Only Heartbroken Women are True Artists

‘women in music are allowed to be singer songwriters singing about their boyfriends . if they change the subject matter to atoms , galaxies , activism , nerdy math beat editing or anything else than being performers singing about their loved ones they get criticized’

Björk recently wrote a powerful Facebook status welcoming the winter solstice and damning the misogynistic music industry. In her post she talks about how her recent DJ set was reviewed compared to how her male peers were reviewed. A large majority of the reviewers said she ‘hid behind the desk’ and was not really ‘performing’, a criticism that, yes you’ve guessed it, her male counterparts did not receive. I don’t think she was surprised by this. No working female artist is surprised by misogyny anymore, it’s kind of a given, and at first I sadly kind of saw it as non-news. But after I read her status, I started to think about it differently. She was saying that women are often not legitimised in their art form until they are heartbroken.  As women, ‘if we dont cut our chest open and bleed about the men and children in our lives we are cheating our audience .’ And I think this is actually a really pertinent issue which we don’t think about enough.

It took me less than two minutes to think of recent examples in theatre. It took me another thirty seconds to think of some examples in art. This is something I haven’t thought about properly until right now and it’s now all I can think about. Because it’s not just about sexist reviewers. It’s about how we (or don’t, in fact) legitimise female performance.

To start – Yerma. I kind of feel like I can’t really pass judgement on this one because I didn’t see it but I read a lot of reviews on it and also I know the play. Billie Piper is one of the hottest picks of 2016 for all the ‘Best Female Performance’ awards. It’s widely agreed she gave a stunning performance as a woman heartbroken for her non-existent child, her lost lover, her neglectful husband. So many of the press photos surrounding the show were of Piper sprawled on the floor, broken and maddened with grief. I have no doubt she gave a wonderful performance, but I think it’s worth asking, as Björk does, whether we gave it more thought, more visibility, because she was so brutally torn apart by love and by men. Or perhaps this was not the reason why we legitimised it more, but it was a certainly a factor in why the performance was so well-received. There was a small backlash about the sexism of the play but widely it was dismissed because it was a good show, right? And that’s what the original story was, so it’s not like someone’s written something new and sexist, they’re just reviving an old sexist thing. Anyway, not the point, the point is we put, are putting, Piper on a pedestal because of her performance of heartbreak. It’s the same problem with the Medea’s, the Ophelia’s, the Blanche DuBois’s – according to our view of the great roles for women, we are only really performing when we’re broken.

It’s not just theatre. It’s in music, art, poetry – nearly every art form has this problem when it comes to legitimising female voices. In art, take Marina Abramović, one of the artworld’s strongest, most controversial figures and yet her most watched Youtube video is when she breaks down in tears in front of her ex-partner – Ulay. It has 14 million views where her other videos, where she talks about her art, have at most 500,000 views. She is one of the artists I respect most and yet that was how I first heard about her. When I was in sixth form I ran a workshop based on her practices in class for about an hour. I would say one of the only times everyone was really moved and engaged was when I talked about that video and her release of emotion. It really saddens me because her art is above everything about control and her most infamous moment is a loss of control.

This obsession with heartbroken women rears it head again in the poetry we read. Sylvia Plath is one of our most celebrated female poets, and one of our most infamous. Again I knew about her relationship with Ted Hughes and the nature of her death and heartbreak before I knew about Tulips, now one of my favourite poems. She is recognised because of her tragedy, not only her illness but the relationship with the men in her life, she was broken hearted because of Ted and because of her father. And, if you think this is exaggerated at all – I googled ‘great female poets’ and one of the first names to appear was Plath, and alongside it were her main ideas and themes – ‘Death, motherhood etc’. Whereas when I googled ‘great (male) poets’ the first to appear was Wordsworth whose main themes couldn’t wait to announce themselves – ‘Nature, the self, the body’. Notice a difference?

I could honestly go on about this for pages and pages, there are countless examples in all the art forms. I do think a lot of people will disagree with this but it’s just what I’ve been thinking about. Do we legitimise the performance of female heartbreak, of the broken and grieving woman, over other kinds of female performance? Do women need to bleeding and crying to be considered worth hearing, watching, or reading?

I want you to prove me wrong, I really do. But just before you jump on this, I think it’s worth asking whether these were just coincidences or whether this is something we need to think about.

Björk certainly thinks we do but she also wants us to move forward into a more positive and inclusive 2017. I want that too.

The opposite of an end of year list

I don’t have anything against end of year lists. I really don’t. I have my top albums of the year and my top ten songs of the year clearly laid out in my head and I might even tweet about them if you’re lucky. But I’m just going to be annoying and share a few albums that I’ve only started listening to this month instead of over the whole year and that I really really like. I think that’s acceptable – right? Maybe not, but I’m doing it anyway.

Please show me your anti-end of year lists too, would love to see what you’ve found recently.

5. Teens of Denial – Car Seat Headrest

These guys are elusive. I feel like I should already know them and simultaneously that no-one should ever know them. They’re the kind of band that will never be famous,.  Not because they’re not good enough, that’s just not their vibe. It’s very chilled out, but really intellectual (love that) and also manages to sustain interest even though the songs are LONG and to the untrained ear, all kind of the same. Anyway, they’re super cool and are a good antidote to the relentless Buble being played.

 

4. Awaken, My Love! – Childish Gambino

In case anyone didn’t realise before, Donald Glover is an actual god amongst us. This album affirms is place amongst the best. It’s new and in true Gambino style it is completely different to what has come before. This album shows off his actually pretty out-of-this world voice and there’s basically no rap. He’s typically unpredictable and intimidatingly multi-faceted. One to watch, to keep watching, to bow down to. Also particularly in love with his Prince-esque Fallon performance. So elusive.

 

3. Varmints – Anna Meridith

Have you ever heard a more drama/theatre/cinematic album? Probably not because this one is spectacular. It’s just that – dramatic, intense, skillfully crafted and poetic. A very very cool album shown to me a by very very cool friend. I listen to it on the train and I feel very powerful. (also a very awesome music video)

 

2. Puberty 2/Bury Me at Makeout Creek – Mitski

Ahhh she’s so cool I really really love these albums and her. She has an entertaining and highly relatable twitter account as well. Would highly recommend. Anyway, the album fulfills all those dreamy American summer fantasies. Her music is hazy and lovely. I have been listening non-stop.

 

My number one is three special mentions.

  • Starboy – The Weekend
  • My Woman – Angel Olsen
  • Don’t You – Wet

Learning to Die Better

Thoughts on The Children, Escaped Alone and Ecological Disaster

If you’re not going to grow, don’t live.

That’s what Hazel says and that’s what she believes. We believe her.

So I want to chat about James Macdonald for just a second. His two shows at the Royal Court in the past year, Escaped Alone and The Children, asked how we might best learn to cope and die in our old age in the apocalyptic imminence of our world. When Escaped Alone entered theatres in February of this year, it was highly praised for the age of the women on stage. We never see older women as the front runners of plays that are new, explosive, and unsettling. Linda Basset’s periodical and unfiltered documentations created a disquieting show. Churchill’s display of a dying world seen through surreal bifocal lenses asked us what we were willing to accept. Can we accept our mortality? The mortality of our planet? Are we prepared to take responsibility for the consequences, in our back gardens no less? Perhaps we find the answers in The Children.

Lucy Kirkwood presents her aging characters with a moral choice – choose to die for the ‘greater good’ or wait to die for the children, because they need you. Again, we are put in a domestic setting much like our own, except it’s a bit crooked (literally the set was titled). The cows are dead, Ken is dead, the wave came, the ground cracked; things are not as they were. And yet there is denial and a refusal to accept that what has happened, and what is happening, is going to affect how we live and die. We still do yoga, we still drink tea, we still bicker – because what else can we do? And then Rose, an outsider, an intruder, a different kind of person all together, disrupts us. When she presents Hazel and Robin, and us, with her proposal we are caught off guard. Is it our responsibility? Must we rectify what we have destroyed? Because, like Hazel said, they’re the kind of people that cleaned up other people rubbish on picnic sites and now they’ve earned it. They’ve earned the right to leave the mess and they’re tired of this shit. Kirkwood asks us then, essentially, are you prepared to pick up your rubbish and die for it? Because you were the ones that dropped it in the first place, right? I saw glimpses of Churchill in Kirkwood’s writing – the jumps between talk of tea and talk of catastrophe was seamless but there was a shift. What Churchill elongated and examined in Escaped Alone, Kirkwood condensed and put in a ticking clock world. So, what are we going to do?

But actually the question becomes not what are we going to do, but what are you going to do. You, the elusive, conservative older generation that voted for Brexit, that uses nuclear power, that created a system that fucks us – how are you going to fix it? When the shows are watched with these questions floating in the back of your brain, The Children becomes an angry piece of political theatre – pointing fingers and asking who’s going to clean this up? But maybe they’ve done enough and they shouldn’t have to sacrifice themselves? It’s so hard to answer this question, all these questions, because it is happening to us right now. There have been waves and leaks – it just hasn’t happened here yet so for us, for the ones watching the show, it’s not real. Not yet. I’ve been doing a lot of research lately about the Anthropocene and ecocritical thinking and the question that I keep coming back to is, what can we actually do? I think writing literature and plays and making art about the declining state of our planet and our species is important and it’s also futile.

I kind of like that though – it’s futile and if we draw attention to that and ask what is really going to be done, then maybe we can make change? But would we or anyone we know sacrifice themselves to try and salvage our planet? I’m not sure they would, or even if I would. And that is so scary. So we need to learn to die better. We need to learn to accept our own mortality and the impending mortality of this earth if we are complacent. It’s too overwhelming to think about the destruction of our entire species but we need to, and we need, like Macdonald, Churchill, and Kirkwood, to think of death as not something to resist, but simply an inconvenience.

A Response. From a young and unpaid critic (or theatre blogger – up to you)

Right. I’m writing a response. And maybe no one will read it but what the hell, I’m putting off my first summative 3,500 word uni essay and this seems like worthwhile procrastination.

For those who are unaware, Matt Trueman posted an article in The Stage today about the decline of theatre blogging.

So I have a done a bit of blogging and bit of criticism here and there, some NSDF stuff, some unpaid online newspapers, some reviews on here that only my parents read…But I wouldn’t say I am an established theatre blogger. I haven’t been doing it for a long time but I have seen as many shows as I can and I have really really loved it.

I’m not paid for this and I have personally always felt like I’ve never wanted to be paid for it. When I was 16 I knew that I could and wanted to write about theatre but I didn’t want to be a “critic”. Being a “critic” meant that you went to shows you weren’t always passionate about, you had to meet gruelling deadlines, and you were surrounded by musty middle-aged men. In no world did that sound appealing. What I wanted (and I hope many other bloggers want) was to get really angry about theatre – so angry that all I could think about on the train home was how to form that first sentence about the mindnumbingly  patriarchal binaries of that show which got press because it had a celebrity in it. Or get so inspired by a show that I write a blog about it, and then I write a play inspired by it, and then I see more shows like it and all I can think about is how theatre is this incredibly visceral art form that requires you to respond. I wanted to experience again and again how liveness of theatre makes it unavoidable to have some kind of response.

But often, that response is filtered, or edited, or set back in some way once the writer decides it needs to be put out into the world. There’s a kind of struggle over whether your review will be ironic and funny, or heartfelt, or scathing, or profound – and where does it fit into the blogosphere? Has someone already said what you want to say, and have they said it better and have they been paid for it? Is your passionate outburst somehow less legitimate now? Is your review an artform in itself, and does it, therefore, have to be carefully constructed? Might you have the opportunity to work with these artists later on and therefore you can’t say what you really think? I constantly rattle these questions around in my little echo chamber of a brain but come to no real conclusion. And then, because of that, the review sometimes doesn’t get written. I don’t think that’s the problem for everyone and I don’t think that’s my only problem, but I think it is a contributing factor.

So, Matt, I think there is more to this than simply that the blogs are fading away. From my perspective anyway, there’s kind of a ‘standard’ you have to be at to be considered a theatre blogger – maybe your review was retweeted by Andrew Haydon (nice, you’re in), maybe you were followed by @TheStage (good one), or maybe you were mentioned in an article about the decline of theatre blogs… Anyway for young critics this can often seem intimidating and impenetrable. Also, Matt talked about how the conversation doesn’t seem as fraught anymore, and everyone is stepping away from criticism to their real life jobs in theatre (?) but maybe they just got kind of, complacent? Because the lack of debate in the sphere has as much to do with the readers as it does with the critics. Maybe it’s not about getting critics more passionate its about getting people to read and legitimise that passion.

Then, as also mentioned by Matt, there is the Bloggers vs Critics argument which has kind of died out as well. I disagree – I think that generally people think that if you’re paid you’re a critic, if you’re not you’re a blogger. I actually think that if you’re unpaid you’re more likely to be a critic – less constrained by press releases and the deadlines and the strict guidelines of what to say and what not to say. Again, why I always said I never wanted to become a ‘Theatre Critic’.

Also – it feels kind of disheartening to see an article like the one in The Stage today. I kind of am constantly feeling like I just missed the bandwagon – the amazing companies that came out of my university are just a little old for me to know and be involved with. And now I’ve missed the criticism bandwagon too? I’m not so sure. I think there’s still time for the game to be changed. Maybe there is some truth in the article – there most likely is a lot of truth in it. But I hope this new, snapchatting generation of kids can fight back. And who knows, maybe this will get retweeted by someone important and then what, I’ll become someone worth listening to? Or just someone who now happens to be on your radar, and is therefore worth reading?