Academic journal article Utopian Studies

The Play of Irony: Theatricality and Utopian Transformation in Contemporary Women's Speculative Fiction *. (Essays)

Academic journal article Utopian Studies

The Play of Irony: Theatricality and Utopian Transformation in Contemporary Women's Speculative Fiction *. (Essays)

Article excerpt

THIS ESSAY WILL EXPLORE the trope of performance and theatricality that pervades a number of 20th-century works of speculative fiction by women. It is not simply a matter of displaying the performativity of gender, though that is at the heart of the matter; it is that, like feminist political theater, feminist speculative texts are designed, in the words of theater theorist Janelle Reinelt, to "make ideology visible ... to foreground and examine ideologically-determined beliefs and unconscious habitual perceptions" ("Beyond Brecht" 150). The texts I will consider appropriate the trope of the theatrical primarily for just this purpose: as a way of exposing the illusions of patriarchal ideology, giving the lie to illusions of ideological mystification. The authors' employment of the trope also shades into a wider sense of "the theatrical," as they examine both the role of performance in creating a personal gender identity, and the role of ritual in creating for women generally a more positive social identity. This double role for theatricality in creating identity can be traced in three contemporary novels: Joanna Russ's The Female Man (1975); Margaret Atwood's famous The Handmaid's Tale (1985); and Sheri S. Tepper's The Gate to Women's Country (1988). These are not the only texts that would have worked for my argument, but they are the ones that best exemplify the complex interconnection of individual and social identity through performance. In all three, female protagonists become, if they are not already, keenly aware of their own theatricality; over the course of their stories, they become aware of the political power of performance, not only in constructing--or deconstructing--gender, but also in creating both a personal and a social identity.

What is especially interesting, however, is the recognition of how the strategic employment of theatricality works to ironize, and subsequently to challenge, the relationships of the novels' various female protagonists to the cultures that have invested them with a particular (narrow) identity or ideological significance. The irony theatricality exposes becomes a mode of agency and opposition. This ironical edge offers the double consciousness that makes a renegotiation both of one's sense of self and of one's sense of self in society possible. Each reflects utopia's own profound relationship to the ironical mode, interested as utopia is in the kind of discontinuities, in the simultaneous double-vision, that the ironic mode is so good at bringing forward. Where these novels' theatricality adds to this is in theater's fore-grounding of problems of essence vs. appearance, invisibility vs. visibility, particularly as these oppositions apply to the dilemmas posed by definitions of gender, and the strictures of gender ideologies.

Ultimately at stake of course are the politics of resistance and reform each text endorses, and what makes the trope of theatricality so crucial is that these novels' protagonists come to exploit that theatricality to gain political power. Theatricality, which highlights in each text the connection between female agency and social change, is shown to be a primary mode for the possibility, at least, of utopian transformation even in the most dystopic of these narratives. Theatrical spaces, both private and public, become stages for scenes of irony that offer glimpses into utopian potentialities.

I. Ironizing The Theater of the Body

Theater theoretician Herbert Blau has argued that the fact that "the image of the woman has itself been linked, through the entire history of the theater, to the status of commodity has been ... the ideological burden of much recent theory"; there is "no way" for women "to escape the commodity form" (To All Appearances 4). Indeed feminist theory as far back as Mary Wollstonecraft has recognized the crucial connection of theatricality and commodification; (1) her employment of tropes of gender performativity throughout, most notably, Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), remarkably anticipates analyses nearly two centuries later of the female subject. …

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