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Talking Femme: Dissecting Cherchez La Femme

Perched atop a bar stool at The Penny Black, I couldn’t concentrate. I was waiting for Cherchez La Femme – a self-described ‘monthly digest of popular culture and current affairs from a feminist perspective’ – to start

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Perched atop a bar stool at The Penny Black, I couldn’t concentrate. I was waiting for Cherchez La Femme – a self-described ‘monthly digest of popular culture and current affairs from a feminist perspective’ – to start, but instead of thoughtfully considering contemporary examples in the interim, my eyes kept locking onto a particular unattractive lounge set to the side of the stage. Looking at its upholstery, all muddy florals and worn velvet, it was easy to image it sitting in some anonymous suburban living room once upon a time, a wasp-waisted hostess darting between the chairs with a platter of cucumber sandwiches. It was easy to imagine, not all that long ago, that lounge being part of a different world, where the main ticket item for a woman was to flit prettily through dinner party guests, dutifully pausing to fill drinks, like some kind of bartending hummingbird.

It’s this cultural shift and the changing place of women that got event organiser Karen Pickering thinking in the first place. Sensing Melbourne’s diverse events scene was lacking a fun, feminist voice – the kind of event she’d want to attend – Karen, a former editor of Overland, went one better than to complain. She made her own.

“From month, it’s run like Q and A or Insight, but it’s in the pub so it’s more fun,” she says.

This month’s Cherchez La Femme, as part of the Melbourne Fringe Festival line-up forms part of a series of panel discussions, with previous topics including feminism and the law, and feminism and sport (a particularly lively debate, so Karen tells me). Attracting a regular crowd of about sixty, mainly female, participants, Cherchez La Femme is a discussion between feminists, adjudicated by a feminist, for an audience of feminists.

So, does she ever worry it’s all just preaching to the converted?

Eyes squinting slightly from behind her tinted Raybans, Karen pauses to think before answering.

“My vision was always to have a space where you didn’t have to defend your feminism,” she says.

“Feminism has so many functions and viewpoints (itself), I wanted to create a space where feminists would be able to talk together and find common ground. Realise we’re all on the same side, so we can actually get more done.”

For the benefit of her non-French speaking interviewer, Karen explains that the name actually translates to ‘look for the woman’. Still lost in translation, she tells me it’s a Continental inversion of the familiar ‘behind every great man, there’s a great woman’ sentiment, that basically categories women as troublemakers and corrupters of society – a prejudice that arguably filters through into modern times.

To tie-in with the Fringe theme, this month’s topic was feminism and the arts, featuring a panel comprising of “esteemed panelistas”: comedian Lou Sanz, Art Nation presenter Namila Benson, art critic Cerise Howard and artist Dr Megan Evans.

“The arts is kind of like a pointillist masterpiece,” says Karen, opening the show, “From a distance it looks great, but up close it’s a bit shit.”

From anecdotes of casual sexual harassment to extolling the virtues of the Green Guide’s letters page, discussion waded through the grey areas of gender difference and political correctness in an industry equally renowned for pushing the boundaries as it is reinforcing tired stereotypes.

With her polkadot pumps and hair impressive in Amadala-inspired coils, Namila admits it’s a tougher gig for a woman in the arts.

“Let’s be honest, I don’t look like Livinia Nixon,” she laughs.

“Being a woman, you’re always going to be subject to a higher level of scrutiny. Some of the male presenters rock up in their flannies!”

But according to Lou Sanz, the blokey atmosphere of comedy clubs doesn’t necessarily foster any animosity between the sexes, or unequal treatment. But out of the wings, up on the stage, the story is different.

“I wouldn’t say the industry is necessarily sexist, I’d say audiences are, and that’s the truth of it,” she says.

The common (and condescending) refrain, says Sanz, is ‘you’re really funny for a girl’, and time to time, heckling can get vicious.

“We still have the proverbial jug of beer thrown at our heads,” she says.

For artist Megan Evans, the arts has provided a refuge from restricted gender roles. But it’s also been the site of some heated debates about what alternatives are considered acceptable.

As part of a community mural project in Fitzroy, made exclusively by women, she came up against some stubborn detractors who took issue with the image’s depiction of a patchwork of female figures. Presumably permits for an overblown Lynx billboard would have passed council screening more easily.

“I guess I became radicalized as a feminist at that point, because we had such difficulties with that project,” she says.

But, as Cerise Howard, notes, it’s women who have often been pioneers in the arts, especially in the area of film. Although Kathryn Bigelow may have just scored the first female Best Director Oscar this year, women have been shaping the silver screen since Frenchwoman Alice Guy made the first narrative film in 1896.

Amongst the intellectual banter and occasional microphone glitches (an omen perhaps, of the problems of denying women a ‘voice’?), cabaret performer Kitty Bang and musical acts from Emily Jarrett and  Eloise Maree entertained the audience with their sometimes hilarious, sometimes soulful performances.

Frequently interrupted by spontaneous applause and bouts of laughter, the time seemed to pass quickly and before I knew it, it was over. Daring to make the descent from my lofty barstool, I caught a second look at that goddamn ugly lounge set. Busy accommodating for a group of girlfriends, all red lippie and vintage clothes, it almost looked like a freeze frame from another time – the only difference was, there wasn’t a cucumber sandwich in sight.

And they say feminism has failed.

Books

Book Review: Crossfire – A Litany For Survival

Unflinching and authentic, Chin’s work shakes, confronts, and envelops you

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Stacey Ann Chinn

LGBTQ poet and spoken-word artist Staceyann Chin is a powerhouse of an artist. (Exhibits A, B, and C: Her mesmerizing Def Poetry Jam performance of If Only Out of Vanity.” Her essay “Paradise of Lies,” published in the New York Times. And her hit play “MotherStruck,” set to soon work its way through the festival circuit as a series. Need we say more?) Unflinching and authentic, Chin’s work shakes, confronts, and envelops you. She is a rare talent that can captivate you in an instant — both by the political gravity of the subjects she so fearlessly and intelligently dissects and her sharp, mesmerizing, and sometimes hysterical turns of phrase. Her “snap-elastic words” can leave anyone who’s ever written for a living marveling (and wishing they had come up with them first).

This same fire is seen throughout Crossfire: A Litany for Survival, Chin’s first full-length collection of poems. Weaving adeptly between verses about the intersection of love, sex, race, gender, feminism, trauma, sexuality, queerness, motherhood, oppression, and so much more, Crossfire is a foot-on-the-gas-pedal kind of eye-opening, from start to finish.

In “Tsunami Rising,” she writes of the “weeping white women” who stood behind Tarana Burke’s #MeToo movement only once a rich white actress co-opted it — a heartbreaking address dripping with explanation and patience we don’t deserve, and a tired, frustrated anger that we do.

“We are unable to process our pain with you,” she writes, “Because we are exhausted from centuries/of holding you and your children.”

In “Zuri-Siale Samanaya” — named for her daughter, with whom she often records “Living Room Protests” — Chin reflects beautifully on raising a child who is both following in her activist footsteps but coming into her own as an individual:

I can hardly wait
to hear your voice
I expect us to rumble
to create generational bruises that will have to be survived

In “Raise the Roof,” Chin’s worries that this power will not be enough to carry her daughter safely through a world intent on silencing the voices of Black women are heartbreaking.

Every day I have to drown my fears
for my child/born Black and a girl in a country
in which her safety does not matter
to anyone with power

Among the book’s other standout gems are a reflection on 9/11 titled “September in New York” and a hilarious and incisive retort to the misogynist who harassed her on Twitter (aptly titled “Tweet This Motherfucker”). But really, there is no plateau in Chin’s collection of poems. Each page of Crossfire: A Litany For Survival is fire, soul, and just damn good writing.

When artists like Chin bare their souls to put the revolution to paper, it’s up to us to truly listen.

Crossfire

by Staceyann Chin
(Haymarket Books)

Crossfire: A Litany For Survival will be published as a paperback original on October 1, 2019 by Haymarket Books.

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Culture

A Wilderness of Queer Theorists? A Review of Titus Andronicus

The great themes of Titus Andronicus all remain and hold our attention, as ever.

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In Cormac McCarthy’s masterly novel Blood Meridian, the main antagonist, the Judge, has some dispiriting reflections on the human condition and its predetermined and inflexible capacity for barbarism:

“It makes no difference what men think of war . . . War endures. As well ask men what they think of stone. War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner.”

This bleak vision of the American West and its new and old inhabitants invites comparison with Shakespeare’s Rome, “a wilderness of tigers” as Titus Andronicus calls it. His military victory over the Goths has left twenty-one of his sons dead, and now, as ever, another war awaits him: a family struggle of revenge against Tamora, her children, and those who would rule Rome.

There are some scenes in McCarthy’s novel that defy retelling or summary. Words like violent and terrifying come to seem pallid and banal when set against the depravity and real horror of McCarthy’s world. Similarly, the practitioners of war in Shakespeare’s first tragedy treat us to decapitation, filicide, dismemberment, and cannibalism. It’s difficult even to imagine Blood Meridian being filmed or staged, and directors taking on Titus Andronicus have often felt the same. A particularly gory 2014 production at the Globe Theatre in London left a few audience members collapsing and vomiting.

While Blood Meridian is undoubtedly McCarthy’s masterpiece, Shakespeare’s tragedy has almost always been considered a shameful aberration, undeserving of mention in the same breath as Hamlet or Macbeth. The scholar Harold Bloom went so far as to wish that this “poetic atrocity” had never been written in the first place. Interestingly, many modern viewers, occasionally wiser than verbose academics, have finally come to agree with Shakespeare’s Elizabethan audience, who bloody well loved it. Their hobbies, it must be noted, also included attending public hangings, so they weren’t exactly the squeamish types. Nor are we, I suppose, accustomed as we are to the daily brutality served up on TV, social media, and the news.

Can Titus Andronicus be rescued from neglect and disfavour? Bell Shakespeare’s production at the Sydney Opera House, in the hands of director Adena Jacobs, has made an audacious attempt to do so.

Jacobs cleverly and helpfully divides the play into eight chapters, each with its own title and focus on a particular character. The first, in which we are immediately transfixed by Jane Montgomery Griffiths as Titus, adds to the already high body count: Titus murders Tamora’s son in vengeance and knocks off another one of his own in a fit of rage. His daughter Lavinia becomes the marital plaything of the men around her, and in Chapter 2, The Forest. A Snuff Film, we are forced to imagine rather than witness her gruesome rape and the removal of her tongue and hands; in this way, her attackers, Tamora’s sons Chiron and Demetrius, can remain unidentified.

Jacobs’s decision to restrain the depiction of violence is a striking and effective one. The silence in the opening seconds of this scene, in which Lavinia’s helplessness is met by Aaron the Moor’s pitiless stare, is more confronting and frightening than anything else in the play. Jayna Patel as Lavinia is impressive if underused, and Tariro Mavondo, with her purple hair and ever-present sinister allure, captivates as the play’s most interesting character Aaron, the lover of Tamora and the father of her bastard child. His immorality and villainy are splendidly contained in the great line, “If one good deed in all my life I did, / I do repent it from my very soul.”

Jacobs’s central focus is on the human body: the real physical wounds it can carry, and the penchant for violence it recreates, even across generations. A camera onstage records closeup shots of the characters’ bodily lacerations and then projects them onto the back wall. This has a startling effect, especially when combined with the eerie and constant sound effects.

The weakness in the play is the same one that afflicts most modern art and literature, often fatally: an obsession with identity politics and the importation of once recondite ideas from the academy into the mainstream.

In the show notes, and I tried to suppress an eye-roll as I read this, Jacobs tells us that her production “queers and re-dreams Shakespeare’s play”, and then she bangs on for a bit about the patriarchy.

Given the overall androgyny of the characters’ appearance and the gender-bending of the cast choices, such themes are always lurking about. It never irks that much, really, especially if the performances are truly excellent. There are only a few scenes, however, when things start to get muddled, to put it mildly. There’s the birth scene, in which Queen Tamora’s baby is delivered via an artificial womb strapped to the father, Aaron, played by a woman. This wasn’t quite as cringey as the Clown’s campy and incongruous striptease, a real exercise in pointlessness.

I failed to see the force of all this ‘queering’; it doesn’t serve to question or play with gender so much as abolish it. That’s another kind of nihilism, by the way, but not one the creators seem very interested in. Oh well. Score one against the cisheteropatriarchy, as the kids call it.  

If we are to “queer” great literature, as many artists of our moment would demand of us, it’s amusing to remember an old-fashioned meaning of that verb: to spoil or to ruin the success of something. The intrusion of wokeness into art has made a real stab at this: the removal of aesthetic criteria in favor of political point-scoring for minorities; and the replacement of universal themes with increasingly identitarian ones.

To truly achieve this, however, would be to despoil Shakespeare of all he has. Even the most earnest production couldn’t do that. The great themes of Titus Andronicus – political and family disintegration, the forever war, our return to barbarism – all remain and hold our attention, as ever. This isn’t a fair fight, come to think of it: the queer theorists never had a chance.

Bell Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus is playing at the Sydney Opera House until Sunday 22         September 2019.

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