I am currently researching the spectacle of the female body in music theatre. It’s early days, but as soon as I realised that was what my theatre work was constantly questioning and interrogating, I suddenly understood so much of my practice as a whole. Much of my work has been an attempt to understand ‘female’ experience, which for me is intrinsically linked to my experience of living in a (cis) ‘female’ body. Most of the time this has required me to deal, on some level, with ‘female’ sexualities, simply because the sexual role of a female seems to come up when she is in the public eye, especially if she wants any sort of power. Just try now and think of a female identifying person in the public eye who has not had her sexuality or sexual potential commented on in the public arena, whether by herself or others. It’s really hard to do (and likely you won’t find it so hard if you consider men in the same situation). In music theatre contexts, I’m starting to think about how female bodies are used as spectacle – a concept that inevitably enables me to think about potentially problematic objectifications of women in musicals.
I wonder about these things because I’m sceptical of the ways female characters have been written – mostly because few are written by women. This is not to say men can’t write female characters, but in music theatre the ‘male gaze’ has been so blaringly apparent for so often. Whilst not all musicals will fail the Bechdel test, a great number do. There are dominant narratives in music theatre that give women few opportunities for lasting power or influence in the worlds they are written in. Even I have fallen into the trap of the dominant narratives already available to women. Ascent was initially only a story that tracked a woman’s ascent into oblivion, which meant a story about a woman so riddled with anxiety she destroyed herself through ‘self improvement’. Whilst this story is important and valid, we needed something positive if the show was to resonate with my sense of what feminism is: to create change for a new/different reality to exist (through political acts, which for me means theatre). We already know the story of the woman who drives herself ‘mad’ and/or to an early death trying to become what others expect of her – think of any female movie star or celebrity who dies a tragic life, just trying to find love, acceptance and becoming what others want her to be, whilst internalising problematic and impossible ideals to attain those things. In fact, that was a story we told through ‘Nude’ about Marilyn Monroe. With this project however, it became increasingly important that I was able to harness the power of music and theatre to tell a story that had some sense of hope for a better future, for a different way of conceiving of female bodies. This is where the body parts come in.
The story follows a woman as she goes from appointment to appointment, hoping the next procedure will help her feel ‘forever fresh’. As each body part is ‘improved’, it disappears for the audience. As she undergoes a pedicure for instance, her toes fly away into the void. The same goes for the haircut – as hair is snipped away, it flies off.
Now I’m not saying pedicures or haircuts are bad, but in this story it is part of the whole package of transformation where every inch of herself is changed. This is of course a theatrical metaphor that proposes the attainment of the ideal results in willingly giving up some of yourself. Such ideals inspire homogenous, fixed ideas of beauty. They can only exist for someone who sees everything that is not the ideal as a deviation that must be rectified, or at the very least, attempted.
So what happens to those toes once they fly away, or the hair once it has been cut off? In this story, they find a new life with the other discarded body parts. This might sound ridiculous - and it is. But it’s also charming and incredibly satisfying to see the intelligence of the body celebrated in an unusual way.
We are so used to seeing female body parts everywhere – legs selling movies, stomachs selling weightloss, breasts selling - well, just about anything. But we rarely see those body parts with any life, any semblance of personality or intelligence – they are objects used for a particular purpose. In this show, those body parts are the stars. They get the comedic moments, the celebratory moments and a joyous finale. The body parts also take on the role of other body parts, as I mentioned in the last blog. Below you can see a clip from a scene where 6 hands are used to create 2x breasts.
It is surprising and enchanting to see a variety of flesh coming together in this void to create these visual illusions. By doing this we are able to amplify moments, create giant versions of small body parts and contextualised by text, music and singing, illicit a strong emotional response. In this way, you could say that the body parts create spectacle – but in a way that is very different to how (female) body parts would create spectacle in a commercial musical.
I’m not saying it is terribly wrong for females to use their bodies for purposes of spectacle or their own or others’ enjoyment. That’s for the individual to decide. But what I’m interested in is expanding the possibilities for how females are presented and perceived in musical kinds of stories, so then as a society we can start to shift our ideas and expectations for what women can do, achieve and be part of.
I really hope you can come along to Ascent – if you do, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Feel free to tell us on social media what you thought, or comment below to continue the conversation.