I’ve been watching the Weinstein shit-show from the sidelines with the same mix of excitement and horror as the next woman. I’ve not really known what to say; the constant stream of revelations represent, for me, not the watershed of the moment (although it is – knock wood – very much a watershed), but the depth and breadth of the problem we all knew was about but couldn’t constellate fully until now.
I am very, very lucky: I have no instances of sexual abuse in my past. But let me tell you, I’ve been both gobsmacked and completely unsurprised at the morning’s (every morning’s) headlines.
Because, like every human female, I have a lot of first-hand experience of how patriarchy grants men the impression that they are entitled to take whatever they want, while it grants women – as well as non-normative, queer, and non-cis-gendered others – the keen sense that they should watch their backs.
Let me stress here that this is no one person’s fault – although being a fecking bastard is ABSOLUTELY the fault of the arseholic guys being written up every day in the dailies.
Nope, this is not a post about ass-hatted individual actions.
This is a post about a system. And it’s a post about the theatre.
Aside from a complicated (and contradictory) mix of horror and relief, the number one thing I feel about this particular moment in history is this:
Thank god I am not teaching right now, and don’t have to talk about this with my students.
Don’t get me wrong: I secretly love nothing more than throwing the syllabus away on a news-damp morning and chatting the real stuff out with the gang in the room. But this occasion feels really heavy, really loaded. I can imagine some very tense conversations, some really challenging mediating. I can imagine the emotional toll.
But as I’ve been wading through all of this, I’ve been thinking a lot about what I might say (maybe, next term, will have every opportunity to say) in the classroom about the issues raised by this extraordinary moment. And, thankfully, I’ve been granted a gift by two remarkable pieces of theatre I’ve seen in the past few weeks in Toronto – both of which take up, at depth, the issues behind the issues we’ve been reading about in the headlines.
This is a post about them – and about the power of live theatre to communicate aspects of Weinstein-gate that the print and online media can barely touch.
Asking For It (created by millennial Ellie Moon and produced by Nightwood Theatre at Streetcar Crowsnest in October) is “documentary” theatre that begins with the Jian Ghomeshi revelations and goes on to explore Moon’s and her peers’ experiences with the challenges of consent. Moon interviewed scores of people (mostly known, some family, lots of friends) for the show, and their stories make up the content, voiced by four actors. In the first two thirds of the piece, performers Christine Horne, Steven McCarthy, Moon, and Jaa Smith-Johnson sit at a square table speaking the interview transcripts from binders into microphones, capturing the vocal intonation and gestures of the words’ owners. In the second half, they act out a handful of telling encounters Moon had during the interview process.
The show begins with Ellie (the “character” – the limits of autobiography aren’t totally transparent here) saying she wanted to know more, in the wake of Ghomeshi, about how consent works in practice: how we navigate it and how we all fall down around it. The show ends with her revealing that what she really wanted to figure out is why she seems to have a lot of rough sexual encounters, perhaps even want them, and what that says about her as a sexual agent, a feminist, and a human being.
Daughter is a bouffant show (in other words: expert clowning) that masquerades as stand-up comedy; the theme is, “wow, it’s so hard, man, to raise a little girl today!” Performer Adam Lazarus (who is the show’s co-creator, along with Jiv Parasram and Melissa D’Agostino, as well as director Ann-Marie Kerr) comes out as “Adam” (the character), all proud dad, wearing his 6-year-old’s butterfly wings and dancing to her playlist.
We love him more or less instantly, and we’re with him – until we can’t be with him anymore. By the end he has revealed himself to be a total jackass who wishes women would just go back to being simpler, the “tits” of his porn collection instead of the “cunts” of the real world. And though he admits to loving his daughter insanely, he also admits to thinking life would be simpler without her.
Toxic masculinity has by this point eaten the show, eaten him – and fucked his audience up completely.
These two pieces share as much in common as they don’t. Both, however, take issue with a culture that has created a pair of poisoned structures around sex and gender, and is now having to wrestle with their awkward, systemic dismantling.
For Moon, the problem of consent is BOTH that no means no, and that’s that, AND that consent is way, way pricklier and more confusing in practice than one endgame phrase conveys, for most well-intentioned humans, most of the time. For Lazarus, the problem is that love for his wife and daughter drives his character, but the tools he uses to shape his actions toward them were forged in a perilous melange of patriarchy-as-normal and extraordinary access to violent online pornography. He is also – as my colleague Karen Fricker pointed out to me over drinks the other day – apparently without family, beyond the women he perceives himself as responsible towards, and therefore without any (at least somewhat) objective mentorship and support as he flails into chaos.
One of the things that struck me right away about both of these shows was the way they were set up, spatially. (I’m thinking a tonne about space right now, because I’m deep into writing a book for students about theories of space, place, and meaning at the theatre in the twentieth century.)
When I entered the stage area of Asking For It, immediately I felt like a citizen, less like an observer. The space at Streetcar was configured as though for a debate, with banks of audience members facing each other, and more around the sides of the playing space. When the actors entered, they did so from our world: they came into the auditorium as the doors shut, and entered from the side of one of the rakes.
The message? We are all together in what is going to be a discussion, a series of provocations for us all to reckon with in a shared way.
Daughter was configured differently – though with equal critical aplomb. I entered a normal auditorium rake of seating, facing the stage. Shortly Adam appeared on that stage, dancing and flitting in the decorative wings. He was disarming, but also very clearly the (only) performer we were meant to watch. The configuration screamed: “stand-up comic! Also good dad!”
I admit I found Adam quite funny at first, but something about the character bothered me almost from the start. I felt like he had a gift for making everything – his daughter’s musical tastes; his wife’s pregnancy and difficult labour – completely about him. I remember thinking to myself, as he acted out (to hilarious and also astonished effect) his wife’s incredibly painful labour with their little girl: “does this guy really think it’s ok to make his loved one’s physical trauma about him?”
Turns out that question was, actually, the whole point.
With Asking For It, my experience was different – more cozy, and more personal. (I attribute this to Ellie’s femininity, as well as to some other experiences we shared, though we do not know each other. Similarity breeds patriotism – it really does.) Still, I found remarkable the show’s ability simultaneously to disarm me, and to put pressure on questions of extraordinary significance for me.
A case in point arrives in the second part of the show, when Moon and Horne re-create a conversation on a bus between Ellie and a friend with whom she’s had a boozy dinner, as part of the interview project. The friend notes that Ellie needs to step outside her comfort zone and interview strangers if her project is to have any significance. Push comes to shove, and Ellie approaches a man at the other end of the bus, brandishing her iPhone. She says something like: hey, hi, sorry to bother you. I’m doing interviews about peoples’ experiences of consent. Could I ask you some questions about how you experience consent, and navigate its challenges?
The guy is not interested. Nor is he sympathetic. He takes a totally understandable, very frustrated, position. He says something like: if I had approached YOU on this bus, what would you have thought? You admit you’re a bit tipsy, and you’re asking me about consent, asking me to talk into your phone, for some “project”; how would you feel in my position?
God, do we feel for this guy.
Until Ellie says, bluntly but quietly:
But: I ASKED you.
Adam means the very best – but his experience of love, care, and sex was forged in the crucible of brutal online rape culture. He’s been taught male entitlement in the womb, and the internet has reinforced his genital privilege.
He thinks EVERYTHING is about him. When it’s not, he freaks out – he actually does not know what to do.
So he hits people – including his friends, and his daughter.
Ellie wants answers: why is this CBC douchebag’s inappropriate and possibly criminal behaviour getting to me so much? What’s consent, and what’s crossing the line? Why do I sometimes want to cross the line myself?
Can I be a feminist and cross the line?
In the process, she meets a not insignificant number of people who think she’s being kind of a feminazi, or who think they are feminist allies, except they actually really aren’t.
They want stuff, and they’ve been taught to take stuff, and even though they want to be the most stand-up men imaginable, that training of wanting and taking stuff is deep, and it’s engrained.
I’ve thought about both of these two remarkable productions an awful lot in the last four weeks. It’s not lost on me that Moon’s piece is comprised of interview material – other peoples’ voices, however mediated by her expert dramaturgy – while Lazarus and his co-creators have deliberately built a show that demonstrates how powerful, seductive, and ultimately toxic a single, virtuosic, male voice can be, when offered as funny and chummy and bro-ey.
Until it makes you kind of literally feel sick. (I literally felt sick, by the end of Daughter.)
Toxic masculinity is a formation driven by parallel but totally contradictory assumptions: that men should be upstanding, good guys with a fair amount of feminist sensibility, but that they continue to deserve to be number one in the equation in all circumstances – because that’s what patriarchy teaches straight cis-men, full stop, OR ELSE. The end result of this messed up formula is easy to guess.
Moon’s character isn’t without selfishness, without problems. But the show constructed around her is polyvocal, and works actively to find others’ voices, to honour them, and to discover her own problems and challenges through the revelations they provide.
Daughter avoids polyvocality – deliberately – because Adam isn’t capable of admitting others into his worldview in a real and meaningful way.
Dismantling this logic – the logic of toxic masculinity – is the work ahead, or else. The point of both of these productions is that patriarchs aren’t always easily visible, but that they are always conditioned by the poisoned binaries of gender vs gender. Because the system under which we labour – in which men come first, have always come first, and anything else is an “accommodation”, even now – is entrenched, and dismantling that system is not just about deciding to be a good guy, or an easy-going girl.
It’s much harder than that. And it requires all of our labour. Together.