Gender Studies Essay Written at LCDS, 2000
Language could be seen as a reflection of sexist culture; or (in my view a more satisfactory position) it could be seen as a carrier of ideas and assumptions which become, through their constant re-enactment in discourse, so familiar and conventional we miss their significance. 1
This essay will attempt to illustrate or challenge Debbie Cameron’s statement through looking at gender imagery in Jonathan Lunn’s word-based choreography.
Jonathan Lunn uses text in very specific ways as source material for choreography. The dancers are given “scripts” (excerpts from literature, i.e. dialogues from Shakespeare’s plays) and are told to create a specific movement for each word in the text. This is done only to come up with source material for the piece, not to tell the story, so the connection between text and movement need not be obvious. In spite of this I believe this method of working gives us a unique approach to researching language, because we may get particular insight in individual’s interpretations of and associations to words. This can be relevant for looking at how language carries “ideas and assumptions which become (...) so familiar and conventional we miss their significance.” Because this kind of physical manifestation of words is not familiar to us (though possibly conventional), we may be forced to take a closer look at the content or significance of words.
Movements that are clearly inspired by and literal to the words may or may not employ gender stereotypes, and the first important issue to look into is whether stereotypes are re-enacted from biases inherent in the language and/or the dancers’ interpretation of it, or challenged. The second issue is how gender imagery is employed in the final choreography. By questioning both, we may be able to briefly draw conclusions regarding the source of any gender imagery found in the piece although a deeper analysis is beyond the scope of this essay.
The vocabulary of Bach Bench varies from everyday gestures to more abstract sequences. The gender relevance of pedestrian gestures can be clear and easy to interpret, but where the movement is more abstract I need a theoretical foundation for my analysis. The task is made even more complicated by viewers’ eagerness to “read gender” – indeed it is nearly impossible to create movements that will look “neutral” to audiences that look for gender significance. When studying abstract movements, I will therefore try to apply choreological analysis to specify what about a certain movement may look more masculine or feminine. Hopefully, this analysis will be more objective than reading in gender, or even using my “male gaze” to label “sexual” movements as feminine.
In choreological analysis, my main concern will be with the dynamic structures impact and impulse, and the spatial structure body design. Impact means that a movement accentuates its ending, impulse that it accentuates its beginning. Body design recognises poses, which sometimes logically follow impacts.
I will suggest that these structures imply qualities that are traditionally labelled male or female. An impact has a certain decisiveness and often a sense of strength, as opposed to seeking, indecisive impulses. A body design may give a sense of strength and confidence, contrasting continuous, restless movement, but may as well copy already stereotyped poses that are “pre- gendered” male or female.
Obviously, it is important not to take these connections too far – these structures will apply to all movement regardless of whether the choreographer or performer are conscious of it or not, and often without gender significance. Most choreographers will vary the use of these structures to achieve contrasts within the piece, not to say something about gender issues. While trying not to “gender” the piece too much I still think it is important to try and see why a movement looks masculine or feminine, and I think choreology offers a valuable perspective on the issue.
The source scripts were selected for richness in vocabulary and/or imagery or because of striking dialogue. Most of them contain gender specific words like “he”, “she”, “sister”, “brother” etc. I will start with identifying these words, then study the video of source material to see how they are interpreted in movement. It is worth noting that most of the “he”s in the text refer to actual persons, and are not examples of the “male-as-norm” usage. Exceptions are the excerpt from “The taming of the shrew”, where a wasp is referred to as “he”2, and the Sonnet XXIX where I read “man” as used in a generic sense. Consequently, the interpretations of these excerpts will be particularly interesting and may show us whether the dancers challenge the “male-as-norm” usage or choreograph masculine movements even when male words are used generically.
Besides the clearly gender-specific pronouns and nouns, the scripts contain other words that may evoke gender stereotypes – for instance will words related to feelings and beauty more often be connected to a female “type”. Thus it will be interesting to see whether words like love, affection, beauty are interpreted consistently differently from words like founder, mathematician, think.
For this analysis, I have had access to a video of source material. It shows a series of dancers performing movements they have created while reading the scripts out loud. This is ideal for looking at certain words and try to identify their impact on movement material.
The video contains 42 cuts, and I will identify them by number.
These five words occur about 45 times on the video, more frequently than any others I will be looking at.
There were mainly two types of movements choreographed for he/him. One clearly drawing on the pointing aspect of the word, resulting in various variations on pointing / looking / projection, examples of which can be found in cuts 1, 3, 12 and 22. Interestingly, names sometimes cause similar looking or pointing as the pronouns (2, 23).
The second form of he/him/his-movement was also a popular choice for man/men’s. While more abstract, it often involved some kind of body design with bent arm. Sometimes this is clearly a reference to strength (12, 19 – made more obvious in final choreography) at other times it is less emphasised (1, 18, 24).
Regarding the “male-as-norm”: it seems that only cut 23 gives an example of consciously feminine movement applied to “men’s” in Sonnet XXIX.
In stark contrast to the male pronouns and nouns, “her” only occurs twice in the material, and “she”, “woman” or “women” are completely missing. Of the two examples we have, one (22) appears quite feminine in its posing body design, the other one interestingly uses very similar but not strikingly “feminine” movement for “her” and “love” (28).
Words that may evoke stereotypes are less easy to identify and analyse, and the selection and interpretation will obviously be debatable. Because each of them appears less frequent in the scripts, the conclusions also are less definite. I will look at the use of hate, curse, founder, mathematician (“male”) and beweep, love, affection, beauty (“female”).
The use of “hate” depends on whether the script describes hating or being hated. If it is the action of hating, the movement uses impact and strong body design (1, 2), if it is being the object of hate, the movement becomes much more weak and defensive (3, 4). This obviously reflects the power difference between hater and hated, a power difference that can easily be applied to traditional male/female roles.
We get a fairly similar result when looking at “curse” – the movement will either look fairly strong (2, 12, 14, 17, 18, 19) or weak (1, 23, 24). However, there is an interesting gender divide among the choreographers: all the boys using the word interpret the word with an action of strength (2, 12, 19) while half of the girls interpret cursing as weakness. Is this an echo from gender roles telling girls not to curse, or a realistic psychological insight in the mechanics behind cursing?
Regarding “think”, only cut 24 shows unambiguous masculine imagery, although the body position of 31 would normally be used by men. Most of the movements are fairly neutral variations of pointing at or touching the head. It may still be worth noting an absence of conscious feminine imagery, set up against some (however unconscious) “masculine”.
“Founders” and “mathematician” have been given similar movements in 20 and 42, but genderwise they are fairly neutral.
When looking at “beweep”, there seems to be a difference between male and female performers. Almost every female who performs this script sets this word on the floor, laying down and giving into it or fighting it (14, 17, 18, 23). The male in cut 12 dips towards the floor only to rebound up again.
Perhaps surprisingly, the word “love” has been treated quite neutrally, but the two occurrences of “affection” both have a “feminine” streak, partly through the use of soft impulses, partly through the focus being hidden (3, 4) 3.
“Beauty” also appears only twice, and it is once interpreted as face-related (4), once as related to face and breasts (3), always as something very close and personal. In contrasts to the use of “fair” in cut 24, it is intriguing how nervous and unconfident responses the word “beauty” triggers. It is clear that the word is a judgement of others, a tool of power, rather than something you apply to yourself.
Unfortunately, none of the boys have “beauty” or “handsome” in their scripts, since it would be very interesting to see their responses.
In the final piece, a selection of the movement material has been composed and organised by Lunn to suit the music, the dancers, and his vision of the piece he wants to make.
Some of the “gendered” gestures have survived the selection and are included in the piece, and in at least one section the choreographer is consciously playing on gender. This section starts out as a duet between a man and a woman, each is joined by a “support group” that joins in at times. The section is resolved by the groups crossing and another male-female duet starts, but this time the gender difference is less important.
The “gender section” draws its masculine movement material mainly from cuts 19 and 32. The body design with bent, lifted arms and clenched fists is based on the word “men’s” in cut 19, while the jump that lands on the floor is “Pyramus” in cut 32. In-between, the action for “cries” in cut 19 is kept: a ”twisting a wet cloth” gesture with the hands gives a tension between “masculine” and “feminine” not only in the entire scene, but also within the character.
Language “could be seen as a carrier of ideas and assumptions which become, through their constant re-enactment in discourse, so familiar and conventional we miss their significance” writes Debbie Cameron. I believe this essay to some extent has illustrated her point by looking at words stripped of their familiarity by the transfer from their “re-enactment in discourse” to the medium of movement, and found that some of the words seem to have significance, meanings or associations we don’t tend to consider in their everyday use.
1 Cameron, Debbie: Introduction: why is language a feminist issue?, Feminism & Linguistic Theory, p. 14
2 Unfortunately, none of the sequences on the source material video used the script from "The taming of the shrew"
3 For theories on the use of focus in representations, see Berger, John: Ways of seeing