White Fragility Hijacked Hidden Figures

*with mountains of thanks to Sharanya for talking through ideas & recommending reading, as always x

So I finally, finally saw Hidden Figures on a flight recently, and of course, I loved it. The film tells the story of three black women working at NASA during the “space race” in the 1950s and ’60s—in the words of the poster, it’s the story of “the women you don’t know behind the mission you do.” Although all three of these women started working at NASA much earlier (and some of the events portrayed also took place much earlier—more on that later!), the film focuses on the run up to John Glenn’s orbit of the earth in the Friendship 7 spacecraft in 1962. The women featured are Katherine Johnson (Goble), played by Taraji P. Henson; Dorothy Vaughan, played by Octavia Spencer; and Mary Jackson, played by Janelle Monáe. Referred to as “computers,” these women were among the many—black and white—who did computational work for NASA before machines could. The movie is based on a book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly.

I started sobbing within the first five minutes, when little Katherine Goble stands in front of a blackboard and explains analytical geometry to a room full of students twice her age.

The women who anchor the film gave stunning, committed, nuanced performances, with cathartic moments of passionate, explosive resistance (Katherine shouting down her boss; Mary convincing a judge to let her attend night classes at a white high school) balanced by moments that showed the weariness of constant, quiet resistance (Katherine including her name on NASA reports despite her colleague’s insistence that “computers don’t write reports;” Dorothy being frog marched out of the public library with her young sons; Mary’s husband reminding her that NASA doesn’t hire any female engineers, let alone black female engineers).

The representations of black womanhood in the film are spectacularly complex, giving us rare examples of women—and especially women of color—allowed to be both good at their jobs and wholly, emotionally human on screen. Our first encounter with Spencer’s Dorothy shows her fixing a broken-down car, lying on her back under the front bumper and diagnosing the problem as a police car zooms down the road toward her. She bypasses the starter to get the car going, and we next see her passing out assignments and chastising late arrivals at NASA. She holds her composure in the face of blatant discrimination from Kirsten Dunst’s Vivian Mitchell, who heads the division of white “computers” but, finally, vents to her friends on the drive home about the unfairness of doing the work of a supervisor without the pay or the title. Katherine and Mary back her up, verbalizing their support for their friend alongside their frustration with the systems that keep them from moving up. Dorothy, for her part, manages to bemoan her own situation while lifting up her friends, who have that day moved into more prestigious assignments: “Progress for any of us is progress for us all,” she says. It’s a stunning, nuanced portrayal of selfless solidarity mixed with personal rage against a rigged system.

Obviously, there’s a lot to love in the film. For one thing, its representation of intelligent, driven women of color gives the lie to the age-old stereotype of African-Americans specifically as lazy and/or stupid, especially in light of the historical context. These were real women who really made enormous contributions to NASA and the space race—there’s no spinning that as “political correctness.” This is important, necessary, and timely work: we need more representations of diverse bodies doing highly skilled jobs. We need more intersectional representation in leading roles in general, and we need it now. Hidden Figures is a great step forward in this respect.


To put it bluntly: white fragility hijacked Hidden Figures.

I’m borrowing here from Robin DiAngelo, a scholar of whiteness studies, who first theorized the term in a 2011 article for the International Journal of Critical Pedagogy. DiAngelo argues that “White people in North America live in a social environment that protects and insulates them from race-based stress,” and that “[t]his insulated environment of racial privilege builds white expectations for racial comfort while at the same time lowering the ability to tolerate racial stress” (55). Because we so rarely have to confront our own race/race-based privilege, white and white-presenting North Americans can be extremely uncomfortable with the suggestion that they ascribe to racist beliefs or that they might be complicit in systems of race-based oppression—or even the idea that racism still exists at all. As Sara Ahmed puts it, privilege lies in the ability to not notice: “when you speak about racism, you become the one who [is perceived to] cause damage” by bringing up something that white and white-presenting people can usually forget, or fail to notice, or even become “invested in not noticing.”

This bring us back to Hidden Figures, which was directed by a white man, and which seems to go out of its way to soften or cushion its portrayal of 1960s racism in America for its white audiences. While there are gestures towards the ongoing fight for civil rights, references to Dr. King, and spectres of police brutality peppered throughout the film, segregation and racial discrimination are, overall, represented as inconvenient and unfair but not life-threatening. Katherine treks half a mile across NASA’s campus to use a “colored” restroom several times a day; Dorothy and her sons sit at the back of a bus after they’re escorted out of the library. Not-so-subtle differences in quality between the facilities provided for the “West Computing Group,” which is all black, and the “East Computing Group,” which is all white, are evident. There are one or two mentions of Brown v. Board of Education, but no one prevents Mary from entering or attending class in an all-white school once she gets her court order. We don’t see the really, really dark side of segregation in the early ’60s.

I say this not to diminish or underplay the cumulative weight of microaggressions, nor to suggest that these things—available bathrooms; freedom to choose a seat or use a library; updated, clean, well-lit work environments—are unimportant. Rather, my impression was that the film used these examples of segregation and discrimination rather than others in order to make its message more palatable to the white audiences who, among other things, make up ninety-some per cent of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (the body that awards Oscars).

There is certainly a counter-argument to be made: that depicting the subtler, systemic, unspectacular side of day-to-day existence under an oppressive regime (not too strong a description of segregation in America) is a powerful and potentially more transformative approach to changing hearts and minds; that racism is insidious and not always overt, and that films too often skew towards sensationalizing violence against black, brown, and female bodies (cf. Twelve Years a Slave). I am sympathetic to the argument that films could and should do a better job of showing us the exhausting challenge of just existing as a woman of color in America.

I don’t think that’s what Hidden Figures was doing, at least not intentionally. Comments from Theodore Melfi, the film’s director, suggest that such a portrayal wasn’t foremost in his mind when he created fictional white savior moments to punctuate Katherine, Dorothy, and Mary’s stories: “There needs to be white people who do the right thing,” he said, when asked.

There certainly are a lot of them. In the broken-down car scene that I mention above, the police officer initially behaves brusquely, but eventually acquiesces and even offers the women a police escort to Langley so they won’t be late for work. Beyond Katherine’s admonition to Mary—“No one wants to go to jail because of your mouth!”—as the cruiser approaches, there is very little suggestion that a white police officer might behave in anything other than a civil and professional manner towards women of color. This, we know, is untrue.

It’s not that white people don’t or never did “do the right thing”—it’s that there’s a conspicuous lack of white people who don’t “do the right thing,” either immediately or ultimately, in Hidden Figures. This is nothing less than an erasure of African-American history.

A key scene in commentary on the film’s white savior problem is the now-infamous “bathroom speech,” where Katherine explains to Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) that she has to trek half a mile across Langley’s research campus to get to a “Colored” bathroom, so it takes her upwards of forty minutes just to relieve herself.

Although Harrison, Katherine’s boss, rages at her for always being absent when he needs her, he takes immediate action to desegregate NASA’s bathrooms as soon as he learns of the problem. He bashes down the “Colored” sign looming over the women’s restroom with sheer brute force. “Here at NASA, we all pee the same color,” he announces, triumphantly, as he flings his crowbar to the ground and hulks off screen. A crowd of nameless black women look on, stunned.

As a number of critics (and Katherine Johnson herself) have pointed out, that’s not quite how it happened. In fact, NASA (then NACA) was desegregated by an untheatrical memo from associate director Floyd Thompson in 1958, three years before the film is set.

Aside from the historical inaccuracy (after all, it’s a movie, right?), the scenes of Katherine sprinting across campus, binders clutched to chest, or correcting calculations on the bathroom floor, are presented with a light touch. Pharrell Williams’ catchy, ’60s-inspired score bounces along as Katherine runs in her high heels, pushes her glasses off her nose, and drops paperwork en route to and from the bathroom. It’s almost comic: Katherine is inconvenienced, and we can see that it annoys her, but ultimately, it’s portrayed as no big deal until Harrison gets involved.

As Zeba Blay points out for The Huffington Post:

“the inclusion of the bathroom scene doesn’t make Melfi a bad filmmaker, or a bad person, or a racist. But his suggestion that a feel-good scene like that was needed for the marketability and overall appeal of the film speaks to the fact that Hollywood at large still has a long way to go in telling black stories, no matter how many strides have been made.”

I’ve talked about just two examples of scenes in which a white character behaved, well, better than many white people were behaving in 1961. There were many other scenes I could’ve picked. Don’t get me started on the contrived moment when Paul Stafford, one of Katherine Johnson’s fiercest antagonists in the film, lovingly delivers her a cup of coffee—a gesture intended, presumably, to smooth over the segregation of the coffee pots that occurs when Katherine begins working in the all-white division where she spends most of her time. As Ahmed says, “[s]moothing over often means: eliminating the signs of injury to create a fantasy of a whole.” It’s a sickly sweet moment, and it’s obviously designed to show us that Paul is actually a pretty good guy. He just had a little wobble there where he thought that black women weren’t really people, that’s all! Look at how Katherine’s hard work proved him wrong and won him over!

I could also talk about the pearls that Katherine’s co-workers pitch in to buy her when she gets demoted because they bought an IBM. This is the gift they choose because Katherine throws in an aside about not being able to afford the string of pearls that is supposed to be part of her dress code: “God knows you don’t pay negroes enough to afford pearls.” I would wish to point out to the filmmakers that she wasn’t complaining about not having a necklace; she was saying she wanted fair pay for her highly skilled work. But I guess jewellery softens the blow of being fired, anyway.

Enough. I don’t want to knock the movie. Like I say above, there’s a lot that’s great about it, and there’s a lot of good that’s come from its success. I’m glad it was made. I hope it inspires more mainstream cultural production that centers stories like Johnson’s, Vaughan’s, and Jackson’s.

But I also hope that the films already in progress, and those to come in the future, will think more critically and carefully about how they represent whiteness in stories about people of color. I hope that the next movie about women of color in STEM fields is brave enough to tackle their experiences from their perspectives unflinchingly. After all, their stories are compelling enough on their own.


SAA Provocation: Shakespeare and Fan Theory

It’s been a while since I wrote a blog post, but that doesn’t mean that I haven’t been writing! I’m working on a bunch of projects as I navigate the academic job market (again). So here’s something new that I tested out on my Shakespeare Association of America (SAA) workshop group. I’m hoping to build this idea up into an article, so any feedback will be very much appreciated 🙂

It’s a provocation: adaptations of Shakespeare should be more like fan fiction.

Building on Abigail De Kosnik’s work in Rogue Archives, this provocation theorizes adaptations of Shakespeare in relation to fan fiction. Can we understand the derision that sometimes follows adaptations of Shakespeare as similar to the derision that accompanies fandom? Do Shakespeare adaptations occupy a queer and feminine space in the way that De Kosnik suggests fan fiction does? What does fan theory offer scholars of Shakespeare in adaptation and adapters of Shakespeare that other theories of adaptation do not?

Shakespearean adaptation—like fanfic—is both granted and stripped of legitimacy by virtue of its relationship to the source text or ‘canon.’ Fanfic, like some of the best adaptation, often grows out of a love-hate relationship with the canon: fans obsess even as they recognise the shortcomings of their chosen source text. As Aja Romano puts it in her analysis of Lin Manuel Miranda’s musical sensation, “Hamilton is fanfic, which means its function is partly to argue with its canon, not to simply celebrate it” (np). In Shakespeare terms, this impulse to “argue with the canon” can manifest along a spectrum from Phyllida Lloyd’s all-female casts at the Donmar Warehouse to wholly re-written or re-imagined takes on the plays such as the Hogarth Shakespeare series.

For the purposes of this short paper, I am particularly interested in De Kosnik’s assessment of fan fiction archives as queer and feminine spaces. Without claiming that these “rogue archives” “close gaps in computing access or skill between large numbers of people”, De Kosnik does argue—convincingly—that they are “archives of women’s digital culture and queer digital culture” (10-11, 12). Put another way, fan fiction archivists “pry open ‘the archive’—digital cultural memory writ large—to include their idiosyncratic repositories, and thus foist some measure of democratization onto the field of contemporary archival practice” (18). They appropriate the tools of traditional, institutional archivists (18) in order to rewrite and even transcend the canon (21). Indeed, De Kosnik argues, rogue archives are “intrinsically opposed to the very notion of canonicity” (21).

De Kosnik’s ground-breaking work obviously has a number of implications for Shakespeareans. Here, however, I aim to focus on the opposition to canonicity developed through spaces that are explicitly and emphatically identified as female and queer. De Kosnik identifies fan fiction sites and their archives as “sites in which women and girls can feel that they are participating in a tradition of female writing and reading, and can experience a sense of safety in numbers” (135). As a result, “fan archives facilitate numerous acts of representation and communication that exceed the bounds of heteronormativity” (135).

De Kosnik also identifies in female-authored fan fiction an impulse that drives many adapters of Shakespeare: she reads female fan authorship “as a response by women and girls to a media culture in which they rarely see their own narrative priorities and preferences play out, and so feel compelled to create their own versions” (142). While she is not uncritical of the links that have been made between fan culture and queer culture, De Kosnik also notes that fan spaces can function—“as explicitly queer spaces do”—“as simultaneously ‘safe spaces’ and spaces of targeting” (147). Fan archives are also queer in the sense that they shift the center of the conversation, creating spaces for a cultural archive that is not canonical or mainstream. Fanfic therefore has much to teach Shakespeareans not only in terms of a more relaxed relationship to a canon, but also in terms of providing models for taking genuine risks in terms of casting and dramaturgy. Fanfic frequently recasts the main characters, bringing in a more diverse range of voices than is typically encountered in the canons it represents. And so, I suggest, Shakespeare adaptations, particularly those commissioned by major companies, should be more like fanfic in its willingness to depart from canon and take genuine risks in terms of casting, dramaturgy, and politics.

A useful lens through which to consider this provocation is the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s “contemporary translations” because of the tension between the democratizing intent of the project and the potential pitfalls revealed by its parameters. Play On! proudly includes voices of women and people of color among the playwrights commissioned for the project (“Play On!”). OSF is also well known for its inclusive casting policies.

The OSF website, however, is absolutely clear that “The Play On translations will not be adaptations” because “Everything to do with setting, time period, references, etc. will remain unchanged […], pop-culture references and contemporary slang will not be appropriate, and the politics of the original plays will not be cut or ‘fixed’ in any way” (“Further Reading”). Despite this, the project claims to be following a path of “experimentation, exploration, and changing the language.” As an adapter of Shakespeare, I’m intrigued by this deliberate separation between “experimentation” and “adaptation.” Experimentation, it seems, is important, meaningful, expository work—an effort that will appropriately “celebrate Shakespeare’s masterworks.” Adaptation, on the other hand, is framed as reductive, destructive, inappropriate, or—worst of all—trendy, informed by “pop-culture references and contemporary slang.” I wonder to what extent these paraded women and writers of color will be able to represent themselves under these restrictions, especially given that American pop culture and slang are derisively coded ‘Black.’ From my point of view, the emphasis placed on fidelity to Shakespeare undermines the potentially subversive work to be done in ‘translating’ Shakespeare for twenty-first-century audiences. Rather than leaving space to “argue with its canon,” the project seems to insist that the canon is unassailable.

Without having seen any of the finished products, of course, it is hard to say what these translations will ultimately achieve. Based on the information made available to the public, however, it strikes me that the safe and inclusive spaces of De Kosnik’s fan fiction archives are not echoed in OSF’s Play On project to the extent that they ought to be. If anything, the ghosts of pale, male, and stale critics, board members, and donors (exemplified, perhaps, by Shakespeare himself) haunt the initiative, preventing it from fulfilling its genuinely revolutionary potential. These spectres raise a chilling question: what is at stake in refusing to capitulate to institutional demands that Shakespeare be kept, somehow, intact? In mitigating these risks, perhaps adaptors of Shakespeare can look to fan fiction for precedents.


De Kosnik, Abigail. Rogue Archives: Digital Cultural Memory and Media Fandom. Boston: MIT Press, 2016.

Romano, Aja. Hamilton is fanfic, and its historical critics are totally missing the point.” Vox. 4 July 2016. [accessed 3 Jan 2017].

“Play on! 36 playwrights translate Shakespeare.” Oregon Shakespeare Festival. [accessed 3 Jan 2017].

“Play On! Further Reading.” Oregon Shakespeare Festival. [accessed 3 Jan 2017].

Assault isn’t edgy, so let’s stop pretending: reviewing Filter’s Midsummer

Last night, I had the opportunity to see Filter Theatre‘s version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream as part of the Dublin Theatre Festival. There’s a LOT that I liked about the production. Midsummer is one of those plays that bores me to tears and brings out my angry feminist most of the time, and Filter’s production certainly wasn’t boring. It definitely brought out my angry feminist, but more on that later.

CN for descriptions of sexual assault

Not sure how necessary this one is, but the show is still touring, so: SPOILERS AHEAD.



First, the good stuff. Filter’s production is really, really good at fun surprises. Oberon and Puck burst through walls, ceilings, and floors; Demetrius does a pretty spot-on Michael Jackson impersonation; and an audience plant joins the show as Bottom after a stage manager comes on to let us know that the “celebrity guest” got stuck in the lift. There’s excellent sexual innuendo with the love potion flower juice stuff. There’s a food fight. There are some good physical gags around who can and can’t see Puck and Oberon when they’re “invisible”.  And, as you’d expect from Filter, there’s some great stuff with sound. It’s a fun production. Like I said, definitely not boring.

Despite all the fun, I had two pretty basic problems with the production: 

1. Sexual assault is not cool or funny or cute. 

2. The Shakespeare was bad. And not in an ’80s way.

Let’s take those one at a time.

I shouldn’t even have to put this in writing, but as I said on my Facebook page after the show last night, I’m getting really sick of otherwise cool and/or interesting productions (especially of Shakespeare) that seem to think gratuitous sexual assault makes them “edgy”. It doesn’t. It’s gross. And it definitely should not be played for laughs.

I saw this in the RSC Cymbeline in August, and I saw it again in Filter’s Midsummer last night. I can’t tell if this is a trend, or if I’m just paying better attention because of my own adaptation project with Measure for Measure. Either way, it sucks.

For those of you who don’t know Midsummer, I’ll give a bit of context, because the plot is actually important here. In the play, there are two hetero couples with a little bit of a love triangle problem. Hermia and Lysander are in love with each other, but Demetrius also wants Hermia and has her father’s permission to marry her. Athenian law dictates that Hermia must either acquiesce to her father, become a nun, or be killed. Yay. Demetrius has previously sworn his love to another woman, Helena, who is still desperately in love with him. He’s a gentleman.

Hermia and Lysander decide to run away through the woods, and disclose their plan to Helena. Helena tells Demetrius of their flight, and he pursues them into the woods. Helena follows Demetrius, despite his protestations that he does not nor he cannot love her and his threats to rape her if she keeps following him (well, his words are “do thee mischief in the wood” but he also talks about her the “rich worth of [her] virginity”, so…you do the math).

Meanwhile, Oberon, king of the fairies, has a love potion that makes you desire the first thing you see upon awaking from sleep. He’s using it to abuse his wife (we’ll come back to that!), but he sees Demetrius and Helena fighting and decides she should have that man, dammit! So Oberon instructs his servant Puck to lay the potion on the eyes of a man wearing Athenian garments. Puck finds Lysander, mistakes him for Demetrius, and administers the love juice. The first person that Lysander sees when he wakes is Helena.

And that’s where Filter’s production went very, very wrong.

Helena, tired from chasing a dickface through the woods, pauses to catch her breath. She sees Lysander lying on the ground, and rouses him, concerned the he might be dead: “If you live, good sir, awake!”

And wake he does, immediately professing his love for Helena and his newfound hatred for Hermia. Helena is at first confused and then indignant, convinced that Lysander is cruelly mocking her miserable single life. But Lysander is persistent, insisting that he does hate Hermia and love Helen.

This is one of those tricky scenes in which someone wants to get away and has a very good reason for wanting to leave, but they can’t actually vacate the stage until they’ve said all their lines. Most productions get around this problem by creating energetic chase scenes, chock-full of near-misses, leapfrogs, and furniture tossing. This is, in itself, a little problematic, right? No Means No, Lysander. But I suppose the text must be served.

Filter’s production, however, takes things one step further. This time, Helena is prevented from leaving the stage because Lysander is physically and sexually assaulting her. Check out some of the lines that Filter’s Helena delivers while Lysander’s head is between her legs and she’s trying to push him away:

Good troth, you do me wrong–good sooth, you do–

In such disdainful manner me to woo.

But fare you well. Perforce I must confess

I thought you a lord of more gentleness.

(3.1.129-33, Norton)

Helena ends up on the ground, with Lysander engaging in some non-consensual heavy petting and over-the-clothes cunnilingus before she finally gets away.

But here’s the kicker: when Helena stands up, she has a moment where it seems like she kinda enjoyed it despite herself. With a little giggle and a coy look at Lysander, she bends at the hips and puts her hands over her crotch, then looks embarrassed and runs away.

The whole thing is played for laughs. The band/Mechanicals watch and do nothing. The take-home message for the students sitting next to me, as Roberta Barker and Dave Nicol once observed, is absolutely horrific: “Although the victim may seem unwilling, in fact it’s all a bit of saucy fun”. As Barker and Nicol go on to say, “this is hardly a productive of way of interpreting ourselves to ourselves” in a time and place where “rape victims are still subjected to humiliating cross-examinations about their sexual pasts on the witness stand”.

And that’s without considering the abuse that Titania undergoes for having the audacity to stand up for herself, or the whole Theseus/Hippolyta thing, or the fact that Demetrius and Helena end up together in the end. Can we also please stop pretending like two guys kissing each other is super good comedy? K, thanks.

Oh, and let’s not forget the part, in Filter’s production, where Lysander starts a food fight by chucking buns at a defeated, prone Hermia, who has been convinced that the guy willing to flee his home with her two scenes ago now hates her guts. SO FUNNY, RIGHT?


This leads me on to my second problem with Filter’s Midsummer: the Shakespeare bits.

Now, anyone who knows me may be surprised to find me complaining about “the Shakespeare”. I’m generally totally on board with slicing, dicing, deep-frying, digesting, and regurgitating Shakespeare as much as you darn well please. My friends and I cut the Duke from Measure for Measure for Pete’s sake. Yes, we really did. So why am I so bugged by this cut-up, no-interval, super-fun production’s treatment of Shakespeare?

To be honest, I’m having trouble putting my finger on it. But I think it’s sort of connected to the sexual assault problem. Let me explain.

What are the stereotypes about Shakespeare from people who don’t like Shakespeare, or haven’t encountered much Shakespeare? He’s boring. He’s hard to understand. Too many rhymes. So old-fashioned. Filter’s production confirmed every single one of these stereotypes. Their delivery of lines from Shakespeare was, on the whole, stilted, forced, boring, and rushed. It was like they had so much fun making the play that they forgot to do the play.

I’m going to caveat this next part by saying that I have no idea if someone who’s unfamiliar with Midsummer would’ve been able to the tell the difference between the “verbatim” Shakespeare and the paraphrased, improvised, rewritten, or newly written bits. But Midsummer has some extremely purple passages, and it’s very rhyme-y, and so it was painfully obvious to me when they were doing “the Shakespeare”. And it was also painfully obvious that they thought their material was way funnier than Shakespeare’s.

Who am I to disagree? A lot of what they were up to genuinely was way funnier than Shakespeare. Nerdy superhero Oberon and sound tech Puck watching the four-way love triangle fight from lawn chairs with snacks like they were in a cinema? GENIUS. Monty Python-style coconuts for Bottom-as-Ass walking around the stage? COMEDY GOLD. Oberon zooming around on a wheelie chair pretending to fly? WIN.

HOWEVER. That dynamic creates an impression that Filter are putting up with Shakespeare in order to have a marketable vehicle for their brand of screwball comedy. That’s absolutely fine, to an extent. But that implied relationship to Shakespeare makes it too easy to write off the stuff that isn’t funny–like that pesky sexual assault thing–as part of Shakespeare and not part of Filter.

I think that’s what I found so irritating about their failure to perform the Shakespeare bits well: it allowed them to gloss over the sticky relationship situations we find at the end of the play. Helena has Demetrius because he’s under a spell; Hermia has had her faith in Lysander seriously challenged; and Titania has basically been date-raped. None of these merit more than a passing glance in Filter’s production, because that would get in the way of the fun part where Bottom-as-Pyramus pretends to be dead for so long that everyone laughs.

My point is that it’s all well and good making Shakespeare more fun or more accessible. I’m totally and completely on board with that as a goal. But I’m not on board with productions that get away with ignoring or even endorsing the play’s really sticky politics because there was that funny bit with a spray can of whipped cream.


The Taming of the Shrew, Cymbeline, and the World Shakespeare Congress

I’m in decompression mode, having spent last week immersed in one of the largest gatherings of Shakespeareans and early modernists on the planet, the World Shakespeare Congress. It’s been an incredible learning experience, and a great chance to catch up on what’s happening in Shakespeare studies–not to mention an opportunity to mingle with the “greats” and catch up with friends and colleagues from around the world. I think most delegates would agree that the exorbitant cost of admission was worth it just for the phenomenal plenary talk by Adrian Lester and Ayanna Thompson.

What’s sticking in my mind this afternoon, however, is not the amazing conversations I had or the cool people I met, but the webs connecting the RSC’s current production of Cymbeline, the Globe’s Taming of the Shrew, and the issues of intersectional feminism raised for me by participation in the WSC. We must always be allowed to critique the things we love, and that’s what I’m attempting to do here.

The director of the Shakespeare Institute, Michael Dobson, welcomed us on the first morning of the Congress with a brief history of Shakespeare-commemorative events in Stratford. Highlighting the pale, male, and stale qualities of a 1964 conference committee, Dobson quipped that the current representation was much better–though they were still “working on it”. The room responded with a mix of groans, applause, and chatter. Sarah Olive tweeted:

I have to confess that “working on it” is one of my least favourite institutional euphemisms. It implies that there aren’t scores of people who don’t fit the narrow old, white dude mould ready and waiting to step in if given the opportunity–which is absurd. All it took was a look around the assembled WSC delegates to realise that the old stereotype of an academic as an older gent in elbow patches is on its way out.

And yet, out of seven advertised plenary speakers (not including the “international directors” speaking with Tom Bird on Saturday morning), there were two women and two people of colour–Ayanna Thompson, as a black woman, counts for one in each category, and she wasn’t even speaking on her own. Adrian Lester was amazing, but I would very happily have watched Professor Thompson give a full plenary lecture in her own right. Claire van Kampen, too, shared the stage with Gordon McMullan, who welcomed us to the London portion of the event, and Bill Barclay, the Globe’s director of music. Following van Kampen’s lecture, the first question was directed at Mark Rylance–who had not participated in the lecture and, to his credit, gracefully deflected attention back to van Kampen. The women and PoC involved in the final discussion between international directors of Shakespeare were framed by and filtered through the chairmanship of Tom Bird, the Globe’s Executive Producer, whose photograph was displayed on the conference website and in the printed programme.

So it seemed fitting, in many ways, to end the week with the final performance of The Taming of the Shrew at the Globe. Taming is one of those plays that make life very difficult for the people who like to argue that Shakespeare was some kind of enormously open-minded and forward-thinking proto-feminist. This particular production, directed by Caroline Byrne, tackled the play’s gender problems partly through a darkened tone, in which Petruchio is portrayed as the sort of “nice guy” that many of us will recognise: he’s friendly and funny and chatty and flirty until you try to say “no” to him, at which point he turns nasty.

The flip-flopping between the genuinely funny and the truly disturbing highlighted the complicity of the audience in Kate’s torture. More than once I found myself laughing, only to stop and realise, “wait, that isn’t funny”. When Petruchio first deployed his famous “Kiss me, Kate”–playing the following line “We’ll be married o’Sunday” as coercive–Hortensio encouraged the audience to join in a chant of “KISS! KISS! KISS!” with him, as Kate herself weighed her options. The audience’s willingness to pressure her into a kiss was genuinely unsettling, especially given that we had just witnessed a scene in which Kate made it abundantly clear that she wanted nothing to do with Petruchio.

Interestingly, the production’s figuring of Petruchio’s violent and controlling side contrasted sharply with the presentation of masculine power in the RSC’s Cymbeline, which I had a last-minute opportunity to catch on the second night of the conference (THANK YOU to the previous owner of my ticket, who was generous enough to give it away for free!).

Despite casting Cymbeline as a Queen rather than a King (and making the evil Queen an evil Duke), Melly Still’s production presented a highly sexualised, dystopian view of masculine power, including a number of gratuitous sexual assaults. It seemed to me that Byrne and the Shrew cast largely avoided the presentation of sexual and even physical violence between the two protagonists, choosing instead to represent Petruchio’s psychological abuse of Kate. This choice to abstract the physical side of abuse was, perhaps, a desire to avoid sensationalising. But the production didn’t shy away from the physical effects of Petruchio’s “reign” on Kate herself. It’s the first production I’ve seen that keeps Kate in her increasingly tattered and dirtied wedding clothes throughout the second half, for example, taking Petruchio’s dismissal of the Tailor’s efforts to its logical extreme.

By contrast, Still’s Cymbeline never resisted an opportunity to present sexual violence to the audience. While the Iachimo scene was appropriately disturbing, sexual assault became a shorthand for “danger” in the production as a whole, a lazy way to over-indicate which characters were in control and which were not. Cymbeline’s trousers were removed when she was captured by the Romans, as if it wasn’t already clear that she was in a vulnerable and dangerous situation. Watching from the safe distance of the upper gallery of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, I wondered how complicit those sitting in the front rows, mere inches away from Cloten’s assault of Pisania, for example, felt during the performance.

Complicity is the note I’d like to end on here, and the thread linking Shrew, Cymbeline, and the WSC in my mind this afternoon. As much as I am convinced that it is important to be physically present–to be “numbered in the song” as Kate sings in the Globe’s Shrew–to what extent are we complicit in perpetuating, for example, all-male, all-white panels, unbalanced plenary line-ups, and the comfortable notion that “working on it” is enough by our mere attendance? Am I numbered among those chanting “KISS! KISS! KISS!” despite (or because of) my silence, guilty by association? What but our continued, insistent presence can change the demographics of the decision makers? What more should I be doing?

Thesis/Existential Crisis Moments

It is my firm belief, evolved over the past eight years of study (and likely to change at some point, pending further study), that any notion of “fidelity” to an “authentic” Shakespearean/early modern/classical text is, from a theatrical perspective at least, outdated, irrelevant, and unproductive. This is one of the reasons you’ll find me defending the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Play On! project (though not the only reason). We can’t wake Shakespeare or any of his contemporaries from the grave to ask them what they meant. Even if we could, we might find that they–like so many living artists today–intended nothing at all, or not as much as we would have liked.

“Oh, ‘to be or not to be’? Yeah, I always hated that one, such a pretentious bit of poetry, but we had to cover a costume change somehow, and I thought, I dunno, Hamlet’s probably pretty depressed by this point in the play. It’s not that deep, y’know? You don’t have to read anything into it” (all spoken of course, in Ben Crystal’s best OP voice).

But as committed as I am to the idea that our collective love of Shakespeare is, to a certain extent, destructible and arbitrary, I am still a beneficiary of and a participant in a system that perpetuates his propping up. Without Shakespeare’s primacy, I wouldn’t have a job.

So this is where today’s (because there is one every day) thesis/existential crisis moment comes in: if the idea of fidelity to a classic text is irrelevant, and canon is fundamentally destructible, changeable, and arbitrary, why bother studying and producing texts like Shakespeare’s at all? 

I don’t have an easy answer. Like many of my thesis crises, it comes out of a certain degree of over-thinking. The canon is, even as it continues to be destructible, changeable, arbitrary. Shakespeare is a cultural touchstone; studying how and why this came to be doesn’t make it any less true. Canonical/classical texts, too, allow us to critique them in ways that wholly new texts (if there are such things) often don’t, or can’t. To what extent does Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead resonate precisely because it’s a brilliant piece of intertextuality, as opposed to a stand-alone work? (Yes, of course, it is also a stand-alone work, but I think you know what I mean.) I’m currently developing a project that asks modern women to respond creatively to Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. I could quite easily create a piece of theatre about 21st century feminism without reference to Measure for Measure; but Shakespeare simultaneously grants me cultural capital with which to advertise the eventual performances and affords me an opportunity to create a piece in which a diverse group of women speak back to a white, masculine canon. Then again, to what extent is a piece about modern feminism necessary and timely as a result of that same canon?

I’ve procrastinated long enough, but I wanted to throw this question, this crisis, out to the universe. Is it possible, or even desirable, to escape from the grip of “authenticity” and “fidelity” in Shakespeare and early modern performance? And what would the implications be if we did? In the meantime, why continue to produce these plays?

Frances Howard (or, what I’m working on in Texas)

I haven’t posted anything in a little while, partly because my first draft (yes, really!) was with my supervisor for a few months, and partly because I’ve been spending a lot of time doing the “boring stuff”–footnotes, lit review, checking that everything actually did make it into the bibliography…

But on Monday I started a two-and-a-half-month stint at the University of Texas at Austin, where I’m the guinea pig for a developing exchange programme between UT and Exeter. And while I’m here, I’m going to take advantage of UT’s excellent libraries to finish a second draft.

Which brings me to Frances Howard. One of the bits that needs serious re-working following the first draft is the introduction/lit review, and so I am working hard to clarify, expand, and fact-check my sloppy first go. For the past couple of days, I’ve been spending time with Middleton and Rowley’s sources for The Changeling. Today, I spent a good long time with Frances Howard and her divorce and murder trials.

I’ve never thought that much about Howard before. I knew that she had been examined by a jury of matrons and midwives to determine whether she was a virgin or not as part of her divorce trial (more on that delightful episode in a moment). I knew that it was this same trial that inspired most of Act 4 of The Changeling, including the virginity test and the bed trick. I knew that her trials were the source of much scandal in Jacobean London. I’d glossed over a lot of the details because, at the end of the day, my thesis spends more time in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries than in the seventeenth.

Then I had the opportunity to teach a seminar on The Changeling as part of a module on Renaissance and Restoration Theatrical Cultures that I was shadowing. After assigning the “Court Scandals” reading group to tell the class about Frances Howard, I thought I’d better brush up on the details. Lo and behold, two things that I had completely overlooked before:

1) Howard and her second husband, Robert Carr, were pardoned and released from prison less than 6 months before The Changeling was licensed;


2) This painting:

Frances Howard, we think. Or it might be her sister. Shh…

Look at that brazen display of lustfulness! Or so commentators on Howard’s life and trials would have us think. These two overlooked factors re-ignited my interest in Howard, and I put her name on my list of things to follow up in Texas.

Fast forward to today, in the Perry-Castañeda Library, in a seat that was one of many available (*cough*Exeter*cough), when I got to sit down with David Lindley’s book-length study on The Trials of Frances Howard. Seeking to rehabilitate Howard, or at least to question the accepted narrative of her lustful maliciousness, Lindley walks us through the primary sources and suggests that we have been too quick to dismiss and condemn Howard. And his work got me thinking about one of the central pieces of my thesis: the tension that inevitably results from staging a 400-year-old play in the present. So here are some of my thoughts, as they arose today, on Howard, Lindley, patriarchy, and performance:

Frances Howard, her husbands, her divorce trial, and her involvement in the murder of Sir Thomas Overbury were a huge scandal in the Jacobean period, and her release from the Tower in January 1622 would have meant that the circumstances of her imprisonment were fresh in the minds of Londoners when The Changeling premiered. In 1606, at the age of fourteen, Howard was married to Robert Devereux, the thirteen-year-old future Earl of Essex. They were kept apart and not allowed to consummate the marriage until they reached the age of majority. In 1613, Howard and her family requested an annulment of her marriage with Essex; it is usually assumed that the suit was a direct result of her supposed affair with Robert Carr, the first Earl of Somerset and the King’s favourite. Arguing that she had made every attempt to have sexual relations with her husband, but to no avail, divorce was requested on the grounds that her husband was impotent, the marriage had never been consummated, and therefore she had never truly been married to Essex. Unfortunately, the laws of the time required that he publicly declare his impotence in order to support her case, which would have precluded any future marriages on his part. Hoping to preserve his prospects and reputation, Essex declared that he was very capable of performing sexual acts with any woman except his wife. Rather than verify this claim upon his body, the court determined that Frances herself should be examined, and the status of her virginity determined. She was declared a virgin by a jury of matrons and midwives. Significantly in relation to The Changeling, her request that she be veiled during the examination fuelled rumours that she had hired a substitute—a true virgin—to stand for her. The annulment was eventually granted, largely due to the intervention of James I, who added ‘two judges bound to vote in favour’ to the commission.[1] Howard and Carr married immediately following the verdict.

A few years later, in 1616, Howard found herself on trial once again, this time for the murder of Sir Thomas Overbury, her new husband’s trusted advisor and a strong opponent of their marriage (or, rather, of Howard’s divorce). She plead guilty to the charges and was imprisoned, with her husband, in the Tower. As noted above, Howard and Carr were both pardoned by King James and subsequently released from prison in January 1622. The Changeling was licensed for performance by Sir Henry Herbert on 7 May of the same year.[2]

The virginity test and bed trick sequence in Act 4 are the most obvious elements of The Changeling that allude to Frances Howard’s life and trials. As David Lindley rightly points out, there are more parallels between the real-life scandal and the play than these two episodes (although understanding these episodes in the context of the Howard divorce is crucial to an understanding of The Changeling). In his book-length engagement with the trials of Frances Howard, Lindley argues that one the most significant factors in Howard’s annulment trial and its subsequent representation ‘is the fear of female sexual expression’.[4] This fear, which Lindley argues ‘underlies, unacknowledged, much of the commentary on the divorce’, can also be read as one of the underlying, but often unacknowledged, assumptions in Middleton and Rowley’s play. An examination of The Changeling alongside Howard’s divorce and murder trials therefore calls into question Middleton’s frequent labelling as a feminist or proto-feminist playwright.

Broader concerns about the legibility of the female body and a woman’s sexual autonomy infuse both fact and fiction, and it is significant that only one known contemporary source questions the logic of testing Howard’s virginity to prove her husband’s impotence: William Terracae, who points out that she could just as easily have been having an affair, and so her sexual status tells us nothing about her husband’s.[5] Lindley spends a long section of his introduction applying an historicised understanding of these concerns to the well-known painting of Howard (see above), which has often been cited as evidence of her sexual promiscuity and maliciousness, by modern scholars as much as by her contemporaries.[6] As Lindley points out, however, ‘[m]any court ladies of unimpeachable moral life were depicted in exactly the same kind’ of low-cut dress, and Queen Elizabeth herself was famously described as wearing an open-breasted dress—which revealed her ‘somewhat wrinkly’ bosom—by a French ambassador.[7] The point is less her revealing dress and more what the gaze of the viewer reads into it.

The treatment of Howard extends to a larger question about Middleton and Rowley’s play, and indeed about Middleton and Rowley themselves, in the present day. Several prominent readings of Middleton’s canon see it as participating in a kind of proto-feminism, creating exciting, challenging roles for women and publicly questioning the oppressive patriarchal structures of their world. This reading of Middleton ignores two crucial points: firstly, that these exciting, challenging roles for women would have been played by young men, and, secondly, that these exciting, challenging women are always punished, often to the death, for resisting oppressive patriarchal structures. This is not to say that resistance cannot be staged through defeat; rather, it is an attempt to historicise and contextualise The Changeling within the frame of a Jacobean world view. Additionally, I want to be clear here that there is a difference between staging a feminist Changeling and arguing that The Changeling inherently espouses proto-feminist agenda: the former is a legitimate and often necessary theatrical manipulation of a play which is, in many ways, outdated; the latter is a distortion of history to co-opt Middleton and Rowley to an anachronistic interpretation of societal structures.

To demonstrate this difference in action, I once again call upon Lindley’s reading of Frances Howard. Musing upon Howard’s portrait, Lindley articulates a simplified version of our relationship to the past:

At one level the projection of lustful purpose into this image […] is uncomfortably close to the way in which in our society it is still possible for a rapist to plead that a girl’s short skirt might be taken as a mitigation of his crime. The desire of the beholder is converted into the intent and fault of the object.[8]

I regret to note that this comparison is as potent in 2015 as it was when Lindley was writing in 1993. It evokes a powerful current cultural touchstone, and effectively rehabilitates Howard as a victim of patriarchy rather than a malicious witch. This is important work, but Lindley’s comparison also collapses 400 years of history, placing Howard and late-twentieth-century sexual assault victims side-by-side. Although Lindley himself qualifies his comparison, there are many others who are content to let this kind of juxtapositioning stand unquestioned. The resulting accordion effect is problematic: it asks us to erase the often unsavoury and always specific cultural circumstances in which the early modern work arose.

Kim Solga addresses this problem from a different angle, with an eye to modern performance of early modern plays, when she asks ‘how do we square this work’s enormous cultural capital with its profound distance from contemporary attitudes towards social justice and human rights?’[9] In terms of The Changeling specifically, how do we stage Beatrice-Joanna’s rape without engaging with the hugely problematic assumptions that surround it? When we choose to erase the cultural gap between then and now, we risk losing sight of the fact that The Changeling and many of the other Jacobean plays (comedies and tragedies alike) are cruel, bloody, and horrible, particularly to women. And when we lose sight of that, we risk seeing Middleton, Webster, Rowley, Jonson, et al as “just like us”. And once they’re just like us, we’re less likely to confront the uncomfortable content of their work. If Middleton and Rowley are feminists, then we have to explain away the highly masculine closing of ranks at the end of The Changeling, for example. We have to conveniently forget that Beatrice-Joanna’s virginity is a ‘precious’ commodity which is being bought and sold for her as a matter of course. We have to justify, somehow, the fact that she is killed–after a scene in which she is called “whore” repeatedly–for her desperate attempts to determine her own sexual fate. We have to ignore the repeated structural and formal hints that the play drops–including the entire character of Isabella and the relentless Edenic imagery–which tell us that Beatrice is inherently bad and evil and wicked.

As I note above, I am not trying to suggest that The Changeling cannot be interpreted and performed in a way that empowers Beatrice, or at the very least suggests that she is a victim of a patriarchal super-structure rather than her own inherent wickedness (keep in mind that Middleton was a Calvinist–so in his world everyone is predestined to Heaven or Hell at birth). I would like to suggest, however, that erasing the gap between past and present is more problematic than we sometimes like to admit.


[1] D. Lindley, The Trials of Frances Howard, p. 120.

[2] See M. Neill, ‘Introduction’, p. xxxiii

[3] Q1 fol. F1v

[4] D. Lindley, The Trials of Frances Howard, p. 121.

[5] Cited in Lindley, p. 115. The original documents can be found in the Northamptonshire Record Office, Finch-Hatton MS 319, fol. 21v.

[6] See The Trials of Frances Howard, pp. 6-11.

[7] D. Lindley, The Trials of Frances Howard, pp. 7-8.

[8] D. Lindley, The Trials of Frances Howard, p. 7.

[9] K. Solga, Violence Against Women in Early Modern Performance, p. 2.

[10] Q1 fol. D3f.

[11] K. Solga, Violence Against Women, p. 7

On “everyday feminism”

Thank you, Kim, for an inspiring and thought-provoking post. I’d had a rough start to the day, and this really turned me around! If you don’t already subscribe to Ki’m’s blog, I highly recommend it.

The Activist Classroom

I’ve been a feminist for a very long time. I’ve self identified this way to students and in my research for my entire career so far. But when time came to name this blog, I hesitated about putting the word in the title. This wasn’t about being cagey; you can read about my feminist ethos on the “about” page, you can guess it from the title of my first solo-authored book (Violence Against Women in Early Modern Performance: Invisible Acts), and you can read my regular contributions to Fit is a Feminist Issue, which I always cross-post in this space. So my hesitation about labelling my blog “feminist” wasn’t about minimising or denying my feminist habitus. Rather, it was based in an anxiety about securing readership: I didn’t want the word to somehow limit the scope of the blog, for readers and, maybe, also for me. But what…

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