First Nations Emerging Critic Carissa Lee discusses the need for intersectionality in our theatres
Intersectionality simply means that there are lots of different parts to our womanhood, and those parts — race, gender, sexuality, and religion, and ability — are not incidental or auxiliary. They matter politically.
Performing has always been in the blood of First Nations’ mob. Our performance has functions: to communicate, to tell stories so they travel on with the recipient. As Michael Parsons observed in his 1985 book The Tourist Corroboree in South Australia to 1911, “‘Corroboree’ has passed into English as a word for all Aboriginal ceremonies, rituals and entertainments involving singing and dancing…and has been used as a general term for ceremonial performance from Indigenous peoples.” 1
A corroboree refers to an ensemble of people, often separated into women’s and men’s sections and their respective dances, in which the group performs as one. However, another purpose of corroboree is to function as ceremony, sometimes for secret men’s or women’s business. This sacred aspect hasn’t always been respected.
It certainly shocked the 19th Century missionary and teacher George Taplin, who declared that “the dances of the women are very immodest and lewd…I have seen dances which were the most disgusting displays of obscene gesture possible to be imagined, and although I stood in the dark alone, and nobody knew I was there, I felt ashamed to look upon such abominations.” Taplin’s confession suggests that, against all Indigenous law, he was watching a women’s-only ceremony in secret. 2
Although we are our own people and need our privacy of practice, it’s often difficult for outsiders to understand that Indigenous women are a separate entity within the group of our people, with our own ceremonies and protocols. This is why intersectional analysis that takes note of the specific needs of Indigenous women is so profoundly necessary.
Intersectionality is a way to describe the many social elements that overlap and have potential to cause disadvantages throughout a person’s life. These days you’ll most often hear it in the context of feminism. Here, it means paying attention to the ways the gender-based discrimination and oppression a woman may experience can be compounded by her race, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, and more. You might have heard this term being thrown around, perhaps about the Washington Women’s March last year, or saw that the word “intersectional” was recently added to the Merriam-Webster dictionary.
Although many people think that it’s a new word, the concept has been around for long time. Intersectional feminism was first theorised by legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw in a 1989 essay that asserts that antidiscrimination law, feminist theory, and antiracist politics fail to address the experiences of black women. Historically, black women have been made to feel that they can only be a representation of their race, as opposed to being a representation of a specific demographic of women, Black women. bell hooks writes of this conflict of oppressions in Ain’t I a Woman:
Contemporary black women could not join together to fight for women’s rights because we did not see “womanhood” as an important aspect of our identity. Racist, sexual socialisation had conditioned us to devalue our femaleness and to regard race as our only relevant label of identification. In other words – we were asked to deny a part of ourselves – and we did.”
This isn’t only an issue in the United States. Australia also has a history of excluding Indigenous women from the women’s rights movement. The 1943 Australian Conference for Victory in War and Victory in Peace, for example, adopted the Australian Women’s Charter, which endorsed women’s rights to paid work, child-care, housing and education. This charter was remarkable in that it included First Nations’ women, but the Australian women’s rights movement chose to prioritise their causes under the specific category of gender, ignoring how race affected the experiences of Aboriginal women. They left their First Nations sisters behind. 4
Although there was support from Women’s Guilds for Indigenous causes between the 1950s and 1970s, the rise of Indigenous activism meant that the feminist movement left the Indigenous mob to deal with their own issues. During the 1970s, Women’s Guilds attempted to include First Nations and immigrant women by providing shelters for women escaping domestic violence and homelessness. However, these initiatives primarily catered for white women, with a First Nations-specific branch of feminism never really fitting in with what these groups were wanting to achieve. The complexities of race, culture, and community obligations were something that these women were not equipped to deal with.
The 1975 Women and Politics Conference, the first national conference to which Indigenous women were invited, was a prime example of the culture clash between different feminist agendas. Where white women were advocating for abortion rights and sexual liberation, Indigenous women were demanding an end to forced sterilisation and sexual harassment. This led to First Nations women having limited involvement in the feminist discussion. Segregation among women prevailed. 5
All Indigenous women share the common experience of being Indigenous women in a society that deprecates them. Accordingly, there will be common characteristic themes dominant in an Indigenous woman’s standpoint. Such themes include sharing the legacy of dispossession, racism and sexism; resisting and replacing disparaging images of ourselves with self defined images; continuing our activism as mothers, sisters, aunts, daughters, grandmothers and community leaders as well as negotiating sexual politics across and within cultures.
Maryrose Casey (2007), A Compelling Force: Indigenous Women Playwrights
Plays that highlight the complexities of Indigenous characters are better plays: they create better performances, and heighten the ability of audience to relate to the characters. Unfortunately, the complex presentation of female Indigenous characters has often been sacrificed in favour of their primary role of being symbolic Indigenous characters, ignoring the complexities of their gender within their culture.
One of the best known images of Indigenous women in the mid twentieth century was Jedda, the main female character stolen from her family in Charles Chauvel’s film Jedda (1955). Jedda is in many ways typical of standard representations of Aboriginal women: she is stolen from her family and meets her death as a result of a twisted tug-of-war between an Indigenous and non-Indigenous man. “At each stage Jedda is a passive victim,” says Maryrose Casey. “[She is] vulnerable to primitive responses, overwhelmed by the moral or physical strength of others, [and her] only hope for a future lies in being assimilated into the Euro-Australian culture.”
The doomed Indigenous narrative is a common trope for both male and female First Nations roles within mainstream “savage” narratives. Women are represented as victim fodder at the hands of white characters, and become a hollow symbol of the families left behind when their men die. That is, if they are not raped and/or murdered alongside them.
Although there have been variations within these representations, to a large extent Indigenous women occupy the position of silent victims. They appear as part of a “silent victim ensemble”, a group entity on stage that serves as a symbol of white Eurocentric brutality, in ways not dissimilar to the roles of victimised women within many plays in the Western canon. Casey discusses the work of Euro-Australian women playwrights such as Henrietta Drake Brockman’s Men Without Wives (1938), Katherine Susannah Pritchard’s Brumby Innes (1927) and Dorothy Hewett’s Man from Muckinupin as examples of this.
First Nations playwrights such as Oodgeroo Noonuccal in the 1960s and ‘70s and Eva Johnson in the 1970s and ‘80s created narratives within their plays that challenged these representations, and the broader social assumptions about First Nations women. More female Indigenous narratives were given voice during the 1990s, with a surge of projects that involved Indigenous women.
With the formation of state-based Indigenous companies such as Kooemba Jdarra in Brisbane, Ilbijerri in Melbourne and Yirra Yaakin in Perth, Indigenous women began to play administrative and artistic roles. These companies have continued to produce work by Indigenous women writers, with Kooemba Jdarra assisting with the reworking of Odette Best’s play True, which expressed “how we laugh, how we interact, where the pain is that we don’t discuss” 6 and The Seven Stages of Grieving, a play created in collaboration with Deb Mailman and Wesley Enoch, that showed the multitude of complexities that come with being an Indigenous women in modern “Reckon-silly-nation” Australia. 7
As well, more First Nations women playwrights began to emerge, often in collaboration with non-Indigenous writers, picking up where Eva Johnson and Oodgeroo Noonuccal had left off. Ningali Lawford’s Ningali (1994) illustrated her personal history as a young Indigenous girl becoming a young performer in the US and Australia. Leah Purcell and co-writer Scott Rankin wrote Box the Pony (1997), in which Purcell told her life story as a young indigenous woman trying to find her way in the world. In Jane Harrison’s Stolen (1998), we are given the perspective of five characters who were stolen from their families at various stages of their lives, and the on-going effects of this shattering displacement.
I will pay credit where credit is due. Our First Nation brothers and uncles have also been responsible for many of the great female characters that some of us have been lucky enough to play: Dolly in Jack Davis’ The Dreamers (1983) or Wesley Enoch’s Faith and Annie in The Story of the Miracles at Cookie’s Table (2007), with a special mention to white playwright Louis Nowra’s Radiance, which captured the turbulent relationships between three sisters who’ve been forced to reunite for family Sorry Business.
In a 2014 essay, Indigenous feminist Celeste Liddle highlights why a specifically Aboriginal feminism is necessary. She points to three formative elements that structure this need: the white patriarchy, the black patriarchy and “mainstream” feminism. Liddle writes that as a system of oppression the white patriarchy is self-explanatory, given its continuing historical legacy and political privilege, but despite this, Aboriginal women feel excluded by mainstream feminism. I am yet to experience personally how the patriarchy operates within the Aboriginal community, but it is often described as the erasure of the female gaze within past political movements: the sacrifice of the identity of our gender for the identity of race, as bell hooks discusses in Ain’t I a Woman. This is reflected in the performing arts: in many productions Aboriginal performers are seen as cultural ensembles, an Indigenous “collective”, rather than individual people with their own cultural loads, journeys and personal narratives.
To make this even more infuriating, genres such as “museum theatre” continue to be on trend for some mainstream theatre companies, film and television. This means that this “Indigenous collective” is the most prominent image mainstream audiences have of us. We’re not the ones who make these shows, but perhaps their prominence is a major factor in how we, as First Nations people, are still accused of playing the victim.
“When we experience victim-blaming as women, it is compounded by race to the point where Aboriginal women dying from domestic homicide at a rate 10 times that of other women in Australia barely rates a mention,” says Liddle. “We tend to be subjected to the same issues of body shame and arbitrary and commercialised notions of beauty, but we are also judged on our skin tone and whether or not we possess certain features deemed to be tellingly ‘Aboriginal’ (eg: a wide nose, deep-set eyes, etc).” This vein of racist exclusion (which often occurs in casting for museum theatre productions) is something that Celeste Liddle and Laura Murphy Oates have written of within their own experiences.
If you thought trying to integrate Aboriginality and feminism was tricky, try throwing being light-skinned into the mix. The complex politics of diversity within “blackness” isn’t much explored, and is often not popular when it is. The fact remains that historically the performing arts industry hasn’t offered many opportunities for lighter-skinned Indigenous actors. As Liddle says, “For an Aboriginal woman to be recognised and accepted as such to the mainstream, it’s preferred she not show the impacts of colonisation. If she can be framed as an ‘authentic’, she can be celebrated.”
First Nations performers such as Shari Sebben and Tammy Anderson have given actors like me a sense of hope and inspired writers to find a place for us within the performing arts. Jane Harrison’s Stolen, Tammy Anderson’s I Don’t Wanna Play House and Maryanne Sam’s Casting Doubts address the complexities of being a light-skinned Indigenous person in Australia. Casting Doubts was a particularly significant play for me as a performer, because the role that resonated with me was a young Aboriginal girl who was torn between her community as a black girl, and the necessity to deny her heritage so she could get ahead in her career.
This is a narrative that is more common than you’d think, and being a woman as well adds another facet to your obligation to your family. One (of many) of the problematic elements of museum theatre in which First Nations people are seen as a “tribal” presence, is that it doesn’t have much room for these stories: this particular model of theatre adheres to the stereotype that First Nations people all look a certain way.
This is an inheritance of the ugly colonial blood quantum cataloguing of First Nations people. Other examples of this are when people ask us “how much” Aboriginality runs in our blood or whether we are “half-caste”, or more seriously when the government attempts to use colonial traditions of identifying indigeneity as a means to curb spending with vital resources like Closing the Gap. There was a row only last week about the Federal Government’s attempt to change the official definition of Indigenous to cut out the necessity of recognition by the Indigenous community. Despite the fact that colonisers ensured that we lost our language, our children and our women’s reproductive rights, they use our lighter-skinned descendants and the lack of records of our ancestry against us.
Still, there is hope. Recently as a performer and an audience member I’ve encountered multifaceted female characters that honour not only their race and cultural journey, but their personal journeys as women navigating their place within the world. Nathan Maynard’s The Season (Melbourne Festival 2017) presented an Indigenous family with strong women, and addresses female sexuality, both heterosexual and homosexual. The matriarch holds the family together, but she’s permitted a personal journey of her own. At the Malthouse Theatre last year, I also saw John Harvey’s Heart is a Wasteland, in which Ursula Yovich portrays a struggling but appealing single mother with a lovable but unaccountable love interest played by Aaron Pederson. Between these two is a tumultuous dynamic, and neither character is overly likable. I figure if the character is a bit of a shit and you’re still rooting for them it makes for a great story, particularly if the female character is the one driving the situation.
It’s all well and good to want to advocate for women. But there must be intersectionality in feminism – not all women happen to be white, or middle class. Australian feminists must recognise and join the fight for racial diversity. Aboriginal and indeed many black/brown women are being left behind because as it stands, while the table may still be lacking women, it’s also lacking colour.
Crenshaw coined the word “intersectionality” because she saw the need to specify a feminism that wasn’t exclusively for white women. This necessity also exists within our theatre. Yet despite the clear need for intersectionality, the discussion often provokes vicious backlash. The arguments are all too familiar: it promotes victimhood, it causes infighting, or that it’s no more than an invention of out-of-touch, whiny people on college campuses. The protests against the need for our vein of feminism, the right to tell and understand our own stories on our terms, demonstrates an unfathomable ignorance and entitlement.
People who see the inclusivity of minorities as a hostile exclusion of them don’t think about the fact that these minorities have had to deal being shut out of everything ever. They are saying, how dare Indigneous women be asked to be treated like multifaceted individuals instead of just “women” or “black”. Gloriously twisted plays like Nakkiah Lui’s Blaque Showgirls is a fantastic rebuttal to that line of thinking, showing that white entitlement can often come from a place of jealousy, a desire to appropriate what makes us special, instead of searching for that specialness within themselves.
Performance within Indigenous communities traditionally functions as a practice for us to share stories and histories, to keep our culture alive through changing times and the adversities that come with them. It’s only apt that we apply this age-old framework to continue telling black women’s stories on Australian stages. Stories are not only important to share with and educate our white audiences, and to challenge previous misconceptions of our mob. They matter most of all to our sistagirls in the audience. Maybe they just finished a long day at work, had to deal with some prick on the train, or it’s an auntie in her best dress and her favourite lippie. We need stories for them, too.
Brittney Cooper- assistant professor of women’s and gender studies and Africana studies at Rutgers University, as cited by Jenée Desmond-Harris To understand the Women’s March on Washington, you need to understand intersectional feminism. https://www.vox.com/identities/2017/1/17/14267766/womens-march-on-washington-inauguration-trump-feminism-intersectionaltiy-race-class
Mirriam-Webster: Word We’re Watching: Intersectionality: What happens when forms of discrimination combine, overlap, and intersect https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/intersectionality-meaning
Intersectionality and Indigenous Feminism: An Aboriginal Woman’s Perspective Contributor: Celeste Liddle June 25, 2014 URL: http://postcolonialist.com/civil-discourse/intersectionality-indigenous-feminism-aboriginal-womans-perspective/ 1. Reporting on racism as a light-skinned Koori by Laura Murphy Oates
Fair-skin privilege? I’m sorry, but things are much more complicated than that by Celeste Liddle
Magnolia Maymuru wasn’t the only Aboriginal finalist of Miss World Australia. Why weren’t the others recognised? By Celeste Liddle.
Australian feminists need to talk about race by Kelly Briggs
1 Ross, Margaret Clunies, (1986):. “Australian Aboriginal oral traditions.” Oral Tradition 1.2 Pg. 231-271.)
2 (Bemdt & Berndt 1985, p. 320 As cited by Parsons, 1997, 1997:59- Parsons, Michael. “The tourist corroboree in South Australia to 1911.” Aboriginal History 21 (1997): 46-69)
3 (Taplin, in Woods 1879, pp. 37-8; Bemdt & Bemdt 1985:381 and Bruce & Callaway 1991, as cited by Parsons, 1997:59-60).
4 Saunders and Bolton, as cited by Moreton-Robinson, A. (2000). Talkin’up to the white woman: Aboriginal women and feminism. Univ. of Queensland Press. Page 104
5 Moreton-Robinson, A. (2000). Talkin’up to the white woman: Aboriginal women and feminism. Univ. of Queensland Press, Page 155.
6 Maryrose Casey. A Compelling Force: Indigenous Women Playwrights, 2007.
7 Enoch, W., & Mailman, D. (1996). The Seven Stages of Grieving. Brisbane, Austral.: Playlab P.