Plasticity, lights, Chaka Khan and red stockings

Last Saturday, I had the opportunity to attend a staged reading at NYU Abu Dhabi of Dry Land, a play by Ruby Ray Spiegel. The play is set in a highschool girls’ locker room, and is a coming of age story centered on the topic of abortion. Having grown up in a conservative culture, one can imagine my initial surprise when hearing the word ‘vagina’ being spoken aloud. Other topics of conversation include sex and their period. It occurred to me that I had rarely, if ever, heard these topics being spoken aloud openly in public with a mixed gendered audience (though granted, a closed space may be considered a private space). But wait, what’s wrong with saying “vagina” anyways? Honestly, absolutely nothing. My reaction however is a testament to how its meaning goes beyond a simple definition that is tied to the physical body.

Beyond being simply words, they are identifiers; labels attached to an individual. Yet they drag a whole script along with them. To be a girl, is to have grown up playing with Barbie dolls, wanting to live in a princess castle, being good at cooking, etc. When Simone de Beauvoir claims that “one is not born, but, rather, becomes a woman,” she appropriates gender to be an identifier that is not static. From the moment of birth – and perhaps even before – there is a gender label attached to the body. “Is it a boy or a girl?” is a simple question that can be translated in many possible ways. On a biological and physical level, it asks if the newborn has a peinis or a vagina. On a familial level perhaps it means whether parents invest in football or ballet. Should the socks be blue or pink? With the association of a gender comes a whole series stereotypes and perceptions attached with it. These can exist within a large community or even between two people, representing that there is ultimately a cultural governing system enforced on the body. Narcissister exaggerates the body and sexuality to convey the absurdity of gender as a social construct.

One could only imagine my reaction to the work of Narcissister. I do not recall quite exactly what my first response or feelings were. I do recall, however, being incredibly confused as to what I was seeing. Her work is bizarre, expressive, outspoken…. and also enlightening. Having been tagged as ‘the topless feminist superhero New York needs,’ Narcissister is an anonymous performance artist whose work centers on race and sexuality. She frequently wears plastic and a mask that bears the likeness of a Barbie doll. What plasticity, lights, Chaka Khan and red stockings all have in common is that they have a strong presence in Narcissister’s performance titled Every Woman. Chaka Khan’s “I’m Every Woman” plays throughout the piece while Narcissister, who appears like a live mannequin, moves to the music while she places her hands below her hips and near her crotch. She then begins to perform a reverse strip tease, “slowly redresses herself from clothing she pulls out of various bodily orifices” (Narcissister). Here, Naracissister is seen critiquing society on the ways the female body is sexualized. As she pulls the red stocking out from her and wears them, she empowers her own self by being the source of the clothing and also the ones who gets to put them on. She has her own agency in what she wears, how she wears it, and what she chooses to do with it. Instead of teasing her clothes off, she chooses to start naked and covered in plastic. This sense of a being a live mannequin whose face resembles some Barbie dolls, announces her identity to be conflicted between what femininity means to her versus what is means societally. Her body is torn both real and ‘fake’ yet ultimately the human body is material. This is reminiscent of Riviere’s notion that “femininity is a masquerade” (Hughes 90).

We grow up with thinking gender is simple to understand. It is not complicated. It is as simple as walking into a toys store and there are sections marked clearly labeling which toys are for the boys, and which ones are for the girls. Gender and its associations are dictated for us. If we defy or step out of this script that is constructed for us, it is out of the ordinary or even taboo, and we risk exclusion from society. The truth of the matter is that gender is complicated. What if I have a vagina but choose to identify as male? Or do I really have to fit into either male or female tick-boxes? Narcissister’s exaggerative style of performance art is indeed provocative. She has chosen a style and forms within her pieces to express the absurdity of the definitions tied to gender. Butler speaks of how to “de Beauvoir and Merleau-Ponty, the body is understood to be an active process of embodying certain cultural and historical possibilities,” which is what Narcissister attempts to do as well (Butler). She recognizes her body to be her own, but also uses her body as a text to speak for the influences society has. She recognizes her body as material and uses it to represent the conflict of self-identification.

So then what exactly is gender? Is it the label or the associations made or both, none, something else? Gender is complicated, but in trying to understand it, I choose to side with Butler’s take on its definition. Butler believes that gender is simply “the repeated stylization of the body, a set of repeated acts within a highly rigid regulatory frame that congeal over time to produce the appearance of sub- stance, of a natural sort of being” (Salih 1).


Works Cited
Butler, Judith. “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory.” Theatre Journal 40.4 (1988): 519. Web.
“Every Woman.” Narcissister. N.p., n.d. Web. 08 Dec. 2015.
Frank, Priscilla. “Narcissister Is The Topless Feminist Superhero New York Needs (NSFW).” Huffpost Arts & Culture. The Huffington Post, 30 June 2014. Web. 9 Dec. 2015.
Hughes, Athol, ed. THE ININER WORLD AND JOAN RIVIERE. Collected Papers: 1920 – 1958. London: Karnac Book, 1991. Print.
Salih, Sarah. “On Judith Butler and Performativity.” (2008): n. pag. Web. 9 Dec. 2015.

One comment

  1. Debra Levine · December 27, 2015

    Dear Harshini,

    You begin your Narcissister post by sharing your amazement about
    hearing the word “vagina” spoken in public, uttered in a play. As
    performance demands a public, when women perform, a part of that
    performance , no matter what the content, has to do with the
    exhibition and judgment of their bodies. Sex shows, burlesque shows,
    advertisements – so much of the enticement of performance is the
    engagement of desire for and possession of women’s bodies. But the
    reality of our bodies is also expected to be tended to in private –
    an unspoken agreement that shouldn’t be spoken of or seen. The
    transgression you speak of is one to be questioned – why did the
    biological functions of women’s bodies get shunted to private spaces?
    How does deflating the construction of desire with the reality of our
    bodies become something unusual or transgressive?

    While you write that you understand that there is no shame or issue
    with saying the word vagina (which is not sexy) and that it is
    perfectly alright and a fit subject for the stage, what you post
    points to – and what you write of (and the masked quality of
    Narcissister points to as well) is how that condition of speaking of
    the reality of one’s body or how we who “own” them come to understand
    our bodies is missing. It is not a “proper” subject for expressive
    art. But the history of art is the history of the “nude” but not
    “naked” woman’s body.

    Narcissister, even when exposing parts of her own body, is, as you
    well observe, anonymous – she will not let any “true” self become
    exposed – the male artist’s through the century did not let that
    happen in relation to their female subjects. And now Narcissister is
    doing it only for herself. It does make us wonder, with the way in
    which she can dazzle us by pulling costumes from her orifices, whether
    when all the acts, gestures and modes of self styling are vacated – if
    a “woman” exists at all. What Narcissister shows is how she can own
    and redeploy gendered performance to give herself more pleasure
    through the very means – performance—that women’s bodies have been
    offered as desirable objects for men. But even as you acknowledge
    that structure and use it – still one is trapped within it. So she
    does her best to remain an unknowable figure and use that to her
    advantage. The metaphor “dark continent” has been used to describe
    Black people – and Plato’s cave is the metaphor for a woman’s womb. A
    secret – dark and unknowable. Why? Because it has been prohibited
    from being a speaking subject in performance. Much of that is
    reiterated by the logic of the strip tease which cannot allow women’s
    bodies to be fully exposed – or thought of in relation to other
    functions than sex. So when you think that its okay to say vagina on
    stage – think also about the ways in which so much of performance
    taught you the opposite – how the prohibition on it that you feel
    deeply was taught to you by the long term historical absence of it as
    a proper subject for the stage. And then think about why.

    I have a bit of confusion about your Godot in Sri Lanka. I understand
    the contemporary condition you want it to address – but have you set
    the play in a coffee house so that youth and the local community will
    see it and be provoked by it? Or is the coffee house a place where
    nothing happens, where a bit of hope is circulated but change is an
    unlikely possibility. I wonder what happens if you very deliberately
    show Gogo and Didi as Colombo youth and Pozzo and Lucky as
    politicians. Do you need them to be so reductive? Or do you think
    that if you do the play, they will be read in that light anyway given
    Beckett’s fine characterization of them? I agree with the way in
    which Gogo and Didi interact – like an old married couple. I’m not
    sure if using Pozzo and Lucky as signifiers of their younger selves
    would keep the integrity of the play – do you really think that could
    happen? Are the characters in the play really that isomorphic? I
    find the digression you offer about your parents the most interesting
    part of this piece. What happens if you cast your parents as Gogo and
    Didi and set it in the Sri Lankan coffee house? How could you think
    of Lucky and Pozzo as those who affect the situation that you describe
    – that they cannot afford to go without securing employment or winning
    the lottery. Why do you parents still hold onto the condition of hope
    in this situation?

    I want to write a note about how to write about performance in
    relation to your essay on Teching Hsieh. You get very metaphysical in
    this essay – the sheer incomprehensibility of what he endures and how
    long he endures it for is exactly the point. But you write “the
    duration of Hsieh’s performances of lasting one year is representative
    of human existence itself and how it is connected with the earth.”
    This is very poetic – but the point of performance art is that it
    doesn’t represent anything – it does something – it is performative.
    It can be indexical – it can point to the condition of migration, the
    condition of calling the urban outdoors one’s home – and it can
    question the capacities of a body to deteriorate and regenerate in
    space over time. It can also interrogate how you think of your own
    capacities to endure and the material conditions of your existence.
    But because his materials are real and not representative – time,
    space, the body – you cannot reduce what he did by calling it
    representation. Performance – or live art yes – but it is not
    rehearsed, it is not theatrical. It works in a different paradigm of
    real time with bodies who are fully themselves in time and space.

    You write a beautiful post on the two plays from the Kampala
    International Theater Festival. You think about the links between the
    two playwrights’ concerns – violence against women and how it is
    connected to sustaining an economic elite. I love that you used
    visual poetry to remediate the trauma and also lay out the conditions
    that predict the repetition of that trauma. But by writing – the two
    playwrights and now you insist that putting these conditions into
    language brings the violence into the open – one must name it and feel
    as well as intellectually understand the nature of the violence. That
    is the first step to making the injury public and seeking redress and

    These were a nice set of blog posts although I think you could have
    dug deeper on the links between Beckett and Hsieh. Waiting and
    duration are linked to hope and hopelessness. I think there were many
    ways in which your Beckett and Hsieh post could speak to one another.


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