I’ve been talking and thinking a lot lately about feminism and feminist actions. Most vividly, the topic came up around a play I wrote (Because I Am Your Queen). From the beginning, I wanted to create and foster a feminist project that empowered women both in its development and doing, as well as in its content.
In other words, I wanted a play that practiced what it preached, without preaching, of course (I hope)! What are feminist practices in the creation of a play? In its production? In its rehearsal process?
For that matter, what are feminist practices full stop? Canadians, for example, have been wrestling lately with the question of what constitutes a feminist government.
One might not think that a man from the 17thcentury would have much to say about feminism. Without intending to, Jean de La Fontaine once again provides a framework for our thinking with one of his fables.
An envoy from the Turkish Sultan, so the story goes, preferred the singular authority of his ruler to the widespread powers of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, where he was visiting.
A German said to him: Our Emperor has his dependents, each of whom are so powerful in their own right, that they could support a full army of their own.
The envoy, a man of sense, said: I know by their renown what each prince can offer by way of forces. This reminds me of a strange, but true, adventure I had. I was in a secure place, when I saw the one hundred heads of a hydra passing above a hedgerow. My blood turned to ice. As frightened as I was, I experienced only the fear, without the injury. The animal’s body could never have come near me, nor even found an opening in the hedge. How could it with so many heads and even more eyes pointed in different directions?
I was thinking back on this adventure when another dragon, with only one head, and many more tails, passed by. There I was, once more seized with astonishment and terror. The head passed and the body and every tail. Nothing got in their way. One led the way for all the others. These same truths apply with your Emperor and ours.
Four and a half centuries later, the multi-headed dragon of the Austro-Hungarian Empire is now our global community divided up into the separate heads of our outmoded nation states. As politics sways right, the dragon’s many heads spit fiery “us” and “them” rhetoric. These so-called strongmen rulers (not that they necessarily need be men) aim to divide. They thrive on polarization.
Capitalism, too, follows this model: A system structured to exaggerate “have” and “have not”; to distance wealth from poverty; to prioritize financial status and prey on our weaknesses. The dragon with many heads is all the separate egos vying for attention and thus control in our capitalist system. Heads that are so filled with arrogance, in some cases, that they literally want to download their brains to computers and cryogenically freeze their bodies for reanimation when science catches up to their hyper-ego desires for immortality. Some couch their egoism in terms of generosity. As in, I’m so incredible, how can the world do without me? This ego-driven structure bleeds over into artistic pursuits, where we prioritize and praise the so-called genius, the diva, and the auteur. While these categories and behaviors are not the exclusive domain of men, they are what we traditionally think of as masculinist ways of being.
As you may have guessed from my opening paragraph, what we call feminist principles are symbolized by the many-tailed dragon, which dragon-ifies the power of collective wisdom and of servant leadership.
To set aside ego is not to shut down our right to take pride in excellence or our ambition. But, that ambition has a crucial collective element, a “sisterhood” that we think of as feminist in our current culture.
An aside: In a pre-feminist structure, the ego-free collective would have been described as humanist. Unfortunately, many humanists defined the category of humans narrowly or unequally. I dream of a post-identity-politics world in which we move beyond humanism and feminism, to think together even more broadly as “beingists”, a term that includes all that is living and for which we have stewardship responsibility in a more equitable, expansive future. For now, I will continue using the term feminism.
In an interview with Krista Tippett, Frances Kissling, a longstanding activist, whose hallmark is bridging differences in the abortion debate, talks about “the need to approach others with enthusiasm for difference”. She is talking about the enormous political gulfs in the United States, but this same practice is essential in any collective process. Kissling makes it clear that she is not talking about finding common ground, something she doesn’t believe in. Rather, she encourages dialogue with the goal of gaining a better understanding of whyan “other” believes what they do, without the pressure of having to come to an agreement. This is how we humanize one another, by seeing and listening.
That’s why the circle—the literal, actual circle, which we sit in together, where we can see everyone—is where we learn to listen; where we are, in our turn, seen and heard. We think of the circle, too, as a feminist practice, but the council circle is an ancient cultural model from societies less preoccupied by ego, less exclusively dominated by what we think of as the masculine traits.
Once we humanize (being-ize) one another, trust grows and with it the potential to create together, whether we are creating art or a new world. Our very ability to disagree enables new thinking, new seeing, new being. And all this seeing and listening happens from behind, from below and from within. This is the process by which the knowledge of the many tails nurtures the wisdom of the collective head. Nurture—another word that’s long associated with feminist principles.
To gain wisdom without shutting down curiosity (an expression I heard Katherine Profeta use in a different context at a theatre-making workshop)—there lies the highest goal of any collaborative endeavor. The first-ever photograph of a black hole captures in an image what such a collective can achieve. Generated by a many-tailed collaborative of scientists and their telescopes around the globe, the Event Horizon Telescope partnership, the photograph is a magnificent manifestation of an ongoing cycle of curiosity and wisdom-building, of a feminist process.
Because I Am Your Queen was an extended creative collaboration with an evolving collective of women artists (and some excellent men, too!). Though I took responsibility for the writing, we generated material together in a curiosity-fueled exploration of all the theatrical elements (movement, rhythm, text, lights, sound, props, and so on). The director of the first production at Illinois Theatre, and lead deviser during the earliest days, Barbara Pitts McAdams, worked with a “feminist rehearsal process thought partner”. Yes, that’s a thing and Christine Young was a fantastic guide.
So, I circle back to how I opened this piece: What is feminist and how does a 17thcentury fable help us frame our answer?
The best of feminist process is a many-tailed dragon: collective, collaborative, circular, cyclical, nurturing, in-service, generative, co-creative, ego-free, curious and wise.
A process that is a dragon indeed; still sleepy, but waking slowly to the power of its own possibility. Let’s give the powerful beast some dragon coffee. Commit to feminist process in all that we do!
For other feminist insights I’ve extracted from JDLF: Put Women Back In The Story and Power: The Lioness’ Funeral, Women, Time To Take Off The Sheep Outfit and Hola, Women! — Put Down Your Sticks: The Donkey and The Little Dog.
And, I can’t resist adding a recommendation for the latest, kickass eco-feminist warrior film I’ve seen: Woman At War. See it!
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