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Reworking Gender Roles Through Performance Art

It seems to be the assumption of many that drama students their days either rolling around on the floor of the ACCA, pretending to be trees or belting High School Musical favourites such as Breaking free at the top of their lungs. It is my experience and understanding, though, that a drama degree at Sussex does not adhere to these stereotypes. It is not all jazz hands and high kicks. It is a course for the innovators among us, the hard workers, the creative and the passionate.

For a final year module entitled Issues and Perspectives in Contemporary Performance  and taught by Dr Katja Hilevaara, we were asked to focus on the body and create a performance in response to a piece of performance art we had seen. I chose to respond to Spanish performance artist Maria La Ribot and her piece No.14. The artist stood naked, with a sign that read “for sale” around her neck, repeatedly folding a chair against her thighs, making it look as though she is being penetrated by the violent thrusting movement. The piece commented on the complex power dynamics involved in sexual transactions; although the woman is being penetrated, she holds the control because she is self-governing the movement. I felt this reflected the idea that although a woman selling her body may adopt a submissive role during sex, she still withholds a sense of power. She possesses something greatly desired by others, simply by being herself and benefits financially from it. Therefore, in a bizarrely empowering way, I chose to reflect on the idea that I hold the tool to earn money through simply being.

I named my performance Tart. My purpose in doing so was to play with gender stereotypes and present a realistic representation of an “every day woman”: a woman who is not completely domesticated nor completely sexualised. I baked a tart and sold slices of it on campus, topless. The “For Sale” sign I wore around my neck represented both the tart and myself, as several individuals – you know who you are – vocalized that they purchased the tart because it was presented to them by a half-naked female. The moment the final slice had been taken, my “service” was complete, and I dressed and detached myself from anyone trying to engage in conversation. There was certainly something empowering in this; I had used my body to my advantage.  Performance artist La Ribot suggests that to be nude is to take charge of one’s body, that to acknowledge it and to use it is to become empowered. How many of you can say that a project at university has truly made you feel empowered, let alone given you the green light to be starkers on campus?

So next time you ask someone the nature of their degree and they respond with “drama”, don’t roll your eyes and shove them into the box of weird, loud and quirky folk who isolate themselves and love Sharpay and Ryan. We don’t just sit around reciting lines all day. We have strong views on the world and want to challenge stereotypes. We are advocates for political change just as much as the next person but we just so happen to present these views through means of performance, which I would argue, is pretty darn powerful.

The Badger asked Senior Lecturer in Contemporary Theatre and Performance, Jason Price about the performance and he stated “Alex’s performance is informed by an important lineage of feminist performance practices that have conflated the reality of the exposed body of the female artist with the gendered, domestic positions society has assigned to women. I’m really moved by and applaud Alex’s bravery. I hope some of the people who witnessed her performance were moved, outraged and/or shocked, as it is from these positions we not only begin to confront our own views about gender, but we might also enter dialogue with others about them too.”

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