Feminist theatre, is it even possible these days?

The Edinburgh Fringe attracts metaphors. It is too large and various for formal definition, so it becomes a Leviathan of culture, a Godzilla of theatre, a month-long playground for London. It has a fuzzy underbelly of kids’ shows, a shaggy coat of university societies, the strong legs of the well-resourced Traverse. And, ready to swipe when you least expect it, there are the teeth and claws of the cutting edge.

While these sharp bits might only fill a few pages of the Fringe guide, they punch, or rather scratch, above their weight. Last year’s spikiest claw was Nic Green’s performance Trilogy, which addressed the joys and complexities of being a young woman in today’s society. It included a dance-routine performed by 100 local women. They were naked and they bounced. A lot. The show was a huge success. It was also unashamedly feminist.

The fact that these final two statements sit oddly together reveals an unfortunate fact of the current British theatre scene: even amongst those who consider themselves theatre-enthusiasts, the phrase “feminist theatre” often conjures up a mixture of postmodernist playwright Caryl Churchill and that episode of Friends where Chandler and Ross were forced to watch an enormously long one-woman show which began ‘My First Period’.

In fact, feminism as a movement as well as a theatrical genre has had a tricky time of it of late – for the last few decades, in fact. Contemporary feminists look back fondly to the simpler days of the ’60s and ’70s, when the formula went along the lines of “baking = repression”; “burning bras = liberation”. Now we have Nigella bending alluringly over a pineapple-turnover, while pert-nippled bralessness is an aim for the silicon-enhanced.

The conundrum of contemporary feminism is summed up the figure of its current poster-girl, Lady Gaga. Here is a pop-star more despot than princess, who once shot fireworks from her bra in a live concert and told an interviewer, rather limply, that she was “a bit of a feminist”. She is confident, powerful and at the top of her field: feminism says “Yes!”. She did a topless shoot for a men’s magazine: feminism shuffles its feet, remains silent.

Nic Green was one writer who used a show at last year’s Fringe to tackle the age-old question of whether a woman who displays her body is liberated or exploited. This year the issue is strutting about on stage in numerous productions, many of which are burlesque acts. One such show is Lashings of Ginger Beer Time, which promises “queer feminist cabaret’, offering "titillation for the brain”. Performed by the Radical Feminist Burlesque Collective, this show stands alone in the Fringe guide in its use of the ‘F’ word.

Of course, typing “feminist” into the Fringe search engine is never going to uncover every show dealing with issues of female sexuality and sexist exploitation. If feminism is hard to define these days, it is also often hard to spot. For a start, feminist shows are as likely to promote themselves with a sexy female silhouette on a shocking pink background as any other performance trying to shift tickets. One group of shows which concern an issue close to the feminist heart are those which deal with female abuse. There is a gaggle of verbatim shows that hope to expose the realities of sex-slavery. Two of these are backed by big names. The first is Emma Thompson. Emma Thompson Presents: Fair Trade is inspired by the true stories of two women who escaped the sex slave trade. Another big name—at least in the small world of Scottish theatre—is Cora Bissett, the star of 2009’s Midsummer. This year she directs Roadkill, a multimedia piece mounted by the Traverse and performed in a tenement flat, which tells the true story of a Nigerian girl trafficked to work in Glasgow’s sex industry.

Away from the horror of these situations, however, this year’s Fringe will be broaching feminist issues that settle in more recognisable areas of our lives. The rallying cry of the second wave of feminists in the 1960s and 1970s was “the personal is political”, an idea which later lost favour thanks to the caricatured image of the “raging feminist”. But the awareness that our personal lives are ruled by external, political forces, is a seam running through many pieces which will be performed this August.

“For me, there is very little difference between a porno magazine and a bridal magazine; both promote unrealistic ideals of gender performativity,” says Nicola Cross, director of Your Dream Wedding, a site-specific performance which will take place in an Edinburgh shop transformed into “Michael’s luxury bridal salon”. Punters—male, female, married, single, straight, gay—will be encouraged to talk all things wedding; to touch, feel and taste their ideal Big Day.

As a feminist theatre maker, Cross felt that the multi-million pound wedding industry was in need of dissection: “Everybody loves weddings. They get away with some dubious feminist principals because they allow you to spend a whole day getting pissed with old friends. At their best, they are a joyous celebration of love, commitment and respect. At their worst, they are patriarchy masquerading as ‘tradition’.”

The site-specific nature of both Your Dream Wedding and Roadkill, and the party-party character of the numerous Cabaret shows like Your Little Princess Is My Little Whore, highlights an interesting question about whether feminism avoids the proscenium arch or whether the proscenium arch repels feminism. Ella Hickson, already something of a Fringe stalwart at 25 with three shows and a couple of awards to her name, feels that being slightly off-kilter is necessary for plays which aim to address feminist issues in a society where, whatever Lady Gaga might mumble, feminism is still a dirty word.

Her latest play, Hot Mess, is also site-specific, performed in the trendy nightclub Hawke and Hunter. But this is not a cabaret or a burlesque: Hot Mess is a straight play about four people bent by the gender expectations that surround them. “It tries to normalise the extremes of feminine behaviour and shows that the things we consider normal in female behaviour are quite extreme,” she explains. “I wouldn’t say the show wears its feminism on its sleeve. Unlike my previous plays, Hot Mess has an almost magic-realist feel, because if you tackle these issues head on people just stop listening.

"I am interested in the fact that women are very willing to bad-mouth feminism with the aim of getting men into bed. Female promiscuity was once seen as a great success, but it’s more complicated now. The show is in large part concerned with love and forgettability, two facts of human life that promiscuity throws into sharp relief.”

Maybe by doing shows in the places where we live our lives—a tenement flat, a shop, a nightclub—rather than in the darkness of the theatres where we go to escape them, these young theatre makers are quietly telling us that the political is still personal.

Feminism’s new direction | Edinburgh Festival reviews

I find it amusing that they touch on the Gaga phenomenon. Not because I do not like her (I do) but because she has refused to be “used” as a feminist icon (and why should she allow that, anyway?). Perhaps she is a feminist, perhaps she doesn’t identify with some aspects of feminism, I don’t think she should be considered a model for anything, especially since she hasn’t been straightforward about it. However, this speaks more about the current state of feminism than it speaks about Lady Gaga’s personal preferences or political statements. The movement (if one can, at this stage, call it a movement at all) needs to claim high profile pop culture figures in order to assert its relevance, to prove that it still matters, that it can still agitate the liberation flags and occupy a space in the multitude of collectives that fight for audiences. Here’s where feminism shows its bigger weakness and probably its biggest failure up to date: the potential is not in one multimillion pop act identifying as a feminist. The power should be in the billions of voices speaking and telling stories. Sure, with one megastar the “marketing” is easier and takes less effort. But it also dilutes the message. It turns it into another pop culture phenomenon (with everything that it implies, including its ephemeral nature).

Perhaps its less about big names and more about personal stories. If feminism (and by “feminism” I mean those of us who identify with the term, regardless of our differences) has a tool that has been underutilized, in spite of its repetition and almost mantra-like qualities, it is that indeed, the personal is political. The billions of collective voices whispering their own stories are certainly louder and much more far reaching than one Lady Gaga pop song.

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