Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Retrograde Gender performances in the house....

So, I've been thinking a lot about feminism lately, thanks to Young Jean Lee's "Untitled Feminist Show" but also because of that Gloria Steinem doc on HBO this month, and then there's the doc about Kathleen Hanna that my friend Sini is working on....  Maybe, also because I'm working on an experimental doc about dyke culture in the 90s for  Michelle Tea's Valencia/The Movie(s) film compilation project... I'm really thinking about this feminism thing and the way that the politics of gender and gender identity have changed over the past few decades.

First of all, I want to say that the fact that Young Jean Lee's show is called "Untitled Feminist Show" makes me want to rip into it.  The very title is a provocation. Is the word "Feminism" something less than a title?  Or does the very word "Feminist" render anything else inferior or irrelevant?   What does it mean to be untitled and feminist?

I would like to suggest that the "Untitled Feminist Show" is just that - a kind of pandering to an uninformed idea of "feminism" with quotes around it.  Does the fact that the five different female performers perform naked during the entire show make this show feminist?  Or rather, does the show harken us back to a time in the not too distant past when high Art displayed unnamed naked female bodies for the titillation and benefit of its male gazing audience.  Remind me, again, what is exactly feminist about naked female bodies on display for spectacle sake? Perhaps you might say, seeing the different body types and shapes and sizes, not to mention the actual physical toll that large breasts bouncing up and down might take on its bearers, allows us, the audience to elevate the humanity of the individual performers?  Maybe.... I'm not convinced.

Certainly, in past decades, many female (and queer) performance artists and dancers have used the naked or nude body to celebrate the body and expose our dominant culture's fear or hatred of different kinds of sexuality and gender identity.  And you could argue that Young Jean Lee's show does achieve that sort of provocation at times.  I'm thinking in particular of the what for me was the show's real standout moment, Lady Rizzo's amazing and hilarious blow job mime where she points to different people in the audience and gives them virtual blowjobs....

But, aside from certain moments where the performers take the show by the balls and assert their own beautifully individual talents and powers above and beyond the material they are asked to fulfill, I felt that the show was regurgitating time-warn clichés about old fashioned gender roles in the most simpleton of ways.  Why do we need to see "girls" parading around with pink parasols?  Did we not know that this is how little girls are supposed to be?  Turn on any Disney princess movie and you can get that....   I expect more depth and critique from performance....  And, what's up with all that male pop music??  Honestly, I don't understand what all the hype is about.... Hilton Als' review made me want to throw up.

Meanwhile, just down the street, at The Kitchen, is Neal Medlyn's darkly brilliant performance piece "Wicket Clown Love," a kind of fun-house mirror carnival of contemporary masculinity fetish.

In so many ways, I felt like Neal's piece was the real feminist show. It was performance about the trappings of gender;  an attempt to send up, problematize and examine ideas about masculinity AND CLASS stuggle with humor, depth and complexity.

Formally, the two shows have certain structural similarities.  Both shows give us a kind of collection of vignettes or chapters relating to their subject.  But, rather than presenting a collection of clichés about gender (as YJL did), Neal chooses to recreate his own version of a particular world -- the 'Juggalos,' the creepy clown, white-boy hiphop fetish fanbase which has grown up around the Insane Clown Possee and others bands from the Psychopathic Records label.

A bad cellphone pic of Farris Craddock rapping in our faces, with Neal in the background.
Neal's show is a kind of straight-boy drag show, both fetishizing and exploiting the nihilism and ridiculousness of this band of (post-) adolescent, white trash, phallo-centric, exurban disenfranchised performers and fans... a band of angry young white men of rural and suburban middle America (which includes a few females).

The creepy clown motif, horror fetish hip hop lyrics struck me as a kind of Beastie Boys meets American History X -- rap folded into a goth, punk aesthetic.

I think the piece struck me as a kind of feminist critique in part because Neal references various feminist cultural tropes: For example, when Farris calls out "All men over 65 come to the front.... sit in the first two rows," he's invoking the Rrriot Girl call "All girls to the front" as Bikini Kill lead singer Kathleen Hanna used to do in her early punk shows.  It's funny if you get the reference, but Neal's also pointing to his real subject which is looking at male disenfranchisement and disempowerment.

I had never heard of the Juggalos before... but after the show, I read Neal's thoughtful piece in Salon about his experiences going to an ICP Gathering last summer.   It's interesting to read about his personal sense of identification with this often reviled subculture as a way for him to talk about his own class and cultural background and experience. What comes through to me is Neal's earnestness, his real drive to understand and unpack all the different cultural collisions that he experiences in his own life, around race, class, religion, and geography.  His interest in this subculture is not ironic.  He's interested in unpacking the aesthetics, in understanding the violence, nihilism and misogyny as a kind of metaphor for the anger and frustrations that plague so many underemployed, undereducated, disenfranchised young men in our country.  What is this culture, he asks?  What does it have to do with me?

The show is a kind of karioki of metaphors and tropes of this subcultural phenom.  Goth-punk-hip hop, masterminded by the incomparable Carmine Covelli as the mix master, driving out the thumping beats --  some kind of Rrrriot Boy call to arms, shaking their Faygo sodas, as a kind of orgiastic ejaculation ballet.


Kathleen Hanna, in fact, designed the set for "Wicket Clown Love," topped by its clothesline banner of grey tightie whities, like a row of bats above the playing space, the large green bong with its skull smiling knowingly in front of the DJ booth.  The small Juggalo chorus at one moment reciting their heartfelt poetry, like a straight boy version of a Sister Spit spoken word evening....  the next moment,  humping the wet floor, while Neal raps about the Dark Carnival.

I especially loved the moment when Neal sprayed an aerosol can of Old Spice into the audience, leaving a small cloud of its pollution hanging in the air...


5 comments:

cassmaster P said...

I like yr investigation of UFS... Here is an alternative, queer/feminist (re)view that I wrote for culturebot...

http://culturebot.net/2012/01/12383/young-jean-lees-untitled-feminist-show-the-pro/

discuss?

Cassie
http://cassiemaudepeterson.tumblr.com/

culture spy said...

Oh - I would love to duel with you on this! I read your very well written article on CultureBot -- 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...

K.J. Holmes of D.Stroy said...

brilliant to compare yjl and nm. to not just compare but to ensnare. i'm riffing in the memory of both pieces in my memory and your werdz keep them both alive in new waze for me. dig.

cassmaster P said...

Hey buddy... thanks for your rebuttal! Similarly, I really appreciate your post, 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

culture spy said...

Right on, Cassie! Thanks for your rebuttal. Respect all around.