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

For the past week and some, I’ve been struggling with my response to Young Jean Lee’s Untitled Feminist Show (part of PS 122’s COIL Festival, through Feb, 4; tickets $25-$35). From the moment I left the Baryshnikov Arts Center two Saturdays past, I had the feeling that I was missing something, some thing that would make it all make sense, a reason for the choices Lee made that allows all the pieces to fit together. And that sense has only been furthered by the show’s critical response, which has been overwhelmingly positive. But with about ten days’ time to reflect, and to talk to others about their experiences (most people I know are also deeply ambivalent about the show), I just can’t justify it anymore. There’s something here that just doesn’t work.

A brief description: You enter the theater and sit down. Shortly thereafter, a half dozen women will enter, mostly through the audience. They’re naked. You’ll be unsurprised to know that there is a diversity of body types represented. (Three of the performers (Hilary Clark, Katy Pyle, and Regina Rocke) are primarily known as dance/movement artists; Becca Blackwell is an actor, I suppose [Note: It’s been brought to my attention that this could be perceived as dismissive; it was merely intended as a broad if uncertain characterization of Blackwell’s practice]; then there’s Amelia Zirin-Brown, better known as cabaret star Lady Rizo; and burlesque performer and artist World Famous *BOB*.) From this point, they will perform a series of vignettes without text. A pantomime fairy tale. A dance routine or two. Lady Rizo will do a comic routine on sex raunch in which she plays a porn vixen switching up the dynamic so that it’s the guy who’s taking it. Another will feature a woman rocking out to heavy metal. Still another has them all gyrating on the floor. The only words (if I understand this correctly) will be a song sung in Welsh. In just under an hour it will end.

In interviews, Lee has spoken about her desire to create a show that wasn’t a polemic, but rather one that embodied some sort of “utopian feminism,” and presented “gender fluidity” (see here or here). My problem is, I suppose, in trying to ferret that out from what I saw onstage. I can sort of see how this was the idea, but, as I’ll get to momentarily, I don’t think this is quite what happened.

One of the things that troubled me in reading others’ responses to the show is that no one really points out the banality of the representations onstage. I don’t mean that pejoratively, mind you. I just mean that what we see is a depiction of banal gender roles in dialogue with one another. Consider the fairy tale pantomime: in it, Lee isn’t subverting female representations in fairy tales. The actions of every character exist well within the bounds of fairy tales. Little girls can also be vicious monster-killers cutting their friends out of a beast’s stomach. Evil witches can also be loving mothers. What Lee shows us isn’t outside the construct of female representations in fairy tales–it’s just outside the Disney version of fairy tales.

Likewise, two long sequences towards the end. In the first, a woman simply rocks out, headbanging and slam dancing to heavy metal. This is followed by her getting into a vicious fight with another woman, played out in slow motion, to a crowd of jeering spectators. Anyone who’s been to a metal club has, I’d wager, seen both scenarios go down and can attest to the veracity of the scenes.

And then there’s a long dance sequence in which the performers, to a house beat, perform a series of eroticized moves derived from stereotypical household “women’s work,” everything from ironing to burping the baby or doing dishes.

How does this relate to the idea of a utopia feminism that supposes a “fluidity of gender,” when in fact all of these are presentations of reality? Fairy tales allow women to occupy contrasting roles without ever being emancipatory. Women do rock out in clubs and, when they fight, can be truly vicious and brutal, just like men can, in ways that have little or no relationship to spectator events that take place in mud pits. And of course (and I’m surprised not to have seen anyone else point this out), there are dance moves based on household chores (stir the pot, anyone?). In fact, the gag in that dance sequence is, I’m pretty sure, about fifty years old or more.

In short, none of these ideas are exactly groundbreaking, and I doubt they’re meant to be. The best sense I can make of the work is that Lee is presenting a plurality of experience and possibility onstage in order to contrast with an oppressive set of expectations based on media and cultural archetypes, stereotypes, and the like–let’s call it the “dominant paradigm.” Indeed, that’s the language that’s subverted throughout. The fairy tale subverts Disney idealization. Lady Rizo’s raunchy routine subverts porn. And another long movement sequence, in which the cast gyrates on the floor to set cellulite jiggling, subverts the fashion magazine prescription of feminine beauty.

Of course, so does a Dove soap ad. And that, I guess, is my first problem: Lee’s target is the host of social pressures and representations that your average eighth-grade health class critiques as the dominant social paradigm. It’s akin to standing onstage and saying, “Models in fashion magazines give young women negative body images.” It’s not that’s untrue. It’s in fact so self-evident that we, the audience, can nod along in agreement and then go back to reading copies of The New Yorker on the subway home, funded by ads for clothes modeled by anorexic waifs, and do so with very little cognitive dissonance. And to this reality, Lee seems to add nothing. She seems to assume that the presentation of various realities–diversity of representations, diversity of behaviors, diversity of bodies–is somehow utopian and that these things, in and of themselves, offer a critique of the dominant paradigm rather the existing comfortably within it.

Reading the reviews of the show, almost all by men, I would almost be tempted to agree that she was on to something. As self-evident as most of these points strike me, other critics seemed duly impressed. In the Times, in an otherwise ambivalent review, Charles Isherwood made sure to note how liberating it was to see a diversity of body types onstage, bared with joy and without a hint of self-loathing (despite, you know, one of the performers being best known as a burlesque artist). Hilton Als in The New Yorker hyperbolically compared the show to Ntozake Shange’s for colored girls… for its courageous truth-telling, apparently (although for colored girls… was about the challenge of telling the truth, while UFS operates on the presumption that we all already know the truth). But the money quote for me comes from Time Out‘s David Cote. I like Cote’s work generally, and his even-handed but very positive review I guess I’ll use as the base-line. In it, he writes:

Most shocking, once you’ve gotten over giggles or puritanical guilt about staring at six women jumping and bouncing around in their birthday suits, you stop seeing the nudity and start focusing on the individual, her quirks and traits. The piece may have no name, but its cast members are anything but faceless archetypes.

So I suppose you could argue that the piece is making its point. See! People are realizing that there’s a difference between the social construct of expectations of women, and what real women are and what they do! But are they really, or is the audience just nodding along to a point we already agree on, again accepting the status quo with little or no cognitive dissonance? Second-person voice notwithstanding, there’s only two ways you can read that quote from Cote. Either he’s talking about himself, his own giggly titilation or puritanical guilt, and his own inability to see naked women as people other than things, or he’s making an assumption–the same assumption as the show–about what some amorphous Other thinks. I’d wager it’s actually the latter. And if you believe the critique of society that the show seems to accept a priori, then yes, I suppose it’s quite good at challenging that dominant paradigm. However, that dominant paradigm is best represented by the caricature of a workplace sexist from your day job’s anti-sexual harassment training video.

None of this is intended to remotely suggest I don’t believe that these things are issues; I know they are. I’m just saying–sometimes shit’s complicated, you know? Perhaps reality demands more than just putting it onstage and then stepping back and saying, Well how about that? And I know that Lee and her collaborators are smart enough and talented enough to offer a more complex exploration than this.

That’s where I get really troubled, because I think there are some undeniable conclusions we can actually draw from this show that are even more problematic. First of all, it’s pretty obvious that Lee’s ultimate interest was in the body, not gender. In interviews, she’s explained her choice to make the performers naked in terms of wanting to de-sexualize them. This is a rather naive interpretation of sexualization. (Really? Naked women aren’t sexy at all?) Even if you want to accept that extended exposure moves us past cheap titillation or arousal, it’s weird to suggest that judgment would pass, too.

Yet this seems to be what she wants to explore most of all. We watch a half-dozen naked performers for nearly an hour; we watch them in different ways ask us to consider different sorts of bodies. Just not that different. Ironically, for all the talk of “gender fluidity,” Lee remains committed, apparently, to a rather binary ideal of biological sex. She gives us twelve breasts and no penises, suggesting, apparently, that male-to-female trans, for instance, is not a category that could fit within her expansive feminist utopia. And what’s more, the choice to remove these performers’ clothes and present them naked seems to demand the audience see the gender spectrum as having primarily to do with the body, since she denies the performers the ability to self-define their own gender through either speech or dress-presentation.

Compared to the work of an artist like World Famous *BOB*–whose one-man show explores her own desire to be a drag queen, among other things–Lee’s work seems kind of toothless, and seems to have appropriated and castrated the work of such a collaborator. (The same could be said of Lady Rizo.) Even more bothersome is the fact that many people seem to have decided the show is–or should be categorized as–dance. In which case it’s most definitely a failure. Everyone I’ve spoken to about the show quite quickly begins comparing it negatively (or at least problematically) to work by movement artists ranging from Deborah Hay to Lee’s own COIL Festival co-artist Heather Kravas. I feel like the plaudits that Lee is scoring for UFS would be better spent on the more ambitious and challenging work of choreographers, who remain ghettoized in the eyes of the mainstream performing arts world, a world increasingly opening its arms to a perceived provocateur like Lee while remaining painfully ignorant of the artistic crucible from which she’s emerging.

So someone please, explain to me what I’m missing and why I’m wrong. Surely gender is a far more complex subject than this, and deserving of a more meaningful and rich exploration than it gets here.

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