When Little is Said and Feminism is Done? Simon Stephens, the Critical Blogosphere and Modern Misogyny

Melissa Poll

Reading the main articles in this special issue of Contemporary Theatre Review, I was struck by two things: the lack of thorough engagement with the problematic representation of women in Sebastian Nublïng’s production of Simon Stephens’s Three Kingdoms, and the central position occupied by independent bloggers in academic analyses of Stephens’s work. What follows highlights a connection between these points, exploring how online critical dialogue about Stephens’s plays and the scholarship it informs are compromised by a significant absence at the virtual table: the feminist voice.

Online critics are gaining recognition for producing some of the most incisive and influential responses to new British playwriting and performance, a development noted by Karen Fricker and Duška Radosavljević in recent scholarship.1 Of the six main articles in the current edition of Contemporary Theatre Review, five cite independent writers in the UK’s critical blogosphere. Jacqueline Bolton draws on ‘the host of detailed and intelligent reviews published by online critics and bloggers such as Matt Trueman, Maddy Costa and Jake Orr’ while Ben Fowler, Seda Ilter, Catherine Love and Marilena Zaroulia turn to Andrew Haydon’s blog to support and/or develop their respective analyses of Stephens’s European collaborations. However, despite these productive contributions, a disturbing omission featured in the majority of blogosphere reviews has also coloured the peer-reviewed pieces in this issue of CTR. Their limited engagement with Three Kingdoms’ representation of women – mentioned in one of the four articles addressing the production – also reflects a defining current in online criticism. Maddy Costa and Catherine Love were the only established bloggers to thoroughly problematize Three Kingdoms’ depiction of women in their initial reviews.2

The process of exploring the blogosphere’s reception of Three Kingdoms begins by examining the production’s representation of women, which I will argue demonstrates characteristics of post-feminism or modern misogyny – the assumption that feminist ideology is no longer necessary ‘because women have achieved equality in most meaningful respects’.3 Though I did not attend the Lyric Hammersmith/Munich Kammerspiele/Theater No99 co-production, directed by Sebastian Nublïng, my argument focuses on the play text and production choices that are commented on repeatedly in reviews, blogs and scholarly articles.

A detective story that travels from England to Germany to Estonia, Three Kingdoms follows Ignatius Stone’s enquiry into the murder of an Eastern European prostitute, Vera Petrova. Stone’s investigation takes him to the site of a pornography shoot in Hamburg and on to Talinn to investigate an international sex trafficking ring. We are told that, just prior to her murder, Petrova’s head was secured in a vice and, as the camera rolled, a man masturbated over her and ejaculated in her hair.4 Though Petrova’s murder is not enacted on stage, spectators do hear ‘her tortured howls as her head is placed in a vice and sawn off […] It takes, we are told, several attempts for this to occur’.5 This is one of the rare moments in Three Kingdoms when a woman is heard; otherwise, they are silent. As blogger Catherine Love writes: ‘Women are rendered speechless throughout, either by language barriers or by fear’.6 In one scene, the prostitute Olga is ‘unable to even communicate with the men who viciously insult her’.7 Her tormentors taunt her mercilessly and one proposes that they change her name to ‘Fido’ and train her to fetch their slippers.8 This might be seen as a deliberate choice on the part of Nublïng and Stephens to lay bare the oppressive conditions the women face; however, as further examples from the production demonstrate, the ways in which this depiction of women acts as more than a reproduction of their marginalization is unclear.

Language and staging also contribute to the violence against women featured in Three Kingdoms. Aleksandr, a pimp, explains why Vera ‘deserved to die’, saying, ‘She had a shit cunt. She fucked like a dead cow […] She never cleaned out her cunt […] She deserved to get her head cut-off. She was a stinking rotten piece of meat’.9 The prostitutes are often metonymically referenced with names like ‘stupid useless cunt’, ‘dumb cunt’, and ‘skinny, little, hungry bit of cunt’, while the men insult each other via similarly-themed comments.10 As Stephens’s text gratuitously demonstrates, women are the central commodity in Three Kingdoms.11 Nublïng’s bold staging, which uses abstract blocking (including performers jumping out of windows in exits not scripted as such) and characters not named in the script, also contributes to the production’s problematic politics of representation. With eleven male performers cast in all of Three Kingdoms’ speaking roles, at times the two scantily clad women on stage seem to act primarily as set décor, mindlessly ironing men’s shirts or cleaning. Costa takes issue with this, noting that women are ‘transfigured as deer (the powerless prey of hungry wolves), or reduced to blankly mopping the floor’.12 When costumed as female deer from the neck up, the women’s names and hidden faces are inconsequential; clad in high heels and flesh-baring ensembles, their primary purpose is clear. Like drugs, these women are hidden in suitcases and smuggled across borders; they are procured, used up and discarded.

The increased sexual objectification of women is a hallmark of twenty-first century media and advertising, making women ‘three times more likely than men to be portrayed in a sexually explicit manner’.13 Part of this objectification sees that ‘women, more than men, are shown removed psychologically from the social situation at large by […] displaying remorse, fear or shyness or by mentally drifting’.14 The women in Three Kingdoms are either remorseful (the whimpering Olga), afraid (Vera pre-death), shy (the coy women in doe head pieces) or vacuous (the Stepford-type who irons). Above all, they are objects. And yet, despite the effort Stephens and Nublïng channel into iterating and reiterating this point, Three Kingdoms offers no insight as to the realities of the sex trafficking of over 20,000 people in Europe between 2010-2012 (95 per cent of whom are women) and the ever-increasing demand for young women and child prostitutes.15 In this, the theatre-makers are following a key tenet of post-feminism – the de-politicization of feminist goals, such as efforts to understand and deconstruct the extant structures that see thousands of women and children enslaved for sexual purposes.16 Instead, Three Kingdoms toes the modern misogynist line by refraining from offering a salient critique of sex trafficking and loitering in its salacious details. Costa notes:

By the end, the trafficking of women wasn’t the ‘issue’ in the play. The ‘issues’ were globalisation and the closed-mindedness of British men. What troubles me about this is that if you subsume the trafficking of women in that way, it becomes a mere plot contrivance, a trigger for the action and nothing more […] Basically, the question I ask myself is: how would this play read if the commodity being trafficked were drugs or weapons and not women? Because if you’re only going to mention once, and in passing, that the trade of women is revolting, I’m not sure that’s enough to justify everything else.17

Beyond providing a world in which the characters revel in female objectification, Three Kingdoms’ choice of sex over other commodities like drugs or guns seems incidental.

Two default positions were employed in the blogosphere to explain the representation of women in Three Kingdoms. Daniel B. Yates’s review for Exeunt typifies the first:

As the work plunders accepted sexual logics, gratifying itself, it is thunderous in its ability to make us complicit with the worst […] Perhaps it is too easy to have the women characters fall silent, and the libidinous investment in vileness is marked, yet the point is firm – it’s this hidden economy, silence in the murky mechanisms of globalisation, that remains such.18

In other words, to understand the prostitutes’ extreme subjugation, the audience must witness and, therefore, feel complicit in the horrors of this oppression. And yet, the majority of online responses to Three Kingdoms was characterised by descriptions of the joy reviewers experienced watching it. Matt Trueman writes: ‘I was windswept. I was in love. Three Kingdoms is a joyride’.19 Andrew Haydon posits: ‘Perhaps the most interestingly contradictary [sic] thing about Three Kingdoms, however, is how joyous and freeing this parable about misery, suffering, sex-slavery, brutality, cruelty and murder feels’.20 As demonstrated by their enthusiastic responses, these bloggers seem to be writing from post-feminist positions, where the objectification of women has been normalized and is no longer considered offensive. If Three Kingdoms was fashioned to shock or traumatize spectators, these reviews indicate a wholly different result. The argument of the spectator as witness is further undermined by the fact that the two women appearing in Three Kingdoms are ‘slim’ and ‘beautiful’.21 Had Stephens and Nublïng wanted to portray the harsh realities of the sex trade, their choice of two svelte, attractive women fails to represent those realities. Where were these women’s gashes and bruises from their abusive pimps? Or the track marks and emaciated limbs associated with drug use?

The other prominent argument refuting the problematic representation of women in Three Kingdoms hinges on women as stand-ins for places and politics. Matt Trueman suggests that ‘Three Kingdoms is largely not a play about sex trafficking at all. It is about globalisation’, while Diana Damian writes that ‘it’s not a play about sex trafficking, but a portrait of contemporary Europe which uses that as its score’.22 In Marilena Zaroulia’s astute article, she extends this argument: ‘In the representation of Eastern European women as invisible Others, I read an allegory to how Europe has been fetishized in the imagination of British playwrights – thus producing another form of invisibility’.23 The trouble with these responses is that they are used as a catch-all for the production’s politics of female representation – a sort of intractable and finalized ‘this is that’ thinking which is never extended or unpacked against the meticulous subjugation of female characters in Three Kingdoms. In what ways did witnessing a man spit chewed cucumber all over a woman illuminate aspects of globalisation or Europe’s postcolonial invisibility not already established by Vera’s murder, Olga’s persecution, or the automaton-like behaviour of the figures ironing and mopping in the background? Regardless of what they are standing in for, women’s commoditized position in the world of sex trafficking is demonstrated exhaustively in this production. By lingering on this exploitation, the play is, on some level, about sex trafficking. Theatre makes meaning literally, not just figuratively.

Other notable responses came after the initial wave of reviews. In a stream of consciousness-style post, penned as if addressing herself, the infrequent but highly affecting blogger, Sarah Punshon, criticizes the treatment of women on stage and in the audience while slyly problematizing popular deference to Three Kingdom’s representational nature: ‘When the men talk about getting girls from London, they clock the audience, checking out some of the women and smirking at us’.24 Punshon continues saying that ‘When they’re violent towards you, they just spit cucumber at you, or stamp on it in a theatrical demonstration of violence. It’s not actual violence. No women were harmed in the making of this play. It’s all just a play, Sarah’. Punshon emphasizes the point that the act of representation is never neutral, particularly when it depicts the brutal abuse of women. For his part, theatre-maker Chris Goode uses online comments to query what he views as Three Kingdoms’ revelling ‘in the misogyny it describes’, noting that the writer/director team is making rather than simply showing the world of Three Kingdoms – as such, they bear responsibility for it.25

The blogosphere’s reception of Three Kingdoms played out in a number of ways.

Andrew Haydon responded to Maddy Costa’s Guardian piece in a lengthy follow-up post that meticulously dissected her article and posited that ‘using the word “misogynist” pretty much slams the brakes on a nuanced discussion’.26 Costa reiterated her points on her Deliq. blog while Catherine Love wrote a follow-up post, commenting: ‘misogyny is not a word I ever used myself and I tend to lean towards Andrew Haydon in thinking that this word has a nasty way of closing down discussion, or at least making it difficult to respond’.27

In her deference to Haydon, Love could be seen as reacting to another hallmark of post-feminism, the absence of collective feminist support. In an email exchange on the topic, scholar and theatre blogger Elaine Aston commented:

There is no strong feeling of a feminist culture out there to be supportive, in the (still) predominantly male-dominated reviewing wilderness. I mean, feminist views and interpretations have always been in the minority, but at least there was a feeling of this being a significant minority […] Of course, this becomes a catch-22 situation – if we don’t say anything then the gender issue is silenced.28

Three Kingdoms’ reception and Aston’s comments prompt interesting questions of the body of academic literature on Stephens’s work. I was surprised to discover the paucity of extant scholarship analysing the politics of female representation in Stephens’s plays, particularly since women are brutally murdered or die gruesomely and three different fourteen-year-old girls are the victims of statutory rape in three of his scripts.29 The lack of scholarship focused on these portrayals could be seen as demonstrating post-feminism’s influence on academia. Acceptance of an ‘after feminism’ status quo is characterized ‘by permission to objectify and sexualize women – often by women themselves’.30 The general silence on the troubling representation of women in Stephens’s plays could be read as acceptance, making us complicit in modern misogyny’s erosion of the principles fought for by first and second wave feminists.31 Another factor contributing to the dearth of detailed analyses of the politics of female representation in Stephens’s plays is post-feminism’s successful dissemination of values that ‘typecast feminism as having been fuelled by a rage and hostility towards men’. Modern misogyny understands this rage as ‘embittered, unfeminine and repugnant’.32 If querying Stephens’s representation of women means being cast as difficult and angry then reluctance to do so demonstrates the silencing effects of post-feminism. And yet, from conversations I’ve had with other academics, I know that I’m not alone in feeling troubled by Stephens’s politics of female representation. In a country where burgeoning fourth wave feminism is finding its voice through the writings of Sara Ahmed, Laurie Penny and the Everyday Sexism Project, as I write this piece as an online addendum to CTR’s main pages, I can’t help but wonder: how well is theatre scholarship keeping pace? 33

 

Melissa Poll (PhD, Royal Holloway) is an adjunct instructor at Kansas State University, and has worked as a professional actor, dramaturg and critic. Her research on performance-making and interculturalism has been published in Body, Space & Technology Journal, Canadian Theatre Review, and Theatre Research in Canada. Melissa is currently expanding her research into a book for Palgrave Macmillan, Robert Lepage’s Scenographic Dramaturgy: The Aesthetic Signature at Work, which interrogates how auteur Robert Lepage’s scenography-based dramaturgy of extant texts functions as an adaptive process and product.

Homepage image by Pinkyone/Shutterstock

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Notes:

  1. See Karen Fricker, ‘Blogging’, Contemporary Theatre Review, 25.1 (2015), 39-40 (p. 39); see also Duška Radosavljević, Theatre-Making: Interplay between text and performance (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2013), p. 118.
  2. See Maddy Costa, ‘Three Kingdoms: The Shape of British theatre to come?’, The Guardian, 16 May 2012 http://www.theguardian.com/stage/theatreblog/2012/may/16/three-kingdoms-shape-british-theatre-or-flop [accessed 02 July 2014]; see also Catherine Love, ‘Three Kingdoms: New Ways of Seeing, Experiencing, Expressing’, Love Theatre, 12 May 2012 http://lovetheatre21.wordpress.com/2012/05/12/three-kingdoms-new-ways-of-seeing-experiencing-expressing/ [accessed 10 May 2015]. Responses to Costa’s post on the Guardian’s theatre blog, as well as comments posted to Love’s blog and Andrew Haydon’s Postcards from the Gods site, inform this article. See Andrew Haydon, ‘Three Kingdoms Review’, Postcards from the Gods, 10 May 2012 http://postcardsgods.blogspot.co.uk/2012/05/three-kingdoms-lyric-hammersmith.html [accessed 04 May 2015]. My work also follows on from a seven-speaker panel and group discussion on feminism and theatre that took place at PSi Leeds in July 2012, particularly a five-minute provocation from Sophie Nield, which engaged with how Stephens’s play worked with gender representations in performance.
  3. Kristin J. Anderson, Modern Misogyny (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), p. 3.
  4. Simon Stephens, Three Kingdoms (London: Methuen, 2012), pp. 36-37.
  5. Diana Damian, Ella Parry-Davies, Natasha Tripney and Daniel B. Yates, ‘Hard Core Critical Girl on Girl Action’, Exeunt, 21 May 2012 http://exeuntmagazine.com/features/critical-girl-on-girl-action/ [accessed 08 May 2015]. In a roundtable discussion at Exeunt, convened after the initial reviews were released, Natasha Tripney was the only debater in a group of four to express lingering concerns over the production’s depiction of violence against women.
  6. Catherine Love, ‘Three Kingdoms’.
  7. Love.
  8. Stephens, p. 109-10.
  9. Stephens, p. 46.
  10. Ibid., p. 80 and 109. The men insult each other through phrases like ‘you little piece of cunt’ (p. 48), ‘you fucking cunt-faced shit’ (p. 49), and ‘they’re stupid fucking cunt-holes’ (p. 70).
  11. In ‘Three Kingdoms: The Shape of British theatre to come?’, Maddy Costa writes: ‘why are women the commodity here and not, for example, drugs or guns?’.
  12. Costa, ‘Three Kingdoms’.
  13. John Mager and James G. Hegleson, ‘Fifty Years of Advertising Images: Some Changing Perspectives on Role Portrayals Along with Enduring Consistencies’, Sex Roles 64 (2011), pp. 238-252 (p. 240).
  14. Mager and Hegleson, p. 241.
  15. Eurostat, ‘Trafficking in Human Beings’ (Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union, 2014), pp. 10-11 http://ec.europa.eu/dgs/home-affairs/what-is-new/news/news/docs/20141017_working_paper_on_statistics_on_trafficking_in_human_beings_en.pdf [accessed 26 May 2015]; see also Erika Schulze, ‘Sexual Exploitation and Prostitution and Its Impact on Gender Equality’, Citizens’ Rights and Constitutional Affairs, European Parliament, (Brussels: Policy Department 3, 2014), p. 29 and p. 11. http://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/etudes/join/2014/493040/IPOL-FEMM_ET%282014%29493040_EN.pdf [accessed 26 May 2015].
  16. Anderson, p. 3.
  17. Maddy Costa, ‘fanning the bonfire’, Deliq., 18 May 2012 http://statesofdeliquescence.blogspot.com/2012/05/fanning-bonfire.html [accessed 02 May 2015].
  18. Daniel B. Yates, ‘Three Kingdoms at Lyric Hammersmith’, Exeunt, May 2012 http://exeuntmagazine.com/reviews/three-kingdoms/ [accessed on 12 May 2015].
  19. See Matt Trueman, ‘Review: Three Kingdoms, Lyric Hammersmith’, Matt Trueman, 13 May 2012 http://matttrueman.co.uk/2012/05/review-three-kingdoms-lyric-hammersmith.html [accessed on 07 May 2015].
  20. See Andrew Haydon, ‘Three Kingdoms Review’.
  21. Sarah Punshon, ‘on walking out of Three Kingdoms’, taking things too seriously, 17 May 2012. http://takingthingstooseriously.blogspot.ca/2012/05/on-walking-out-of-three-kingdoms.html [accessed on 13 May 2015].
  22. See Trueman; see also Damian, Parry-Davies, Tripney, and Yates.
  23. Marilena Zaroulia, ‘The Invisible Other in Excess: (Dis)placing Europe in Simon Stephens’s Three Kingdoms’, Contemporary Theatre Review, pp. 357-364.
  24. Punshon.
  25. See Goode quoted in Love’s ‘Three Kingdoms’ and Goode’s comments below Haydon’s ‘Three Kingdoms Review’, Postcards from the Gods.
  26. Andrew Haydon, ‘Three Kingdoms and Misogyny’, Postcards from the Gods, 18 May 2012 http://postcardsgods.blogspot.co.uk/2012/05/three-kingdoms-and-misogyny.html [accessed 05 May 2015].
  27. Catherine Love, ‘Revisiting Three Kingdoms’, Love Theatre, 21 May 2012 http://catherinelove.co.uk/2012/05/21/revisiting-three-kingdoms/ [accessed 06 May 2015]. As a then critic/feature writer for the British Theatre Guide, I took up critical reactions to the politics of representation featured in Three Kingdoms in my 16 April 2014 feature piece on Stephens’s Birdland, ‘What about the Birds?’ http://www.britishtheatreguide.info/features/what-about-the-birds-96 [accessed 02 December 2015].
  28. Elaine Aston, email to the author, 27 May 2015.
  29. Women die or are murdered in Three Kingdoms, Birdland, and Motortown. Reference to the statutory rape of three different fourteen-year-olds also occurs in these plays. The victims are: Julia Breitner (Three Kingdoms), Nicola (Birdland) and Jade (Motortown).
  30. Anderson, p. 15.
  31. For more on this see ‘disarticulation’ in Angela McRobbie, The Aftermath of Feminism (London: Sage, 2009), p. 24.
  32. McRobbie, p. 26.
  33. See Sarah Ahmed’s http://sfonline.barnard.edu/polyphonic/print_ahmed.htm, http://feministkilljoys.com/2015/03/19/living-a-feminist-life/ and https://feministkilljoys.com/; see also Laurie Penny’s http://laurie-penny.com/fifty-shades-of-socialist-feminism/ and http://everydaysexism.com/.

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