Societally, there’s a huge push to reach a masculine ideal of power. Hard hitting, direct and unwavering. Success is ultimately codified as masculine.
I can be those things, and I am also soft. I oscillate with the moon, I am competitive and I am a big cryer. As soon as 'success' became a clear construct to me I have been attempting to emulate this toxic form of masculinity. But that version of myself is getting tired, the hard husk is slipping away and more and more I feel like a pink eel in a baby blue pond, exposed and still, watching.
At times there is a sort of gladiator survival feeling among women. We are thriving on so many levels more than ever before in history. I feel as though I’m stepping into different arenas every day; defensive, on my toes ready to run, punch, scream and smile. There’s a ritualistic preparation occurring, to face the day, the people, and the challenges.
I have these moments in the car, taking deep breaths, adopting the persona best fitted to the environment I’m about to stride into. This is tiring. It’s an exhausting cycle of preparation, mental readying, physical preening. I see it around me a lot, I feel myself doing it and still I’m trying to find another version of being in the arena. Perhaps my version can be less full flaming fire reaches explosion, more ancient river rises and the fish leap up momentarily and dive deep again, deeper.
Female bodybuilding is an ultimate version of reaching for perfection, it’s an arena I am exploring in the show I’m making, Soft Tissue. As Camille Paglia says “Modern bodybuilding is ritual, religion, sport, art, and science, awash in Western chemistry and mathematics. Defying nature, it surpasses it”. Some of the time I am peaceful with my nature, my body, my gender, and some of the time I am rebelling against every inch of me that is female, because sometimes when you are striving to achieve things it is not conducive to be a woman.
There is a weight and familiar presence in female competitiveness. I went to an all-girls school so it was always girls vs girls, but I've come to see this pernicious culture that can exist among women. There are bountiful sisterly, loving and kindred relationships of course, I’m very lucky to have people like these in my life, but in so many environments I feel a game of dominance at play. We are spending so much energy fighting for our spot, to be heard, to be admired, to have a taste and a moment of control. Because we can never reach that essential male dominance that currently exists as the opiate of worthiness, we are throwing blows at each other to stake our claim, and it is exhausting.
I am constantly trying to ease up on myself. Everyone is really full on to themselves I reckon. If I spoke to another the way I speak to myself (in my head) they would call me a big ole meany! I expend copious amounts of energy trying to please others and look like I’m keeping it together. Mostly my facade is pretty solid, but it is a boring game I’ve been playing since about age fourteen. I see so many of my friends and family self flagellating in their respective arenas, university, work, making the dinner, being romantic. We watch the ideals of these things reflected back to us all day over social media, and fulfilling them is nigh on impossible.
Soft Tissue explores these ideas, navigating the construction of beauty, of success. The tightening of the mouth, the hardening, the competition un-winnable. A woman conquered by a woman who cannot conquer the man. The broadest hunger to be told you got it right. It is a celebration of failure and an exchange, in a small theatre, vulnerable and vital.
I travelled to Iran in 2016 to develop the show further with some incredible artists. I was blown away by the different pressures on women there as opposed to Aotearoa. Despite the restriction of an Islamic state they have a freedom in their feminine self expression that is open and soft and unembarrassed. Here I feel a greater need to fulfill both female and masculine qualities, dual identities. And I am masculine and feminine, but I feel less ownership over that than what I experienced with the people in Iran who cannot legally dance in their home country but who move with a self assurity unparalleled. And it is beautiful.
In the making of Soft Tissue – alongside Anuwela Howarth (designer) and Jade Eriksen (director) – we are working to highlight and expose the habitual behaviours of women. How we perform and change under the weight of expectation. Our shift between public and private worlds. We are constructing, deconstructing and reconstructing a show that is essentially in service of the deep desire to be loved. And to be powerful. Whatever form that may take.
Soft Tissue runs at the Basement Theatre in Auckland, 26 - 30 September 2017.Support Villainesse