I co-wrote the book with the brilliant Rachael Lennon. Our foreword was by Laura Bates, founder of the Everyday Sexism project. The book is based on research I did as academic lead on the Trust’s Women and Power project for 2018.
Here’s some blurb:
Celebrating a year of ‘Women & Power’ programmes throughout the Trust, this book explores the roles of National Trust places in the women’s suffrage movement, through the people who lived and worked in them – from the Midlands kitchen-maid turned suffragette arsonist to the aristocratic dynasties split by a daughter’s campaigning. As well as offering a broad history of the Suffrage movement, readers will discover some of the debates heard in the drawing rooms, kitchens and bedrooms of National Trust places as the country fought over whether, and how, a woman might have a voice in public life. We continue to see the footprints of this intensely political argument in the places and collections cared for by the Trust across England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Working on this book was a joy, and the end result is – thanks to the Trust’s art researchers, and our great editor, Claire Masset – a beautiful thing.
Read the book? Visited a National Trust property alongside it? Thrilled or outraged about the amount of suffrage and feminist history on display? Let me know.
Today, I was back with the cast and crew for Primavera’s production of The Notorious Mrs. Ebbsmith, Arthur Wing Pinero’s 1895 play about the relationship between a radical female demagogue, and the young MP who abandons his wife and career for her. Living as political comrades and lovers in Venice, Agnes Ebbsmith and Lucas Cleeve are visited by his rakehell uncle, the Duke of St Olpherts, who plays the very longest of games in attempting to neutralise Agnes’s influence over her lover, and return Lucas to his wife.
Writing that summary caused me great pain, because re-reading the text and working with the company has reminded me what an ambiguous, complicated and wonderful play it is. It’s also one that I find incredibly sad (which is somewhat unfair, given that I laughed out loud frequently during the run I watched). As well as the standard historical advice bit (pockets! Wedding rings! What is Dr Kirke doing in Venice?), I also gave notes to a cast for the first time in years, which was a daunting but enjoyable– and also one that reminded me how illegible my note-taking is, during a run. I should say that I only gave notes at the behest of Abbey Wright, the marvellous director who has cast the production incredibly cleverly (full disclaimer: she’s an Orielensis and from Warwickshire, although I didn’t know either of these facts when I took the job. Disclaimer son of disclaimer: also just discovered she directed the 2012 run of Bitch Boxer, which I saw in 2013). In particular, her casting resists the temptation (and I think thereby doing a rather better job than Pinero’s original text might have done) to turn the supporting female roles – Gertrude, a young widow from Yorkshire, and Sybil, the MP’s aristocratic wife – into mere foils. Julia Goulding and Sarah Madigan are as strong and arresting as the eponymous lead.
Primavera’s production is the first since 1895, which is remarkable given that The Second Mrs. Tanqueray (his 1893 work, to which this was the career sequel) is done fairly regularly – and that this, in all its ambiguity and obsessive negotiation of gender and class, is actually a great play for today.
The Duke of St Olpherts reminds me of those better known fin-de-siècle flaneurs, Lord Henry Wootton, Lord Darlington and Lord Goring. He’s actually more dangerous and more interesting than all three. Although patently attracted to Agnes (and not pace Gladstone, “in the missionary spirit) and a lifelong rakehell, he doesn’t have an emotional crisis and offer her his hand (Darlington), or preach aesthetic philosophy (Wootton), or offer witty salvation to the hero, as Goring does to Lord Chiltern, Wilde’s version of the compromised “coming man”. Thackeray called Vanity Fair “a novel without a hero” and this is a play without a hero – Lucas Cleeve isn’t Robert Chiltern. But although Olpherts isn’t Wootton, he is Wildean. Responding to Agnes’s frankly splendid account of his outrageous and enterprising past, St Olpherts declares “I detected the tendency of the age”. This reminded me of what Wilde wrote in his prison his prison letter to Lord Alfred Douglas (which, although subsequently titled De Profundis, George Bernard Shaw saw as Wilde in excelsis). Comparing himself to Lord Byron (actually a far better role model for St Olpherts than Wilde), Wilde wrote ‘I was a man who stood in symbolic relation to […] my age”. St Olpherts stands in symbolic relation to Agnes, to Lucas, and to all of monied, dissolute fin-de-siècle society. Agnes calls him a torturer; at times he seems like a natural Pandarus forced into precisely the opposite role. There are also moments when he’s the most shocking character in the play.
He’s also, physically, the sickest person in a play that’s overwhelmingly about sickness – what it means to be healthy, unnatural, or mad. Anyone interested in health, class, or gender should see this play. Between 1898 and 1918, the trades union movements grew especially fast, and the political rhetoric Pinero gives the working-class Agnes anticipates much of the language of the suffrage and socialist movements. But back to sickness. In a tiny cast of characters, there are two doctors, and two nurses: Agnes is professional, and Gertrude has helped with nursing Lucas because of her devotion to her (Amos, it seems, may have made a third nurse). Lucas has been recently violently unwell, although it’s unclear whether his troubles are more mental or physical. Gertrude has terrible bouts of depression and has experienced the deaths of husband, lover, and child. Agnes faints and is attended by Kirke in the course of the play; we subsequently see her with a burned and bandaged hand. “Mad Agnes” also discusses the extent of the misery and privation she’s suffered in the past – until her “bones were through [her] skin”. The original, in fact the only other Mrs Ebbsmith was Mrs Patrick Campbell, who in 1895 was considered horribly thin. Sadly, today her physique is the default and pinnacle for film acting, although theatre remains (mercifully) more diverse. It’s also a play in which characters desperately try to alleviate each other’s suffering, with Amos and Gertrude ultimately presenting spiritual healing as Agnes’s only possibility of an effective “cure”.
I’m so glad I was able to be involved with Primavera, and I can’t wait to see the full show: today’s run was a joy. It was also my first visit to the Jerwood Space, via Jubilee line chaos, an emergency cab dash, and a fascinating chat to the driver about The Knowledge (3 years! full time! 400 routes to memorise). These are rambling notes, but I’m trying to make the blog more active and not let the perfect (eloquent) be the enemy of the good (published).
Finally, I hope my UK readers aren’t suffering too badly from the smog. My eyes are itching horribly and London today was so polluted that, in comparison, the half-a-dozen trees beside the Tate as I walked up to Blackfriars smelled like a verdant meadow. And then my journey back to Oxford took 90 minutes longer than expected, thanks to a diversion. I feel I could now win Mastermind with my specialist subject as the backstreets of West Wycombe.
I struggle to get through this post without obscenity and all caps. I am aware that Saatchi has only been cautioned for domestic abuse. I would nevertheless be delighted if the words “Wife-choker” appeared in front of Saatchi’s name, every time he is mentioned in print or by broadcasters, for the rest of earthly time. I’m also reminded of the moment in the Forsyte Saga when Winifred Dartie tells her worthless husband “Monty, you are the limit” and it’s so offensive he pushes off to South America for years and years. Nothing else from that era would improve the situation now, but – if only it were so easy to make (wife-choker) Charles Saatchi disappear. At least until Lawson and her children have completely rebuilt their lives.
Also: since some people remain unclear, here is the definitive statement as to What You Should Do If You See A Man Assaulting A Woman (assuming you do not have incontrovertible first-person evidence the woman doesn’t want you to interfere, AND that knowledge outweighs the immediate danger in which she’s in):
Go over and try to stop him, then call the police. IF that would be too dangerous, or take too long, just call the police. If you can do so safely, take a picture of the abuse/aftermath and immediately make it available to the authorities. Not anyone else. And especially not Twitter.
Saatchi’s long posed as a terrible man – hence his book, entitled Be The Worst You Can Be. If only we’d taken the pose more seriously.
(This is a type of post stolen entirely from the lovely Simon at Stuck In A Book. Simon and I first met when we were the only two Masters students who wanted to do nineteenth- and twentieth-century drama. Simon now has a job that I don’t really understand, but which seems to involve him using MS Paint for money, at OUP. Over the years, Simon has introduced me to many things, including the Magdalen salad bar, Irene Vamburgh, and middlebrow interwar women’s fiction. Kirstie Allsopp once replied to him on Twitter).
This weekend, I have been reading How To Live Alone And Like It and Diary of a Provincial Lady for the first time. The first is a bible for the ‘extra woman’ and a fabulous guide to having a really nice life in one’s London flat. My flat is in Oxford, and I don’t have a maid, so by the book’s standards, I am already failing. I do wholeheartedly concur that one should have manicures and delicious food and splendid clothes whenever possible. I don’t think Margaret Hillis would approve of me eating yoghurt in my pyjamas while I proofread. I would like to read this book forty-five times and then travel back to 1936 and live the book while dressed entirely as Harriet Vane. Diary of a Provincial Lady is also wonderful. Mademoiselle and Vicky are my favourites. What I love most is how they all sit around fretting about pawning great-aunt’s diamond ring and/or the general proximity to penury, but never consider dismissing the servants.
I also reviewed Bitch Boxer, now playing at the Soho Theatre – read the review here.
An American photography and fashion blogger, Melissa Aquino, uploaded scans of the late-90s US catalogue dELiA*s, with its fashion for pre-teen girls. I have been howling in recognition. Whilst I always lived in & bought clothes in the UK, visceral memories of Tammy, Red Herring and the equivalent publications – Girl Talk, Shout, Mizz, Sugar, and the highly unsuitable More – came flooding back. I had Kangaroo platform trainers with a bit of a platform. And things with stripes down the side. What can I say? I was 11, it was 1998, and I think my parents were mostly relieved I’d come out of the Black Clothes Phase that had started when I was seven. In the spirit of the 90s, I’d like a Body Shop lip balm, some gel pens, a chain letter and a nice blue hair mascara.
I am currently designing my first ever term-length Shakespearean syllabus (I’ve taught Shakespeare quite a bit in the past, but not designed a course myself). This is hugely exciting. Those of you who’ve course-built yourselves, how do you prefer to structure it?
Other things I like: the University of Leicester and Dickens Journals‘ collaborative project to read Wilkie Collins’sNo Name online; the utterly fabulous Spanish Les Mis rendition of One Day More, “Sal el Sol” (Geronimo Rauch is the current West End Valjean. The Spanish Enjolras is just pretty); and, crucially, this gin brooch (which was in the Modern Art Oxford shop for £5 more, chuh).
I will now carry on imbibing Radio 4 and trying to rewrite my latest chapter. I have pages and pages of proper theatrical history to get through before I’m allowed to talk about vampires.
On Wednesday, I saw Bitch Boxer at the Soho Theatre; a one-hour, one-woman play written and performed by Charlotte Josephine. Having seen Josephine in Julius Caesarearlier this year, I was excited to see her own work – and, to be honest, I’m a bit in love with the Soho Theatre and their apparent directorial policy of ‘stage work that Sophie wants to see, and don’t charge her more than a tenner for doing so’. For me, Bitch Boxer was an incredibly inspiring, salutary and encouraging piece of theatre. Alongside my fascination with the play’s story and characters, I was delighted to see such a young writer and performer performing with such skill and immediacy – and being so warmly received.
Bitch Boxer is the story of Chloe, a young working-class boxer from Leytonstone, East London, who is gearing up for her final qualifying fight before the London Olympics; the first Olympics in which women could box. I am a bespectacled, myopic, borderline-dyspraxic, undersized and severely uncoordinated scrap of laziness, and I came out of Bitch Boxer wanting to box. The play’s exposition of the sport’s technical side is unexpectedly fascinating. I also found Bitch Boxer a more complex and nuanced exploration of boxing than On It, Tony Pitts’s recent Afternoon Play about the late Liam Jones, a young drug addict who attempted to conquer his addictions via boxing. Both plays tell powerful stories of pain and loss, but Bitch Boxer gets far further beyond the predictable narrative of boxing-as-emotional-salvation. Not only does Chloe use boxing to express and control her adolescent anger, but training and fighting give her an identity that reorders and reorients the rest of her life. Bitch Boxer‘s most emotionally articulate scene is Chloe’s recognition that her opponent in the ring is as determined, excited, frightened and committed as herself. This gives the boxer a compassion and respect for the process of fighting that makes the final confrontation moving, but not mawkish.
I said that Josephine was warmly received by her audience, and the vast majority of the reviews have also been excellent. However, one critic has objected in misogynist – and also misspelt – terms that Charlotte Josephine’s body is not plausibly that of a boxer, and that this physical dissonance damages the integrity and believability of the piece. That is an extremely polite paraphrase of what this lone lunatic actually came out with, and I’m not going to link to the review, because, well, don’t feed the trolls.
Firstly, Charlotte Josephine’s body is very plausibly that of a boxer. Secondly, and not to position myself as the tiny Cassandra of critical misogyny, but after watching Bitch Boxer, I was expecting to find that this kind of play would draw this kind of criticism. Women cannot put their bodies out in public looking like Charlotte Josephine looks, without attractive derisive male comment. Josephine looks fit and strong, in a way that’s toned but which connotes substance, strength and stamina, rather than the ultra-tiny LA yoga bod that’s the mainstream default and pinnacle of the sporty female body. She looks admirably powerful. It’s not really surprising that a woman daring to be visibly sporty, healthy and herself causes controversy: for God’s sake, look at what happened to Rebecca Adlington and Jessica Ennis.
I sat there watching Josephine and I thought how brave she was not to be in Sweaty Betty pinkified sports gear, but instead to look like a boxer, in Lonsdale shorts, black ankle socks and an ordinary vest; all of them sweat-soaked, as the intensely physical piece progressed. And then I wondered what the hell had happened to society, and to my brain, that I found it brave for a young woman to dress as her character without concessions to sexiness, and that I couldn’t ever remember seeing an actress visibly sweat. In order to bring out the troll in one theatrical critic, all Charlotte Josephine had to do was be visible as a professional and as an artist. Quite often, that is all we have to do, as women, to infuriate misogynists: just show up. I encourage you to show up at Bitch Boxer, as soon as you can.
A Snuff Box Theatre production, Bitch Boxer runs at about 65 minutes, includes Eminem karaoke, bereavement, a confrontation with a savage dog, and a controversial pair of Nikes. With Julius Caesar only last month, I’m suddenly incredibly hopeful about the future of feminist theatre.
Long-time readers will know that Harriet Walter is not irrelevant to my interests. I have purchased a certain number of theatre tickets in order to see her perform. I have a certain degree of familiarity with her first book, Other People’s Shoes. She was central to Clamorous Voices, the book after which this blog was named, and she appears in my thesis more than is seemly or subtle for a work that’s supposedly about the nineteenth century. I think she’s the most perfect actress of her generation, I hope to God I’m never called upon to be articulate in her presence, and I have still not forgiven the Queen for making Helen Mirren a Dame first.
For these reasons, I knew I probably wouldn’t be able to review Julius Caesar. Not in a balanced way, or even a way that manages to eschew capital letters and superlatives. Harriet Walter plays Brutus, which automatically precludes all chance of a review that doesn’t devolve into my myriad feelings and/or an anecdote about the time my friend Charlie and I (both then aged sixteen) spent half an hour in a biting wind outside the old RST, so that Walter could sign our programmes for (I think) The Hollow Crown.*
Frances Barber plays Julius Caesar. This is also bad news for my sang-froid. Walter may have played Fanny Dashwood, Lady Macbeth, and Harriet Vane, but Barber played the Bolter and the first Shakespearean heroine I ever saw. She was an Edwardian Viola in the snowy Twelfth Night that may not be as good as I remember it, but the fact is that my six-year-old self fell simultaneously in love with her and Anton Lesser. As Feste, Lesser had ringlets and eyeliner; Barber had a waistcoat. I didn’t know which one I more wanted to be.
So, then, when I found myself in the front row of Julius Caesar at the Donmar Warehouse, watching Barber, Walter, and a monstrous regiment of miraculous women turn Julius Caesar into a mashup of Shakespeare, Sarah Kane, Bad Girls, Chicago and Our Country’s Good, I asked myself a question. Am I going to review this production in a careful, analytical, balanced manner, soberly locating the play in its aesthetic, historical and dramaturgical contexts? Shall I make solemn interrogation of the directorial choices, and cast a cool eye over the production’s lasting influence, and longevity? If you should never meet your idols, you probably shouldn’t review them, either.
This is not a production to be solemn or cautious about. This is a production which demands you enter its world; a women’s prison wing, where the inmates are performing – and in some cases living – Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Until now, Julius Caesar is a play I’ve actually preferred to read rather than see, which is a) anathema to everything else I feel about Shakespeare, and b) a direct result of the play having almost no women, and going on about war for too long.
This production’s play-within-a-play conceit interrupts Shakespeare’s action with the inevitabilities of the prison day. Med checks and lockdowns tear up the script, daring to put modern-day swearing next to Roman rhetoric. But deliberately breaking this suspension of disbelief only makes the Shakespeare more real, as the play becomes increasingly important to the prisoners, racing to complete their performance before they’re returned to their cells.
At its quietest – as when Brutus, played with ravaged elegance by Walter, tells Jenny Jules (a highly flammable young Cassius, all-consuming as the military leader) of Portia’s death – the Donmar production is tender, understated and mesmeric. In exhilarating contrast, the play’s battles become a cross between a riot and a 90s video nasty, with chaotic sequences of lights, drums, and drugged-out dancing.
It’s so rare to see a show that feels so dynamic and experimental, headed by actors who also speak verse with virtuosic ease. Walter and Barber are, as expected, marvellous. Barber, in particular, can slide from sublime poetry to sounding like the Missing Mitchell Sister without missing a single Shakespearian beat. Two of the supporting cast, Carrie Rock (Soothsayer) and Jen Joseph (Trebonius) are alumnae of Clean Break theatre company. Clean Break exists both to stage the experiences of imprisoned women (via award-winning plays), and empower women who are at risk of offending, or who already have experience of the criminal justice system, via theatre-based educational courses.
Both Rock and Joseph gave excellent performances; Rock’s disturbed, too-knowing child has stayed in my mind ever since. Both Rock and Joseph speak blank verse as though it’s not only instinctive, but imperative; that their characters cannot and must not be expressed in any other way. The total absence of anything unnatural – stagey hangups, theatrical tics – meant that they never seemed to be acting. Ironically, Joseph’s overwhelmingly warm stage presence (tell me the name of Trebonius in any production you’ve ever seen) also meant that I assumed I was watching someone who was already very famous, as opposed to someone who merely deserved to be.
The joy ofsingle-sex Shakespeare lies in creating amazing and unanticipated combinations of actors and roles. Without cross-casting, Cush Jumbo’s performance as Mark Antony would never have existed; Jen Joseph would have been no more likely to play Trebonius than Mark Rylance was to play Olivia.
But one of the most challenging and unsettling things about all-female Shakespeare is that it tips the audience into a world where femininity, not masculinity is the default setting. All-male Shakespeare has the simultaneous advantages of historical justification and novelty. Notions of authenticity and original practice legitimise all-male productions, offering us a glimpse of a history that’s sufficiently distant to make the all-male theatrical event unusual. All-male Shakespeare is affirmed and celebrated where other aspects of “original” performance – the cavalier addition of togas to Elizabethan dress, for example – are largely discarded; nor has the modern Globe begun casting pre-pubescent Juliets. I’m not disparaging any of this; productions like Mark Rylance’s Richard II make theatre far richer. Sometimes the consequences veer towards pantomime, as when the (sorely-missed) Peter Shorey’s Duchess of York harangued Liam Brennan’s Henry IV in the BBC’s 2003 broadcast of Rylance’s Globe show. But that merely shows how Shakespeare thrives on the broadest comedy – else why send Falstaff into a laundry basket, then change him to the Fat Woman of Brentford?
The history of all-female Shakespeare, meanwhile, is the histories of girls’ schools and women’s colleges; organisations like the Mothers’ Union and the Women’s Institute; women’s prisons, and private reading circles from the eighteenth- to the twenty-first century. These may not be traditional arenas for academic attention, but they are – I hope – attracting more and more work from scholars. I’d love to know about Shakespeare as read and performed by all kinds of female groups: Shakespeare by and for landgirls, Shakespeare by nuns (did he make it into convents, or only convent schools?), Shakespeare in nursing schools (back when nursing was a female profession). The final chapter of my thesis is about Shakespeare and the suffragettes – the chapter of my thesis that most excited me, and one which (happily) other people seem to find exciting as well – but I’d love to know more about different, all-female groups. Tangentially, I really regret not seeing the RSC’s partially cross-cast King John last year, because it might have addressed my unease regarding partially cross-cast Shakespeares; I’ve yet to see one that seemed truly successful.
On Monday, the Donmar will release its last Barclays Front Row tickets for the run. While wary of schemes that force people to jump through hoops to get affordable tickets, Barclays Front Row is infinitely better than day-tickets, London-only tickets, or ostensibly benevolent schemes that use young theatregoers to fill unsellable seats. I hope everyone reading this gets a ticket. I hope I’m successful for a second time. If we’re there together, say hello. I really loved this production; I hope you get a chance to do so.**
*Charlie and I could also give a deeply moving rendition of the final seconds of Greg Doran’s The Taming of the Shrew, with both of us simultaneously playing bothAlexandra Gilbreath and Jasper Britton at the moment of “My hand is ready; may it do him ease”. I want you to really imagine two schoolgirls, each one of whom is trying to be two Shakespearean actors at once (while providing very loud commentary on how brilliant they were). Charlie is now a professional actress (in fact she’s Charlie Ryall), but sticks to being one person at a time.
* please note that in Week 8, lecture will take place in Lecture Theatre 2.
Building on the success of last year’s Before Oscar lecture series, we’re back in 2013 – now with added Emma Smith and Naomi Wolf. I hope to see many of you there (you may have noticed that I’m first up, this coming Wednesday…).
Hello! I hope you’re well. I’ve been to Grimsby. And Sheffield. I know how to live. I break my silence to deal with the five million or so posts that have been brewing over the summer. Naturally, the first is a rant about telly. NOTE: given the spike in traffic, I think I should point out that this was written before seeing the preview, i.e. about my concerns re: the casting, rather than as a review of Elementary. I hope that clears things up!
I welcome adaptations of books that take the canon as a point of departure, rather than a blueprint. I may disagree that Elizabeth Bennett would ever have neglected her fringe, or played with pigs, but I will duly defend to the rights of writers and film-makers to jazz up, bastardise, queer, chop, and mess about with well-known literary works. This is probably why I enjoy studying Shakespeare in performance.
My views on adaptation particularly apply to radical re-imaginings of Sherlock Holmes: after all, if you don’t enjoy one version, there’ll be another along in a minute. There are three Sherlock franchises current in live media: BBC Sherbatch, the US Elementary, and the Robert Downey Jr. films. The original works by Conan Doyle are readily available, as are the ITV Granada adaptations with Jeremy Brett (the nearest thing to the books-in-motion).
Of these five incarnations of Holmes and Watson, the most recent, CBS’s Elementary has caused the greatest ructions by making the Watson of their New York-based adaptation a woman. Specifically, the Watson we’ll meet on 27 September is played by the Asian American actor Lucy Liu.
I am very happy for Watson to be a woman; it’s part of my broader policy of thinking we’re a good thing. Woman-as-sidekick is not exactly new or progressive (hat-tip to a British show where the profession of doctor-as-in-Doctor remains exclusively male), but, nevertheless, as a proud proponent of the feminist agenda, I’m excited by the story that could be told here. Conan Doyle’s John Watson is invalided out of the war in Afghanistan as a hero. Lucy Liu’s Watson is then, surely, the following: a woman of colour serving her country as an army doctor, thus succeeding at the apex of two historically racist and sexist institutions. Subsequently, she’s a veteran (presumably with physical and/or emotional challenges) adjusting to civilian life. A slightly less familiar trope than deerstalkers and seven per cent solutions.
Except Liu’s Watson isn’t going to be a hero. She’s been struck off. So instead of the Asian, female professional and military hero returning to metropolitan, post-injury life, we’ve got a woman of colour who failed at her own profession (most probably via malpractice, gross misconduct, or a bigoted conspiracy) who – don’t despair! – finds new meaning as the helpmeet, conscience, caregiver and chronicler of a stroppy, white male genius without emotional IQ or social graces, but who does have a privileged background and an addictive personality. Great.
I don’t need another incarnation of the female helpmeet who’s privileged to chronicle and mediate the unacceptable behaviours of a difficult male, and whose own achievements get forgotten as a result. Watson should be Holmes’s Boswell, not his Henrietta Bowdler, Dorothy Wordsworth, or Mary Shelley.
I’ll end by saying that I would be completely delighted to be proved wrong, and would rejoice in a new series that queers sex and race while triumphantly evading the depression of having Liu fall victim to the dynamic of male genius vs. female acolyte. Jonny Lee Miller played an absolutely splendid Byron – let’s hope Watson isn’t lost in the myth of the Byronic male.
It doesn’t matter if you love him or capital H – I – M […] ‘Cause you were born this way, baby
There’s nothing wrong with loving who are she said, ’cause He made you perfect, babe
(this is a longer post than usual, and rather more discursive. Please bear with me, and/or flick straight to the end if you want some soundtrack)
Part 1: Born This Way
Some people who are LGBT (and, I presume, some allies) find the “born this way” argument is offensive because it excuses, rather than validates a queer identity. For them,”born this way” implies that gayness/queerness should be accepted because it’s inescapable, unavoidable, and something that person can’t “help”.
At best, the person “born this way” should be accepted by wider society, because that person’s sexuality is natural “for them”. At worst, someone “born this way” deserves tolerance because their queerness is not their “fault”.
Further dread of the “born this way” argument arises from the possibility of research into genetic causation/correlation with homosexuality. If there is a gay gene, they argue, what good can come from knowing about it?
Discovering a gene won’t accelerate real equality: tolerance on the basis of chromosomal inevitability isn’t the same as truly accepting diverse sexualities. Secondly, a “gay gene” is something for which parents could potentially “screen”, leading to the abortion of some fetuses with the gay gene.
Thirdly, in a world where queers really were “born this way”, what would happen to people who lack the queer gene but identify as queer?
I can follow all of the above, but personally – and with some shame, because questioning others’ sexual identity is, as one friend put it “very NO” – I find the anti-Gaga brigade unsettling.
This is not just because of how the aforementioned Gaga looks in the underwear, sorry, prison sequences of the Telephone vid. Many (even most) of us do experience our sexuality – gay, straight, bi, pan, asexual, queer, whatever – as innate, natural and something we were born with. For us, part of coming to terms with our own sexuality and desire is accepting that we were “born this way”; it’s natural for us, it’s “part of who we are”.
To many gays born before homosexuality was legalised and/or achieved a degree of acceptance, the idea that you’re not born gay is understandably offensive — the whole reason they persisted with difficult self-acceptance and coming-out was because they WERE born this way. They had no other choice. They fought for their rights; their sexual identity is hard-won, and to see younger queers saying otherwise – either that, like Cynthia Nixon, they “choose” to be a specific sexuality, or (more broadly) that they believe sexuality is fluid, playful, fun, a matter of jouissance – both denigrates that struggle and infers that those who “choose” to be gay could equally “choose” to be straight. An idea that many LGBTQ people know to be false, and at the root of problematic constructions of (e.g.) homosexuality as a “lifestyle choice” – LGBTQ Nation claimed that Nixon’s words would be “used as a brutal club against LGBT youth in Red State America”.
I do experience my sexual orientation as innate. For a bit I definitely identified as bisexual. I’m not. I don’t think I was being dishonest when I thought that, but I don’t think it was accurate either (nor do I think it’s helpful of Nixon to claim to have “chosen to be gay” because “nobody likes the bisexuals“). It upsets me when discussions in queer circles (especially radical queer circles) invalidate the “born this way” position (along with other positions/wishes such as the desire for equal marriage rights).
But then I tend to focalise how I see LGBTQ issues through an historical awareness – I have problems with straight people claiming the label “queer”. “Queer” was a slur against lesbians and gays: accordingly I’m uncomfortable with anyone using it in a reclamatory sense outside the group originally persecuted. In fact, I have problems with the label “queer” as an umbrella identity (i.e., when people use “queer” to mean “LGBTQ”/sexual identities other than straight) because I know that a lot of older gay, lesbian and bisexual people register the term as a slur and can’t feel part of it. I’d rather find new words and stay in a continuum with our history. This discomfort with vocabulary does make me twitchy in radical-queer-discussion-situations, but on the flipside I’ve always been lucky enough to know older lesbians and gays, and it’s an excellent payoff.
I understand that other LGBTQ people don’t experience their sexuality as something innate, and as a choice, and that it goes against every tenet of equal rights to want them to shut up and prop up my arguments and identities, rather than embracing theirs. From experience, observation and my limited understand of genetics, I still think that most people do not experience their sexuality as a “choice” – coming-out, (hopefully) yes; behaviour, yes; orientation, no. But some do, and that’s okay (but baby, I was born this way. &c).
Part 2: The Sanctity of Marriage
Re-examining the “born this way” argument (which probably also appeals to me because of my Christianity – but that’s another post) has also got me thinking about some of the other pro-equality arguments I see floating through dialogue & also cyberspace. These include the following graphics:
NOW! Cousin-marriage is PROBABLY NOT THE GREATEST, given the potential for pre-existing abuse and future-existing webbed feet, hairy backs, genetic issues (&c – although we don’t veto other couples whose genetic combinations are problematic, do we?) to the power of however many times the pattern is repeated. Chinlessness may have made Britain great, but a quick glance around Oxford tells me we now have enough of it. ON THE OTHER HAND, the potential silliness, rashness and corn-chewing inadvisibility of pro-cousin marriage has NOTHING to do with the desirability of gay marriage.
I understand the the impulse behind all of these graphics. I am a lover of satire and a believer in laughing stupidity into change. Neither do I mean to bite the hand that feeds me and/or my eventual right to marry. But I have a problem with the message that it’s wrong to say that gay marriage will threaten the “sanctity of marriage” because marriage has no sanctity left to threaten. Equally, I reject the idea that Newt Gringrich’s pronouncements on “respecting the sanctity of marriage” are misguided or shouldn’t be heeded because of his track record.
If every marriage since the dawn of time had been “sacred” – made in covenant with a deity, subject to vows which both partners believed and upheld at the point of undertaken, and utterly faithful and happy since – then that wouldn’t make gay marriage less desirable. Gay marriage isn’t “more OK” because the institution of heterosexual marriage is in a parlous state. The existence of 55-hour marriages, multiple divorces, bigamy, forced marriage, acrimonious custody battles, Las Vegas and the Kardashians does not create a precedent for gay marriage, not a matrimonial space in which gay marriage has the “right” to come and become joint-worst of a thoroughly bad bunch.
Gay marriage is OK because people of all genders deserve the right to form loving unions of equal legal, social and religious validity, regardless of their individual physical or genetic make-up. Newt Gingrich’s shameful personal behaviour (while she was recovering from CANCER, people) makes his statements against the freedom to marry hypocritical as well as offensive – but he’d have no greater credibility even if he’d always been faithful.
This post has been brought to you by Lady Gaga, Cynthia Nixon and discussions at the Oxford Queer Studies Circle earlier this year; not a bad combination. Popular movements such as breast cancer awareness are happily starting to reappraise the media used to send their message (go here for more on why all the pinkgames aren’t helpful, and a viral graphic that’s actually useful in raising awareness). Obviously, gay marriage needs all the affirmation it can get. I still think it’s time to look more closely at some of the arguments that supposedly “support” our cause.
This is my fifth term as a doctoral student, and a New Year to boot. Thinking about academic goals for the year, I’ve decided I want to spend more time thinking about, and practising public engagement.
Already, there’s a problem. I don’t like the phrase. It’s too jargony, redolent of patronising bussed-in audiences with why your research is a) brilliant and b) beneficial; particularly when the benefit is relevant only as a justification for ongoing funding.
I’m also anxious about the consequences of enforced public engagement for very arcane, specialised, or technical research whose benefits are not instantly explicable or financially clear. It’s important, and (in the Humanities) often difficult to strike a balance between celebrating research with clear “real-world” application, and reducing everything to pound signs or buzzwords. Kat Gupta‘s blogged about the latter issue and Alex Pryce has written several good posts about the kinds of public engagement she does as a poet. I want to keep both models in mind.
However, when it comes to public engagement, I think I’m quite lucky. I do the kinds of research which – for better or worse, mostly just for luck – are easy to discuss outside the academy.
My theme – Shakespeare performance history – is self-explanatory, and benefits from centering on the most famous playwright in the world. My actresses are often still well-known, especially Ellen Terry, Lillie Langtry and Sarah Bernhardt. Basically, I have the kind of topic that makes people look pleasantly surprised when I answer their enquiries about what, exactly, I am (still) studying at Oxford. Ironically, while Victorian performance remains quite a niche interest within the academy, in the wider world, I believe that female performance history is something with which most people can engage. In my totally unbiased opinion, of course.
Cultural events such as the National Portrait Gallery’s First Actresses exhibition, and Michael Holroyd’s prize-winning A Strange Eventful History keep the profession’s past in the public imagination. More broadly, Britain remains a nation obsessed with history. The last three big British films focused on, in succession, the outbreak of World War II, 1970s spy culture, and our first female Prime Minister(this last makes me feel quite ill). Meanwhile, as X Factor passes its expiry date, ITV’s current flagship drama (whether you love it or see it as the fourth opiate of the apocalypse, after Cameron, big jumpers and the Honourable Kirsty)* turned 1920 in the Christmas episode. Although essentially a frothy confection of frocks, plague-as-plot-twist, and some Very Special Trenches, Downton still tries to take its historical responsibilities seriously. This mostly takes the form of Goodness Me It’s 1912, I Bet That Boat Won’t Sink, but still.
Given this enthusiasm for (in roughly descending order) history, scandal and frocks, people can be as interested in nineteenth-century actresses as in their modern successors. I’ve been reading Sexualities In Victorian Britain, edited by Andrew H. Miller and James Eli Adams, a book which points out on the first page that Victorian views of sex (however we reconstruct them) are essential to our own understanding of modern sexuality. Oscar Wilde is practically a one-man creation myth for British male queerness.
Beyond sexuality, I’d argue that Victorianism is formative in almost every area of social life – the nineteenth century and the ideas with which it is associated. Everybody has their own concept of Victorianism, whether conservative (repression, doom, stiff collars, the Tories) or updated (Sherlock, jet jewellery, Matthew Sweet’s Inventing The Victorians). Dickens is never off our screens, a “new” Wilde play was “discovered” a few months ago, and this winter I watched four Jack The Ripper ghost-walks jostle for space in the square where a victim died.
Enter the actresses. Confections of beauty, multiplicity, celebrity and scandal, they fulfil our contemporary interest (however prurient) in the desirable, the taboo, and the popular all at once.
Today’s culture creates escapism from lavish displays of historical bling: it’s no coincidence that as the recession and cuts really bit, TV tastes switched from soberly-bonneted, sweetly curly Cranford to jet-beads-and-sex-bomb Lady Mary, an Edwardian Scarlett O’Hara in a frankly massive castle. Our fashionable passion has been labelled “retro porn“: with their Worth gowns, their fascinating lovelives, and their sometimes frenziedly emotional performances, Victorian actresses like Langtry, Terry and Bernhardt still satisfy those desires.
At the same time, theperformers I’ve mentioned were skilled businesswomen and consummate professionals. Victorian actresses constitute an essential part of women’s history. After all, in the nineteenth century , acting the only profession in which women could achieve public acclaim, independence and (eventual) respectability without being accused of stealing men’s work. They often earned more than their male counterparts, and were frequently more popular.
Actresses became politically active. In 1899, the International Women’s Congress (held in London) ran a committee on Women in Professions: the chair was the actress Madge Kendal. In 1911, the Actresses’ Franchise League was the most prominent contingent in the Women’s Coronation Procession: forty thousand women, marching through London to demand the vote. Their leader was a woman on horseback dressed as Hedda Gabler, Ibsen’s Victorian heroine who killed herself to escape pregnancy, marital and sexual subjugation.
The best-loved British actress of her day, Ellen Terry, lectured on Shakespeare’s characters to feminist groups including the Leeds suffrage society, modelling female public speaking to emerging feminist activists. Moreover, by focusing attention on Shakespeare’s heroines in her lectures and autobiography – as other actresses did in letters, memoranda and memoirs – Terry began to redress the balance that emphasised male characters, and male performance, in criticism. Above all, as female professionals, Victorian actresses’ negotiations of workplace harassment, misogynist smears, and the conflict between job and family make them relevant models for working women today.
Finally, a thesis is never just one thing. God knows I have even more problems with the phrase “transferrable skills” than I do with “public engagement” (see also “competencies”, “directional work”, “impact” and, recently, “bleeding the radiator” for Words I Don’t Like), but I’m realising that there are numerous aspects of my research with which I can engage people. Because I am a research student, I do genealogy; I work with databases; I source permissions for artwork; I balance freelance research commitments with my own thesis; I teach (with all the mentoring/interpersonal/professional development issues implied); I’m a member of an union; I’m self-employed and I know a lot of really odd facts about such fascinating topics as Dracula, circumcision, whether smoking gives women facial hair, Judy Garland’s coffin handles, fur, infanticide, tuberculosis, where to see a lot of pickled foetuses, and murder. Some of these are skills or experiences I could share [NB: I am not a murderer or a mohel]; the arcane topics are at least new points of contact between my weird interests and those of the outside world. I’ve got lots of starting points for public engagement – but it’s time to make more concrete plans. Hopefully, as I formulate and act on my ideas, I’ll be able to share them here.
I think I’m lucky to get to write & read & think about all of the above. At bottom, I also think that receiving public money gives me the obligation to try and share the benefits with the public. There you go – a moral imperative. How very Victorian.
*I would like to make it clear that I am a big fan of the Hon. Kirsty (also the delectable Phil), am currently enjoying a box set of the 1980 Nancy Mitford mini-series, own a splendid tetris-like jumper and am, to quote Bloomfield (2011), “the sort of gel who likes the Pre-Raphaelites”.