Two Women Talk: On Female Body Tropes

As part of our brand new series of radical conversations about the female body, Deviance rallied theatrical anarchists Liz Aggiss and Louise Orwin to chat feminism, firearms and the reaction to their Fringe shows...

Feature by Kate Pasola | 21 Aug 2017

After noticing the connection between women’s bodies and guns in pop videos, video games and hardcore porn, live artist Louise Orwin wrote an interactive audience experiment called A Girl and A Gun. In a bold and essential demand for sexual agency in senior citizens, performer and dance artist Liz Aggiss (who happens to be over the age of 65) wrote her own provocation, entitled Slap & Tickle. Both brought their shows to Edinburgh this August.

The Skinny: Liz, Louise; Louise, Liz. Could you tell us a bit about your shows?

LO: A Girl and A Gun asks audiences to reconsider their appetite for what we consume in cinema, especially where women and violence are concerned. It is a live film-making experiment which asks why we have such an appetite for the kind of cinema that stars women and guns as their main plot devices, and interrogates Godard’s famous statement: ‘All you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun.’ Once I nailed the concept for the show (an unprepared male performer who is asked to step into the role of action hero, and everything that comes with that: bullshit male heroism, full on sexuality, violence etc), the rest just flowed into the show.

LA: As the title suggests, Slap & Tickle is a show of opposites; push and pull, slap and tickle, punishment reward... So, expect to see a mature solo woman (the enfant terrible of the bus pass generation) engaged in a feminist soup of collage and cut-ups, whilst lurching seamlessly, and humorously, between dance, text, song. Expect to revise your attitudes on mature female visibility. Expect a mirror to be held up to the invidious nonsense, name-calling and restrictions perpetrated to limit female expectations and aspirations.

LO: Liz, what is your relationship to your own femininity, and how is this reflected in your work?

LA: I breach the borders of good taste... I unashamedly make a spectacle of myself, de-familiarising the coding of femininity and playing with self-invention through performance. And, from a feminist perspective, I represent politics in the flesh... What do you say you 'do' when asked?

LO: This always depends on who I’m speaking to, and how I’m feeling at the time. But it can be anything from live artist to theatre maker, performance artist, artist, [or] writer / director / performer. I’ve always made work about things that bother me politically, societally, and I realised that making work was a way to try and get my voice heard on these matters. So I guess to answer your question, I’ve become a maker and a scratcher.

On female tropes and audience reactions

LO: [For my show], on a nightly basis I am subjecting my body to the kind of actions any female body might go through when performing this kind of role: I am objectified, reduced to ridiculous sexualisation, glamourised even as I am belittled, and of course I get to die over and over again on stage. What is more familiar to us than the sexy dead woman in cinema? The show deconstructs many of the female gender tropes we see in cinema: femme fatale, sexy dying woman, tragic heroine, hyper-sexualised harpy, and asks how comfortable we are seeing these tropes enacted live before us, especially when many of us might be more-than comfortable with seeing them on film.

LA: As a mature, post menopausal, solo, female body, I use the space to act out and act up, and to test preconceptions about what as audience thinks I should be doing and why I should be doing it. Because this is a show that gives permission, I hope my audience will laugh, applaud with jaw-dropping adulation and leave with an empowered sense of purpose.

LO: I’ve found that women of all ages can relate to the horror of seeing such familiar female tropes from cinema laid bare. The kind of roles many of us have grown up with, and have either glorified or fought against. The show also touches on issues of gendered violence and domestic abuse, which I have known to strike a note with many women. Many women who have come to see the show have found it really empowering too – seeing a woman on stage deal with these issues in a way that is completely on her terms, within her control.

On the future of feminism

LO: We need to get rid of this idea of the ‘guilty feminist’ for a start... I consider my feminism queer and intersectional, and with this I embrace the idea of pluralism. I understand that everyone comes from a very different place, and that we are all just trying to do the best we can to get along in this confusing world, so I embrace anyone who believes in the cause, and would never condemn anyone for being a ‘bad feminist’.

LA: Recognition must begin early – in the womb would be a good start – and continue to flex its compulsory muscle whilst clarifying and articulating its demands in relationship to class and race. ‘Do I please you or do I please myself?’ should be an obligatory rhetorical question.

LO: I do feel that when we’re talking about feminism we need to make sure that we are as educated as possible on systems of oppression, and ensuring that privilege is as visible as possible. It is often here where feminism falls down – when we aren’t careful to include and protect some of the most vulnerable, especially trans and POC female-identifying people.

On the hardest part of having a female body

LO: Trying to reclaim it. The system of representation we currently live in is so heavily weighted against us, that having control over how we are viewed/spoken to and dealt with can sometimes feel like such a battle. A long time ago I came to terms with the fact that when I walk into a room, my body brings a certain amount of baggage with it: that I will consistently be treated as if I am less important, less knowledgeable, less remarkable than if a man walks into the room.

LA: Tooth enamel aside... When young, [it’s] being cursed and riding the cotton pony. And now, in maturity – whiskers and a tough beard; early menopause; late menopause; anypause; to HRT or not to HRT that is the question; body dysmorphia; tricksy mirrors; wardrobe malfunctions; not wanting children; cystitis; leakage; heavy breasts; dry vagina and a dowager’s hump. What a treat for unsuspecting young ones!

A Girl And A Gun, Summerhall (Anatomy Lecture Theatre), until 27 Aug, 6pm, £7-10
Slap and Tickle, Zoo Pleasance (Aviary), until 27 Aug, 7.10pm, £8-10