Friday, 12 August 2011

i can't tell you where we're going

As someone unashamed to call herself a feminist (and I know a lot of people who wouldn't dream of doing such a thing), I'm often dismayed by my failure to register the subtle diminishments of women in the culture around me. Spending time with Miss Velvelette Actionette is invigorating, because her feminism is forthright and astute where mine is meek and woolly. She glares at the things I glaze over, interrogating and challenging assumptions about women that I, not entirely consciously (at least, I hope not), accept, even uphold.

It's surprisingly rare that a work of art should fire up the feminist in me, let alone that it should happen three times in the past three weeks. Things began mildly, with Belarus Free Theatre at the Almeida. I've wanted to see this company since Mark Ravenhill wrote about them in G2 but, in that infuriatingly haphazard way that I have, didn't get around to it before now. Unfortunately, Eurepica. Challenge didn't feel like the place to start. Among its scattershot collection of 12 short vignettes was one rivetingly visceral piece, in which a student protester is interrogated by the authorities: what made it so effective was that the student was represented by a watermelon, which sat, mutely pathetic, as the interrogator showered it with abuse. Its decimation was no less shocking for being inevitable: the sight of its head being sliced off made me squirm, and when the interrogator stuck her hand inside and pulled out its juicy red innards my stomach churned. It reminded me of a production of Pere Ubu I saw years and years ago, I think at the Young Vic, in which all the deaths were devastatingly enacted by a lugubrious chap at a table using cheese graters and tomatoes and other innocuous foods and kitchen tools, a warped appropriation of foley effects that remains one of the best pieces of theatre I've ever seen.

The rest drifted between intermittently involving and drearily awful. I liked the unsettling use of foot puppets to depict child drug addicts in Turkey and the incongruity of a Latvian immigrant rapping his letters home from Ireland. The argument between a Romanian playwright hoping to craft something free and true about his country, and the theatre agent interested only in perpetuating violent cliches, demonstrated a dry, if not exactly subtle, humour, as did the tale of a Swedish woman harassing a beggar on the underground for failing to consider the environmental impact of photocopied leaflets. But as the evening wore on – and it is wearing, watching one satire after another not quite come off – my general disappointment was sharpened by a specific annoyance at the quantity of bare female flesh on stage. The nadir came with a shrill piece from Poland about a priest and a prostitute – and that alone tells you how old-fashioned some of the work was – that never allowed the woman to be more than a squawking object.

The group are already fighting for so much, I feel mean criticising them at all, let alone criticising them for lapses in their representation of women. But it rankled, and left me in an unforgiving frame of mind just as I caught up with The Social Network on DVD. For every positive female figure in the film – Zuckerberg's self-possessed ex-girlfriend, the attorney working with his estranged best friend, the plain-talking junior lawyer – there's a scene of nauseating female subjugation. There's the frat-boy parties, where female students strip off and cavort to animal cheers. There's the two women who throw themselves at Zuckerberg and his best friend, one of whom disappears from the film without trace, the other of whom is revealed as an intolerable jealous hysteric. There's the Facebook celebration party where – and this was the final gratuitous straw – people snort cocaine from a teenage woman's bare stomach. Yes, the dialogue is whip-sharp; yes, the competing legal shenanigans make for entertaining drama; yes, it's brilliant that the characters are so complex, remaining sympathetic no matter how reprehensible they appear. But the casualness of the sexism appalled me so much, I couldn't truly enjoy the film.

A few days later, feminist-me was taxed again by The Village Bike at the Royal Court. I dithered about seeing this play, because I want nothing more to do with any of the writers who contributed to the unnatural disaster that was Greenland at the National, with the possible exception of Moira Buffini, whom I've worshipped for so long that I can't stop now. Penelope Skinner went some way to redeeming herself: The Village Bike is lemon-sharp in some places, quietly moving in others. I laughed when Becky – pregnant, furious at the negation of her self that the invisible foetus has already inflicted on her, desperate for sex – rages at her well-meaning, decent-thinking, infuriatingly self-righteous sap of a husband that their child is in her womb, not her vagina. I gasped when John rails at Becky for shopping at Tesco, expecting him to demand to know why she bought condoms: instead, what shocks him is the appearance of contraband brie on the receipt. I cried when Becky's neighbour Jenny, the beleaguered mother of two young boys, cracks with desperation at her husband's absence, his easy ability to leave the family home for more “worthwhile” endeavour in developing countries, the expectation that she will be kind and supportive and calm even as her children infuriate and insult her. “I'm just stupid old Mummy,” she rails, and my heart bled for her.

And yet. I have serious problems with a play that purports to explore women's sexuality but steadfastly punishes women for indulging that sexuality. Rejected by her husband, Becky starts an affair with a neighbour widely deemed eccentric: together they play out pornographic fantasies in which Becky likes to think she's in control, but never is. She allows herself to be hurt and abused and still comes begging for more. And when she's rejected by this man, she throws herself at the local plumber (a neat pornography in-joke) and feels like a prostitute. By the end, Becky finds the very thought of sex revolting: in a stage direction, Skinner emphasises that she lies on her bed and “stays very very still. As though, if she moves, something will break.”

Here and there, Skinner raises properly interesting questions: about the effect getting married, having children, has not only on a woman's sense of self but on her sense of self-determination, the extent to which motherhood erodes a woman's sense of freedom to act as she chooses and put her own desires first. (And yes, these are questions I face every day.) About the myriad tiny ways in which men, husbands, take advantage of their wives. About the relative ease with which men can enjoy their sexuality and the near impossibility for women of doing the same. But Skinner ruins it all by humiliating Becky, punishing her for wanting sex, having sex, using sex for something other than procreation. What could have been an engaging and provocative feminist argument feels instead as primly cautionary as a Victorian morality tale.

The result of all this infuriation is that, after finishing the biography of Mrs Beeton – whom Kathryn Hughes, persuasively and winningly, depicts not only working alongside her husband as an equal at just the moment in time when those prim Victorians were shunting middle-class women into the confines of the household, but working to reassure the women newly trapped at home that their endeavour there could be worthwhile, as long as they applied themselves to mathematics and science and appreciated the skill required to run a household, not least financially, smoothly and efficiently – I've been drawn back to Adrienne Rich's book Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution. I tried reading it a few months ago, but stopped when I realised that the introduction had washed over me: clearly I wasn't ready to engage with such scrupulous feminist thought. Reading that introduction properly now, part of me feels exhilarated at the parallels between Rich's thinking and my own, but another part of me is pained by how little appears to have changed since she wrote the book in 1976 and revisited it a decade later. At heart, her feminism is anti-capitalist humanism, as captured in this paragraph about the fight for abortion and birth rights in the 1970s:

A movement narrowly concerned with pregnancy and birth which does not ask questions and demand answers about the lives of children, the priorities of government; a movement in which individual families rely on consumerism and educational privilege to supply their own children with good nutrition, schooling, health care can, while perceiving itself as progressive or alternative, exist only as a minor contradiction within a society most of whose children grow up in poverty and which places its highest priority on the technology of war.

I read this travelling home from David Hoyle's spirit-lifting show at Soho on Monday night, knowing that nearby Brixton and Battersea had been attacked by looters, half-expecting any minute to walk into a riot. It was exactly what I needed: a wise, calm voice reminding me that the root of any problem lies deep and must be excavated if real and lasting change is to be effected. Hoyle was brilliant on the subject of the riots, slyly suggesting that we all pop down to Bond St after the show and “have a fun time” helping ourselves to designer goods, provocatively arguing that the looters are simply doing their bit to bring us to a state of communist bliss, in which we wake each day to pick only as many apples from the tree as we need. Add his assurance that today's children would be much improved by being injected with acid at school, that when you're depressed doing something avant-garde instantly makes you feel better, and his astonishing cover of New Order's True Faith that shone a dazzling new light on the song, and yes, it did feel worth risking the riots to be there.

My own thinking on the riots is an inchoate tangle of fury and sadness and bleak optimism (my husband has read that the gangs who live around us crossed territories and forgot enmities to smash up Brixton and Battersea together, proving that some sort of ceasefire is possible), and rather than attempt to unravel it here I'll just direct you X, which is more powerfully articulate and brave than I'm ready to be.

What links X, Adrienne Rich and David Hoyle is otherness and a celebration of otherness, not least the potential for otherness to reject capitalism and forge new social models. As opposed to the old social models that Sam Holcroft, in her scintillating contribution to Double Feature at the National, Edgar and Annabel, craftily argues that we adhere to, script our lives by, almost despite ourselves. Holcroft places Edgar and Annabel in a repressive police state that doesn't quite hold up, but it doesn't matter, because the surveillance under which the couple exist functions brilliantly as a metaphor for the way we survey ourselves: we self-censor and rein ourselves in, controlling impulses and extinguishing desires, not simply respecting but maintaining conservative notions of normalcy and pernicious financial systems, no matter how inimical these things seem to us in theory. Holcroft's characters feel constrained by the roles allotted to them by society, but to break free would be to risk their lives. How different is that from Penelope Skinner's Becky, trapped in a genteel village in nice, safe, democratic England, condemned to play a role that doesn't suit her? Becky isn't a firebrand revolutionary, she's not constructing bombs, she's not rioting. But she is trying to escape the boundaries of her existence, and for that her spirit is broken. Another protest silenced by the forces of conservatism.

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