Why Queering Gender Onstage Still Matters
This past Saturday I had the opportunity to see a production of Hair directed and performed by some of my friends through a youth-specific theater company. I’d never thought much of the musical before. Yes, it had a few great songs, but mostly it seemed like a confusing rock opera about a bunch of people doing drugs and having sex, neither of which I could relate to, in the name of counterculture. I still can’t relate to the drugs and sex, but this time, even squashed between people on the floor in a sold-out shoebox of a room, it was different. The director had chosen to do the show with an all-female cast. And suddenly this revelation helped me to see a whole new meaning in the musical I hadn’t looked for in the past.
One of the central struggles of the Vietnam-Era play is whether Claude, our protagonist, will burn his military draft card in the name of the peace he claims to uphold or cave into societal expectations and go to war. In most productions Claude appears onstage in the finale with short hair and a military uniform, his hesitance to burn his draft card ultimately having led him to everything he despises, while his friends protesting the draft can no longer see him. Earlier in the show Claude says he wishes to be invisible, and now he finally is. In the version I saw, Claude was played by a woman, and in the finale had her clothes taken off of her until she was left only in her bra and underwear. The words “I want to be invisible” haunted me, because that’s what she was. A woman’s uniform is her flesh, and it makes her personhood invisible in the eyes of objectification. In changing the gender dynamics of the show, I not only saw myself represented onstage in a way I could connect to, I saw the parallelism between Americans being drafted into a war they didn’t believe in and women being drafted into a system of institutionalized sexism they didn’t sign up for.
Now, Hair is already a show that plays with the expression of sex and sexuality and gender. Imagine what it would be like if genderbending was common across all genres of theater.
For most of history, the theater world has been a men-only industry, and even though women started to be allowed onstage in the mid- to late 1600s, it wasn’t until around the 1920s that actress became an acceptable career for a woman to follow, and even then it was tainted with the vestiges of an ill reputation. Nowadays, theater is seen as a woman’s profession, at least superficially: behind the scenes, men still dominate. One only has to look at current Hollywood statistics for proof of gender disparity in film production, and a short perusal of the memory can confirm these results. For example, connoisseurs of film scores can easily list off names like Alexandre Desplat or Howard Shore, but can anyone name even a single woman who has achieved similar success?
Some turn to live theater for a remedy, although in terms of representation, it isn’t much better. Yet it has its advantages. Though film is often confined to the bonds of socially-defined gender realism, smaller scale theater and other live performance genres are granted more freedom to branch out. This is why smashing gender boundaries onstage is so important. All-female casts and bending gender through performance is a vital way for women and those who don’t conform to societal gender norms to reclaim a history that has tried to shut us out. Simultaneously, it represents a visible way to draw attention to the invisibility of non-male contributors backstage.
In an age where achieving fame on the stage or on the screen is so heavily prioritized, the significance of queering gender in the media is often overlooked. With a bounty of skilled actors to choose from, larger production companies don’t need to resort to cross-gender casting. Roles such as Peter Pan, played by a woman who could pass as a boy in the days when lifting a grown man to fly via an unsophisticated rope and pulley system seemed like an impossibility, are now more often than not filled by men. Genderbending is reserved for community theater or high school shows that can’t drum up enough boys to audition. It shouldn’t have to be this way. Representing non-conformity to gender roles in a commonly accepted, public way is one of the best ways of smashing them. Expanding the range of parts available to non-male actors can be done by doing away with strictly defined gender boundaries in casting, which will then create non-male role models for the rest of the world to look up to. Experiences like mine with the all-female cast of Hair are so powerful because they represent inclusivity and people carving out a space for themselves in an industry that once excluded them entirely. The act of queering gender onstage is one of defiance and resilience, an accessible way for people of all genders to finally see themselves reflected in performance as more than just a stereotype.
Featured image of Aomawa Baker in The Trojan Woman via en.wikipedia.org