal ideology holds for women in particular emerge subtly but skillfully in the middle act of Top Girls. The morning after the night before, Marlene arrives at work to a steady stream of women who would like to change their lives by changing their jobs. One by one she cuts them down; her appetite to raise other women up with her newfound power and influence proves much less ravenous than the one that devoured her steak at supper. Churchill skewers Marlene’s shortsightedness in her careful juxtaposition of scenes, a technique she adapts from the mid-century Marxist theatre director Bertolt Brecht, but Marlene is not ultimately an unlikeable character. As a political writer Churchill is far more interested in supporting debate than in scoring points, and by the play’s final act Marlene emerges as a profoundly flawed human being with a strong survival instinct and a reasoned, if not especially inclusive, political perspective. Those of us who sat through first her drunken dinner and then her bad day at work might be surprised to find we’re supporting Marlene as she fights back against her sister Joyce’s bitter clinging to old ways and an ugly martyrdom. And in many ways our support for Marlene, despite not really liking her very much, is Churchill’s point: political action requires us to hang together so that someday we can all reap the benefit, however different our ambitions may be.

I expected a lot of resistance to Top Girls’ feminism from my first students, both men and women, but they proved me wrong. Instead of complaining that Churchill’s politics are dated and polemical, they showed me how, like all good political drama, Top Girls is carefully rooted in a single place and time but is ultimately about so much more than that one place and time. After reading the play they wanted to talk about the word “feminism” and what it meant to them, and for them, in Canada in 2005. They wanted to talk about the claims made by “post-feminism”, and about the several other ways in which the death of feminist politics was being marketed daily to a generation of skeptical young people. They wanted to talk about the ongoing disparity in pay between men and women, especially in the professions, and they wanted to talk about how neither Marlene nor Joyce seems to have won any feminist battle, though neither seems able to offer the other any real empathy over their shared loss.

When my students and I read Top Girls today, ten years on, we talk about Laura Bates’ Everyday Sexism project (http://everydaysexism.com), about the play’s politics in light of increased discussion online and in the media around violence against women, and about feminism’s newfound popularity (cynical? sincere?) among certain Hollywood and pop music celebrities. We talk about Angie, Marlene’s young niece; she is left behind, written off, as many of my students, in this economy, fear they may be, too. We talk about the Occupy movement, about Idle No More, and about the various ways in which resistance to social and economic status quos is being spearheaded today by energized, organized young people who refuse to take systemic sexual abuse, racial profiling, or poor economic prospects lying down. These young men and women insist that a better world will be built through strength in numbers and a faith in common bonds; for them, Top Girls is far from historically dated and ideologically irrelevant. It is our contemporary, and its politics are smart, funny, and urgent.

Enjoy the show!

Kim