The Second Woman: Deconstructing a Deconstructionist Construct

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So there’s this performance art piece doing the rounds right now. Like most “art” these days, it sounds a bit like a laborious exercise in hammering home a simple, flawed concept in the most expensive and\or time-consuming way possible.

But give it the benefit of the doubt. Maybe that sentence better describes the careers of the pair of academic carpet-munchers who wrote the review of it at The Conversation. They begin:

The idea that femininity is a social performance, while masculinity simply sets the co-ordinates for the social, explains why so many classic melodramas turn on the figure of the actress, such as [blah blah blah].

So, men control society in their own interests, while women have to dance to their tune. Generic feminist boilerplate. But there’s another layer of bullshit here, and those high-falutin abstractions are not merely decorative. You see, replacing “men” and “women” with “masculinity” and “femininity” in the above sentence signals the assumption that sex itelf is an oppressive social construct, and the world won’t be fixed until everyone is queer by law.

Sound familiar?

In superficial ways, the concept is simple. A woman in a room is joined by a man. There is something unfinished between them that needs talking out. They have a drink and share the takeaway noodles he has brought. She puts on some music. They dance, then break away from each other. The man leaves. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. It is the repetition that rivets.

Across the course of 24 hours, this scene of repair and estrangement plays out a hundred times with a hundred different men. Played by Randall in a cinematically iconic red dress and blonde wig […] the woman remains the same but becomes progressively more exhausted as the men keep coming at her with their conflicting demands and brute physicality.

Yes, all men are rapists. And all women are total sluts, apparently. It’s funny. If Jagose and Wallace (co-authors and academic dyke power-couple) didn’t bring their own agenda with this “performative gender” nonsense, they might have seen something else going on. They might have seen a comment on how sexual liberation has destroyed relationships, making men and women interchangeable to one another and dooming many to a futile repetition of squalid dramas in place of marriage and family life.

If these dykes understood normal women, they would see how bringing up girls with no check to their hypergamous instincts dooms them continually to play “the second woman” to whichever understudy gets to play the “man of their dreams” for a night or a few years.

The effect is fascinating. Man after man is caught out performing a version of masculinity that folds under pressure and reveals something unintended but not, it turns out, wholly unexpected; something brought to light by the experimental conditions of the live scene and its relentless unfolding in real time.

Wait a minute; I thought it was femininity that was “a social performance,” while masculinity “simply sets the coordinates for the social.” Has somebody got her wires crossed? I mean, I get that gender/queer theory isn’t exactly rocket science, but I would have thought that any academic discipline is meant to have core concepts that can be intelligibly defined.

Our reviewers then describe how Jagose goes backstage and gets ready to live out her fantasy of being an attractive straight girl's boyfriend, in the process observing that

Although resisting preset scripts is familiar work to many women, whatever their orientation, it can still come as a surprise to many men, including most of those clustered backstage nervously going through their lines as if what they said, or how they said it, could determine the course of onstage events.

See, men don’t have to deal with social pressures. A penis is actually a kind of magic wand that makes everyone obey you and shapes the world according to your will.

But come to think of it, if men have all the agency in this ghostly social construct we mistakenly call “real life,” why would it come as a “surprise” for them to be placed in a situation where, they imagine, “what they said, or how they said it, could determine the course of onstage events”?

I mean, wouldn’t that just be their daily lived experience? Better go phone a friend, Jagose. Maybe Judith Butler?

[T]his endurance piece is about heterosexual scenarios that seem ingrained but it is also about queer patterns of displacement and deferral.

Recycling the title of the play within Opening Night, The Second Woman subtly captures the “particular quality of twiceness” that performance studies founder Richard Schnechner attributes to performance. As some theorists — and many queers — know, in this tangled system of social enactment and psychic projection, gender is also “twice-behaved behaviour,” for men as for women.

At this historical point in time when Australian gays and lesbians are newly transacting marriage vows— the textbook example of a performative utterance—The Second Woman reminds us that the public/private performance of intimacy undoes us all.

Having read over it a few times, I’m pretty sure that final clause if 100% waffle. But the bit about gay “marriage” is interesting. I mean, I thought the gays just wanted to be equal, you know, as opposed to trivialising marriage into a narcissistic “performance” with no significance past the wedding day?

The ideas on display here are lifted from poststructuralist theory, whose basic, self-refuting premise is that meaning is an illusion and words have no reference to reality, hence truth does not exist. Thus, if Paul puts on a dress and calls himself Paula, you have to go along with it. And if a little girl is brainwashed into believing she’s really a boy, you must give "him" hormone therapy because, even though her body was only arbitrarily “assigned female at birth,” it somehow also has to be physically changed before “he” can feel at home in it.

All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely cis-scum.

The Second Woman is at Perth Festival from March 3-4. I've got my ticket, LOL.

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