By B. Simm
CALGARY — “It’s a dark comedy,” says playwright Karen Hines. And to be sure she’s understood, turns up the volume and emphasis a wee bit, “A comedy!” Feminism in 2017, however, is a both a complex and sensitive subject often framed by some very heavy issues, some of which are no laughing matter. But to grasp where Hines is coming from and heading towards, it’s best to trace the origins and impetus of her latest work, All The Little Animals I Have Eaten.
In the mid-80s, Alison Bechdel developed a feminist cartoon strip called Dykes To Watch Out For that ran in alt-press publications. One of her multi-panel cartoons featured a woman telling another about her “rule” as to whether or not she’ll go see a certain movie. The rule stipulates three basic requirements: 1.) there has to be at last two women in the film; 2.) who talk to each other; and 3.) it has to about something besides a man. What Bechdel intended as “a little lesbian joke in an alternative feminist newspaper” moved into mainstream media eventually becoming the standard criteria, known as the Bechdel Test, by which feminist critics assess film, TV, books and other media to be “women-friendly” or not.
In response to the recognition she received, Bechdel credited her friend, Liz Wallace, for the idea behind the cartoon and felt that Wallace, in turn, was inspired by Virginia Wolfe’s observations concerning male dominance in literature that were published in the influential 1929 essay, A Room Of One’s Own. Eight decades later, an academic study in 2012 reinforced Wolfe’s views citing that in 855 highly successful commercial films, produced between 1950 to 2006, there were two male characters for each female, and females were involved in sex twice as often as males. Several other studies that addressed the issue of male dominance in film had similar findings.
When a UCLA instructor recently told his screenwriting students that an “audience doesn’t want to listen to a bunch of women talking about whatever women talk about,” he wasn’t projecting or suggesting that they adopt a patriarchal approach towards film, rather he was simply voicing the unfortunate circumstance that if they wanted to be successful in the current state of the film industry they need to write scripts that featured strong male protagonists.
The Bechdel Test, Virginia Wolfe and one UCLA film instructor all rolled together set the stage for Karen Hines’ descent into feminism and the transcendence of gender. The main character in All The Little Animals I Have Eaten is a female grad student distraught with an overdue term paper as she wrestles with the rhetoric of feminist thought. While working her shift as a bistro server, she reveals her conflicted mind delivered with punch lines, anxiety and that rare commodity, irony, as she mingles in and out of conversation with a cast females who are her “exploded psyche.”
“She’s having a hard time with the rhetoric,” explains Hines. “She’s not down with it, it’s not working for her. You follow the conversations she is overhearing on her shift at the bistro. She steps out in between serving tables and speaks to the audience, adding another layer, about a conversation she had with a friend and names everything from politics to a Golden Retriever convention in Scotland to how to wash leggings. That’s the women talking about whatever women talk about conversation that threads through the show and seeps into some of the other conversations she’s having at the table. She’s also in bad shape. She’s not slept for days, her term paper is overdue. She’s sleep deprived, having a trippy experience on her shift while being haunted by the ghosts of Virginia Wolfe, Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton.”
Hines says the feminist rhetoric she’s having difficulty with surrounds the concept of safe spaces. “She’s wondering how any space can actually be safe…as well as really trying to balance the jargon [about safe spaces] with her impulse to create, and the notion that creativity and safety don’t necessarily go hand in hand.”
Regarding safe spaces, Hines observes that the arts community is acutely aware that standards have changed in theatre, film and music about “what can be said, what cannot be said” and that the issues involved are very problematic. As such, her play is about examining certain feminist views and the tropes associated with those complexities; it’s not about “delivering a simple feminist cheer.”
Not intending to be an opponent of a particular feminist position, rather someone trying to understand and articulate them more thoroughly, Hines says, “Part of the impulse in the last six months for this project is to respond to a satire I wrote [in Swerve Magazine] that was not received as a satire. The irony was completely missed. And because the irony was missed, weirdly the humanity was missed.”
An award-winning playwright who was also raised on Mad Magazine, Hines is somewhat perplexed and concerned about the absence of irony in our PC-centric outlook. Half-joking she retorts, “There’s not a lot of irony currency.”
In addition to categorizing All The Little Animals I Have Eaten as comedy, Hines says a writer friend of hers labeled it as “subversive.” While she’s a bit worried that the irony and humour will be glossed over, misunderstood and her work criticized for the wrong reasons, she retains the view that satire is an all-important device central to social, cultural and political analysis. Without satire and other irreverent modes of expression, she argues, “It shuts down conversation and nothing can move forward.”
How does all of this relate to the eating of little animals? “Well,” Hines begins, “this person is in crisis. It’s an existential crisis, a feministic crisis, an academic crisis, and she’s got money problems…she’s not feeling on top of the world. She also admits to being a meat eater and feels trodden upon because of it. So where does she sit in the world, what does that mean? She’s dealing with the tension that she is responsible for the suffering of little animals, and so she too is suffering. It’s a dark comedy,” laughs Hines. “A comedy!”
Between the punch lines, the ghost of Virginia Wolfe surfaces and speaks to the student in crisis about transcending gender. “That’s a whole way of looking at things that’s so different than a lot of the feminist language I hear floating around today. It embraces the male and female in any person, in any man and in any woman. It doesn’t deny gender; it transcends it. And by transcending gender you’re finding connection in community much more.”
All The Little Animals I Have Eaten runs Jan. 10-15 & 17-21 at the Big Secret Theatre during High Performance Rodeo.AB, Alberta, All the Little Animals I Have Eaten, feminism, High Performance Rodeo, High Performance Rodeo 2017, live theatre