“Representation of women with power are as problematic as representations of women without, mostly because they are written and directed by men.”
My friend and film critic, Adam Nayman in passing.
When I went to see Michael Healey’s Proud at the GCTC this fall, I brought a young, female NDP MP who was elected in Quebec during the 2011 ‘Orange Wave.’ As a playwright, who more recently also has a career as a legislative assistant for two different female NDP MPs, I thought the play would be a fun distillation of my two passions – a perfect social excursion for me and my boss.
I vaguely knew that the play was about an MP such as her, elected under similar circumstances. I was proud to show her that people from my world (Canadian Theatre) were already immortalizing her in our art. I also knew the play enjoyed some lefty cred for having been de-programmed from the Tarragon Theatre’s season, presumably because it was about Stephen Harper, and the PMO has allegedly interfered with federal funding for theatre they disapprove of in the past.
After watching the play I was mortified and my MP guest was horrified. She turned to me flatly and said: “That was the most misogynist thing I’ve seen.” Given her exposure to misogyny and sexism since her election, that is saying a lot.
I’m a political playwright who loves to use and abuse public figures in my work. My lawyer father constantly warns me that someone is going to sue me for libel one day, and I don’t care. I feel utterly entitled to use real people and stories in my writing. I loved that Healey was taking on Harper. I even loved that he was using the details of Ruth-Ellen Brosseau, MP Berthier-Maskinonge, to write a political play. How aux courant!
My problem with Proud is not about the hurt feelings of the women I work with. The question of whether the play is libelous is beside the point. The play also completely ignores the NDP’s existence as a political force, which breaks my partisan heart, but that is definitely beside the point.
The point is this:
Throughout history, women in positions of power have made people very uncomfortable. This has empowered a stereotype of a woman who is as sexually manipulative as she is thirsty for inappropriate power. Healey’s character Jisbella Lyth, may be based on the shamefully recent phenomenon of young women in Parliament, but there is nothing new about the stereotype we are presented with.
When women do masculine things, like have confidence and wield power, they are disturbing deeply engrained gender norms. The “Ah ha!” moment of Proud comes when we realize that Jisbella has been lusting not just for sex, but for political capital since the beginning of the play. It turns out that she’s not as dumb as she seems and has been fooling the men in the play in order to climb into cabinet faster than she deserves. I think this revelation is supposed to make her character seem less sexist because she’s smart and she wins. But she doesn’t win by demonstrating that she’s a competent politician. She wins by distracting men, through seduction, while performing feminine idiocy and pliability. This doesn’t make her a feminist role model, like real female politicians are, it just makes her a sneaky bitch. The phrase: “She fucked her way to the top.” Has been dogging successful women since… Well, at least since the 80’s. And I’m sure every era had it’s own to explain away professional women.
Women with a large appetite for success have always been regarded with suspicion so people dismiss them using sex. There is nothing novel about Jisbella Lyth from a cultural perspective. From Lady Macbeth, to the femmes fatale of Noir Fiction to more modern day film examples of Basic Instinct or Working Girl, when women have a decent amount of power in a movie, book or play it’s always attached to her sexuality. Even more problematic, is the fact her brazen, near masculine sexuality, almost always functions to mask a deep emptiness felt by the character. We get a sniff of this from Jisbella’s monologue about her unexamined libertarian beliefs when she talks about her parents abandoning her. While this isn’t directly related to her fairly unrealistic desire to fuck all the men she meets indiscriminately, it does account for the nihilism that some men might imagine would account for that behaviour.
Also present is that other shitty stereotype about single, disadvantaged mothers being slutty and ridiculous. When Jisbella bursts in to the PMO searching for condoms the joke is only funny because a young, working class female should never find herself an accidental politician. Someone who used to manage a restaurant isn’t fit to represent a fictional suburban (maybe rural?) Quebec riding. Why would a 50-year-old lawyer be a more appropriate, less hilarious, choice for the good people of Cormier-Lac-Poule?
At this point I should disclose that when I saw, on election night in May 2011, that a bunch of university age kids had unexpectedly won their seats in Quebec, my first reaction was they were not qualified. It took me a few hours and a stern scolding from my (younger) boyfriend to recognize my attitude was ageist and that young people should be in Parliament to represent, you know… young people. So I certainly forgive Healey for having a chuckle at the expense of the newly elected NDP youth caucus. However, I’m having a hard time forgiving sexist stereotypes from a 21st century playwright.
The young women I work for encounter implicit and explicit examples of sexism and misogyny, almost on a daily basis in their workplace. It’s such a common occurrence that it takes some effort for them not to become numb to it. Inside of every snide, inappropriate comment is the insinuation that they don’t have the right to occupy the space they consume in the halls of power. One of them once said to me: “They are all wondering who I slept with to get this gig.” Thank you, Proud, for being the unhelpful play that illustrates exactly who such women might be sleeping with.
I went home and scoured the reviews of Proud after I saw it. They were mostly positive. None of the lukewarm ones called out the play’s gender dynamics. A few lefty political staffers who I worked with saw it and disliked it for not being left-wing enough. No one was quite as angry as I am about Jisbella Lyth. But maybe this is because there aren’t many feminist playwrights who also work on Parliament Hill.
So there you have it. Speaking of shitty female stereotypes, I’m the feminist who can’t take the joke.