The Guardian’s “Women’s Blog” reports that “Gender-flips used to challenge sexist stereotypes are having a moment,” and this is largely owing, author Kira Cochrane suggests, to the fact that “Sometimes the best way to make a point about sexism is also the simplest.” This simple approach to making a point consists of taking a work of art or piece of advertising and swapping the genders featured in them. Cochrane goes on to point out that “the gender-flip certainly isn’t a new way to make a political point,” and notes that “it’s with the recent rise of feminist campaigning and online debate that this approach has gone mainstream.”
What is the political point gender-flips are making? As a dancer in a Jennifer Lopez video that reverses the conventional gender roles asks, “Why do men always objectify the women in every single video?” Australian comedian Christiaan Van Vuuren explains that he posed for a reproduction of a GQ cover originally featuring a sexy woman to call attention to the “over-sexualization of the female body in the high-fashion world.” The original cover photo of Miranda Kerr is undeniably beautiful. The gender-flipped version is funny. The obvious takeaway is that we look at women and men differently (gasp!). When women strike an alluring pose, or don revealing clothes, it’s sexy. When men try to do the same thing, it’s ridiculous. Feminists insist that this objectification or over-sexualization of women is a means of oppression. But is it? And are gender-flips simple ways of making a point, or just cheap gimmicks?
Tonight, my alma mater IPFW is hosting a production called “Juliet and Romeo,” a gender-flipped version of Shakespeare’s most recognizable play. The lead on the Facebook page for the event asks us to imagine that “Juliet is instead a bold Montague who courts a young, sheltered Capulet by the name of Romeo.” Lest you fear the production is just a stunt to make a political point about gender, the hosts have planned a “panel discussion focusing on Shakespeare, gender, and language.” Many former classmates and teachers, most of whom I consider friends, a couple I consider good friends, are either attending or participating in the event. But I won’t be going.
I don’t believe the production is being put on in the spirit of open-minded experimentation. Like the other gender-flip examples, the purpose of staging “Juliet and Romeo” is to make a point about stereotypes. And I believe this proclivity toward using literature as fodder to fuel ideological agendas is precisely what’s most wrong with English lit programs in today’s universities. There have to be better ways to foster interest in great works than by letting activists posing as educators use them as anvils to hammer agendas into students’ heads against.
You may take the position that my objections would carry more weight were I to attend the event before rendering judgment on it. But I believe the way to approach literature is as an experience, not as a static set of principles or stand-alone abstractions. And I don’t want thoughts about gender politics to intrude on my experience of Shakespeare—especially when those thoughts are of such dubious merit. I want to avoid the experience of a gender-flipped production of Shakespeare because I believe scholarship should push us farther into literature—enhance our experience of it, make it more immediate and real—not cast us out of it by importing elements of political agendas and making us cogitate about some supposed implications for society of what’s going on before our eyes.
Regarding that political point, I see no contradiction in accepting, even celebrating, our culture’s gender roles while at the same time supporting equal rights for both genders. Sexism is a belief that one gender is inferior to the other. Demonstrating that people of different genders tend to play different roles in no way proves that either is being treated as inferior. As for objectification and over-sexualization, a moment’s reflection ought to make clear that the feminists are getting this issue perfectly backward. Physical attractiveness is one of the avenues through which women exercise power over men. Miranda Kerr got paid handsomely for that GQ cover. And what could be more arrantly hypocritical than Jennifer Lopez complaining about objectification in music videos? She owes her celebrity in large part to her willingness to allow herself to be objectified. The very concept of objectification is only something we accept from long familiarity--people are sexually aroused by other people, not objects.
I’m not opposed to having a discussion about gender roles and power relations, but if you have something to say, then say it. I’m not even completely opposed to discussing gender in the context of Shakespeare’s plays. What I am opposed to is people hijacking our experience of Shakespeare to get some message across, people toeing the line by teaching that literature is properly understood by “looking at it through the lens” of one or another well-intentioned but completely unsupported ideology, and people misguidedly making sex fraught and uncomfortable for everyone. I doubt I’m alone in turning to literature, at least in part, to get away from that sort of puritanism in church. Guilt-tripping guys and encouraging women to walk around with a chip on their shoulders must be one of the least effective ways to get people to respect each other more we've ever come up with.
But, when you guys do a performance of the original Shakespeare, you can count on me being there to experience it.
The link to this post on Facebook generated some heated commentary. Some were denials of ideological intentions on behalf of those putting on the event. Some were mischaracterizations based on presumed “traditionalist” associations with my position. Some made the point that Shakespeare himself played around with gender, so it should be okay for others to do the same with his work. In the end, I did feel compelled to attend the event because I had taken such a strong position. Having flipflopped and attended the event, I have to admit I enjoyed it. All the people involved were witty, charming, intellectually stimulating, and pretty much all-around delightful.
But, as was my original complaint, it was quite clear—and at two points explicitly stated—that the "experiment" entailed using the play as a springboard for a discussion of current issues like marriage rights. Everyone, from the cast to audience members, was quick to insist after the play that they felt it was completely natural and convincing. But gradually more examples of "awkward," "uncomfortable," or "weird" lines or scenes came up. Shannon Bischoff, a linguist one commenter characterized as the least politically correct guy I’d ever meet, did in fact bring up a couple aspects of the adaptation that he found troubling. But even he paused after saying something felt weird, as if to say, "Is that alright?" (Being weirded out about a 15 year old Romeo being pursued by a Juliet in her late teens was okay because it was about age not gender.)
The adapter himself, Jack Cant, said at one point that though he was tempted to rewrite some of the parts that seemed really strange he decided to leave them in because he wanted to let people be uncomfortable. The underlying assumption of the entire discussion was that gender is a "social construct" and that our expectations are owing solely to "stereotypes." And the purpose of the exercise was for everyone to be brought face-to-face with their assumptions about gender so that they could expiate them. I don't think any fair-minded attendee could deny the agreed-upon message was that this is a way to help us do away with gender roles—and that doing so would be a good thing. (If there was any doubt, Jack’s wife eliminated it when she stood up from her seat in the audience to say she wondered if Jack had learned enough from the exercise to avoid applying gender stereotypes to his nieces.) And this is exactly what I mean by ideology. Sure, Shakespeare played around with gender in As You Like It and Twelfth Night. But he did it for dramatic or comedic effect primarily, and to send a message secondarily—or more likely not at all.
For the record, I think biology plays a large (but of course not exclusive) part in gender roles, I enjoy and celebrate gender roles (love being a man; love women who love being women), but I also support marriage rights for homosexuals and try to be as accepting as I can of people who don't fit the conventional roles.
To make one further clarification: whether you support an anti-gender agenda and whether you think Shakespeare should be used as a tool for this or any other ideological agenda are two separate issues. I happen not to support anti-genderism. My main point in this post, however, is that ideology—good, bad, valid, invalid—should not play a part in literature education. Because, for instance, while students are being made to feel uncomfortable about their unexamined gender assumptions, they're not feeling uncomfortable about, say, whether Romeo might be rushing into marriage too hastily, or whether Juliet will wake up in time to keep him from drinking the poison—you know, the actual play.
Whether Shakespeare was sending a message or not, I'm sure he wanted first and foremost for his audiences to respond to the characters he actually created. And we shouldn't be using "lenses" to look at plays; we should be experiencing them. They're not treatises. They're not coded allegories. And, as old as they may be to us, every generation of students gets to discover them anew.
We can discuss politics and gender or whatever you want. There's a time and a place for that and it's not in a lit classroom. Sure, let's encourage students to have open minds about gender and other issues, and let's help them to explore their culture and their own habits of thought. There are good ways to do that—ideologically adulterated Shakespeare is not one of them.
Also read: The Objectionable Concept of Objectification