‘The lack of an energetic and robust political movement, the lack of an identity ‘woman’ with which to align, and the perception of restrictive and detrimental positions associated with feminism […] have contributed to bring about the state of postfeminism, a state in which there is nothing to join and no clear ‘woman’ to be, but in which many of the concerns of actual women about equality, free expression, power, respect, and sexual subjectivity are still present and compelling.’ Janelle Reinelt (2006)
The premise of Caitlin Jordan & Melanie Skinner’s A Brief History of the Fragile Male Ego is simple. Andrea, dressed in a pale blue suit and white polo neck, is giving a lecture tour on behalf of the Society of Men for University Truth (SMUT). She believes that people need to be educated about the fragility of the male ego – not to criticise men but so they can treat men with the compassion and respect they deserve. She counsels the audience to follow the three es: empathise, do not emasculate, and never embarrass. This ironic reversal of expectations – a purportedly feminist show advocating for the plight of men – is the joke on which the entire fifty-five-minute show hangs.
Melanie Jordan plays Andrea with a comic timidity, which contrasts pleasingly with the impressions of men suffering from fragile egos she does to illustrate her presentation. Poseidon struts around with a bathetically small garden fork for a trident, attempting to flirt with women in the audience. Julius Caesar, who declares ‘I am suffering from gender role strain’, has a hilarious disco death sequence when his mates stab him in the back. José Mourinho defends himself at a press conference and launches into a rendition of Aretha Franklin’s Respect. Jordan is a gifted character comedian.
However, as a piece of theatre, A Brief History of the Fragile Male Ego lacks substance. It is unclear what exactly it is trying to say, and the humour can get uncomfortable in a way that does not seem to have been intended. There is an extended sequence in which a cockney ‘Jack the lad’ character bemoans that he doesn’t know how to be a man in a ‘post-feminist’ age, voicing discomfort that spirals into him contemplating suicide. There are genuine issues here, such as the rise of men’s rights activism and the culturally-ingrained reluctance of men to talk about their mental health, that could be explored but are instead used as punchlines. In the most powerful part of the show – the only part that is not trying to be funny – Jordan enacts the emotional labour she is instructing women to perform. There is a glimpse, but no more than a glimpse, of the toll it takes on her.
The question I found myself reflecting on after A Brief History of the Fragile Male Ego was not ‘how should men behave in our post-feminist times?’ but ‘how should (feminist?) theatre respond to our current political moment?’. It’s something I’ve been thinking about after seeing Lucy McCormick’s Post Popular, in which she searches for a female role model from the unlikely choices of Eve, Anne Boleyn, Boudicca and Florence Nightingale, before realising that a hero was inside of her all along (see the show for how). It could be a satire of post-feminism’s co-option of the rhetoric of empowerment, reducing solidarity to individualism. But are we still post-feminist? Since Janelle Reinelt was writing in 2006, there has been a resurgence of feminism as a mass movement – fourth wave feminism – organised through social media and focusing on intersectionality. The state of feminism today seems far less bleak than the one Reinelt described; it frustrates me that these shows, which purport to be examining gender politics, are not reflecting that political engagement. There’s something about the irony of Post Popular that makes things too slick, like the flawless dance routines; the satirical edge slips away.
One definition of irony is saying one thing while meaning another; in Fragile Male Ego, Jordan and Skinner risk reaffirming the very thing they set out to unpick: the lesson that women should be deferent and hypersensitive to men. The joke wears thin through repetition. Call me a killjoy, but I don’t think it’s enough for a feminist show just to be enjoyable. For a show to claim to be politically subversive, it has to subvert the status quo.
A Brief History of the Fragile Male Ego is on at Pleasance Dome till 26th August. More info here.