“A Third Gender–Beautiful Youths in Japanese Prints”– Japan Society, New York City ( March 10- June 11, 2017)

 

A Third Gender--Japan Society

“A Third Gender–Beautiful Youths in Japanese Prints” is a mind-bending exhibit which resonates today.

The Royal Ontario Museum has loaned its extraordinary collection of 65 Japanese woodblock prints to the New York branch of the Japan Society. The exhibit focuss on wakashu (“young beauties”) –a unique “third” gender.  The notion of gender fluidity — that it’s not necessary to identify as either male or female, that gender can be expressed as a continuum — is the essence of these woodblock prints. They challenge modern notions that male and female are obvious either-or identities.

Wakashu were most often handsome teenage boys (and sometimes adolescent girls) who were highly desired by both older men and women. The young women who participated as wakashu were most likely the daughters of geisha.These young boys and girls did not carry the social responsibilities of adults, but were nonetheless sexually mature and sexually ambidextrous. During this stage of life, before full-fledged adulthood, it was socially permissible to have sex with either men or women and to engage in crossdressing. Later on, the wakashu self-identified as they wished.

The most discerning feature to identify a beautiful figure as wakashu is the hairstyle, an essential but subtle visual cue in woodblock prints. Combs and hairpins as well as very elaborate hairdos were traditionally markers for identifying young women. Forelocks or slightly carved bald spots, were markers for identifying young male wakashu. Young women could also dress as samurai but with a tell-tale obi (waist sash) tied in traditional feminine fashion. Wakashu males would also wear long-sleeved kimonos like unmarried women,. In several prints, you have to look closely to find the shaved triangle in the hair, or spot a sword tucked in a geisha wakashu’s sash (impersonating a female). In erotic woodblocks (shunga), the genitals telegraph the gender.

Many permutations of gender and sexuality were acceptable: men or women in liaisons with wakashu; female geisha dressing like male wakashu engaging in sex with male patrons; male prostitutes cross-dressing as women; and even a male Kabuki “actor” impersonating a woman who pretends at one point to be a man aggressively initiating intercourse. Such fluidity of gender identity is deliberate, playful and often arousing.

The prints range from lively humorous scenes of daily life or classical myths (mitate-e) to uninhibited portrayals of desire. Sometimes the young wakashu males practice feminine arts such as flower-arranging or playing the samisen . A screen shows several wakashu surrounding a Buddhist monk, tickling him and plying him with alcohol, suggesting foreplay before male-male sex (not prohibited in Buddhism). A young woman passes a love note to her male wakashu lover behind the back of an older artist who is signing his name to a painting. A male wakashu dreams of sex with a famous prostitute, while another woman tenderly covers him with a jacket. One of the artworks at the very end of the show, dating back to the 1800s, showcases lesbian intercourse with a dildo, demonstrating an example of non-heteronormative sex at the end of the Edo period.  

The show reveals how elastic the ideas of gender were before Japan adopted Western sexual mores in the late 1800s. More rigid notions of gender and “acceptable” sexual expression followed. The tradition of wakashu ended. Homosexuality was outlawed. The suppression of this sexual component of Japanese culture runs so deep that most Japanese are unaware of the historical existence of the wakashu.

This Japan Society exhibit is a corrective to past misidentifications of wakashu as young women as well as a portal to a new world of gender fluidity.  Walking through “A Third Gender” is a reckoning with categories, definitions and how uncertain the lines between genders can be.  This exhibit is not to be missed.

“A Doll’s House Part 2”–Knocking on the Door

 

A door slams. The viewer is stunned. Nora makes the shocking decision to leave her husband and three young children. That is where A Doll’s House, the iconic 1879 play by Ibsen, leaves off.

Now the young playwright, Lucas Hnath, has continued Nora’s story in this intriguing Tony-nominated play asking us to imagine her life fifteen years later. Hnath’s A Doll’s House Part 2, opens with a knock on that door. Nora is back.

Nora (Tony-nominated Laurie Metcalf) returns home, but not as we imagined. Now a wealthy best-selling author whose books are loosely based on details of her married life, Nora has become rich on selling the view that marriage is a woman’s prison. We soon learn that Nora herself remains married. Consequently, all contracts and investments she has made in the past fifteen years are now null and void, since married women could not engage in business without their husband’s consent. Unless she can get her husband Torvald to divorce her, she is now worse off than she once was. She may be tried as a criminal.

Metcalf, Houdyshell, Rashad, and Cooper

Yet this is a very different Nora. She’s no longer the person who had to appear “smaller” and “barely visible” in order to be desired by her husband as feminine, needing protection and support. A Doll’s House Part 2 asks the same question Ibsen did in 1879: Can a woman find her own voice in an exclusively male-dominated society?

A Doll’s House Part 2 raises high stakes. In the original classic, Nora chooses her own freedom over that of caring for her young children. Here we see her try to forge an alliance first with her children’s nanny, Anne Marie (the multiple Tony-award nominated   Jayne Houdyshell) and later with her adult daughter, Emmy (played with poignant grace by Condola Rashad). First, Anne Marie, in a scathing rebuke, rejects Nora’s offer of money. After all, Anne Marie has given up caring for her own child in order to be a nanny for Nora’s. Then, Emmy moves in to blistering effect–extolling the virtues of being a married woman and mother, responsibilities Nora rejected.

Chris Cooper & Laurie Metcalf

The astounding Laurie Metcalf constantly acts within her acting, as if she is listening to her own argument in opposition to Torvald’s countering dialog, a riveting feature of this play. Like Mrs. Bridge and Mr. Bridge (novels by Evan S. Connell), we see scenes from the same marriage but from completely different perspectives, with very little intersection. Torvald (in a quiet but searing performance by Chris Cooper) is her counterpoint and both actors reveal their wounds in every facial expression, even in the comic relief interjected before the breakdown of the human spirit becomes unbearable.   They box each other into a corner.

Yet, how can people expect to stay together when they are always, individually, changing? Even their emotional truths are disjointed. That is the puzzle and it is left unsolved. Nora as a character will always be defined by her never-to-be-completed quest for independence and fulfillment. The perception that a woman who puts her own needs above her children’s is violating a sacred pact —and the collision of viewpoints: freedom versus duty and obligation, relationships versus solitude, marriage and family versus individual growth —is explosive in the context of gender and social class. A Doll’s House Part 2 almost dares us to see the hypocrisy in considering Nora’s quest and struggle for identity as a human being separate from her roles as mother and wife. The price she has paid to even think it is possible may be too high. How could she have left her children out of self-care and self-love? What about social convention?

A Doll’s House Part 2 is staunchly unapologetic and an extraordinary accomplishment in literature. Each character is given center stage to see the consequences of his or her own failings, a series of unfortunate and tragic events, with visceral angst.

“The world didn’t change as much as I thought it would,” Nora confesses to Torvald. But she’s not prepared to concede defeat. Hnath brings Nora’s struggles to a new generation, knocking on our door once again.

 

The Handmaid’s Tale–In Service of Democracy?

 

Handmaid's TaleThe Handmaid’s Tale, based upon the psychological award-winning 1985 sci-fi thriller by Canadian author Margaret Atwood,  is the Hulu adaptation of the dystopian Republic of Gilead, a fascist autocracy resulting from a religious coup, a war focused mainly on women.

Within the borders of what was formerly the United States of America, residents in The Handmaid’s Tale are segregated along strict racial, sexual, and class lines with each social group is confined to a regimented behavioral code. Code infractions are punishable by torture or death. No one in Gilead has any autonomy, even at the top of the hierarchy, although the elite are given more benefits.

Environmental contamination has resulted in widespread infertility in this near-future world. We see the torment and hell for women and their families, when not allowed to speak truth to power. The ongoing  subjugation of women creates an underground resistance movement that is slowly gaining momentum. Only a few young fertile women,—called Handmaids [of the Lord], referring to a Biblical reference —assigned to the homes of the ruling elite, play the crucial role of replenishing the population. These “handmaids” are “fertility slaves”, submitted to ritualized rape from their male masters while the masters’ wives bear witness. The wives of the elite are concomitantly enraged and subliminally frightened by the situation they’re in.   

Offred”, (the brilliant Elisabeth Moss) is the handmaid assigned to a Gileadean Commander, Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) and his wife. She had been happily married with a daughter, husband, and dreams for her and her family. Now, post-coup, Offred is bound to the Commander and his wife.

As in the majority of abusive relationships, we see Offred’s isolation and imprisonment as she suffers constant surveillance, unable to trust any one, without friends but determined to survive. Offred lives a nightmare but she realizes that she can pull levers of power and manipulate those in control in order to escape. She is not powerless.

This Hulu original series has adapted a 32-year old novel at a time when The Handmaid’s Tale unexpectedly resonates in Trump’s America. Gilead is an imaginary society of the worst kind, an allegory for the anxieties about the world we live in now, told with heat and intensity. The Handmaid’s Tale dramatizes a way of seeing directly into darkness and madness, heartlessness and dehumanization. But The Handmaid’s Tale also emphasizes irony and tenacity while concluding that cynicism and despair are dead ends. But in the midst of this forlorn and seemingly hopeless world, the Handmaid remains optimistic and determined. At the heart of the story is a woman who has had everything taken away from her: her family, daughter, friends, rights, freedom — everything. And she will not give up. Nevertheless, she persisted….a message even more compelling today.

 

Note:  This is  available currently only on Hulu and the first three episodes have been broadcast already.