Ten Women

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Originally written for Exeunt

The appearance of ‘real’ as a combative term in feminist activism is becoming increasingly persistent and increasingly problematic. However well intended, the establishment of a ‘real’ that is alternative to the media norm is not as helpful as it might initially appear to be. Dove have started telling us what ‘real’ women look like and social media has been flooded with photos of men holding signs outlining how ‘real’ men should behave, but however positively intended and seemingly progressive the portrayed traits may be, the idea that they can and do represent the existence of a fixed gender ideal only feeds back into a system which chains us to the construct of an archetypal mould, and divides us by difference.

Yes… these are the kind of thoughts that Ten Women (hopefully intentionally) prompts, and though it does a good deal more question raising than anything else, it’s the conversation that’s important. Right?

Aiming to take on the media-established objectification of women’s bodies and reclaim the idea of real, Ten (actually sixteen) Women involves a mixture of performers and members of the public in telling the story of one woman’s (every woman’s?)  relationship with her body.

Nothing less than a swell of joy could greet anyone at the sight of such a diverse range of women on stage as the piece opens, and this alone could justify Ten Women’s existence. Still very much in development, the project is a montage of varying success as women overlap, interrupt, repeat the positive experience of being in their bodies – dancing, cycling, boxing… Later giving way to the diary reading of a young woman’s growing discomfort in her own skin. A wryly clever advertisement casting meets enactment of Kylie’s Sexercise video is one of the evening’s true notes; as the cast dance, provocative and po-faced, with various innocuous household items and exercise balls before being dismissed one by one for being “too exotic”, “too slutty”, “too pale”, “neck’s too long” and yes, “too black” – just in case you’d forgotten that that still happens in casting rooms.

It’s not difficult to feel in touch with what it is that Bethan Dear would like to achieve, and Ten Women has not been commissioned or produced without due thought and consideration – which the post-show discussion certainly highlights. The complication is that the underlying problems the piece is trying to tackle are simply too unwieldy; while taking on the issues and experiences of all women simultaneously is admirable, it isn’t achieved or emulated by sixteen women in under an hour in this format. In fact, such comprehensiveness seems unattainable.

Some scenes, such as the exaggerated, violent rituals of shaving ,exfoliating, moisturising and clambering into ridiculously uncomfortable clothes – and all of the self-flagellation, denial and guilt that comes with them – are so universal and so simply executed that they cannot but strike home. But. The piece’s piece de resistance is… tricky.

“Does seeing real help?” we are asked, as the cast disrobe to varying states of undress that they feel comfortable with – a choice, we are later told, that each woman makes anew each night – from complete nudity to underwear to remaining fully clothed. However, the intended power of the actuality of these bodies is somewhat lost, for reasons that are no less interesting than the motivation for including this part in the performance in the first place. As they stand in a row facing us directly, speaking in overlapping tones, it is not the fact of these women’s nakedness that is powerful, but the manner of it. Not due to its desexualised presentation, but due to its confidence. The naked women we see outside of our own domestic arrangements are perpetually provocative, ashamed or (less commonly) comedic. If the female body is not to be desired, it is to be covered up – how rare to see someone stand in their own skin, quite happily continuing to say their piece with no attempt to conceal any part of themselves or generate a laugh.

However, the presentation of these bodies as ‘real’ is troubling, not least because the decisions made by the cast themselves about whether or not to get undressed reveal far more about the embedded societal strictures on the bodies that we are allowed and supposed to feel comfortable and beautiful in than any intentional, outward element of the performance. Doubtless this has been thought of, and yielded no easy answer, but it is difficult not to see this outwardly acknowledged when attempting to fight against these very ingrained problems.

Though there was much talk afterwards of the power of the lack of mediation in standing naked before an audience not as a character but as yourself, it seems that an enforced theatricality would actually be necessary in order to present an array of women and pronounce them ‘real’ .While the strictures of casting and time are obvious factors, to present a line up which does not include women with disabilities, trans women or older women and proclaim it real is in actuality somewhat dangerous. It’s hard not to feel that the fight against media objectification should be one insisting that no one is the arbiter of ‘real’ – presenting bodies in this way, which were shaved, waxed and otherwise prepared in the full knowledge that they would be seen on a stage (though not to the exclusion of this being their reality within and without performance) perhaps needs to be done in a dramatic fashion, not one that proclaims an element of documentary reality.

There is a piece of theatre within Ten Women, waiting to come together, but it will be interesting to watch the piece find its audience. As a spectator pointed out, it feels like something that would benefit younger women a great deal. Without taking on the greater, deeper arguments around the perpetual battleground of the female body, it may not do more than scratch the surface for those of us that have safely survived our teens.

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