There's a little game that I like to play – maybe you could call it a thought experiment – when I'm having trouble making sense of the relationship between art and life. It's not an especially sophisticated game; it's actually embarrassingly unoriginal. But I fall back on it in exasperated default when I can't think my way into a distressing contradiction with any more depth.
So: I imagine aliens landing on Earth and trying to make sense of things – naturally, I want them to grapple with culture first. I imagine these aliens being taken on a kind of arts-media junket of Toronto. A first stop, for background reading, would be the internet, where they'd immediately become acquainted with terminology such as rape culture, toxic masculinity, sexual harassment, violence against women. They'd learn names such as Trump, Weinstein, Louis C.K., Brett Ratner. They'd figure out that, while humanity divides itself into many types, there is one division – male/female – that has caused inequality so key to the development of civilization, it's clearly among civilization's most defining factors. The aliens would pick up on the outrage and exhaustion surrounding this inequality. They'd sense that a cumulative anger was coming to a head.
Then, let's say, the aliens' first evening was reserved for high culture, so we took our visiting friends to the ballet.
Since the majority of classical plots are about women who are trapped by men, become desperate/crazy and die, chances are our aliens would spend two-plus hours watching what we could justifiably summarize as femicide – because for what reason are these heroines killed off by their male authors/choreographers other than for the fact that they are women? If you count being turned into a statue for 16 years, or being forced to sleep for 100, as forms of death, add The Winter's Tale and The Sleeping Beauty to that list of killings (both are part of the National Ballet of Canada's current Toronto season).
If the junket happened to coincide with the National Ballet's last summer season, our aliens would've learned something else: Ballet loves a good rape scene.
John Neumeier's A Streetcar Named Desire featured the long, explicit rape of Blanche, in which Stanley brutalized her in 10-odd minutes of violent choreography. In the company's version of Swan Lake, choreographed by James Kudelka, the first act ends with the gang rape of a character called "the wench." Our aliens could then visit the fall 2017 season at the Royal Ballet in London, which presented two back-to-back ballets with more rape: a violent gang rape in Kenneth MacMillan's The Judas Tree, and your more average, two-hander rape in Arthur Pita's brand-new ballet The Wind.
And if we felt the aliens needed to see just a little more violence against women via dance, Guardian dance critic Luke Jennings did a recent body count of killed and/or brutalized women in the past few seasons at Covent Garden. Siobhan Burke of The New York Times called out new contemporary ballet for sequences in which powerless female bodies were manhandled and violated by groups of male dancers – if not a literal depiction of gang rape, certainly a figurative one. My first article on dance for The Globe and Mail was about the National's 2014 production of MacMillan's Manon, a ballet in which the teenaged heroine dies in a swamp in Louisiana after being sold into prostitution, arrested and raped by her jailor.
Our aliens, understandably, might be a bit confused. "Let's get this straight," they'd say. "Ending sexual violence against women is one of the rallying cries of your time, but you like to watch it onstage as entertainment?"
Well, we'd have 1,000 answers for our naive visitors. We'd explain that it's not so simple. Old ballets can't be changed, we can't be held responsible for the mores of past centuries and male choreographers, young and old, must be encouraged to follow their creative instincts. If they want to depict (or imply) the physical or sexual exploitation of women on stage, who are we to say, "Bro, maybe not a good idea?" On top of that, audiences buy tickets to titles they recognize, and people recognize A Streetcar Named Desire, Anna Karenina and Giselle. It's not that we necessarily like watching the brutal victimization of women; it's that we have no choice.
While the aliens are busy looking up the word choice and trying to understand how it can make sense in this context – when choice seems to define how we, as humans, go about making, presenting and consuming art – we might offer our friends yet another explanation. Violence against women on stage is realism, and realism is important. It's not mere entertainment, but a kind of reckoning with the way things are. It's holding up a mirror to the audience and forcing us to face ourselves.
I'll drop my alien parable here and confront this line of reasoning directly because its complexity warrants more nuance. The "holding a mirror" argument is something you hear a lot when violence is depicted in art and it's one that I'm officially sick of hearing. In her book The Art of Cruelty, American writer Maggie Nelson argues that all depictions of cinematic rape are not only gratuitous, but they're also coercive in the sense that there's a metaphor between the lack of consent in watching rape on film and the lack of consent in being a victim of it in life.
But the problem with "reality-check" art is even bigger in my mind. For the most part, in order for it to work, it demands a kind of manufactured forgetfulness, a self-rewarding amnesia, that I think is as dishonest and damaging as the shoulder-shrugging fatalism that allows us to keep producing misogynist ballet.
The production that recently triggered my renewed exasperation with faux-satire was a one-act show at Toronto's Theatre Centre called Daughter. (It will be in Calgary in January, 2018, and Ottawa in February, 2018.) Performer/creator Adam Lazarus's play has gotten rave reviews from all the major critics in Toronto, who have lauded it for challenging the grey zones of masculinity, for provocatively testing how much misogyny we can bear and, of course, for providing a brutal reality check on contemporary male behaviour. Reading these headlines, and sitting amid the standing ovation on opening night, I couldn't help but feel like one of my pals from outer space.
I'll try to break down the show as clearly and objectively as I can. Billed as a "darkly satirical piece about a father stuck in a moment of confusion," the play uses a structure of two parallel storylines to reveal two sides of the narrator's character. In one, he's a likeable, progressive guy doing his best to raise his young daughter. In the other, he's a man with a deep-seated hatred of women that propels him to continually objectify, degrade and dehumanize them. This dehumanization begins as behaviour that we're probably meant to judge as ordinary boys-will-be-boys antics: As an undergrad, he downloads copious amounts of violent porn and visits a particularly demeaning strip club in Tokyo (I won't dignify it with any details). The dehumanization ends as behaviour that we're probably meant to judge as utterly unconscionable: As an adult, he beats the 16-year-old girl he's having an affair with.
It's obvious that the play's structure is meant to put the good father and the bad misogynist into some kind of tense conversation. But to what end? The most inane and offensive explanation I've heard – and it's a version of the "brutal reality check" – is that it forces us to recognize the human inside the monster. This line of reasoning imagines the play as a kind of news flash: Misogynists don't walk around the world with hoods and fangs; they're actually all around us! They're our brothers, husbands, bosses, friends and employees. Misogyny doesn't erupt out of nowhere in huge unthinkable acts of sexual violence; it starts with tiny decisions about how you treat women in your personal life and the media you consume at home.
For the life of me, I can't fathom a person alive in 2017 – man or woman – who would see that idea as revelatory. Isn't this what we've been reading about every single day for the past three months – not to mention since the advent of second-wave feminism?
Isn't this the crux of the #MeToo campaign, with women across the world expressing how daily, banal and ubiquitous their experiences of harassment and abuse have been?
And let's not pretend this is an innocuous form of repetition. It's damaging when we keep putting this material on stage and pretending it surprises us, or legitimizing the surprise of other people. It lets us all off the hook: We saw nothing! This is all brand new! It absolves us of any responsibility in regard to how misogyny is cultivated and sustained in society and gets us back to square one – the revelatory moment – when we should be so much further along the cycle of dismantling gendered violence and inequality.
This is what I mean by a self-rewarding amnesia, although the only thing really being rewarded here is misogyny.
There's a second take on Daughter that I find a little more sophisticated, but just as problematic. It imagines the play as a kind of Rorschach blot that tests your own tolerance of misogyny. Through the good-dad storyline, the play wears down your defences and tricks you into empathizing with some of the "lesser" misogyny it depicts. We like this guy because he dances to R&B with his six-year-old and so we're more forgiving when he starts detailing the awful things he's done to women. If this "trick" works on anyone, what is its point? Is it, once again, a kind of public-service announcement that good dads can be bad people, too? Or is it even ethically lazier – an exploitation of what theatre does best, playing on our sympathies one moment, shocking us with sexually violent material the next and leaving us to experience something "powerful" in between that, then clean up the mess of their aftermath ourselves?
Satire that doesn't subvert anything, and just glibly puts hateful material onstage, is a really pernicious kind of art. When the subject matter is rape, misogyny and the sexual/physical degradation of women, it comes at a very high cost.
In order for Daughter to work in any way, it makes the presumption that I can tolerate some level of misogyny. It normalizes that presumption. It imposes that presumption on me. And this presumption has its parallel in the ballet world, where audiences are expected to tolerate the victim-heroine trope, the figurative degradation of female bodies and, sometimes, the very literal representation of violent rape.
I resent this presumption. I resent seeing art that makes me feel stupid about being a woman. I want to make a statement that I won't tolerate any level of misogyny, but it feels like hot air. I don't know how.