By Muse McCormack
I’m currently in an amazing class called LGBTQ Theater and Performance History where we’ve been reading plays about feminism, queerness, and genderfluidity. Many of these plays use camp or exaggeration, especially of gender, to comment on gender and feminism in America. Camp is a kind of performance or aesthetic that is usually ill regarded by mainstream society, but has found a home in the Queer community. If something is camp, it is over the top, ironic, and outrageous, usually to make a point. Here, I examine two works (one a queer play and the other a science fiction short story) that use exaggeration and campy qualities to play with mainstream notions of gender norms.
Belle Reprieve is a queer take on the play Street Car Named Desire by the company Split Britches. The character of Stanley is played by a butch lesbian, Blanche is a drag queen, and Mitch is a gay man. In Act 1 there is a song and dance number called “I’m a Man” where all the characters walk around the stage displaying stereotypical masculinity. However, while the two biological men look silly and their attempts at manliness appear contrived, Stanley looks comfortable and even sexy at times as she flexes her muscles and stomps around. By exaggerating the dance, the playwright shows us how constraining the binary of gender can challenge our understanding. We see how comfortable Stanley is exhibiting stereotypical masculinity and how uncomfortable it makes Mitch and Blanche, both of whom look more at ease when wearing dresses and moving delicately, thereby defying gender norms while simultaneously using them to perform their own versions of gender.
Science fiction has long been making use of overemphasis in order to drive home points about our own world through the display of another. In James Tiptree Jr’s story, “The Women Men Don’t See,” an unassuming woman, Ruth, and her daughter, Althea, choose to be abducted by aliens because as they see it, it is preferable to living on Earth where women are not treated as equals. Ruth says to the narrator, Don:
Women have no rights, Don, except what men allow us. Men are more aggressive and powerful, and they run the world. When the next real crisis upsets them, our so-called rights will vanish like—like that smoke. We’ll be back where we always were: property. And whatever has gone wrong will be blamed on our freedom, like the fall of Rome was. You’ll see.
This take on the world, while dark and without hope, is only further proven when Don underestimates both women because they are women and thus deemed inferior. They defy what he thinks of as female by continuously showing strength and intelligence throughout the story, and yet, he still believed them to be “just women.” Both of these women are polite and quiet at first, but they are shown to be so much more as the story progresses. Both of the women are not hindered by society’s standards for family and marriage, they both have jobs and are shown to have skills other than cooking and cleaning (at one point Ruth fixes Don’s broken leg into a cast when they are trapped in a jungle). Don dismisses all of this though in favor of his previously formed idea of their gender. Despite its serious delivery, this speech is met with a patronizing demeanor and dismissal that makes the reader empathize with Ruth and her plight. She is so disillusioned by the world she lives in, which underestimates her because of her gender and the preconceived notions surrounding it, that she would rather risk an alien one at the chance of finding respect and freedom.
In both works something unexpected and over the top happen: Belle Reprieve a song and dance that not only displays gender, but defies it, and in The Women Men Don’t See the characters’ choice to be abducted by aliens is made to seem reasonable. Maybe Tiptree’s work would not be classified as camp, but Ruth and her daughter’s display of gender is no more contrived than Stanley’s flexed muscles and Blanche’s attempt at walking in pants. Gender is a performance in both pieces and the defiance of it is what is shown to be true in both as well. Maybe the means to the end are ostentatious and defy reality, but the points they make are much more serious than at first perceived.
Watch the full performance of Belle Reprieve with the original cast here: http://hemisphericinstitute.org/hemi/en/modules/item/907-britches-belle-reprieve
Read “The Women Men Don’t See” in full here: https://www.ida.liu.se/~tompe44/lsff-book/tiptree21.html