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The Age of the Female Gaze

iPhoto caption: Virgilia Griffith and Sochi Fried in How We Are. Photo by Dahlia Katz
/By / Oct 10, 2016

Let’s play a game, shall we? Off the top of your head, name three female playwrights from before 1900.

1) Aphra Behn.

I lose.

That’s not much of a surprise, really. The West doesn’t exactly have a good track record supporting female voices. I mean, women have been legally considered people in Canada for scarcely a century. And that’s white women. Indigenous peoples didn’t get the vote until 1960. The right of all citizens to vote wasn’t mandated until the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms came into play in 1982. That’s right. 1982.

That’s not really that much of a surprise either, given that we’re living on some five thousand years of stories in which women and people of colour have been systematically objectified and tokenized, relegated to the roles of protagonist-motivators or tempters or otherwise convenient moral plot devices. We were raised on stories—kickass, revolutionary, intuitive, intelligent stories—that place greater value on the lives of men than those of women. We were raised on tales that place greater value on white bodies, tales that value bodies against each other in the first place.

So we kinda fucked up equal representation for a few thousand years. Oops.

I want to hear the voices of women and people of colour and queer people and trans people and people with disabilities and people who identify as any combination of the above. I’m mainly talking about women in this article but we know, of course, we need equality for all voices, all bodies. I want to live in a culture where we can have two-dimensional characters and where that indicates a deliberate choice or simply bad writing, not a commonly accepted dehumanization of more than half the human race. I want to live in a culture where we can objectify women as commentary, and not out of habit. We’re nowhere near there yet. To get there, we need to build a storytelling culture rooted in equal representation—in quality as well as quantity.

Let’s start by toppling the dictatorship of the male gaze.

There’s a lot of literature out there on the male gaze—no big surprise, as it’s been our storytelling lens for thousands of years. Part of the TL;DR definition, courtesy of Wikipedia: “The male gaze is the way in which the visual arts and literature depict the world and women from a masculine point of view, presenting women as objects of male pleasure.” When I Google “female gaze” what I get is a bunch of search results basically inverting “male gaze,” putting men as objects instead of women. Not what I’m talking about. The answer doesn’t lie in plugging new folks into the roles of objectifier/objectified in the same system. The language of our storytelling has been built on a hierarchy that pits bodies against each other. The change we need comes from the root.

Enter the female gaze à la Jill Soloway, the filmmaker behind hit series Transparent, who gave the keynote speech at TIFF this year. She defines the female gaze as a way of reclaiming our bodies and voices in the face of a storytelling canon defined by men. It is an empathetic way of seeing stories, of being in feeling rather than at feeling as we watch, of emphasizing emotion rather than action. She talks about directing Transparent with camera angles and frame movement that places the audience right into the whirl of feeling with the characters. “The female gaze,” says Jill, “is an empathy generator that says, ‘I was there in that room.’”

I was pretty jazzed to hear her articulate this alternative approach to storytelling, because I’ve written this play. Actually it’s not a play, really, it’s more like a site-specific theatrical experience. Or like sitting in someone’s bedroom watching a disastrous morning-after. Yeah, that’s exactly what it is.

How We Are. Photo by Dahlia Katz

Virgilia Griffith and Sochi Fried in How We Are. Photo by Dahlia Katz

It’s called How We Are, and it’s about two young women, best friends, who wake up naked in bed together after a night out. It’s very messy, and very human. It’s an all-female team, co-developed and directed by Mikaela Davies, featuring powerhouse actors Sochi Fried and Virgilia Griffith.

In How We Are, the audience is physically close to the action, sitting on the sides of the bedroom, immersed in a proximity that makes every word, every gesture, every micro-impulse an event. I think this is a really neat way of diving into the mess of human intimacy, examining the much-discussed topic of consent through an empathetic inside lens. And I’ll admit my ego got a bit of a stoking from learning that our approach to staging this play means we’re contributing to a newly minted Age of the Female Gaze.

I asked my collaborators to weigh in on their experience with the work, particularly on dealing with the fraught territory of female sexuality. “We wrestled with the level of nudity presented,” Virgilia says, and “were careful not to oversexualize and detract from the heart of the piece.

“It is challenging and gratifying,” adds Sochi, “to attempt to build true intimacy between these two flawed and beautiful characters, an intimacy that involves but also transcends the sexual.”

Granted, ours is a small contribution. How We Are isn’t going to reach thousands of viewers. (It seats like twelve people at a time.) This article probably lives and dies in the Toronto theatre community. I’m, like, really not a big deal. But hey, the Count of Monte Cristo dug his way out of that prison scoop by scoop (okay, it was the Mad Priest and he didn’t actually escape through the tunnel, but that’s how I remember it and anyway let’s not ruin this metaphor with facts).

And yet there is hope in our work, I think. “In How We Are, we hold the power,” says Virgilia. “If I’m uncomfortable of how my body is being portrayed in the storytelling, I’m in a safe environment to speak up.” Sochi notes that “there does seem to be more of an attempt made by women who run a room than men who run a room in really trying to understand what is going on with each of their colleagues, in terms the working relationship that’s built.”

Jill Soloway talks about reclaiming our bodies in our stories—but it’s about claiming our space in the storytelling, too. “We need to make our own opportunities,” Mikaela says, “and create good work. If female directors, writers, and actors are telling interesting, complex stories, people will relate to them, and they will get noticed. So that’s what we can do.” And, she adds, “I think that artistic leaders in our community and around the world should take a serious look at how they can even the playing field.”


Polly learning to read

My childhood heroes included Zorro, Robin Hood, Prince Ashitaka. One Halloween I went as Legolas. It was awesome. My dad even made me a bow (my teacher confiscated the arrows). I loved these characters. It never crossed my mind to think I couldn’t associate with them just because they were men. They faced trials and tribulations, doubts and enlightenments, and made terrible mistakes, same as me. I am grateful that I had these stories to look up to: they taught me to see myself in others, even if we look very different indeed. I’ve tried my best to introduce my little brother to some of my favourite complicated women: Lyra Belacqua, Hermione Granger, Princess Mononoke, Korra. But compared to the men, the pickings are still slim.

I’m not saying we can’t develop compassion for others without the help of fictional characters who are different from us. Nor that we can’t ever ever ever again have a story told from the male gaze. What I am saying is that like all habits, compassion and empathy need practise. What I am saying is that the stories we tell and the stories we hear become part of our subconscious, shaping the way we see each other in the world around us.

I want to say, “Seriously, folks, why are we still having this conversation?” But I also know that stories burrow deep, and the subconscious takes time to reprogram. So, to my fellow storytellers out there: Let’s write women with the same attention to human flaws and complexity as we do men. Let’s write women whose stories don’t revolve around the men in their lives, let’s write women who chase after political ideals and scientific breakthroughs and career advancement, and, yes, let’s write women in love, but let’s write about them in a way that’s flawed and messy and real.

Let’s choose our stories well.

This is a post from October 2016. Polly Phokeev and Mikaela Davies’ next play, The Mess, will be presented in a site-specific storage unit from December 6 to December 17. The second piece in the immersive How We Are series, The Mess builds on the success of two soldout Toronto runs of How We Are in 2016. More details, including performance dates and time, can be found here:

Polly Phokeev

Polly Phokeev

Polly Phokeev is a Toronto-based playwright and actor. She was born in Russia and therefore missed all your favourite 90s cartoons. She likes good company, good arguments, and good bedtime stories. Her favourite pastimes include reading history books, playing ukulele, and doodling maps of worlds in her fantasy novel.



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