“What makes a play progressive?
What lifts a piece of theatre – or any art, for that matter – out of its basic function to entertain, to express, to convey meaning – and raises it to the lofty heights of ‘political art’?
By contrast, what makes a work offensive, or ‘problematic’?
It’s a question we’re invited to ask more and more of ourselves and of the work of others, as a growing awareness of identity politics in the theatre landscape begins to inform how we create, and as more attention is paid to the power of representation.
Identity politics, for those of you who aren’t mainlining your Twitter feed, refers to political views that are shaped by an individual’s identity and the social organisations (informed by race, gender, class and age, for example) to which they belong.
In other words, my view of the world as a white, queer, transgender, chronically ill person is going to be different to that of, say, a woman of colour.
The push towards identity politics and its role in the arts basically represents a push towards representing identity groups in ways that progress social equality of that group.
This is, for the most part, a really good thing. Recognising that the way bodies and identities are represented in art and culture has tangible effects on the way oppressed individuals interface with the world as well as how the world responds to them. This is important in a social justice capacity, but it also makes for better work.
The problem isn’t just that offensive art profits from misogyny, or homophobia, or ableism. The problem is that offensive art is almost always technically and artistically bad as well.
That said, I do think the relationship between theatre and identity politics presents problems in the way we make work and the way that work is perceived.
I can think of at least a dozen theatremakers off the top of my head – all cis*, white, male – who are thinking “yes, get social justice out of the arts so I can spew my hateful bile without consequences again!”, but slow down.
My main issue with the way in which social justice has entered the theatrical equation is that we sometimes run the risk of responding to art like it’s activism, which, often, it’s not.
The main way I’ve noticed this happen is in the way certain audiences respond to characters and situations that present problematically.
There is a broad left assertion that the representation of bigoted characters is harmful; that one is essentially replicating institutionalised oppression by depicting it.
For example, some of the backlash directed at Griffin Theatre Company’s production of Alana Valentine’s Ladies Day in 2016 came from the fact that the show graphically depicted acts of homophobic and sexual violence.
In fact, that depiction is one of the factors that made the show such a powerful indictment of rural Australian homophobia.
The idea that progressive work cannot show bad things happening to minorities – that it can only refer to oppression and how bad it is – means that there is no space for confrontation of the reality of bigotry.
Yes, watching a hate crime unfold on stage is uncomfortable, and yes, the portrayal of problematic content will always run the risk of upsetting or triggering someone who shares those experiences.
But by the same token, we cannot be allowed to use our theatre to pretend those acts of hatred don’t exist. Simply talking about oppression and never depicting it becomes little more than an opportunity for artists and audiences to pat themselves on the back for “not being those people”. Hardly a practical way to push change.
Another restriction identity politics puts on representation is the idea that minority characters must perfectly embody all the ideals and qualities required to paint the best image of a minority group.
Essentially, the sentiment is that minority characters can’t themselves be problematic, murky, make mistakes, or be in any way stray from the politics of that identity group.
There can be no doubt in an audience’s mind that This Minority Is A Good Minority.
Declan Greene’s 2017 play The Homosexuals, or ‘Faggots’ is a really good example of how “problematic” characters can be exceptionally powerful tools for social critique. ‘Faggots’ followed two privileged and somewhat bigoted gay man, through a night where they ultimately offend two trans women, terrorise a young Jewish man, and drug a woman of colour. And for the most part, they kind of get away with it. And they’re not unlikeable characters.
But at no point is the message of the play – that cis gay men have become complacent in their relative privilege and have forgotten the struggle of other queer people – compromised or muddied by the fact that the characters get away with being bigots.
Realistically, most acts of bigotry do go unpunished in a demonstrable sense, and to depict an almighty reckoning against characters who transgress is oftentimes comically naive. But so frequently it seems like the demand is for those characters to “get their comeuppance”, so to speak, in a way that recalls the fairytale-esque “goodies vs baddies” trope. Audiences are smarter than that, and far more capable of reading nuance than they are given credit for.
I’m not saying that there aren’t texts that take this way too far to the point of being harmful and villainising. Take Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs, or any of the numerous other Evil Transvestite characters portrayed in film. Take Islamophobic representations of terrorism in any contemporary action film.
But, while there is certainly a place for media that engages in escapism or idealism – for work that does punish the bigots and elevate progressive thinking – and work like that can be hugely important as a salve for the cruelty of the real world; even so, to suggest that all political work must work towards this idealism is to deny a basic tenet of storytelling, which is to use fiction to represent and examine the real.
The reason why stories, art, and media can have such great power to push change is because the safety of artifice allows for audiences to be made genuinely uncomfortable, or challenged.
The other issue with this is that there’s usually no way to completely represent a “model minority” because not everyone who belongs to the same minority group agrees with each other. And for the most part, we’re all okay with seeing media representations of people like us who we maybe don’t 100 per cent agree with, so long as the representation is respectful.
I’ll be the first to admit I’ve been a culprit of this kind of reductive critique in the past. Having had my queer awakening via the Internet during the Tumblr Renaissance, then coming out at university and diving straight into activism and gender scholarship, my time as a Baby Queer was characterised by and large by a cloud of outrage.
In 2015 I wrote a snotty, outraged review of Nick Coyle’s Blue Wizard at Belvoir in which I eviscerated the show for misrepresenting gay people as vapid and promiscuous fiends who survive on a diet of “diamonds, cocaine, and semen”.
With hindsight I came to understand that the show wasn’t doing that at all. Rather, it was playing into stereotypes around gay identity and culture in order to ultimately tell a powerful story about resisting in the face of overwhelming abjection and isolation.
Faced with a future of Otherness on a strange planet, the Blue Wizard casts off the shackles of heteronormativity (by murdering his puppet child) and goes back in time to rescue his wizard boyfriend. And yet all I chose to see was the parts of it that didn’t fit into the neat, clean, politically correct form of activism I had come to see as “right”.
The only reason I haven’t asked that someone take that review down is that the somewhat humiliating reminder keeps me in check, makes sure I don’t forget that things I thought were objectively morally wrong three years ago are now things I have come to appreciate for that selfsame ambiguity.
A story where everyone speaks in perfect IdPol dialect, with all the correct terminology, like they’ve just stepped out of a first year gender studies reader, is often not politically powerful because politics, like people, is complicated, and messy, and no one gets it right 100 per cent of the time.
A perfect model minority character isn’t relatable because they’re not really human.
It feels honestly like an echo of much earlier forms of censorship and moralism. It reminds me of how a farce or Victorian drama was meant to reinforce the social and moral conventions of the time, and to condemn the transgression: the humiliation of the unfaithful husband and his mistress; the sexual woman’s fall from grace.
The Hayes Code in early Hollywood decreed that characters could not be shown to transgress (so, y’know, be gay or have sex or hate God) without being narratively punished (frequently by death) or being depicted as the villain – again, all to ensure the status quo is upheld.
In the same way, the insistence that problematic characters either be punished or, in the case of minorities, not exist at all, recalls the virtue signalling polemic of a kind of theatre we’re all better for having left behind. For not only does any attempt to define a single moral standard presents ethical problems – because moral arbitration will always leave someone or something out – but it also makes for boring art.
And as humans full of complexity, moral fluidity, and the capacity to learn beyond our social or political shortcomings, are better than that.
*cis: short for cisgender. Cisgender refers to anyone who identifies with the gender they were assigned at birth.