Image: Tabitha Arthur
First published on Sunday the 11th of March, 2018, this piece comes in at number 5 in the top 30 most read Villainesse stories of 2018.
Body Double is a play about female sexual pleasure. Have I got your attention now? It certainly grabbed mine, when I went to see it in Wellington late last year. There are parts of it – most memorably a scene involving a whole raw chicken – that will likely be burned into my memory forever.
The result of a collaboration between three rising young female theatrical powerhouses, Eleanor Bishop, Julia Croft and Karin McCracken, Body Double is equal parts thought-provoking, riotous and titillating, with a small side of disgusting (again, the raw chicken). It centres on the experience of being a female sexual being in a world saturated by rigidly constrained scripts of what heterosexual sex should be like. Exactly the kind of scripts, in short, that don’t play out so well for women.
“We talked about the script one follows in heterosexual sex a lot; what that is, who gets to have an orgasm and who doesn’t and what the order is,” Croft tells me, when I sit down with the three women before the show one windy Wellington evening. “I went through it all through my twenties, never questioning it and then I got to a point in my thirties when I ended up going, ‘I’ve had a lot of bad sex. Most of it has been f***ing terrible.’ And at a certain point in your thirties you go, ‘I thought I was going to grow into the really great sex and it’s not happening’ – why is that?”
While writing the play, the trio delved into their own sexual histories and fantasies, writing stream of consciousness passages and sharing them with each other.
“I was really shocked with some of the stuff that came out of my own self,” Croft says. “Some of that stuff, the first time you had to read it in front of these guys you were like, ‘I can’t believe that came out of my mouth, and I’m so sorry, Mum’.”
“It’s given me some ideas for the bedroom,” Bishop quips.
McCracken was surprised by the amount of shame she still carried around sex. “You get into a room with two other people and you write down your deepest sexual fantasies and pretty quickly any residual shame rises to the top.”
“It is quite hard to have honest conversations with other women about sex,” Bishop says. “Especially when you’re a feminist, because you’re supposed to be having amazing sex all the time, you’re supposed to be able to ask for what you want, so when you’re not it’s hard to talk about.”
“There’s this pressure going, ‘you should just ask for what you want’, and you get to a certain age and you think, that’s not a simple question, what you want, because what you want is also tied up with things we’ve learnt and the passivity we’ve learnt and the films that had questionable politics that we watched when we were 14,” Croft adds.
“And even if you know what you want, that thing of like ‘just ask for what you want’, it’s like, well as women we’re not really encouraged to just ask for what we f***ing want, you know?” McCracken says. “We look after people’s emotions, so it’s like both the thing of discerning, what actually do you want? And then also overcoming this huge thing of being able to actually assert your right to pleasure.”
Female pleasure has been a loaded subject for much of history, a factor that can easily complicate sex in a heterosexual context. “When something deviates from that ‘normality’ – for me, having partners with erection issues or having sex with women or doing things outside heteronormative scripts has really made me question, what is sex?” Bishop says. “Looking at the script and the things that I had done and things that I liked and wondering, do I like these because that’s just how it is or do I like these because I really like these? I think that turmoil is quite common for women. What comes first, my desire or the mediated desire I’ve been given? What is my true desire like?”
The influence of sexual imagery and content in the media also plays a role in women’s relationship with pleasure; a dynamic that Body Double leans into through its use of references to media like The Notebook and Anna Karenina. “We use a lot of cultural references in the show to call attention to that thing that we’ve all been inundated with this imagery and in these politics since we were children,” McCracken says.
Porn also forms part of the wider cultural picture, and is alluded to during some parts of the show. “It’s kind of like part of everyone’s sex life,” Croft says.
“We have all slept with men who have been consuming porn since they were very young and that has impacted their desires and what they want, and what they want from us, so even if it’s not directly a major part of the show, it’s indirectly a major part of the show,” McCracken adds.
Porn, however, is just one part of a digital landscape that is impacting upon modern sexuality. “I’m really grateful to not be coming of age now,” Croft says. “Because I think by the time the internet was a thing for me, you’d already done a bit of work around puberty and early discovery of sexuality. Now for young women you also are the object; you’re trading, you’re sending people sexy selfies, you’re getting blackmailed, your body is so much more in that space in a way that wasn’t the case when I was a young woman.”
“I think the distinction between looking sexy and actually feeling pleasure… there’s way more focus in the digital age for it to be about looks,” Bishop says.
The title of the play is a nod to that dichotomy. “The idea of being outside of yourself and watching yourself have sex or being very conscious of how you look and what your actions mean,” was part of the motivation behind the name, Bishop explains.
So what do they want women to take away from the show?
“On opening night someone overheard a woman we know leaning over to her husband and going, ‘we have to go home and have sex right now’ and I went, that is a great reaction,” Croft laughs.
“Do you guys feel like you want to have sex when you do the show?” McCracken asks.
“Oh no. I am absolutely back off men for life,” Croft replies.
“I went through a phase where I was like, ‘I must have sex to deal with this’ to make myself feel good,” Bishop adds. “And then I went through a phase of like, ‘I can’t have sex because I’m just thinking about all the material of the show and all of the dynamics…' and now I’m back into sex.”
“I think I’m in that camp now,” McCracken says. “When we were making it I was like, ‘f*** right off’, but now I just think about the way the show ends and yeah, I’m pro-sex.”
“I mean, I could go home and masturbate. That’s fine,” Croft says.
And as for the men in the audience… What should they take away?
“I’d like men to think about the ways in which all that stuff, they’re complicit in it, they’re a part of it, that they’ve internalised it too and maybe that’s not just not a good thing for women, but it’s also not a good thing for them,” Bishop says. “I feel like men are so unaware of the patriarchy, it drives me bananas. It’s like, just take a look at yourself! Just take a look! It’s not that hard! It’s so glaringly obvious! Also, it will help you. You’ll be freer as a person.”
“And the sex you have will be better if you just develop some critical thinking skills about yourself,” McCracken adds.
“Make sure your woman is having an orgasm,” Croft says. “Really. Like, if she’s not had an orgasm, maybe think about that.”
Body Double opens on Tuesday the 20th of March at Q Theatre as part of the Auckland Arts Festival. For more information, click here.Support Villainesse