Should our society be allowed to celebrate its historical sexism?

By Jenni Tomlin

Upon reading today that our glorious national treasure, Stephen Fry, is playing Malvolio in an all-male production of Twelfth Night at the Globe this summer, I faced an internal struggle.

I love Shakespeare, not only for his masterful work, but also for the rich heritage that it provides for me as a native speaker of the English language. I am aware that the purpose of staging an all-male production of Twelfth night is to underline not only the heritage of Shakespeare and the Globe theatre, but also draw out some of the original Shakespearian comedy in the play. Shakespeare’s plays would originally have been performed in an all-male cast. In a performance of men playing women playing men- you are certain to lose some of the subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) comedy intended in the original script when you introduce female actors. The all-male resurgence is in celebration of both the factual history and the literary comedy.

Celebrating our history or upholding patriarchy?

There is a problem however. There were no women in Shakespeare’s original plays because it was illegal for women to perform on the stage in his time. It was believed that women were too weak to take on such a task, that if they acted a part they would be more susceptible to becoming the part, that it was indecent. It was not believed that men were susceptible to the same problems or indecencies. In short, our heritage of all-male theatre serves to highlight our deep history of sexism and inequality. An inequality that raged through the centuries denying women the right to vote, own property, be educated, inherit from their parents, work, defend themselves from domestic violence and hold the same stature as men in society.

I am not advocating that we should forget this history- it is part of our past and this cannot be denied. But should we be celebrating its existence by re-enacting such a sexist culture to this day? Of course, I am not suggesting that the directors, producers and actors in this performance are promoting the idea that women shouldn’t perform on the stage, but by re-enacting such sexist practices are they not celebrating them to some degree?

Sometimes when struggling with the boundaries of where feminism ends and craziness sets in I like to compare it with other centuries old struggles for equality- in this instance I couldn’t help but think about the Black and White Minstrel Show. The Black and White Minstrel Show was an extremely popular light entertainment show that ran from 1958-1978 where white people would black up their faces and essentially act the part of black people. Towards the end of its run, it came under serious criticism for racism and despite its popularity at the time (by 1964 they had viewing figures of 18 million) it is now viewed as something of a national embarrassment- the fact that this is part of our heritage is generally ignored, much less celebrated. If someone decided to put on a repeat performance of the Black and White Minstrel Show simply to celebrate its British cultural heritage there would be bitter outrage- many people both black and white would be deeply hurt by such a suggestion.

If this is the case, why can we all sit and laugh whilst watching an all-male performance of Shakespeare?  Are we less embarrassed about the sexist heritage of our culture than our racist heritage?

Perhaps it is because some believe that female inequality truly is history, so we can look back and laugh at such a state of affairs.

  1. Is the title actually the question that is being addressed? Presumably the issue is not whether we should be “allowed” to celebrate things which are considered sexist (for that is a question of free speech) but rather, whether society should celebrate traditional things just because they are traditional, even though they would nowadays be considered sexist.

    But in any case, hopefully one day soon we will be able look back and laugh at those archaic things known as sexism and racism that don’t belong in our society or our era.

  2. Jo Rush said:

    Having seen both the 2002 production of Twelfth Night that the upcoming Stephen Fry production is a revival of and also seen the noteably all-female production of Much Ado About Nothing put on by The Globe in 2004 I have to say that sexism was far more celebrated by the all-female production than the all-male. In Much Ado, women played men as fairly crude stereotypes of “lads” or stiff pompous idiots, amongst other things. While in Twelfth Night the women were the powerful charcters of the play and were played with accuracy, humour and depth. The Globe’s aim in producing all-male Shakespeare plays is clearly to recreate and help people understand an important part of our theatrical heritage, not our sexist heritage, and to display the skill required of the male actors who specialised in bringing women to life on stage. To bemoan the exclusion of women from the acting profession is to gloss over the fact that almost all women at the time were expected not to work, not just left out of one particular job, and that acting was opened up to women as a profession less than 50 years after Shakespeare’s death – a long time before many other professions, or even education, became acceptable for women. It also ignores the social exclusion that male actors themselves faced, as they were considered artists of deception not worthy to be buried on holy ground. I think it is a great thing for people to see an all-male production now, with the benefit of nearly 400 years since women have been legally permitted to act on the stage, because, as talented as the male actors may be, it is impossible to imagine a complete return to such theatrical practices now that women’s place on the stage and screen has been so powerfully carved out. In theatrical history, if not in the rest of our cultural history, women have made themselves irreplaceable, reducing the art of men-playing-women to comedic drag, so I would say that in terms of the ability to perform women’s roles, inequality has truly become a matter of history to be looked back on.

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