Posts Tagged ‘feminism’

Ibsen and Feminism 3

Monday, October 24th, 2011

The image below is from feminist and critical race theorist bell hooks (if you aren’t already, you should get familiar). It’s been making the rounds on Facebook and I share it here because it touches on the continued debate over whether Nora’s uniquely female position makes her a feminist figure and, by extension, Ibsen a “feminist” playwright and whether the label of “feminism” excludes men from identifying with and advocating for the character and her actions not to mention detracts from the playwright’s stated humanist mission and politics.

From bell hooks' FB feed.

I think hooks is trying to disentangle some essentializing assumptions in her chart. One being that feminism means just one thing; it is multi-faceted, particularly if one defines it as a political movement based in progressive social theories that connect multiple aspects of individual identity (of which gender is only one) to the struggle for social, economic, and interpersonal equality.

And with that assertion, I’ve probably just outed myself as a feminist who attaches particular value and self-interest to this definition of the term. But like many terms that characterize politics and identity – e.g., conservative, liberal, independent to use the big three floating around the mainstream media today – once one pushes beyond the surface assumptions and impressions invoked by the terms themselves, one finds great variety in individual beliefs and actions within such groups. I think back to one of my very first slogan t-shirts; I think I bought it when I was a sophomore in college (back in the day). It read: Feminism is the radical notion that women are people. I hear echoes of that slogan when Nora says, I am first and foremost a human being just as much a one as you are. It’s a simple, powerful line and one among many that makes A Doll’s House a “feminist” play.

Still another assumption challenged by hooks’ graphic is the idea that all women, by virtue of being women, are inclined towards feminist political interests. There are multiple examples of women in public and private life that benefit from opportunities that exist because of the influence of feminist theories, social movements, and political organizations but who eschew “feminism” because of the movement’s negative, essentializing connotations.

There are also women who reject “feminism” precisely because the policies and activities of feminist academics and activists do not benefit all women equally. They key in on the fact that while the chart below asserts feminism as a philosophy that sees gender as interrelated to other facets of identity (including class, race, ethnicity, sexuality), feminism as a political or social movement organizing principle has tended to place particular emphasis on the concerns of upper-middle-class, educated, white women with male partners and children. (Interesting to note that a contrasting stereotype of a “feminist” that appears frequently in popular culture and talk radio is a lesbian of any race who eschews not only traditional femininity but also any/all traditional institutions from churches to corporations.)

Finally, I think hooks’ chart begs the assumption that only women can be feminists. This idea is perhaps the most pervasive and most difficult to disentangle from conventional wisdom because it seems impossible to conceive that men would be participants in a movement or subscribe to a theory that wants to dismantle male privilege. Unless one realizes that “male privilege” itself is unequally distributed; not all men, simply by virtue of being men, gain access to power in the same way. While they may have preference over women in certain circumstances, men too are constrained by other facets of identity (race, class, sexuality, ethnicity), constraints which feed, in hooks’ terms, the “ideology of domination” that thrives on pitting individuals and groups against each other, scrabbling for resources and privileges versus banding together to dismantle oppressive systems of power.

Ibsen insisted to the Norwegian feminist group that tried to honor him in 1898 for his work on the “woman’s rights movement” that he was looking at the larger “humanist” picture.

I thank you for the toast, but must disclaim the honor of having consciously worked for the women’s rights movement. I am not even quite clear as to just what this women’s rights movement really is. To me it has seemed a problem of mankind in general. And if you read my books carefully you will understand this. True enough, it is desirable to solve the woman problem, along with all the others; but that has not been the whole purpose. My task has been the description of humanity. (Speech reprinted in Ibsen Letters and Speeches, editor Evert Sprinchorn, 1964.)

As Joan Templeton argues in the article we read towards the beginning of the semester, however, when you put Nora’s actions and dialogue in the context of early feminist writers (e.g., Mary Wollstonecraft, Margaret Fuller, Harriet Martineau are a few that Templeton mentions specifically) and Ibsen’s own circle of “personal” feminists (Templeton cites his wife Suzannah Thoresen Ibsen, Magdalen Thoresen–Suzannah’s former governess!–and Camilla Wergeland Collet) one sees in their texts and struggles “a compendium of everything that early modern feminism denounced about woman’s state” (Templeton, “The Doll House backlash,” 32, 36). Also, Ibsen’s 1898 speech is not his sole musing on the matter. He wrote this when sketching out an early draft of the play:

A woman cannot be herself in the society of today, which is exclusively a masculine society, with laws written by men, and with accusers and judges who judge feminine conduct from the masculine standpoint. (Ibsen qtd. in William Archer’s introduction to an anthology of Ibsen’s Works, qtd. in Templeton, 36).

The more I write this, the more I think of the end of the play when Nora insists to Torvald that they both must change in order for the “wonderful thing” to happen. He would have to be willing to learn lessons himself instead of continuing to “teach” or “guide” her. I have to educate myself. And you’re not the right man for the job.

When he appeals to known structures (education, religion, social mores) to convince her that these institutions can lead her to self-knowledge, she insists that only she can determine what her education will be or when it will be finished. I don’t know anything more than Pastor Hansen passed on at my confirmation! He said religion is this and is that. When I leave all this and I’m on my own I’ll examine this matter too. I’ll see if what Pastor Hansen said is right or if it is right for me.

Templeton notes that critical views of A Doll’s House either try to rescue a great play from being consigned as a “feminist” work by asserting the universality of Nora’s struggle or deny her the mantle of feminist because, ironically, she’s simply too much of a flighty, flawed woman. The first trend is often attributed to George Bernard Shaw, who was keen to say that Ibsen was too great of a playwright to focus on “issues,” instead “he was a poet of the truth of the human soul” (Templeton 28). The other trend emerged from the moment of the play’s publication and performance and continues through contemporary theater history. Templeton notes, “All female, or no woman at all, Nora loses either way” (30). Ironically, the binary divide is similar for Ibsen. Either he is a feminist champion or unfettered observer of human nature; either a playwright steeped in his time and place who used the theater to illuminate issues of the day or a playwright whose dramaturgy of essential human truths allows his works to exceed any specific time and place. Just as bell hooks’ graphic tries to maintain the broadest conceptualization of feminism, one that is diverse and can admit a number of different “kinds” of feminists under its mantle, perhaps can we conceive of Ibsen and Nora. Both/and instead of either/or. To my mind, you can’t get more feminist than that.

 


Still another assumption hooks’ graphic challenges is the idea that all women, by virtue of being women, are inclined towards feminist political interests. There are multiple examples of women in public and private life that benefit from opportunities that exist because of the influence of feminist theories, social movements, and political organizations but who eschew “feminism” because of the movement’s negative, essentializing connotations.

There are also women who reject “feminism” precisely because the policies and activities of feminist academics and activists do not benefit all women equally. They key in on the fact that while the chart below asserts feminism as a philosophy that sees gender as interrelated to other facets of identity (including class, race, ethnicity, sexuality), feminism as a political or social movement organizing principle has tended to place particular emphasis on the concerns of upper-middle-class, educated, white women with male partners and children. (Interesting to note that a contrasting stereotype of a “feminist” that appears in popular culture and talk radio is a lesbian of any race who eschews not only traditional femininity but also any/all traditional institutions from churches to corporations.)

Finally, I think hooks’ chart begs the assumption that only women can be feminists. This idea is perhaps the most pervasive and most difficult to disentangle from conventional wisdom because it seems impossible to conceive that men would be participants in a movement or subscribe to a theory that wants to dismantle male privilege. Unless one realizes that “male privilege” itself is unequally distributed; not all men, simply by virtue of being men, gain access to power in the same way. While they may have preference over women in certain circumstances, men too are constrained by other facets of identity (race, class, sexuality, ethnicity), constraints which feed, in hooks’ terms, the “ideology of domination” that thrives on pitting individuals and groups against each other, scrabbling for resources and privileges versus banding together to dismantle oppressive systems of power.

Ibsen and Feminism 2

Tuesday, October 11th, 2011

My post title might be a tad misleading. I’m actually using this space to draw attention to feminism more than Ibsen, specifically, to let you know about an initiative happening this year in Duke’s Women’s Studies Program: The Future of the Feminist 70s. I’ll let them explain the impetus behind their programming:

We are interested to understand how some of the major interventions of the 1970’s–for example, feminist art and film practices, marxist and radical feminism, eco-feminism, lesbian separatism, human and civil rights discourse, cold war divisions and non-aligned movements, and postcolonial internationalism—continue to have an impact on feminist thought, offer important interventions into contemporary questions, or map the futures of feminism.

I’m particularly excited about the range of short films that Duke’s Women’s Studies will be screening and discussing this fall as well as the Nasher’s amazing exhibition, “The Deconstructive Impulse: Women Artists Reconfigure the Signs of Power, 1973-1991,” which features an astonishing range of artists and work particularly germinal to the feminist art and scholarship that inflected my own undergraduate and graduate curricula. There are also a host of courses planned for spring (since bookbagging time draws nigh) that might be of interest:

WST 49S Gender and Avant Garde Poetics, taught by Assistant Professor Kimberly Lamm; WST 162S Gender and Popular Culture, taught by Victoria Hesford; and WST 195S Senior Seminar: The Future of 1970s Feminism a Local Perspective, taught by Associate Professor Kathy Rudy.

A Doll’s House was a popular piece of theater in America in the 1970s. The text articulated themes about women’s domestic life that had also struck chords with second-wave feminists such as Simone de Beauvoir (The Second Sex, 1953), Betty Friedan (The Feminine Mystique, 1963), and Gloria Steinem (founder & editor of Ms. Magazine, 1972).

And speaking of the 70s, do you recognize the icon playing Nora in the Doll’s House film still (1973) below?

It’s 35-year-old Jane Fonda.

For contrast, in September of 2011, Calista Flockhart, recently of ABC’s Brothers and Sisters but perhaps best known for her role as Ally McBeal a must debated feminist (or not) figure from the 1990s, starred in a “for radio” production of A Doll’s House at LA Theatre Works (now housed at UCLA’s Bridges Theatre space). There are no image of Flockhart in costume because Theatre Works doesn’t fully stage their shows. Instead they are directed for recording and later audio broadcast so in the next few months you could hear (if not see) Flockhart’s performance as Nora. The production also starred JoBeth Williams (perhaps best known as the mother in the Poltergeist film series of the 1980s) but I have not been able to uncover whether she played Mrs. Linde or Anne-Marie. Just based on the age difference, I’m guessing it was Anne-Marie.

Flockhart as Ally McBeal, Season 1 image.

Ibsen and feminism 1

Friday, September 9th, 2011

This is a topic that will come up many times over the course of our work on this play. I wanted to dive in by looking at recent news story about controversy over girl’s t-shirts sold at J.C.Penny. Here’s the design that has been pulled from the store’s online stock after public protest.The Village Voice‘s Runnin’ Scared blog chronicles the whole saga as does this piece from Jezebel.com that uncovered yet another suspect offering after JCP pulled the above shirt above from online sales.

It’s probably no surprise that this news item put me in the mind of Nora and the kind of “pretty doll” act she has been encouraged to cultivate (first by her father and then by Torvald). Certainly, this kind of cultivation of a particular kind of feminine beauty and behavior wasn’t new to the nineteenth century. Nor is it an identity that is ever offered to all women equally. Helene, Anne-Marie & Kristine don’t have the luxury of skylark twittering. But it remains an enduring and encouraged image of womanhood as these t-shirts attest. In fact, it has almost become a point of pride. Take My Super-Sweet 16 the MTV show where moneyed young women (and men, but mostly women) are lavished upon by parents who themselves might be suitable candidates for a show in Bravo’s Real Housewives of … franchise. And it’s here where the world of a particular kind of femininity merges  with a particular kind economic position and it’s easy to see how “on the pulse” Ibsen was of his and our own time even though he shied away from accolades about his contributions to the late nineteenth-century’s “wave” of the women’s movement:

I thank you for the toast, but must disclaim the honor of having “consciously worked for the women’s right’s movement’ … True enough, it is desirable to solve the woman problem, along with all the others; but that has not been the whole purpose. My task has been the description of humanity.

— From an 1898 speech given at a banquet in Ibsen’s honor by the Norwegian Women’s Rights League.

Hopefully, we’ll have a chance to read/discuss an article by Joan Templeton that places Ibsen’s “disclaimer” in a broader context. Templeton argues that his speech is not so much a rejection of the feminist themes in Doll’s House as much as it might be a sign of his own particular predilection to reject organized movements and the spectacle of social reformer campaigns. She discusses Ibsen’s close relationship with women, particularly Laura Peterson Kieler, the Norwegian journalist who inspired the plot of A Doll’s House, and concludes that despite this above oft-quoted speech, Ibsen was acutely aware of and inspired by the particular struggle of women of his time. And, who knows? Maybe another 30+ years of this play being performed we might some day see JC Penny offer t-shirts for young girls emblazoned with

First and foremost, a human being.

Heck, I might just take it upon myself to make one for my daughter right now.

 

css.php