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Feminist or Lesbian..?

Storytelling is man’s oldest tradition…from the days of cave paintings, to the tragedies of ancient Greece.  It’s part of what makes up the human experience. But all too frequently, stories of lesbian lives have been silenced, diluted, heavily censored or portrayed as a by-product of feminist activism.  I aim to reveal the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth – distilling a true dyke essence while celebrating what has been long kept in the shadows or ignored completely.

In gender studies, there exists, both historically and presently, the assumption that theories of lesbianism and feminism run parallel to one another.  But when considering theatre, does lesbian theatre belong in a category of its own; or should it remain a sub-genre of feminist theatre, or stay under the umbrella of gay theatre? Activist writer Martha Shelley (1969, p.4) states “I have met many feminists who were not lesbians but I have never met a lesbian who was not a feminist”, whereas feminist theorist Judith Butler (1990, p.98) asserts “I would say I’m a feminist theorist before I’m a queer theorist or gay and lesbian theorist”, implying a clear distinction between what constitutes as lesbian and what constitutes as feminist.  The relationship between feminism and lesbianism is one that is continually evaluated.

Sexual Politics

During the late 1960s – early 1970s sexuality had become ‘politicised’ (Craig, 1980, p.50).  This was due to changes in legislation, the introduction of the contraceptive pill and changing attitudes towards homosexuality.  In 1970, the first National Women’s Liberation Conference was held at the Ruskin College in Oxford and four demands were passed: Equal pay, equal education and opportunity, 24-hour nurseries on demand and free contraception and abortion on demand (Aston, 1995, p.11).  The idea of ‘gay pride’ emerged at this time and being gay, ‘out’ and proud was paralleled by women who were starting to ‘come out’ proudly as strong women.  According to Wandor (2001, p.120), ‘lifestyle politics had become equal to political protest and theatre reflected this.

Both the Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM) and the Gay Liberation Movement (GLM) experimented with theatrical self-expression which fell into the pattern of agitprop theatre.   Agitprop is a form of protest performance that uses sketches to make a political point.  Feminist theatre has a long tradition of agitprop, with it being particularly ubiquitous during the Suffragette campaign.   This theatrical style was particularly evident in the work of the Women’s Street Theatre and the Gay Street Theatre.  They had strong links with one another, both protesting against and briefly disrupting the 1970s Miss World contest.  It was at this time that a new feminist and gay consciousness began to emerge and slowly spread (Craig, 1990).  Feminists made ‘spectacles’ of themselves using agitprop techniques, in protest to women being objectified.  These techniques were also utilised by gay and lesbian street theatre groups.

This type of street protest is “embryonic of the body centred critique of gender representation that, subsequently, was to dominate feminist theatre, theory and practice in the 1980s” (Martin, 1996, p.5).  The agitprop groups developed a formula, creating short naturalistic scenes and interjecting cartoon-like ‘baddies’.  All women’s groups were seen, by critics, as ‘separate’ and were constantly being challenged because of this.  According to Wandor (1980), an early slogan of the WLM was “the personal is political”.  Implying that any issue, regardless of how small, has political meaning and is therefore subject to change.  The resurgence of feminism questions the relationship between the individual and his/her society and the nature of that change.

‘Underground’ theatre groups flourished during the late 1960s and this generated a new infrastructure for alternative theatres by the early 1970s.  It was at this time that Ed Berman set up ‘Inter-Action’ in North London, which presented numerous styles of professional community theatre, as well as involving itself in a range of community projects.  Berman also helped create the Ambiance Lunch Hour Theatre Club and the Almost Free Theatre.  The latter has “single handily transformed the idea of community from that of a geographical area to that of a minority grouping within society” (Craig, 1990, p.23).  Indeed, ‘Inter-Action’ has been a catalyst for both women’s and gay theatre companies.  In 1973 a women’s festival took place at the Almost Free Theatre.  Following the success of this, an all-male season was hosted in 1975, showcasing gay plays.  It was from this season that the name Gay Sweatshop emerged (Wandor, 1986, p.54).  One lesbian play, Any Woman Can (1973), by Jill Posener, centred on a young woman ‘coming out’, was refused on the grounds that it was not ‘theatrical’ enough.  This was one of many examples of a gender bias which began to surface in gay theatre, signalling problems for women in particular, who were growing increasingly unhappy at being sheltered by the umbrella of ‘gay’ theatre. It is important however, to note here, that the discrimination that lesbians experienced was not just confined to the theatre.  Tensions had begun to arise within the WLM also, when the president of the National Organisation for Women (NOW), Betty Friedan (1969), coined the phrase “Lavender Menace” to describe the threat that she felt lesbians posed to the NOW and WLM.

Gender Theory and the ‘Gaze’

The WLM began, in the 1960s, as a ‘grassroots’ political movement and developed into a political and ideological movement during the 1970s.  This new political and cultural promise contained contradictions within.  The liberal feminist movement originated within the NOW, whose main agenda was equality through political reform.  (Dolan, 1992, cited in Holderness, 1992, p.46).  Radical feminists and liberal feminists differed in their fundamental views of women’s oppression. Liberal feminists held the belief that women could achieve equality through their individual actions and choices.  Conversely, radical feminists believed that inequality repressed women’s actions and choices and this could only change through a widespread cultural awakening.  Through the 1970s and into the 1980s, liberal feminism continued to gain mainstream visibility and acceptance, both socially and theatrically speaking (Dolan, 1992, cited in Holderness, 1992, p.47).  The same cannot be said for radical feminism with the degeneration of alternative feminist theatre practice during the 1980s due to a lack of funding.  The founding of a popular feminist/lesbian group Split Britches in 1980 was “an anomaly in an otherwise stagnant scene” (Dolan, 1992, cited in Holderness, 1992, p.48).

The role of any audience is influenced by gender.  The spectator directs his/her gaze accordingly and shows appreciation with applause.  Audiences are therefore categorised based on how they view the subjects they are presented with in the media.  The ‘gaze’ was first theorised by British film theorist Laura Mulvey (1975, cited in Goodman and De Gay, 1998, p.266), in her ground-breaking essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.  It is a concept commonly used when investigating visual culture, be it film, advertising or the theatre.  It provides a framework of analysis when interpreting images and has proved very constructive when analysing feminist and lesbian theatre.  Mulvey (1975, cited in Goodman and De Gay, 1998, p.266) presupposes the generic spectator to be a heterosexual male.  This concept has been challenged by many feminists who have criticised Mulvey for failing to acknowledge the existence of those outside of a heterosexual male identity (Bennett, 1997, cited in Goodman and De Gay, 1998, p.266).  The polarisation of women is defined and confined by the male gaze.  Feminist theatre seeks to find new strategies for encoding the female subject and groups such as Split Britches successfully do so.  According to Goodman (1993, p.234) “feminist theatres encourage a gender-aware gaze, but do not restrict the range of possible gazes within any play or performance dynamic”.  The theory of the gaze places emphasis on the spectator.  Jill Dolan (1988, cited in Goodman, 1993, p.225) fears this increased emphasis may lead to “the death of the author”, indeed, one might say that Split Britches performance style is a testament of this.

So, is feminism still a pertinent movement within the theatre today?  There remain a few feminist informed theatre companies active today, but many companies are reluctant to commission work by feminist writers, particularly if they are unknown.  Funding is as big an obstacle for marginalised companies today as it has ever been.  The individual success of performers, directors and playwrights (such as Eve Ensler, The Vagina Monologues), is more representative of contemporary feminist theatre rather than the collectives of the 1970s and 1980s.  There remains much debate about the status of women in theatre in general, who are still very much invisible and are excluded from positions of power (Aston/Harris, 2008, p.99).  With the exception of a few studies of specific theatre companies, there has been no previous attempt to record feminist theatre in both the UK and US.  This illustrates its low status and lack of interest in theatre history.

One such study (Women in Theatre Archive (2009)) shows that female playwrights are producing fewer plays than men at the turn of the 20th century.  So, what does this imply about gender disparity in the theatre?  The lesbian theatre cannon, on the other hand, has grown since the 1980s, with Jill Davis (1993, p.115) listing 45 lesbian plays (British and American) in 1992.  Is this because lesbian theatre is often defined in relation to a multitude of cultural representations (film, fiction)?  Lesbian and gay representation has gained yet more prominence in the in the media in the 21st century, circa L Word, Orange is the New Black and with the influx of LGBTQ+ characters in popular UK soap operas (such as Coronation Street and Eastenders). All of this has boosted the profile of lesbian and gay theatre companies.  This has had a synergetic effect and as a result, a contemporary ‘queer culture’ has emerged aligning lesbians and gay men who, although separate in identity, have found solidarity through a shared a sense of purpose.  This echoes the mutual identification and support shared by lesbians and feminists in the 1970s as well as signalling a “shift in allegiance” (Davis, 1991, p.146).

Professional British theatre is notorious for being a closed community.  The vast majority of the British population have no interest in the theatre.  According to Holderness (1992, p.84), the reason for this is that the British theatrical establishment “operates like an exclusive gentleman’s (sic) club”.  During the 1960s and 1970s alternative groups such as Gay Sweatshop and Siren seemed to challenge that establishment offering a counter-culture to mainstream theatre.  However, according to Holderness (1992, p.85), “their impact was marginal”.  The alternative theatre movement regurgitated a proliferation of radical touring companies that are now semi-forgotten.  People are still uneasy when it comes to separatist groups as they fear ‘ghettoisation’ may follow.  What they fail to recognise is that separatist groups, by and large, only form because of lack of opportunities elsewhere.

Split Britches are the only one of the companies mentioned in this blog that have stood the test of time.  They describe (Split Britches, 2011) their work as “about a community of outsiders, queers, eccentrics.  It is feminist because it encourages the imaginative potential in everyone and lesbian because it takes the presence of lesbian on stage as a given”.  At present, they are still touring extensively and maintain a large following.  Current shows include Unexploded Ordnances (UXO) (2016), in which they explore of ageing, anxiety and ‘doomsday’ created through conversation and collaboration with an array of older people and artists; and Retro-Perspective (2011), in which they create a “medley of work that has made the politics of gender and sexuality and the humour of human relations assessable to all ages and persuasions for the last 30 years” (Split Britches Blog Spot, 2011).  They have also previously toured the UK with Miss America (2010), a concept play that was inspired by a dream that Shaw had in which she was crowned Miss America.  It deals with the ‘American Dream’ from the point of view of a 60-year-old that longs to be Miss America.  It was performed at the Queen Mary University of London, where Weaver is a Professor of Contemporary Performance Practice.

Until recently, Split Britches had never been funded.  They made their own work and performed wherever they could, be it in a busy city centre or an empty store front.  Their 30-year survival is, by in large, because of that.  They never set out to make lesbian or feminist work, they made work for the community they surrounded themselves with, it just so happened that that community were lesbians and feminists (as are they).  So, what does the future have in store for lesbian theatre?

There remains still, the misconception that lesbianism and feminism are one of the same.  What has become increasingly apparent to me in the writing of this blog, is that lesbian theatre and feminist theatre, although analogous in many ways, are indeed different.  There is a definite symbiosis, lesbian theatre is rooted in feminist theatre and certainly would not have flourished without it.  What has been apparent throughout this blog is that many of the theatre companies mentioned in this blog defined themselves in relation to their political stance, which was (apart from the Gay Sweatshop’s male group), informed by a feminist rationale.  But something that remains unresolved within feminism are the conflicts between women of different race, sexuality and class.  This is why it was necessary for lesbians and women of colour to branch out and create their own theatre that they could identify with.  What has set companies such as Split Britches apart from the proliferation of feminist groups active in the 1970s and 1980s is their sexual politics.  This is what defines them as lesbian theatre companies, subsequently giving lesbian theatre its own deserved category.

So, come on ladies, what are you waiting for…prove me right!

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