Young Jean Lee’s “Untitled Feminist Show”: The Pro

By Cassie Peterson

Young Jean Lee’s Untitled Feminist Show (at Baryshnikov Arts Center as part of PS122’s COIL Festival, through Feb. 4; tickets $25-$35) is an exquisitely exaggerated performance about the performance of gender which we all negotiate every moment of every day. We live in a world where one rarely has the opportunity to become legible or understood outside of the conscriptions of one’s gender identity. Thus, we always and inevitably perform ourselves as gendered beings in the ways that we move, behave, speak, and relate to the world. Gendered norms intrinsically shape our experiences of “self” and “other” and operate in a way that privileges some expressions of gender while subjugating and silencing others. Untitled Feminist Show works to both acknowledge and disrupt these compulsory gender identifications.

Untitled Feminist Show is a visceral in-your-face clash of varying feminist paradigms. It is a 75-minute non-stop kinesthetic adventure where every archetype, stereotype, caricature, and construction of “woman” is performed in a chaotic First-, Second-, and Third-Wave Feminist Mash-Up. All of the tensions and conflicts embedded in feminist discourses are present and embodied by six fearlessly naked performers (Becca Blackwell, Amelia Zirin-Brown (Lady Rizo), Hilary Clark, Katy Pyle, Regina Rocke, and World Famous *BOB*. This theatrical dancedrama was conceived and directed by Young Jean Lee in collaboration with Faye Driscoll, Morgan Gould, and these six powerhouse performers. The end result of what has obviously been a rigorous choreographic process is an unforgettable performance that works to simultaneously create and undo gendered realities.

In each of the show’s vignettes, the performers temporarily position themselves in a context that feels familiar; existing in historical narratives and power arrangements that momentarily render them as feminized caricatures of themselves. These familiar gender tropes allow audience members to locate themselves and feel known. After all, identity is a relational exchange. I am this to your that. But as each vignette progresses, the performers become unwieldy, unpredictable, boundless versions of themselves, seeping out into the margins and sliding outside the lines of normative gender expectations. In this way, the show becomes an ecstatic celebration of choice–both as a reclamation of the power in historical “female” gender roles and as a pioneering vision into futuristic, feminist utopias. The age-old currents of sexism, misogyny, able-ism, size-ism and transphobia are revealed in this dramatic vacillation and our collective notions of “womanhood” and “feminism” are shattered into a million pieces.

In one vignette, the performers are in a thumping, pulsating dance club. They dance provocatively as if in a typical MTV music video. As the scene unfolds, the dancers begin to incorporate pantomimes of mundane, traditionally feminized tasks, like rocking an infant or cooking dinner. This humorous, physicalized juxtaposition forces us to engage the dominant—and often conflicting—narratives and expectations perpetually imposed on women. Later in the show, Lady Rizo pantomimes sex acts with an invisible phallus. It starts in a familiar way and reads like the clichéd opening shot of any porn. We know this. But she quickly takes us to another place, laced with an aggression and rage that manifests as violence against the phallus. Her message is: I am pleasuring you and destroying you. This is what this show does, time and time again–it pleasures and destroys, destroys and pleasures.

Untitled Feminist Show unapologetically challenges and subverts the limits imposed by the dominant (and always male) gaze and fiercely explores and celebrates the complex, dissonant realities of female and gender-variant bodies and experiences. Young Jean Lee has cast a diverse array of bodies that confront us with our conditioned—and compulsory—impulse to impose essentialized gender assignments onto naked bodies in space. This show interrogates our constructions of woman, female, femininity, and works to destabilize fixed notions of what a woman “is” and what a woman should be. What is a woman? What is a woman’s body? How are women’s bodies exploited? How are they emboldened? What is agency and how do we see it? What is coercion and where is this line? These are bodies that follow the rules. These are bodies that break the rules. These are bodies that know no rules. In this way, the female body is both a site of oppression and a site of critical and creative resistance. Untitled Feminist Show is a high energy meditation on this dialectic.

So the ultimate inquiry becomes: Is this a feminist piece? And the answer is, Yes. This show is willing to explore the multifarious representations and possibilities of gender and feminism. Young Jean Lee and Company resist the temptation to represent one, monolithic, prescriptive version of Feminism. Rather, this show is an invitation to undo our compulsive need to rely on fixed gender identifications or to elevate one version of “Feminism.” There are endless ways to be gendered. There are countless ways to embody feminism(s). It is as if Young Jean Lee has written the word “WOMAN” across the stage and then struck a line through it. It is there. We can see it. But we are also asked to take it apart and examine it. What, if anything, could be a more feminist exploration than that? And yes, these deeply political explorations do not answer to patriarchal demands for reaching some kind of ultimate knowing or singular understanding. Can you handle it?

Cassie Peterson is New York based writer, thinker, activist, healer, & lavender menace.

3 thoughts on “Young Jean Lee’s “Untitled Feminist Show”: The Pro”

  1. rachelkb says:

    I love that description of the Lady Rizo act: "I am pleasuring you and destroying you." Brilliant, and very apt.

  2. Culture Spy says:

    Hi Cassie – I would love to duel with you on this!
    I think your review is well written– but I do disagree with much of what you write – though I appreciate your point of view. I love your description of Lady Rizo's blowjob act as both pleasuring and destroying — but I don't see how – with the exception of a few moments, like Lady Rizo's act — YJL is, as you say "subverting the limits imposed by the dominant (and always male) gaze" — rather I think the show is reiterating the conservative, cliches about what is female and what is feminine. Even Lady Rizo's ironic porn act is a cliche that female power is castrating power — and you better look out for women cuz the mean ones will cut off your dick…. To me, it's funny but in a retrograde kind of way….

    that's how it feels to me…

  3. Cassie Peterson says:

    Hey buddy… thanks for your rebuttal! Similarly, I really appreciate your post on Culture Spy, though I obviously found more value in the show than you did. UFS had so many "subverted" moments for me. The cliches were present, but then I felt as though the choreagraphic movement of these caricatures was already enough to blast them into unknowable territory. Cliches don't MOVE like that. They don't vibrate like that. And think of Becca's performance… the way s/he journeyed through gendered identity markers and in the process revealed a kind of melancholic dissonance…. efforts to be fully embodied as "one" thing, one version of self, but always always always impossible. I felt this to be the undertone of most of the piece. I am. I am not. I am. I am not. For me, the cliche always crumbled, messily, excitedly. And Lady Rizo wasn't just a "mean" girl in my mind. She was facilitating pleasure and joy, while also enjoying it herself. It was more like, "When does my pleasure become your pain?" And vice versa. I dunno… that's how it feels to me…

    Very respectfully and sincerely,
    Cassie

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