The Feminist Spectator as Critic

The Feminist Spectator as Critic

by Jill Dolan

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The Feminist Spectator as Criticbroke new ground as one of the pioneering books on feminist spectatorship, encouraging resistant readings to generate feminist meanings in performance. Approaching live spectatorship through a range of interdisciplinary methods, the book has been foundational in theater studies, performance studies, and gender/sexuality/women's studies. This updated and enlarged second edition celebrates the book's twenty-fifth anniversary with a substantial new introduction and up-to-the-moment bibliography, detailing the progress to date in gender equity in theater and the arts, and suggesting how far we have yet to go.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780472035199
Publisher: University of Michigan Press
Publication date: 10/31/2012
Edition description: 2nd Edition
Pages: 212
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Jill Dolanis Annan Professor in English, Professor of Theater, and Director of the Program in Gender and Sexuality Studies at Princeton University.  She received the George Jean Nathan Award for Dramatic Criticism for her blog of the same name, The Feminist Spectator. Her other books include A Menopausal Gentleman: The Solo Performances of Peggy Shaw (editor); Theatre & Sexuality; Utopia in Performance:  Finding Hope at the Theater; Geographies of Learning:  Theory and Practice, Activism and Performance; and Presence and Desire:  Essays on Gender, Sexuality, Performance. The Feminist Spectator blog can be found at

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The Feminist Spectator as Critic

By Jill Dolan

The University of Michigan Press

Copyright © 2012 Jill Dolan
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-472-03519-9


The Discourse of Feminisms: The Spectator and Representation

In the illusionist tradition that dominates American theatre practice, performers and spectators are separated by a curtain of light that helps maintain the fictitious fourth wall. Performers facing the audience are blinded by the workings of the apparatus that frames them. The blinding lights set them apart from the sea of silhouetted heads without faces toward whom their words flow. The spectators' individuality is subsumed under an assumption of commonality; their differences from each other are disguised by anonymity. The spectators become the audience whom the performers address — albeit obliquely, given realist theatre conventions — as a singular mass.

The performance apparatus that directs the performer's address, however, works to constitute that amorphous, anonymous mass as a particular subject position. The lighting, setting, costumes, blocking, text — all the material aspects of theatre — are manipulated so that the performance's meanings are intelligible to a particular spectator, constructed in a particular way by the terms of its address. Historically, in North American culture, this spectator has been assumed to be white, middle-class, heterosexual, and male. That theatre creates an ideal spectator carved in the likeness of the dominant culture whose ideology he represents is the motivating assumption behind the discourse of feminist performance criticism.

Since the resurgence of American feminism in the 1960s, feminist theatre makers and critics have worked to expose the gender-specific nature of theatrical representation, and to radically modify its terms. Denaturalizing the position of the ideal spectator as a representative of the dominant culture enables the feminist critic to point out that every aspect of theatrical production, from the types of plays and performances produced to the texts that are ultimately canonized, is determined to reflect and perpetuate the ideal spectator's ideology.

Because its critique centers on the ideological assumptions that create an ideal spectator for representation, feminist performance criticism is subversive by nature. It is grounded in the belief that representation — visual art, theatre and performance, film and dance — creates from an ideological base meanings that have very specific, material consequences.

The feminist critic can be seen as a "resistant reader," who analyzes a performance's meaning by reading against the grain of stereotypes and resisting the manipulation of both the performance text and the cultural text that it helps to shape. By exposing the ways in which dominant ideology is naturalized by the performance's address to the ideal spectator, feminist performance criticism works as political intervention in an effort toward cultural change.

This study concentrates on spectatorship. It represents an effort to bring up the lights in the theatre auditorium, as it were, to illuminate the differences between spectators positioned in front of the representational frame. Since it directs its address to a gender-specific spectator, most performance employs culturally determined gender codes that reinforce cultural conditioning. Performance usually addresses the male spectator as an active subject, and encourages him to identify with the male hero in the narrative. The same representations tend to objectify women performers and female spectators as passive, invisible, unspoken subjects.

The feminist spectator viewing such a representation is necessarily in the outsider's critical position. She cannot find a comfortable way into the representation, since she finds herself, as a woman (and even more so, as a member of the working class, a lesbian, or a woman of color), excluded from its address. She sees in the performance frame representatives of her gender class with whom she might identify — if women are represented at all — acting passively before the specter of male authority.

She sees women as mothers, relegated to supporting roles that enable the more important action of the male protagonist. She sees attractive women performers made-up and dressed to seduce or be seduced by the male lead. While the men are generally active and involved, the women seem marginal and curiously irrelevant, except as a tacit support system or as decoration that enhances and directs the pleasure of the male spectator's gaze.

Finding her position compromised if she allows herself to identify with these women, the feminist spectator contemplates the option of participating in the play's narrative from the hero's point of view. She empathizes with his romantic exploits, or his activities in a more public sphere, but has a nagging suspicion that she has become complicit in the objectification or erasure of her own gender class.

Ruminating over these unsavory positions, the feminist spectator might find that her gender — and/or her race, class, or sexual preference — as well as her ideology and politics make the representation alien and even offensive. It seems that as a spectator she is far from ideal. Determined to draw larger conclusions from this experience, she leaves the theatre while the audience applauds at the curtain call and goes off to develop a theory of feminist performance criticism.

Feminism as the Site of Differences

Feminism begins with a keen awareness of exclusion from male cultural, social, sexual, political, and intellectual discourse. It is a critique of prevailing social conditions that formulate women's position as outside of dominant male discourse. Linda Gordon defines feminism in general as "a critique of male supremacy, formed and offered in the light of a will to change it, which in turn assumes a conviction that it is changeable." The routes feminism takes to redress the fact of male dominance, however, are varied. Feminism has in fact given way more precisely to feminisms, each of which implies distinct ideological interpretations and political strategies.

Attendant forms of feminist criticism theorize ways of exposing and changing women's subservient position as it is revealed in representation. But since feminism is not a monolithic discourse with a cohesive party line, its modes of criticism also take multiple forms. Some borrow from sociology, some from psychoanalysis, others from post-structuralist and deconstructive strategies, and all propose various ideological perspectives that elaborate on basic definitions of feminism.

The "playful pluralism" of early feminist criticism was accepted because it symbolized intellectual, ideological, and methodological freedom. But feminist theorists have since recognized the dangers implicit in trumpeting a strictly nonsectarian approach to method and ideology. Feminism loses some of its polemical force if it is not linked to a coherent ideological structure. Therefore, it is crucial to identify common characteristics that describe the differences among the feminisms.

American feminism can be separated generally into liberal, cultural or radical, and materialist segments, each of which presents a different critical approach to the issue of exclusion from male discourse and the representations in which it is embodied. There are many gradations within and among these categories — some of which are socialist feminism, lesbian feminism, spiritualist feminism — but I find these three most inclusive and most useful for clarifying the different feminist ways of seeing.

Liberal feminism takes its cues from liberal humanism. Rather than proposing radical structural change, it suggests that working within existing social and political organizations will eventually secure women social, political, and economic parity with men. Alison Jaggar, in her work on feminist politics and epistemology, defines liberal feminism as "radically individualistic"; it relies on values claimed to be universally human, and in essence, demands that "everyone should receive equal consideration with no discrimination on the basis of sex." The National Organization for Women and the National Women's Political Caucus are exemplary of liberal feminist work within American politics. These organizations lobby to create legislation that will promote parity between men and women within the dominant system.

The fight to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, the effort to gain equal pay for equal work, a woman's right to control over her body and to choose abortion, childcare, and affirmative action are some of the issues that dominate liberal feminist discourse. The movement's general effort is to insert women into the mainstream of political and social life by changing the cultural perception of them as second-class citizens.

Over the last twenty years, liberal feminism has made strides toward this end. The increased number of women in the work force, a slightly higher percentage of women in corporate executive positions, and Geraldine Ferraro's position on the 1984 presidential ticket, for instance, all stand as evidence of liberal feminism's achievements in chipping away at male hegemony.

In theatre practice and criticism, liberal feminist efforts are responsible for the wider visibility of women playwrights, directors, producers, and designers, and the creation of richer roles for women performers. Organizations such as the Women's Project and the Women and Theatre Program of the American Theatre Association (now American Theatre in Higher Education) provide opportunities for women to refine their craft so that they can compete effectively in male-dominated production and academic contexts. Broadway productions of plays by Marsha Norman, Beth Henley, and Emily Mann evince the greater visibility of particularly women playwrights in mainstream forums.

As liberal feminism gains a foothold for women in the male-dominated institutions of American theatre, however, an insidious backsliding sometimes occurs with regard to feminist politics. Some women in theatre suggest that women's advocacy groups and workshop spaces are temporary measures that will no longer be necessary when women truly achieve parity with men. Many working women playwrights vehemently resist the feminist appellation, because to survive economically their plays must be produced widely in commercial venues. The analogy between feminism and politics is seen as threatening to the universality of their work.

Liberal feminist playwrights and critics accept the notion that theatre communicates universally and prefer not to be particularized as women. Sue-Ellen Case perceives a danger in their detachment from the movement that made their success possible:

Without an answerability to the movement, does not the work of women in theatre become isolated from the community it represents? ... Mainstream women playwrights regard political critique as an imposition or confinement of their creative processes. The old male model of the Romantic movement has re-emerged: the Artist is a Genius and the oppression of women disappears before the "universal" and "eternal" qualities of art. These same qualities have been the ones employed to render women invisible in the traditional theatre, its history and the formation of the canon.

Their desire to become part of the system that has historically excluded them forces some liberal feminists in theatre to acquiesce to their erasure as women. Little changes, even as stronger women characters are written into their plays, because the universal to which they write is still based on the male model.

Liberal feminist texts produced in mainstream theatre present a hoary problem, critically speaking. My discussion of the Broadway production of Marsha Norman's 'night, Mother in chapter 2 looks at the ambivalent response to the play by mainstream male critics, who were forced to decide whether a play written by a woman about a mother/daughter relationship could be considered universal. The comparisons they made were to a canon of dramatic literature written by men, in which father/son relationships are privileged, 'night, Mother takes place in a kitchen/livingroom, and its form is kitchen-sink realism. But because its author and characters are women, "kitchen-sink" took on different connotations for the male critics than it did when perceived in the context of Death of a Salesman, which was written by Arthur Miller, the father of American domestic drama. In fact, Miller's play serves as a useful counterpoint to 'night, Mother, a comparison explored fully in chapter 2.

Thrown into relief by its comparison with the standard canon, the sex-based division of public and private spheres can suddenly be seen more clearly in terms of their relative worth as universal dramatic material. Chapter 2 looks at the ideological implications of the traditional critical search for universality and transcendance, and addresses the issue of canon formation.

Liberal feminists applauded what they saw as Norman's elevation into the canon when she won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1983. Other feminists debated whether Norman's play might form part of a female countercanon because of its gender differences from the male model. Cultural feminism, the second segment of American feminism I am delineating here, proposes that there are, and should be maintained, clear differences between men and women which might form the basis of separate cultural spheres.

Cultural feminism is sometimes called radical feminism. At the start of the second wave of American feminism in the late 1960s and early 1970s, radical feminism was based in a theoretical struggle to abolish gender as a defining category between men and women. Cultural feminism, on the contrary, bases its analysis in a reification of sexual difference based on absolute gender categories. Alice Echols comments that in the 1980s,

This perspective has gained legitimacy and achieved hegemony with the radical feminist movement. This view represents such a fundamental departure from the early radical feminist version that it is important to differentiate the two. I ... therefore refer to this more recent strain of radical feminist as cultural feminism because it equates women's liberation with the development and preservation of a female counter-culture.

Linda Gordon, too, finds a movement away from "androgyny to female uniqueness" in the shift from radical to cultural feminism: "The early women's liberation movement, both radical and liberal, emphasized equal rights and equal access for women to previously male privilege. In the past decade, we have seen ... a celebration of women's unique and superior qualities with ... an emphasis on mothering as both source and ultimate expression of these qualities." Cultural feminism is founded on a reification of sexual difference that valorizes female biology, in which gender is an immutable, determining, and desirable category. Because I find Echol's and Gordon's definitions of this movement lucid and precise, I have chosen to use the term "cultural feminism" here.

An inquiry into sex and gender categories is the primary focus of feminism in general, but within each of the feminisms, the investigation manifests different ideology and different forms. Liberal feminism, as we have seen, would subsume the female gender into the (male) generic, or universal, category. Cultural feminism proposes instead a fundamental change in the nature of universality by suggesting that female gender values take the place of the generic male. It seeks to reverse the gender hierarchy by theorizing female values as superior to male values. The oppressions wrought by gender polarization constructed through dominant theories of sexual difference remain peculiarly unattacked in cultural feminist thought.

Gayle Rubin, whose influential article "The Traffic in Women: Notes on the 'Political Economy' of Sex" traces the causes of women's oppression through anthropological and psychoanalytical discourses, defines the sex/gender system as a "set of arrangements by which society transforms biological sexuality into products of human activity." Sex is biological, based in genital differences between males and females. Gender, on the other hand, is a fashioning of maleness and femaleness into the cultural categories of masculinity and femininity. These adjectives describe cultural attributes that determine social roles. Sex is empirical, but gender is an interpretation that can only take place within a cultural space.


Excerpted from The Feminist Spectator as Critic by Jill Dolan. Copyright © 2012 Jill Dolan. Excerpted by permission of The University of Michigan Press.
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Table of Contents

Preface ix

Acknowledgments xi

Introduction to the Second Edition xiii

1 The Discourse of Feminisms: The Spectator and the Representation 1

2 Feminism and the Canon: The Question of Universality 19

3 Ideology in Performance: Looking through the Male Gaze 41

4 The Dynamics of Desire: Sexuality and Gender in Pornography and Performance 59

5 Cultural Feminism and the Feminine Aesthetic 83

6 Materialist Feminism: Apparatus-Based Theory and Practice 99

Afterword 119

Notes 123

Revised and Updated Bibliography 145

Index to the First Edition 165

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