Songs for the Struggling Artist

The Sexy Lie on Stage
February 9, 2013, 3:47 pm
Filed under: art, feminism, theatre

This week a friend invited me along to see a student matinee of The Mystery of Edwin Drood on Broadway. In thinking about what I saw, I have found that the production taught me something – but not what I would have expected.
Aside from the repugnant casting of white actors in brownface in Asian roles, (much more has been said and should be said and check it out here,) I was preoccupied (surprise, surprise) by the roles of the women in the production.
I was delighted to see 8 women on stage. It’s telling that even when the women are outnumbered (by 4) that that still feels like a whole lot of ladies. However only 4 of those had any discernible character and one of those was playing a man. Fine. Whatever. I’m glad to see a woman at the center of a show no matter what gender she’s playing.
But what’s stuck in my craw is the costuming. With only one exception, all of the women appeared in their underwear (of varying levels of coverage) at some point. This made me think about power and clothing. Basically, I realized, the more clothes a character wore, the more status/power they had. The chorus boys wore long pants and long sleeve shirts with vests over them. The Mayor wore a long topcoat and there were varying degrees of coat and jacket layers in between, depending.
The woman with the most status (the one playing the man) was also in a coat and pants, fully covered until she lost that status. The women with the least status (the chorus girls) opened the show in varying stages of undress and then did a dance number in even less underwear. Two women with status (Edwin Drood and the ingenue) were both stripped to their undergarments during the course of the show but their underwear had a great deal more coverage than their lower status counterparts. The only woman we didn’t see in her underwear was the one who was the most explicitly sexual – one who seems to have been a prostitute. And I suspect that the reason this character did not appear in her underwear is because she’s played by an actor (Chita Rivera) who has status in real life and you just don’t put a grande dame in her skivvies.
Men in coats, women in their underwear. And it’s not just this show. If it were, this theory that coverage equals status would be pretty useless but I’ve seen men in their coats and women in their underwear so many times, it seems totally normal. Watch an episode of Boardwalk Empire, for example. There is something about how much skin a character reveals and the status of that person in society. I think this happens to men of color on our stages as well.
And hey – I’m not objecting to people in their underwear in general. I like a sexy outfit as much as the next person (I’d totally wear many of the undergarments the ladies were wearing in Edwin Drood, even!) but the imbalance is a clear reflection of a giant skewing of power. If ALL of the characters walked around in their underclothes, men and women, it would be a whole other ball of wax. But they almost never do. So, like almost everything, the women are valuable for being sex objects and the men for their personalities.
But isn’t it empowering to be a sexy woman in a sexy outfit?!
Well, watch this talk by Caroline Heldman. It’s called The Sexy Lie and in it, she breaks down exactly why being an object is not empowering. (See also, this Onion article.) Being sexually empowered is about having desires, not just being desired.
There’s a lot of confusion on this point in our world and I’m a little bit weary of it, particularly in my chosen field of theatre. And I get all the arguments about historical accuracy and such but I would like to see more things like this meme of the Hawkeye Initiative that help us see the water we’ve been swimming in all these years. And maybe, I might like to see a show sometime, just for fun, in which the 12 women get to wear the coats and the 8 men flirt with the audience in skimpy underwear.


2 Comments so far
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Great observations, as always. I remember seeing Diane Paulus’ Donkey Show and being struck by the ratio of sexualized men to women. Totally different genre, of course, but it made me notice the normed hetero male erotic gaze and how it shapes costuming, casting, and even storytelling. Paulus is one to watch–her Pippin manages to eroticize the chorus men and women without through their circus skills instead of their skin. (Though the script itself is pretty regressive.)

Comment by Colin

Interesting! (Did I respond to your comment elsewhere? Feel like I meant to but can’t remember.) Pippin is here now. I’m not sure I’ll be able to stomach the ladies’ songs but maybe I should give it a shot, since so many people I know are fans of it!

Comment by erainbowd

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