Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Feminism, Power, and Mike Daisey

Mike Daisey called his new monologue, Yes All Women.  The internet exploded.  So he changed the title to Yes This Man.  Rather than get caught up in the semantics, I just wanted to hear someone talk about feminism.  I don't feel like more people talking about feminism is a bad thing.  Yes, even if it's men who are speaking about it.  Because we have a problem here, World.  We don't talk about power structures, oppression, privilege, and misogyny much at all.  It occasionally bubbles up when there are "newsworthy" events and the media decides to weigh in: like the kidnapping of young girls or the murder of women by a mentally unstable young man but it is never a sustained conversation.  And no action ever follows those events.  Much like after each school shooting, nothing changes in our gun control laws.     

What was remarkable about #YesAllWomen, was that it took the conversation beyond the media-curated discourse to the everyday sexism that all women face and rarely talk about publicly.  Everyday sexism is so pervasive that I don't even have a word for that feeling of walking down the street with keys in my hands poised as a weapon in case that guy coming out of the subway with me follows me.  But we've likely all done that and felt that anxiety. 

The backlash, which sprung up through #NotAllMen, showed how destabilizing and threatening the conversation could be if taken to that most basic level.  Men can reject the dramatic sexism/misogyny readily--I wouldn't kill or kidnap women!  But that they also reject the daily sexism is where the conversation becomes explosive.  Denying their role in the institution, the power structure, and the world they benefit from controlling, allows them to get away with something even greater--it creates this sinister feeling of invalidation and erasure.

Gaslighting women's experience of everyday sexism IS the reason we should be talking about this. 

With that as the background, Mike Daisey has a new monologue about his own sexism and power.  It's an evolving work and will be re-staged in July in a different form.  But rather than looking at feminism on a bigger scale he takes his story to the evolution of his relationship with gender, sexual identity, sex, marriage, and women.  He owns his own privilege in this conversation (openly declaring his intent to "mansplain" for the evening).  I expected it to take on a grander scale with the brouhaha but in reality it is a smaller scale piece about Daisey himself.

I have not seen a lot of Daisey's work save the controversial  The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs and listened to a few episodes of the All the Faces of the Moon.  I think Scott Brown's terrific review comes from the most educated place on how this fits into Daisey's work as a whole.  But it's not a secret--Daisey often talks about Daisey.  Love it or hate it.

In this instance, it is key to his structure and device--making it personal is what makes it worthwhile.  On its own merit (I know 6 paragraphs in--but there's a lot of context to unpack), the work feels very much like a work in progress.  Daisey is known for working from an outline rather than a strict script.  But the oscillation between his discourse with a dissident feminist and the evolution of his relationship with his wife in their marriage doesn't necessarily have the strong payoff you want in a piece of storytelling because the through-line is muddled.  Yes This Man had its moments of power and its moments of pause but it has a way to go. That said I'd like to see the July version because there's something worth talking about there, it is just making it's way a bit circuitously.

The connective tissue that gets us from Daisey's college years to now involves stories of where he "kissed a boy" but refused to let himself really explore that part of himself, living with his girlfriend (who becomes his wife), episodes of Star Trek, episodes of his sex life, and discussions with the dissident who he describes as "more butch than I am."

I'm guessing that he's speaking of Camille Paglia but she remains unnamed in the show which feels a little churlish.  By not naming her it keeps the focus on the conversation about Daisey rather than her. That's not necessarily a problem but I think there could be much more done to integrate her presence in the story if she's to have a voice/role/impact on the conversation.  I wasn't always clear what she was doing in the story and in the end she ended up as more of a sounding board for Daisey rather than a character in her own right. 

The sex stories felt less about gender or power than they should have in this context.  Maybe because Daisey seems more interested in this section in explaining that sex with fat people is better than sex with "small" people (or as he concedes they may see themselves, "normal"-sized).  It's part of his train of thought on his big personality, his capacity for large-scale outrage, and his glee at rolling around in his own shamelessness.  It's a funny sidetrack but it felt off in tone and focus.  Despite the fact that we do end up in the midst of some of the most intimate moments of his marriage, and we hear about him exploring his sexuality and talking about his wife's sexuality, the lead up feels oddly less intimate.* 

The parts that kicked my brain into gear where when Daisey did explore his own capacity for sexism and his power.  I mean that's the problem with privilege and bias.  When you possess it, it's hard to see it.  Like an animal chasing it's tail, you may catch glimpses of it as you turn around quickly but it's not in your line of vision most of the time.  Daisey seems to sincerely be trying to get to the bottom of why misogyny is both so prevalent and yet so undisturbed in its place in our society.  He says it--the people in power don't want to give up that power.  He describes it as a war that has been going on for so long we forget it is going on.  Where my ears perked up was when he talked about the fact that when one takes responsibility, it requires you to take action.  It's what made #NotAllMen so insidious.  The rejection of responsibility absolved everyone of taking that action. And nothing will change if men disclaim responsibility.  And I mean all men. 

Daisey takes responsibility for his actions--well because it was brought to his attention and his wife would not continue on, on the same path.  Jean-Michele, Daisey's wife, is also his longtime director and collaborator.  The stunning revelation for both Daisey and the audience is that he realizes he spent years "using" his wife and when she finally confronts him about where their dynamic has ended up, she talks of it in terms of her erasure.  His overbearing presence in their relationship and her life has somehow distorted her sense of self.   She could not be who she was with him taking up that space.  They now live apart--married, but enjoying dating each other.  

Oddly I came away thinking that Daisey was again using his wife--her story--to achieve his own.  And I say it without malice.   It may be the storyteller's job to take from others to build the story but as much as Daisey was present in this story, it also felt like he was not opening up enough.  More about his wife was revealed and even though he talked about himself quite a bit it didn't feel like the sharing was on an equal plane.  But then again maybe there is nothing quite like that sexist erasure that women experience, for men.  Perhaps nothing he could share could have the same impact as that.  Or maybe that is why the conversation often gets shutdown because we leap to the "you'll never understand my pain" place. 

I'm open to hearing more of the conversation.   

*He tweeted after that he felt like the room was not "safe" and this held him back.  I wonder if this is the part he was holding back on. 

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