Examine the importance of spectatorship issues and audience dynamics in feminist approaches to performance

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THEA 201                                                Feminist Approaches to Performance

I will examine the importance of spectatorship issues and audience dynamics in feminist approaches to performance by comparing a feminist piece, Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues, with another piece, Ursula Martinez’s OAP, where feminist issues were at work, but not the focus of the performance. I intend to demonstrate how feminist performance tries to call attention to ‘the gaze’ of the spectator and challenge the patriarchal organisation of culture.

To begin my analysis, I must define what I mean by ‘the gaze’. John Berger wrote:

Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only the relations of men to women, but also the relations of women to themselves.


(Berger in Wolf [1990] 1991: 58).

It is clear that the ‘active’ gaze in Berger’s analysis belongs to the male (subject), and that the ‘passive’ object of his gaze is the female. When applying this analysis to theatre, it is vital to note that theatre has been theorised as ‘a cultural practice, a practice of representation, and so inevitably enters the arena of ideology’ (Counsell and Wolf 2001: 31). Consequently, if theatre does reproduce this active/male and passive/female, attention to the way the gaze is encoded in theatre could offer insight into the way ‘woman’ is constructed onstage, and how feminist theatre may contest this. Sue-Ellen Case’s analysis of ‘the gaze’ in theatre demonstrates this point:

Given the assumption that stage and audience co-produce the performance text, the meaning of the sign ‘woman’ is also created by the audience. The way the viewer perceives the woman on stage constitutes another theoretical enterprise…in the realm of theatrical production, the gaze is owned by the male…deriving the sign for ‘women’ from their perspective…In the realm of audience reception, the gaze is encoded with culturally determined components of male sexual desire, perceiving ‘woman’ as sexual object. 

(Sue-Ellen Case in Aston, in Campbell 1996: 59, my emphasis)

Sue-Ellen Case raises important points in the above analysis: that the implied spectator in a performance is male (De Marinis), who may decode the ‘woman’ on stage as a sexual object. Therefore, feminist performance that calls attention to ‘the gaze’ could be a way to challenge the patriarchal structures of culture.

Nonetheless, when stating that feminist performance aims to challenge the patriarchal structures of culture, it is crucial to note that that there is more than one type of feminism, and that each feminism (bourgeois, cultural, materialist) has different political aims and subsequently different performance registers, resulting in different audience dynamics. For example, The Vagina Monologues I saw was performed in a way that was paradigmatic of the consciousness raising groups of the 1970s: its emphasis on the vagina as a source of shared experience and creativity, and the way it is put together from autobiographical accounts means that the personal becomes the political (‘to feminism, the personal is epistemologically the political’ (McKinnon in de Lauretis 1984: 184)) as the audience are told stories of ‘ the politics of pregnability and mother hood. The politics of orgasm. The politics of rape and incest…of prostitution and marital sex’ (Rich in Forte in Reinalt and Roach 1992: 249). The audience dynamic that could be promoted by this sharing of experience is one of shared solidarity:

The autobiographical nature of performance work in the 1970s was in line with the feminist politics based on sharing personal experience and for searching for commonalities among women.


(Dolan 1988: 62).

The above analysis, by Jill Dolan, did apply to The Vagina Monologues, as any audience member who had experienced any of the issues raised in the play or knew someone who had was asked to stand at the end, and so this principle of shared solidarity was extended to the audience. Thus, I consider The Vagina Monologues I saw to be of the political standing and performance register of cultural feminism.

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However, while cultural feminism has been criticised for ignoring social and political differences between women, by casting black and ethnic women to tell the stories in The Vagina Monologues that concerned women from other races (for example the monologue from Sarajevo) this criticism was overcome, to the effect of adding universal appeal and perhaps emphasising the shared solidarity amongst women from all backgrounds.

In addition, worldwide performances of Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues is part of the tradition of the ‘V-Day’ she created, making it not only a performance but also a political demonstration. One of the cast members ...

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