Reviews OWE & Fringe Published 21 February 2014

Fucking Outside The Box

The Vaults ⋄ 18th - 22nd February 2014

Sex and power.

Devawn Wilkinson

Underwear by Ann Summers, heart-shaped vajazzle done on the cheap by a beautician friend, Essex teen Frankie (Jessica Burgess) kills time in a motorway lay-by, cheerfully waiting to be ‘kidnapped’ and ‘raped’ by her casual sort-of-boyfriend. It’s a set-up entirely of her own design, she asserts, “..and it is fun!” she declares, a hysterical note of glee in her voice. She’s thinking about her make-up, her cold hands, her classmates, about her stepdad, and the chances of her unknown biological dad picking her up. “I have a very active imagination,” she admits later. Though writer and performer Jessica Burgess proves herself to be similarly full of ideas, packing a dizzying amount of ever-topical and potent feminist issues into an hour and a half, Fucking Outside The Box is, for all its ambition, a disappointing and problematic piece that trots out more misinformation than it tackles.

To ‘fuck outside the box’ is a mission statement courtesy of seventeen year old Frankie’s ‘sexual and spiritual mentor’, Samantha from Sex and the City. Though I couldn’t help feeling that the long-axed television show doesn’t feel too contemporary compared to the consistent and somewhat self-conscious references to Twitter/Tumblr/Facebook, Frankie’s a real devotee. She also likes Cosmopolitan magazine and the saccharine pop ballads of the Top 40. She’s a smart girl playing stupid, playing sex games because that’s how she thinks she can get love, because she wants to be Stella from A Streetcar Named Desire, “abused yet dignified”. But she’s also an oddly remote protagonist, simply confusing when she should be complex, neither a useful cipher nor a particularly convincing representation of a teenage girl.

The question Burgess tries to raise is an initially intriguing one – whose fantasy is Frankie playing out, exactly, with her rape role-play? But rather than deliberating or detailing, Burgess answers her own query with a resounding condemnation of what she sees as the inevitable brutality of male desire. “I don’t want to be like all the other girls,” is Frankie’s reasoning for eagerly embracing sexual taboos, but in Burgess’ story, she is exactly that. Every woman presented to us is either a traumatised victim or the brainwashed, slut-shaming product of a fucked-up system. With one exception, all the men are leering perverts or violent attackers. The contentious ‘grey areas’ (the very areas most in need of thorough examination) are, instead, blanked out and redrawn with the battle lines between the sexes clearly and inarguably marked.

The disjointed narrative shuttles almost randomly from bedroom to ballroom, from house party to Paris museum, wearing its subtext so on its sleeve that the speech itself hardly seems to matter. Burgess’ writing isn’t without merit – there’s some sparky lines, odd snippets of poetry (Frankie’s cold hands are described, memorably, as ‘glittery fucking chorizo’) and some decent, if often uneasy, laughs. But there’s not much call to engage, especially when the text itself doesn’t quite have the effortless, immersive quality of the dramatic monologue. It’s straightforward prose, descriptive but not evocative, so that when questions are directed to the audience, they go awkwardly unanswered, because we don’t really feel present in Frankie’s world.

To some extent, Fucking… makes an impact. The sheer chaos of the story – there at least five plot threads all with the loose theme of misogyny – gives rise to a kind of cerebral panic about the endless errors in our sexist and over-sexualised culture. Perhaps we are meant to view the whole of Frankie’s ‘game’ – the outfit, the white van, the lay-by– as a kind of metaphor, an illustration of victim-blaming at its logical extreme in which the potential victim, internalising their inevitable victimhood so completely, somehow orchestrates their own assault. But my objection arises because the point Burgess seems to be making concerns the complete impossibility of sexual equality. Sexual fantasy, then, is understood as the playing out of male desire, never female. Burgess presents us with a seemingly knowing heroine – a sexually adventurous, self-possessed young woman, only to tear her down completely. In rendering her powerless, in suggesting Frankie was deluded all along, Burgess peddles the familiar, dispiriting image of woman as victim.

It’s familiar, of course, because such crimes against women do still happen, and those stories do need to be told. Yet there’s something insensitive about the climactic ‘dance’ meant to represent Frankie’s assault and ensuing mental breakdown – all flashing lights and jerky puppeteered movements. With its slew of generalisations rather than nuanced observations, Fucking… feels unremittingly bleak. With Frankie, Burgess emphasises quite rightly that embracing objectification isn’t liberation, but she neglects to consider what it is that we should be striving for instead. Fucking Outside The Box ends up as a discomforting cautionary tale, in which the only games women get to play are ones they must ultimately lose.

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Devawn Wilkinson

Devawn is a London-based writer and performance poet. As a reviewer, she also writes for A Younger Theatre and formed part of their Edinburgh Young Critics team in 2012 and 2013. She performs her poetry at various events around London, and her work also is included in Things That Have Happened, an anthology of short stories from new young writers, published by Treehouse Press.

Fucking Outside The Box Show Info


Directed by Sophie Moniram

Written by Jessica Burgess

Link https://www.thevaultfestival.com/

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