Academic journal article Making Connections

Agency through Collective Creation and Performance: Empowering Incarcerated Women on and off Stage

Academic journal article Making Connections

Agency through Collective Creation and Performance: Empowering Incarcerated Women on and off Stage

Article excerpt

"Any community without the arts is a community that will no longer have a soul. "

- Arne H. Carlson, governor of Minnesota

During the summer of 2009,1 began a dialogue with incarcerated women who are part of an ongoing theater troupe at a medium- security prison. This dialogue culminated in the women writing and performing Λ Theatrical Ritual for Incarcerated Women. In this performance, they risked making their personal stories public. The production was empowering for everyone-on and off stage. This paper examines how incarcerated women are represented in the media and contrasts it with our collective creation and performance, weaving the voices of the women throughout the process. The final section is an analysis and reflection integrating the work of other practitioners and theorists.

Media Images of Incarcerated Women

Scholarship on incarcerated women demonstrates that these women are rarely represented authentically. They are often depicted as violent and their bodies are objectified. Furthermore, incarcerated women are mostly missing or invisible from public discourse (A. Clark 40). Demonized for not living up to the dominant cultures expectation of their gender role, these women are locked up and forgotten (Cecil 321). Often depicted as predators (A Clark 39), monsters (Johnson) or even animals (Kilbourne), incarcerated women are among the most disenfranchised members of society.

Journalist Anna Clark explores the media images of incarcerated women in her article, Jail Bait. She traces the history of incarcerated women in films dating back to the 1950s.

Titillating titles like Caged (1950), Girls in Prison (1956), Caged Heat (1974) and its 1994 update, Caged Heat II: Stripped of Freedom and Amazon Jail (1982) cater to viewer's voyeuristic impulses. These tales of vulnerable young things navigating a harsh prison are largely vehicles for money shot- style images that are the films' raison d'etre: a roomful of women being hosed down by their sadistic warden as punishment... or a young reform-school inmate gang-raped with a plunger by her roommates. (A. Clark 37-38)

While films like this have declined, there are "many websites devoted to chronicling the genre, often highlighting particularly sexual or violent scenes" (A. Clark 38). Even arguably exemplary films like Stranger Inside (2001) and What I Want My Words to Do to You: Voices from Inside a Women's Maximum-Security Prison (2003) still portray incarcerated women as uniformly violent (A. Clark 38-39).

Although Clark acknowledges a few films that are not prurient, she also emphasizes that most prison stories are about men. She notes a number of films about men that have made a strong impact on the public, including the following: The Shawshank Redemption, Escape from Alcatraz, Dead Man Walking, Papillon, Face/ Off, The Green Mile, and Stir Crazy (A. Clark 40). Although incarceration rates overall have continued to climb over the past several decades, there has been a steady increase in stories about men in prison-but not women (A. Clark 40). "This is true despite the fact that, since 1980, the number of women in prison has increased at nearly double the rate for men, and despite the increasing attention paid to abuses within women's correctional facilities" (A. Clark 40).

One would expect that other media coverage of incarcerated women would fare better. Unfortunately, this is not the case. An ethnographic content analysis of 10 programs including documentaries, television news magazines, and talk shows by Dawn Cecil indicates that these programs did not accurately portray incarcerated women. Her analysis indicates that 54% of the women depicted were incarcerated for violent offenses (murder, manslaughter, and attempted murder). However, only 12.2% of women are incarcerated for these crimes (Cecil 312). Furthermore, these programs focused on instances of institutional violence, making it appear that women are as violent as men behind bars; however, research has indicated that there is less violence in women's prisons (Cecil 313). …

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