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
I remember in high school, our Shakespeare class went to a production of Romeo and Juliet where some of the male cast were played by female actors, apparently because the director wanted to cast without gender assumptions for at least some of the parts. The two I remember were Mercutio and Friar Lawrence cast as female (I think some of the extras were as well). The day after, we talked about what difference the dynamic made both given those particular actors and the casting of those parts as female. It’s interesting because I think a lot of us do default to a patriarchal and heterosexist view that you have to actively question: a lot more of us were willing to read a romantic undertone to Benvolio’s reaction to Mercutio’s death, and see Lawrence as a less active character because of casting choices. And now I wonder if that was us, the director, the actors or some combination.
Oh yeah, patriarchal and heteronormative viewpoints can also factor into these things in interesting ways. I think because of gender stereotypes and heteronormativity our culture sets us up to believe certain things, such as noticing romantic subtext between a female Mercutio and a male Benvolio more so than if the two were played by actors of the same gender, and I think it’s our job to work past that. And casting without gender in mind helps us to do that, to challenge our assumptions. This particular example is interesting to me because I was in Romeo and Juliet once where Benvolio, Tybalt, and Friar Lawrence were all played by women. I didn’t notice any romantic subtext between Benvolio and Mercutio, though I was also a freshman and pretty much unconcerned with romance. Though Friar Lawrence did seem rather more helpless, and perhaps part of that is the play, but it’s interesting that having a female Friar causes the brain to look at it that way.
The history of casting Peter Pan as a woman is laid out a bit in this Slate article: http://www.slate.com/blogs/browbeat/2014/01/23/peter_pan_played_by_a_woman_why_a_history_of_casting_the_j_m_barrie_character.html
While the article doesn’t mention it, there is a long tradition of casting women as boys in opera (so-called ‘pants roles’) that probably also factored in. These characters arose as a reflection of the fact that back in the olden days teen boys’ voices didn’t change until they were 17 or so, so a high voice was seen as more appropriate. These characters are often quite amorous (to put it mildly), resulting in lots of love duets played by two women on stage. Modern performance practice has resulted in the same thing for roles that used to be played by castrati but are now played by women–a good example being the very sensual scene between Nero and the title character at the end of Monteverdi’s Poppea.
Modern audiences can definitely read these kinds of scenes as having a queer vibe to them, though it’s trickier to work out how they were seen at the time.