“Orientalism” and “Woman”…


Summer, 2013, Beloit College. I was devising a performance piece about the first meeting of Egyptian and American feminists at the 1930 International Women’s Suffrage Association in Rome, Italy.  This course and the resultant project were to be part of a collaborative performance with students from the American University of Cairo.

Nine students were enrolled in the course:  three men and six women.  Of the men, two were international:  one hailing from Japan and the other from Bosnia.  The third man, an American, lived in a Jewish community in Prague for six years.  Four women were white Americans, two women were mixed race Americans.  All students were theatre or media students.  None of the students were transgender.

Our first task was to understand “orientalism” as it informed the writings and behaviors of the American women’s writings we would be using as source material. The first three days of the course focused on Said’s concept of the Oriental (and the Occidental).  On the third day, we brought these ideas together to examine “Woman” as “Orientalism”.

Students were placed in gender-identified groups to discuss the conception of woman as they “knew” it.  Men were asked:

  • What is strange about women?
  • What do you KNOW about women because you’ve read it? (and why would men write this down?)
  • What mystifies men about women?

Women were asked:

  • What do men not “get” about women?
  • What do men know about women from reading about them?
  • What do you believe is mystifying about women for men?

These conversations were developed into important vignettes for the performance.

For me, students’ experience and knowledge is an essential starting point for education.  Articulating what is “known” allows the known to become “un-known” when other perspectives complicate the known.  Two years after asking students to consider “Woman” as “Orientalism”, I am still haunted by a comment from a male student, “Amy, you are asking us to apply the concepts of Orientalism to women and it really just can’t be done.”  I said to him, “In Orientalism, according to Said, there is a self-conscious scientific perspective that looks at the linguistic significance of Orient on Europe; and, Orientalism divides, subdivides and classifies the Orient as an unchanging object.  It becomes a uniform and peculiar thing.  Don’t you think that when you replace “orient” with “women”, “Orientalism” with “Woman”, and “Europe” with “men”, the statement remains true?  An argument erupted in the room –and, it’s still continuing!

I’m Everywoman

“I pray you all, give your audience and hear this matter with reverence by figure of a moral play. The Unifying of Woman called it is. The story says: Woman, in the beginning rise up and fight ‘til the end. But be warned. Take no vanity when you march in unity or all will be forlorn. Here shall you see how Privilege, Prejudice, Power, Ignorance and Color will fade from thee as flowers in May. For ye shall hear how Intersectionality calleth Women to a general reckoning.”

So speaks the Narrator at the opening of a feminist adaptation of Everyman by two students for a final project in my Fall 2014 Introduction to Contemporary Performance course. The class covers American alternative theater and performance from the period between 1960 and the present and often includes work by companies and artists such as the Living Theatre, the San Francisco Mime Troupe, Adrienne Kennedy, Chris Burden, Marina Abramović, Anna Deveare Smith, the Wooster Group, and Mabou Mines. I am drawn to this genre of theater and performance because the work often emphasizes staged representations of gender roles and relationships, which encourages students to engage critically with questions of gender and sexuality as well. I suspect it becomes apparent to them quickly that I want them to do so.

An allegorical figure from Everywoman

An allegorical figure from Everywoman

For the final project, students may choose between writing a research paper and creating and performing an original scene. The scene assignment requires them to draw inspiration from the work of one or more of the theatrical and performative strategies we have studied in class. In this case, the students successfully used the technique of adaptation (which we had looked at in Split Britches and Bloolips’ Belle Reprieve and The Rude Mechs’ The Method Gun) to convey their own feminist ideals.

Another allegorical figure

Another allegorical figure

Whenever possible, as part of my feminist pedagogy I promote a pro-choice approach to final course projects. That is, I want students to choose the medium they feel they can best manipulate to communicate their individual perspectives about the material we have studied. The Everyman adaptation, Woman, was particularly exciting to me because it fulfilled that proposition. Furthermore, without my having explicitly told them to do so, these students appropriated a foundational text from the traditional theater history canon for their own feminist purposes. It must have been all that Peggy Shaw and Lois Weaver they watched. As the Woman says at the end of their adaptation, “I want to be a good feminist. I want to be a good feminist. And if that means I have to start thinking intersectionally to keep moving forward, then so be it.”

Intersectionality wins the day!

Intersectionality wins the day!

Woman script

Woman program note

Student Powered Feminist Theory

This is a story about students assisting in the creation of feminist course content.

In the Spring of 2014 at Susquehanna University I taught an honor’s seminar on the cultural evolution of the Trojan War myth.  The syllabus included The Iliad, Greek tragedies, The Aeneid, Roman tragedies, Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, Ellen McLaughlin’s feminist adaptations of Euripides’ Trojan Women and Helen and the 2004 film Troy starring Brad Pitt .  From the early days of the semester my students encouraged me to watch the Disney film Hercules, a favorite in their memories.  Their continual encouraging of me to watch this film indicated that for them there was a clear connection between it and our course material.  Skeptically (I admit), I finally relented and it proved well worth the viewing.  The song ONE LAST HOPE – with its blatant objectifying of females and unapologetic subjectifying of males – was tailor made for our Trojan War class.

The next day we watched together ONE LAST HOPE (which we came to refer to as the “SAVE THE GIRL” number).  The students were instantly pleased, amused and engaged.  They’d successfully encouraged me to watch a piece of pop-culture of their generation that they had very astutely sensed had a connection to our Trojan Myth analyses of gender and heroism.  In this Disney song Hercules is instructed in the fine art of heroism, i.e. cultivating muscles and saving females.  After watching “SAVE THE GIRL” we engaged in a discussion of how the Disney song represented our current romanticized, Hollywoodized notion of heroism – a very different brand of heroism than they were encountering thus far in The Iliad.  Homer’s Achilles had no desire to save any damsels.  From our post “SAVE THE GIRL” discussions the class coined the terms “damseling” and “de-damseling” as theoretical markers of the cultural evolution of the concept of male “hero” and his supposed dependence upon a helpless female to define him and his masculinity.  Very significantly, the terms also assisted in our explorations of the possibility of female heroism versus damselness.  Does Euripides’ Iphigenia de-damsel herself when she agrees that her throat may be slit for the cause of war?  Or rather, does she further damsel herself?

My hope had been that this seminar would encourage students to consider the deep, gendered roots of “heroism” and its ever lingering and increasingly fraught representation in western culture.  What was so rewarding about our cross-generational engagement with these issues was how empowering it was for the students to coin their own terms and to then apply them throughout the semester.  Following our analysis of Hercules’ Disney mandate to be manly and save females, the students began to own the Trojan War myth material in an empowered fashion.  Our discussions of heroism and gender took on new energy and an increasingly nuanced tone.  The terms “damseling” and “de-damseling” flowed with ease as students displayed increased confidence in their mastery of the course material.  I even included the terms in essay questions on tests and some students used the terms as the theoretical core for their final paper assignments.  Speaking for myself – an incredibly rewarding teaching experience – facilitating students’ coining and application of their own gender/feminist theoretical terms.

Reimagining the open scene: ambiguity and feminist pedagogy

In my Introduction to Acting course at Brooklyn College I strive to enact feminist pedagogy through the cultivation of a collaborative learning environment emphasizing mutual respect and accountability. I treat the course as a lab in which students explore ways of being present on stage and begin to build their own acting process. In addition to the classroom environment I endeavor to facilitate, I see feminist pedagogy as having two primary aims. First, it encourages students to recognize and think critically about the power structures and ideologies that condition their world and its representations. Second, it prompts students to imagine how this might be challenged or how society might operate otherwise.

One of the exercises I come back to throughout the semester is the open scene. The open scene consists of between 2 and 20 lines of intentionally ambiguous dialogue, attributed to unidentified characters. In order to perform the scene, the students must establish the relationships and circumstances of the scene. The open scene has a number of pedagogical functions, but I like it because it challenges the understanding of acting as a project primarily in service to the vision of others (directors or playwright). The open scene models the liberatory capacity of interpretation and demonstrates how texts can be reimagined. Last fall, I intentionally gave several groups the same scene, hoping the students would see how varied yet still valid interpretations of the scene could be. However, my students gravitated towards familiar scripts. A number of students staged one of the scenes in the same way: as a clichéd break up in which a heteronormative relationship ended as the male character cruelly left the pining female. When I brought this up, the students laughed and were able to critique this interpretation. I asked the students to try again and encouraged them to think more creatively about the circumstances of the scene. The result was a number of scenes about alien and zombie battles. They had chosen to avoid the political challenge of the scene, and gravitated towards a different set of (rather militarized) clichés. This, I think, attests to the challenge of deviating from accepted and familiar scripts. It demonstrates the limits normative ways of being and interacting place on the imagination. Even when power structures, ideologies, or injustices are recognized it can be quite difficult to take the next step towards reimagining the world.

In this instance the open scene both achieved and did not achieve the goals of feminist pedagogy. In imagining the possibilities for the scene, my students hit a bit of a wall. However it stimulated a productive conversation that allowed us to bring feminist concerns into the classroom and which continued to percolate as students approached their more structured scene work. These conversations were always a bit reluctant, though. Because of the nature of our classroom environment and the task of acting, my students are quite comfortable discussing their personal challenges as well as being playful and uninhibited with each other. However, I have not been entirely successful in helping them build bridges between the personal and the political and between their free imaginative engagement and critical thinking. I am quite eager to hear your strategies to help students make these connections.