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Features Essays Published 26 February 2016

Florence Keith-Roach: “Why is feminism only palatable in the mouths of rich, beautiful celebrities?”

Ahead of her play Eggs at Vaults Festival, Florence Keith-Roach talks feminism and the dangers of remaining silent.

Florence Keith-Roach
Florence Keith-Roach and Amani Zardoe in Eggs

Florence Keith-Roach and Amani Zardoe in Eggs. Credit Lily Ashley.   feminism

We took Eggs up to the Edinburgh Free Fringe for a work-in-progress run last August. To promote our show in the mad mosh pit that is the Royal Mile, we, like everyone else, trailed around the city with flyers, banners, even a boom box blasting out 90s dance. Our play was billed as being about female friendship, there were two women on the flyer and our team were entirely female. None of this felt particularly extraordinary to me.

During one flyering session, a middle-aged, red faced, balding man – reminiscent of most members of the entertainment industry, to which he purported to belong – approached two members of our team. He was, he told them, offended by our play. It was clear to him, apparently, that it was sexist towards men. And the fact that the youngest member of our team was walking around in a mini- skirt while promoting a show about feminism was, to him, a patent sign she was arrogant, superfluous and clearly inviting provocation. He added, that if he met her in a bar wearing a skirt like that, “she would get what was coming to her.” I assume that what he thought was coming to her was him. But as I wasn’t there, I can’t be sure. Never before has a corduroy skirt from GAP incited so much fury.

When they recounted this incident, they were angry and saddened, but ultimately were able to laugh off this psychopathic episode. But the next day, I unwillingly also stumbled into this man. One look at our flyer and he launched into a tirade about the stupid little girls who were putting on this play – oh so hostile to men in its absence of them – and proudly recounted to me how he had rebuked one particularly precocious one. I explained that I was the stupid, silly girl who had written the play and we engaged in a full-throttle shouting match. He was so, so angry at our apparent, “careless arrogance and audacity.” Oh to be walking around promoting a play about women dressed in skirts!

Decked in a terribly daring, ankle-baring skirt, I made a stab at restraint and eloquence. I tried to keep calm. But being ticked off by this balling misogynist was just a little too bothersome, and our shrills escalated. My fist might have started to clench were it not for an elderly couple tapping me on the shoulder. Shamed into silence, I noticed for the first time where we were, how loud we were being and all the gawping faces looking up at us. The elderly couple asked, in hushed polite tones, if they could have a flyer to my play as, ‘contrary to what this man is saying, it sounds rather interesting.’ Their generosity saved me and I left the steaming bloke with my eyes stinging, much to my frustration. We never saw each other again, but I spent much of the remainder of the festival fantasising about Western style shoot outs to the sounds of Cher’s Believe on the Royal Mile.

I tell this anecdote, not only because oversharing is what I love to do most, but also because, although though he seemed a special sort of misanthrope, this man and his attitude were actually quite exemplary. His behaviour provided a particularly clear iteration of the discomfort that is provoked by powerful, contradictory, irreverent women in the world, in the workplace, not to speak of on the stage. Many people experience far worse prejudice in their daily lives. Although I was lucky enough to be able to take this incident with a pinch of salt, it made me realise how important it is to engage fully in trying to shift the normalised, everyday discrimination that is rife in our society: be it gender-related, class-based or racially motivated.

Though this seems like a no-brainer, it’s important to emphasise that there is a fear connected to speaking out, to think about what this fear entails and how to overcome it. A fear I felt after the skirt-baiting man incident, when performing my intimate two hander on a tiny stage, with ten people in the audience. In our online world, too, women who put their head in any way above the media parapet and engage publicly in these debates receive regular vitriol from vicious, anonymous trolls. Female comedians such as Lena Dunham and Kate Southwaite have spoken about the normality of receiving hundreds of rape threat emails in their inboxes everyday. Though the internet is rife with hate, this particular brand of violent misogyny belies a far more sinister undercurrent to our society’s attitude to women. And it makes one wary of rocking the boat too much. Which is exactly where these sort of people, the cyberspace trolls and meatspace skirt-baiters, want us. In her essay, Transformation of Silence in Language and Action, activist and poet Audre Lorde writes about the importance of overcoming our fears and speaking out because, ‘while we wait in silence for that final luxury of fearlessness, the weight of that silence will choke us.’ It is in this spirit, that I formulate these thoughts.

‘“The personal is political,” from it I learned that even the most intimate individual concerns, those that are most extraneous to the public sphere, are influenced by politics; that is to say, by that complicated, pervasive, irreducible thing that is power and its uses.’ – Elena Ferrante. The route to my own consciousness of this idea was a meandering one. Better late than never. I began writing Eggs to confront questions and predicaments that at the time felt personal and singular. I was lonely, unemployed, disappointed and uneasy about my future.

Eggs at Vaults Festival

Eggs at Vaults Festival. Credit Lily Ashley.

So far so solipsistic. This was aggravated by the phenomenon of entering my late twenties and being bombarded with more and more information about my biological clock (how do those pop-up adverts know when to suddenly appear and terrorise?), was time really running out for me at 27? Of course the answer was no. And the people who reminded me of this were my female friends. These relationships were and had always been my source of my strength and rationale, had brought me back from many a precipice. I started trying to document these connections, their mysterious, mercurial qualities, their volatilities, their dynamism, in a constant state of emotional ebullition. I wanted to convey the truth of these under-explored relationships, which had been so formative for my self and my understanding of the world.

At the same time, I was reading and watching an increasingly amount of work by female artists. Painstakingly honest memoirs like Vivian Gornick’s The Odd Woman in the City, Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts and TV shows like Transparent. Work, which told stories with a new honesty and insight, that I had been unconsciously starved of in my male canon-heavy education. I was hungry for the the female gaze, for a perspective that reflected my own experiences and ones that I had not yet thought to explore. In these artists’ daring honesty and intellect, I was privy to “fragments of reality” (Elena Ferrante) and they were indeed thrilling to me.

There comes a point in my writing process when I can no longer work on the page, I have to get the script up on its feet in front of an audience. Even though the piece is not ready. This mildly sado-masochistic trait is something that is probably unique to the actor/writer. I did such a reading of an early version of Eggs at the Trouble club in December 2015 and the response was really surprising. Both men and women were in the audience, and though the text was by no means polished, their appreciation for hearing these two characters voices was tantamount. In the Q&A session afterwards, I witnessed first-hand how rare it is for many people to be exposed to two outspoken, crass and witty women for such a long stretch of time. How unused they were to women taking centre stage.

As I wrote Eggs and continued to host readings and workshops with it, I was discovering not only the importance of telling these characters’ stories, but also just how many of their internal anxieties were born out of systemic external pressures. Most of these I was barely aware of, numb to the incessant and insidious adverts showing women in their 30s, urging us to cover up grey hairs. “Choice feminism”, which Finn McKay, in a recent article about her book Radical Feminism, describes as reducing feminism to the “right to make choices”, banal marketplace choices, about which mascara to slap on and which man to date. But you cannot shop for equality. We are constantly reminded how liberated we are, and so the blame for failure is laid shamefully at our feet, rather than linked to the patent inequalities with which our culture is rife. If Beyonce and Taylor Swift can have it all, why can’t you? But why is feminism only palatable in the mouths of rich, beautiful celebrities, rather than a more diverse range of spokeswomen? Why are we are all subconsciously made to feel that empowerment and success only come from being and looking a certain way? It is these socio-political issues, shamelessly personalised, that the characters of Eggs embody.

In an interview in The Guardian, Vicky Featherstone asked why audiences have an inherent problem watching female leads. It is no longer even disputed that this is the case. The solution, she states, is quite simple: to write more! To produce a constant flow of complex and diverse alternatives to the deafening, white middle-class male hegemony. Sphinx Theatre Company recently created an equivalent to the Bechdel Test for theatre, asking playwrights to consider whether their female characters pass certain tests of complexity. One part of the test asks, “Does your protagonist philosophise? Do they discuss life’s big questions?” For me, this worked like a clarion call. Big stages need to deal with Big Issues, and I hope that audiences coming to Eggs at the Vaults next month will see two women dealing with a lot of specific problems related to their gender. But also related to broader questions, pertaining to the tribulations of all genders, ages, classes, ethnicities. How to live in neoliberal, draining, capitalist London, in a city hostile and/or indifferent to the arts, to the poor, to the precarious, to the female? How do we cope with losing those we love? And how do we create and maintain meaningful connections in an increasingly distracted and splintering world?

Oh, if only the fuming entertainment mogul-cum-pavement heckler from Edinburgh had bothered to come to see the show! Because, aside from being relived that neither of the characters wear skirts, he might have connected with these two human beings, he might have empathised with their predicament, he might have even shaken his hips to Cher’s Believe (I forgot to mention that the most pertinent theme of Eggs is 90s dance music!) Because, we are all affected by patriarchy, men just as much as women. Hopefully theatre can offer a respite from and a reflection on this struggle.

 

Eggs is on at the Vaults Festival from 24th February – 6th March. Find out more info here.

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