Young Jean Lee’s Untitled Feminism

Photo by Ruby Washington. Courtesy NYT.

Photo by Ruby Washington. Courtesy NYT.

One of the most influential essays in film criticism is Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Possibly the most famous feminist in avant-garde film history, Ms. Mulvey’s screed decries the perpetuation of women as objects to be gazed at by men. This is certainly reasonable enough. But her actual target is something quite different: the idea of pleasure.

It is said that analysing pleasure, or beauty, destroys it. That is the intention of this article. The satisfaction and reinforcement of the ego that represent the high point of film history hitherto must be attacked. Not in favour of a reconstructed new pleasure, which cannot exist in the abstract, nor of intellectualised unpleasure, but to make way for a total negation of the ease and plenitude of the narrative fiction film.

Based with no irony upon the rather sexist Freudian/Lacanian structure of the unconscious, Ms. Mulvey’s presumption treats “looking” as an inherently male activity. Females who “look” at narrative cinema look only at themselves with this “male gaze.” Whether or not one agrees with this bit of cleverness, the result creates a negative art: art that is not defined by what it is but rather by what it isn’t. As a consequence, it work deductively: it does not create further options but rather destroys existing ones. So much of so-called feminist work seems cold, remote, emotionless, formalist–because it is, by design.

All these clichés of second-wave feminist formalism belong nevertheless to feminist history. At some point one has to respond to this history and either accept its lessons or reject them. How one responds ethically will also determine one’s personal aesthetics.

Part of Young Jean Lee’s personal aesthetic is to create plays that frighten her. Since her plays always confront audiences with themes of identity, one can reasonably assume that feminism also frightens her–or, more accurately, that discussing feminism in a public forum frightens her. This is a sensible fear: the word carries with it an incredible amount of baggage, emotional and political. It has only loose definition yet connotes extremely rigid ideology. Given all that might work against her, Ms. Lee is perfectly sensible to address the topic with some trepidation.

Whether or not one believes that she creates “the play she most did not want to do,” so much of Ms. Lee’s work has dealt with identity politics that UNTITLED FEMINIST SHOW seems like a logical choice, an outgrowth of her explorations in The Shipment. But The Shipment was about the identity politics of an identity Ms. Lee did not share. This detachment from the subject gave it simultaneously a real potency. It also created a host of problems. What should have been patently offensive did not offend. What should not have offended did. But more importantly, those who should have been offended were not, while those who should not have been were–and not necessarily for even the “right” reasons. Ms. Lee noted this in an interview with Richard Maxwell:

Young Jean Lee: I’ve been working on this show The Shipment, and we did two workshops on it last spring. We’re just clearly total failures in my opinion, in my respect.

Richard Maxwell: Even though the audience has seemed to enjoy it.

Young Jean Lee: Yes, and the way in which the audience was enjoying those shows was part of what made them problematic.

The problems stem from the constitution of her main audience which Ms. Lee identifies (probably quite correctly) as “College-educated, city-dwelling, liberal, probably not evangelical Christian” but most importantly, “Usually white.” Confronted with something like The Shipment where every word is charged and may veer into any direction at any time, and the tone may change from hilarious to didactic to brutal to lyrical without warning, audiences are likely to miss the point as they cover up their exposure with nervous (or downright clueless) laughter.

I have no doubt this thought loomed over the production of UNTITLED FEMINIST SHOW. I am also guessing it is the guiding reason behind abandoning words in the piece. Recognizing that words are likely to be manipulated in ways that confirm the audience’s prejudices, Ms. Lee strips them away, forcing the audience to concentrate on the presence of the performer in space as a physical being.

YJLUntitledFeministShowMs. Lee says that one question that drove the creation of the piece was “What could the world look like if people with female bodies had no shame and felt free to behave however they wanted?” But this is a conundrum. What is shame in this instance? What would it mean to feel “free”? Indeed, what does it mean to behave, much less how one “wants”? The word “behave” means, etymologically, to contain. Even without words or costumes or props, even beyond notions of shame, guilt, desire et cetera, the presence of the feminine body itself contains a vast range of meanings. Embodied and engendered assumptions exist in the very act of seeing a body in a public space. If that body be identifiably “male” even more assumptions arise, and if that body be identifiably “female” still more assumptions. Only the most naive artists would think otherwise. The question is how to identify these assumptions and evaluate them.

This might not be a topic of discussion in most so-called theater, but it is common enough in dance. While so much attention for this piece has lavished upon Ms. Lee, this piece would not be possible without the input of choreographer Faye Driscoll. Ms. Driscoll’s own work tends toward an anarchic humor not unlike Ms. Lee’s but her examination of what the second-wave feminists like Laura Mulvey might call “scopophilia” has been thoroughly obsessive. Her interest in sexual politics, too, makes her a perfect foil for the work in UNTITLED FEMINIST SHOW and is, I think, the greatest reason why this piece holds together at all, much less as well as it does.

The original title of Young Jean Lee’s piece was UNTITLED FEMINIST MULTIMEDIA TECHNOLOGY SHOW. Realizing that she had probably bit off more than she could chew, Ms. Lee shortened the title and eliminating the multimedia technology–and, in the bargain, made it less of a tribute or parody of the 90s “feminist show” which was virtually guaranteed to be “a multi-media, gender-bending, post-modern exploration.” This strengthens the piece by making it less obvious. Certainly parody is present within the work but I think the piece is more than a mere romp. More than anything it is a rite. This is evident from before the show even begins, as the lights go down and the auditorium fills with rhythmic utterances, interlocking breaths that evoke a world not of language but of music. As the group’s naked bodies proceed almost religiously toward the stage, the scene could just as easily be the beginning of a dithyramb or the Adoration of the Earth from Le sacre du printemps. From there on, each scene acquires the quality of a ritual: a fairy tale, a pas de deux, a mosh pit, a day of household chores, a burlesque, a bacchanalian. The work as a whole plays off the expectations of these rituals and their rather more subtly coded meanings. Largely, however, each vignette within the piece is celebratory. There is, in the movements, a sense of ritual but also complete tomfoolery. This is not a slight; the Holy Fool is well-established throughout the world as one of the true sources of wisdom, and so it is here. The order of the day is learning through levity.

Whatever has been said about it, the piece is really quite light and, probably to the great chagrin of Laura Mulvey et al, quite pleasurable. Ms. Lee has absorbed various ideas and images of feminism and brought them to life beyond the sterile forms of second-wave feminism. She has learned their lessons and finally rejected them as not definitive. With a deft hand from Ms. Driscoll to shape this theater of images into something more definite, the play remains pleasantly elusive and free of pedantry.

I have heard that certain audiences in New York expected something else. Men expected “to be attacked” and women expected it to be “aggressive and didactic.” Both were disappointed. Both were, obviously, unaware that they held clichés about feminism in their minds that were the very target of Ms. Lee’s piece. To answer her original question, “What could the world look like if people with female bodies had no shame and felt free to behave however they wanted?” with anything so didactic would be a complete disservice to the purpose of feminism, which is to liberate women and men both from unexamined platitudes about sex and gender. UNTITLED FEMINIST SHOW is not an essay with a thesis, but rather a tentative exploration of certain possibilities. It continues Ms. Lee’s explorations of identity politics and takes them into the realm where all presumptions are incomplete and inconclusive–exactly where all great ideas belong.

Filed under Theater

Omar Willey was born at St. Frances Cabrini Hospital in Seattle and grew up near Lucky Market on Beacon Avenue. He believes Seattle is the greatest city on Earth and came to this conclusion by travelling much of the Earth. He is a junior member of Lesser Seattle and, as an oboist, does not blow his own trumpet. Contact him at omar [at] seattlestar [dot] net