Cultural representations are a central theme in our lives, as they reflect and influence how we perceive but also enact social norms. In the San Francisco Bay Area, theatres use (un)conventional gendered representations as a tool for community building.
Gender is everywhere
By clearly gendering the characters of their theatrical shows, artists (and the theatres supporting them) are acting on the cultural representations on gender that pervade our society. Indeed, as stated in Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of habitus, people will perceive and generate social and cultural norms according to schemes acquired during long processes of socialization and acculturation. By reproducing the representations they are used to or consciously challenging them, cultural producers are either protecting the status quo or either changing how gendered roles are perceived on a social scale. Studying the shows of four middle-sized San Francisco Bay Area theatres and looking for answers about whether or not characters were clearly gendered, whether their representation either reproduced or challenged stereotypical gendered norms and what this tells us about theatres’ perception of gendered roles, three categories of gendered representations stand out: male, female and queer -queer people being the ones that neither identify as male or female (they can be in between, both or neither).
Universal males and passive females
Theater characters attend to not only represented according to a binary system of male and female but are also often schematically associated with specific values: universality and passivity. When characters are used to reflect on the condition of a human group in general, they will usually be males. This can for instance be seen in the Marin Theatre Company’s show My Mañana Comes. In this show about the delusions of the American dream and working class solidarity we meet a group of four immigrant ‘busboys’ working in a restaurant. By only using the experience of male characters to criticize American social issues we thus get the impression that male experiences are the norm and can be seen as universal, which erases the specificity of female and queer people’s lives. As emphasized by Lord, this amounts to monoculture, that is to say the idea that a major sub-group is enough to represent society at large. “The simple belief that in representing white experience one is “representing everyone” creates a particular gravity that the arts field now finds itself pulling against clumsily,” the author says applying to race and whiteness a notion that can also be transposed to gender.
Moreover, even when females are present in cultural productions, this raises other issues. This is for example the case with the Theatre Light Company’s show Build. Indeed, the play presents ‘two hotshots in video game design’ (gendered as male) who decide to code an artificial intelligence program (gendered as female). By making the program female and only presenting her in passive postures in the publicity photos -while the two males are are shown as active- the show presents its female character as an object, created for and by men. The stated gender and the presentation of the characters thus reproduces common gendered stereotypes, with males being in charge of the scientific work while women are objectified for their sake.
However, some productions are also able to stage gendered characters in unusual or controversial ways. For instance, with Top Girls, Shotgun players only features female characters to talk about the difficulty to succeed as a woman in the professional world. By seing females in roles traditionally attributed to both men and women (with among other a female warrior, a religious head or a courtesan, for instance) we get the impression that women are celebrated as a diverse and strong group, whose gender does not dictate the activities and roles. This way of consciously subverting gendered representations can be part of a theater company’s strategy: indeed, this will be a way to appeal to a public whom have thought about these issues and are looking for shows that are doing the same. Clearly staging gendered characters can both thus become a political, an artistic and a commercial strategy.
An opposite strategy can also be used to challenge gendered norms, as can be seen with Ray of Light Theater’s version of The Rocky Horror Picture show. This show is particularly interesting since no characters are clearly gendered in the synopsis and we can only refer to the photos in which various characters of ambiguous gender expression appear. By choosing not to differentiate their characters with the use of different gender expression elements (like different clothes or make up for females only) and not using any gendered terms the company tries to appeal both to the queer community and to people looking for bold and original gendered representations.
Finally, a last interesting example can be found in the City Light Theater show’s Dr Jekyll and Mister Hyde, whose presentation mentions that ‘One of the Hydes is even played by a woman.’ Even if the character is clearly gendered as male, the fact that a woman plays one of its versions (there are four Hydes in the show) proves the company’s desire to subvert gendered norms by staging characters of ambiguous gender expression.
Community building through protest
In the end, there are two specific trends in the way theatres are presenting their shows. On the one hand, some theatres reproduce stereotypical gender norms and gender is left unstated, since those representations are usually staged without being consciously reflected upon. On the other hand, some theatres consciously chall
enge those norms. This element will often clearly stated as it is used both as a commercial and political strategy.
With these elements in mind, we can see that some theatres are consciously subverting gender norms in order to attract spectators who have reflected on this question. As stated by the sociologist Shibutani community thus emerges ‘through participation in common communication channels’ as both theaters and their members are linked by their desire to consider gendered roles differently. In the end the theatre world becomes a place of constant negotiation, in which social constructions and the desire for innovation constantly collide. Community building thus emerges through the rejection of common cultural codes, as some theatres are able to use bold cultural representations as a tool for discussion and change.