On being seduced – by enlightened sexism

I am an out and proud feminist. To me, this simply means that I believe in equal rights, equal pay, and equal treatment for all human beings, including those who identify as men, as women, and as other (yes, those people do exist, and more power to them). Simple, right? Most feminists would like to think so. But it’s far easier to talk the talk than walk the walk, consistently and without contradiction, in a world that’s determined to cater to women as consumers yet remains terrified of their (buying) power all the same. As Roxane Gay reminded us last year, being a Bad Feminist is relatively common. But it is still far better than being no feminist at all.

Which brings me to the book I just finished reading, the TV series I just finished watching, and the alarm I felt as they collided one day a couple of weeks ago.

Like many theatre geeks I love a good costume drama. Lucky for me there are rather a lot to choose from right now. Costume dramas are A Thing these days – it must be all the bad economic news (no, really) – and I don’t just mean Downton AbbeyOver the summer I became obsessed with Poldark, the BBC remake of its own 1975 series based on the novels by Winston Graham. The 2015 series is slick and gorgeous, and stars the impossibly smouldering Aidan Turner as Ross Poldark alongside the glowing, crimson-haired Eleanor Tomlinson as Demelza, Poldark’s maid turned primary love interest.


The plot is pure Harlequin Romance meets Capitalism 1.0: Ross spends his time alternately fighting to save his copper mine from the evil banking family up the road and fawning over Demelza so obsessively that it’s hard to work out if he’s Henry Higgins or some kind of Dexter Morgan. But the series leaves us in no doubt that his love for her is true, and thus, despite the creepiness of Poldark sleeping with his teenage maid and then “making it right” by marrying her, they become an entirely likeable pair of old married lovers somewhere around the third episode.

Yes, it’s a bit obvious and a touch tawdry. Yes, the plot jumps and jives – Demelza is a farm girl with a dog for a BFF one minute, a bride the next, and then whoops! she’s pregnant/gives birth/the baby dies. But Demelza is also framed as strong-willed and big-hearted, a firm believer in her own convictions. She defies Ross to help his cousin to marriage with a man the family deems beneath her; she insists on caring for ill relations despite the risk to her own body. She works as hard as anyone. Having never learned the elite’s rules around women’s silence, she says what she thinks and what she feels. Never mind that she’s plainly making choices in line with gendered expectations – matchmaking, nursing, devoting herself to her husband against the odds. It was the 18th century – options for women were limited. It’s costume drama, so we can’t expect 20th century feminism to be on the table. Right?

Fast forward to August, and having drunk the hell out of Poldark I turned my attention to Outlanderbased on the historical sci-fi novels by Diana Gabaldon. Claire (Caitriona Balfe) is a WWII combat nurse on holiday with her doctor-husband in 1945; they are celebrating the end of the war and the return of married life with a jaunt in the highlands. Curious about the standing stone monument they encounter at Craigh na Dun, Claire returns to it later and alone, only to be transported magically to the very same spot – but in 1743. The first several episodes are a rich historical puzzle as we, along with Claire, try to reason out where she is and how she might get back home again; she is constantly on guard as she adopts the script and manner of an 18th century British lady and tries desperately to fit into the role long enough to save herself. Soon enough, though, it becomes clear that Claire is falling for the young highland warrior James Fraser (Sam Heughan, another buff smoulderer), and it’s just lucky that, to prevent her from being taken into custody by British redcoat fighters, the MacKenzie clansmen with whom she is traveling need to marry her to a Scot. To the series’ credit Claire is presented as appalled with this forced-marriage option, drinking heavily to try to avoid an inevitability she finally can’t outwit. But once the rings go on and the clothes come off, well, things start getting predictable.

If Poldark is a fun, sexy, largely unthreatening series about a pair of gorgeous people galloping bareback through the stunning Cornish countryside, Outlander is a smart show about a smart woman in a truly compelling fantasy-grade fictional world. Claire survives by her cunning, her generosity of spirit, AND her encyclopaedic medical knowledge. She earns her captors’ trust with her professional nursing skills. She drinks more wine than Tammy Taylor and still has room for whiskey. She stands up to badass guys in kilts and insists on her human rights despite the fact that she is both out of her century and often enough out of her depth. She’s a pro.

Outlander 2014

(Caitriona Balfe as Claire Bishop, kicking ass…)

And yet, just as I’d been convinced of Claire’s feminist cred, Outlander slowly started letting me down. What’s worse – I barely noticed. I barely noticed when Claire made it, against the odds, back to the stones at Craigh na Dun and hesitated just long enough to be captured by the British army, skirts flailing as she was dragged away. I barely noticed when, returned to the stones by Jamie (who rescues her from the British, natch) and offered another chance to go home to the 20th century, Claire chose to give up her life, and her career, for her new man. I barely noticed when, in the (on their own terms fascinating) final two episodes, the series turned our attention squarely to Jamie’s experience of rape and torture in prison and relegated Claire to the job of bringing him back to (heterosexual) life.


(…and again, giving in to the heterosexual imperative)

But when, in the final moments of the final episode of series 1, on a boat bound for France and fresh adventures in series 2, Claire turned to Jamie to announce she was pregnant (against the medical odds, no less!), I saw it coming. And I was shocked – because it had taken so long for me to wise up to the fact that I’d been had. What the hell was going on?


While I was busy binge-watching Turner, Tomlinson, Balfe and Heughan, one of my bedtime reads was Susan J. Douglas’s The Rise of Enlightened Sexism: How Pop Culture Took Us From Girl Power to Girls Gone Wild (2010). It’s a bracing book from a popular feminist cultural critic, and its subject is the music, TV, internet memes and other pop culture phenomena that purport to represent (and treat) women equally and yet, curiously, manage to reproduce a familiar series of timeworn myths and tropes about who women are (and who they ought not to be). From Survivor to America’s Next Top ModelSex and the City to The Closer, Beyoncé to Martha Stewart and beyond, Douglas does an admirable job of demonstrating the ways in which representations of women in today’s mainstream manage to pass off “empowering” images of feminine strength and resilience as somehow feminist enough, while also reinforcing long-held (and completely ridiculous) beliefs about us ladies: that powerful ones are just plain bitches, that we mostly hate each other and will claw each other to death for A Man, that we really *do* prefer shopping and child rearing, and that we thus probably aren’t cut out for that top gig anyway.

For Douglas, Outlander could be a textbook case study. Claire has brains and loads of power – within the limitations created by the sci-fi costume drama setup, of course. And there’s the rub. It’s costume drama; we can’t expect Demelza to be more than a wife and mother, and we can’t expect Claire to maintain control in a situation in which women are systemically, culturally subordinated. But when Claire chooses not to choose freedom, the series shows its cards: it’s much sexier, and thus more bankable, for her to stay with the soft-spoken, beautiful Jamie in the highlands than to return to the challenges of a complicated, 20th century urban life (in which, by the way, she would be fighting on feminism’s front lines). From that moment of “choice” onward something in the series shifts; suddenly, it’s all about Heughan’s Jamie, and Balfe’s Claire becomes his helpmeet. Yet how, the enlightened sexists might ask, can we say this is an unreasonable or unjust move? After all: Claire makes her own choice to stay behind as Jamie’s wife.

In a Guardian article that appeared earlier this week, June Eric Udorie anticipates the new film Suffragette with this valuable reminder:

the idea of “choice” feminism has become really popular. I obviously support women’s rights to make their own choices, but the idea that I have to support every specific choice, just because a woman made it, is something I think we need to do away with. By all means, get a boob job, but don’t try and justify it with feminism.

It turns out we are, indeed, living in something of a “post-feminist” moment, because post-feminism is the lie neoliberal capitalism tells us in order to convince us that simply by making our own choices, women are exercising their hard-won feminist freedoms (and therefore feminism is no longer required. Or: we’ve got some stuff, isn’t that enough?). Neoliberal capitalism also loves costume dramas: they present a chance to escape temporarily from our immediate financial, political, and social difficulties, while also offering us lessons in the benefits of hard graft and helpful reminders about how well we’re all doing today/how little is really left to fight for. Witness the outrageous success of the insufferable Crawley family on Downton Abbey. In the final season currently airing in the UK, Lady Mary is working as the Downton Agent and Lady Edith has taken on the role of publisher, moving herself toward a life in London’s Bloomsbury. These women are meant to stand as (rich!) exceptions that prove the rule: life for women is improving at a rapid rate, and soon we’ll all reap the benefits the elite enjoy now! For more proof we need look no further than Daisy, whose foot-in-mouth confrontation with a wealthy landowner over working class rights has left her to be saved by the business cunning of Lady Grantham. Or Anna the lady’s maid, whose reproductive disorder is about to be cured thanks to help from Mary. Trickle-down feminism is alive, well, and living in Yorkshire, it seems.

Sure, I could just watch something else – House of CardsOrange is the New Black, Homeland… lots of strong, contemporary women to choose from. But the mainstream costume dramas aren’t going away; they are stock-in-trade TV, and they are hugely popular when times are tough. Exhausted from my own work, settling into a precious hour or two of quiet with a glass of wine and my laptop screen, I was all too happy to let myself fall into the subtly sexist yet wildly seductive world of Claire the time traveller. Which is all the more reason to be vigilant about what these fantasies are selling, even as they peddle the tyranny of lady’s choice.

To the barricades!


On walking my feminist talk

I’ve just finished writing a book; it’s called Theatre & Feminism, and it’s part of the excellent “Theatre &” series edited by Jen Harvie and Dan Rebellato, and published by Palgrave. Like all Theatre & books, it’s written accessibly for a wide (and primarily student) audience, and it’s short and punchy (not like a stodgy academic book at all). In my first paragraph, I describe the book like this:

Theatre & Feminism tells the story of the movement known as Feminist Performance Theory, the critical lens through which scholars understand theatre and performance practices that take gender difference, and gendered experience, as their primary social and political focus. This story, then, is about women and theatre, women at the theatre, and women in and of the theatre; but it is also more than that. Above all, it is about how feminist theatre theory and practice allow us to understand the way all gender is constructed and reinforced in performance, for better and for worse, and for all human beings on the planet – be they men, women, transpersons, or others. “Feminism” remains a contentious term (more on that in a moment), but for me it is the best and most accurate term to use when thinking about gendered experience from a human rights perspective. Any human being worried about discrimination on the basis of gender or sexual orientation will have some affinity with the term, whether or not they realize it; similarly, this book aims to demonstrate the many ways that feminist scholars and makers of theatre and performance have enabled, and continue to enable, productive discussions about women’s (and others’) experiences of gender, sexuality, political power and human rights, both on and off the stage.

I grew into my feminist identity during what’s known in the academy as the “third wave“. That term describes a period (beginning roughly in the 1980s) during which feminist scholars and activists thought a lot about how gender is constructed by social expectations, and also by our mundane performances of self every day (for example: by how I dress when I leave the house in order to register as a “woman”, as an “attractive woman”, as a “professional woman”, and so on). As part of my third-wave education, I came to understand feminism as implicitly connected to my gender identity, not just my identity as a female person; I’m thus, as a feminist, less focused specifically on women’s experiences and women’s rights (as opposed to gendered experiences of all kinds, and human rights broadly imagined) than many feminist writers, critics, and activists tend to be. I consider men’s experiences of their gender identities to be an important part of my feminism, and I know well that men can be victims of patriarchy, too (though they are, of course, far more likely to benefit from its assumptions and prevarications than women are).

When the peer reviews for Theatre & Feminism came back a few weeks ago, one of my readers took issue with the conception of feminism in my opening paragraph. The reviewer (who is anonymous, which is best practice in academic publishing) resisted both my conception of feminism as about “more than women”, and also the way in which the paragraph described the book to come (s/he felt the book was more woman-centred than I was accounting for – and s/he is probably right). I grumbled; I felt like my sense of feminist self was being challenged by an old-school bra-burner who didn’t understand the position I was adopting. I resisted making any changes as a result of the critique, and my editor backed me up. But, the more I’ve thought about the reviewer’s challenge over the past little while, the more I’ve wondered if they were correct – and, moreover, what their* critique of my stance might say about me, and about the way I walk my feminist talk.

As a result of a number of significant changes in my life this past winter, I’ve been spending a lot of time with my terrific psychotherapist, Andrew. I’ve known Andrew since 2001; I am where I am today in no small part because of his support (and his extraordinary nose for bullshit). But we’ve clashed a few times over the value and premise of feminism. Andrew received his medical degree in the 1970s, and his sense of the movement is rooted in the second wave – the moment, stereotypically speaking, of the bra-burners. Recently, Andrew and I have spent a lot of time talking about my relationship with the important men in my life, and not long ago I had a realisation in his office: that my relationship with my long-term partner was far, far more conventionally gendered than I would have otherwise imagined. This isn’t to say that my partner and I sought convention; far from it. We would both describe ourselves as fully committed to a feminist purpose. Rather, as Andrew pointed out, we fit snuggly into convention, because we were both raised in “conventional” families, which in the 1970s (when we were born) meant families in which dads went to work, moms stayed home and raised kids, and both resented the other for their labour (rather than celebrating the hard work of working away and working at home, respectively). I hadn’t recognised, until then, that although my partner and I worked, on the surface, very differently from our parents (I went to work; he worked from home), we were effortlessly replicating normative gender patterns nevertheless (I did the cleaning; he walked the dog) – and hating each other for it.

Call me gobsmacked! How could I be a feminist in a Stepford relationship? Well, ok: it was hardly that bad. But I’d obviously been long denying (or simply accepting) the things that I knew, intellectually, were bad and wrong for me, most likely out of a combination of habit and familiarity. After all, most behaviour is learned; what did I learn in my first home, and from the vast majority of the cultural influences that hit me each day for the first forty years of my life? On balance I can’t really be surprised that my partner and I struggled to surf the tide. And this was an important (if, in hindsight, obvious) revelation too: being a feminist today is freaking hard work! Because there is nothing – NOTHING – obvious about a feminist position to the majority of human beings in most human cultures. Which makes living a feminist life a daily challenge.

Something else troubling and enlightening spurred me to think this problem through recently – the problem of how I live my feminist identity every day. My friend Jessica makes fantastic, superbly empowering athletic headbands for badass women athletes; she’s made me a few. I asked her for some more this past week, with various bespoke phrases printed on them; she dropped some samples by my office on Tuesday. Among those I’d asked for was one, bright fuchsia, that read simply “feminist”.

I saw it, and I balked.

I will tell anyone, and everyone, that I’m a feminist – loudly. In theory. But will I walk the walk, in practice? Will I really? Will I put on the headband and wear the label proudly, regardless of the context? I was surprised to realise, faced with the headband, that I wasn’t exactly sure. Sitting in my office, I thought about passing the “feminist” sample back to Jessica, citing a resistance to wearing it in mixed workout company. Boys at the gym, etc. (No, really.)

Then I thought again. What was I afraid of? That I was going to have to explain that I wasn’t actually a Beyoncé fan? That I was going to have to offer a potted history of the third wave? I’m not sure, but I think I was afraid that the term is just too toxic now; that I want to be a modern, easy-going girl. Just like in my partnership: I didn’t want to rock too far from normal. Funny how normal gets under your skin, and stays there.

It’s hard work, man (woman!): walking this feminist talk. Just ask the unbelievably talented Roxane Gay.

But I kept the headband. I’m trying harder next time.



*Grammarians! I’m using “they/their” as a neutral pronoun in the singular here, as per best feminist/queer practice. See here for more details.