During one of our rehearsals for Seized Up—a devised piece I developed with a group of wildly talented ladies—our youngest cast member, the very delightful Lyris (age 17) came in, plopped down in a chair and announced that she had two questions. They were:
- Do you consider yourself a feminist?
- What do you think of THIS (pulls out copy of The Vagina Monologues)
She was troubled because she had asked some of her high school teachers if they thought of themselves as feminists and they had replied that no they did not. They felt that feminism was no longer relevant, or too militant, or too alienating or, or, or…
And here she was thinking surely that she was a feminist but wondering how it fit into her life.
I find myself in a surprisingly similar position. Of course I consider myself a feminist, but then I start to wonder—what kind? What makes a good feminist, a worthy feminist, and what are the ramifications for how I live my life, make my art, practice my scholarship? What really am I saying when I talk about feminism? How does it relate to my engagement with theater?
Back when I was applying to graduate school in acting, I wrote in my statement of purpose that one of the deeply held beliefs I had about the theater was in its capacity for universality. That by diving into the specificity of a particular experience, that experience would then expand into something universally identifiable. That’s why Long Day’s Journey Into Night or A Raisin in the Sun spoke to me, I argued.
But depending on what kind of feminist I am, this concept of universality might in fact be counter to that feminism. Perhaps what I am recognizing as universal situates the male in the subject position. Are not women more willing to identify with male protagonists than men are with females? Perhaps the very idea of the “universal” is an ideology I’ve internalized and is only reinforcing a patriarchal paradigm—in ways I cannot immediately fathom because I am so shaped by the prevailing ideologies.
And what if I want to write a play? Should I write it about “women’s stories”—or is that denying me the full range of expression (and perhaps the full range of my plays marketability. Should I care about that marketability? How can I not?)? Am I a bad or a good feminist if I write about a woman who wants to be a mother or a corporate executive or…what about race and class? Where do those elements fit in, as surely there is no such thing as a universal female experience? But one cannot include every story in a singular piece. What about the inherently exclusionary nature of story telling? Should we just try to bulldoze and fragment that? Have it all? Have what I want? Or do do I just think I want it? Lean In? Lean Out? And on and on and on
The task and meaning of feminism is a complicated wormhole, one that will fill Op Ed pages for a long time to come. There are as many feminisms as there are women and I suppose the only conclusion that that leads me to is that stories are not universal, they are personal, and we will personally respond to them. It might stir something up in us, it might stir something up in a lot of us—enough to make the powers that be throw it into the good ol’ canon. But that still doesn’t make it universal, it just means that enough powerful people (feminist or not) saw something of themselves in it and thought it was profound.
So what do we do? We keep telling stories and we keep listening. We listen everywhere, not just to what we hear first. We keep questioning those stories, we question them rigorously and seriously. We keep asking if there are stories we haven’t heard. We promote and share those stories that are not our own, that are maybe not so universal. We call ourselves feminists and ask ourselves what we mean.