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In the wake of sexual harassment scandals that dominated news headlines in the latter part of 2017, gender-based violence and discrimination have become a hot topic—and it doesn’t seem like it’s going to stop soon. Women (and some men) around the world are coming together to speak out against abuse (or lend support to those afraid to), whether it’s physical, sexual, emotional or online. And they’re doing so with hashtags.
In the age of internet activism, where hashtags can operate as a call-to-arms, create a sense of community and become a symbol of identity, how does one simple word (or string of words) empower women around the world?
Theatre practitioner Edith Podesta weighs in on gender-based violence, digital activism, and shares how her latest plays, The Immortal Sole and Leda and the Rage, contribute to the conversation.
The UN makes it very clear when it states, “the roots of violence against women lie in historically unequal power relations between men and women, and persistent discrimination against women”. I believe the stories we tell, how we tell them, and from whose perspective, influences our view of the world. In both The Immortal Sole and Leda and The Rage, I have chosen to unpack renowned mythological stories written by men—whose female protagonists experience a traumatic event—through a contemporary lens.
The Immortal Sole reimagines Hans Christian Andersen's fairytale The Little Mermaid. Through its retelling, audiences can see how far we have come in terms of balancing gender inequality, as well as question the appropriateness of this material as an example of imitation and role-playing by young girls (and boys).
Leda and The Rage seeks to investigate the enduring ramifications of gender-based violence through a personal lens. It makes reference to the exploration of trauma by famous artists through film, art, literature, and theatre, as well as explores the symptoms of, and inroads to healing PTSD.
I believe these shows add to the feminist discourse—they need to—especially when it is estimated by the UN that, “worldwide, one in five women will become a victim of rape or attempted rape in her lifetime”.
I do consider myself a feminist, leaning more towards the second wave of feminism (1960s–1990s). I believe in the original enduring feminist maxim of equality for all. To be clear, that is not to say that I call into question that the third (1990s–2012) and fourth wave (2012–present) did not continue to uphold what the first wave feminists were fighting for.
Education is empowering; curiosity and questioning leads to power. I am interested in questioning why women own less than 20% of the world’s land (in developing nations, it’s as low as 10%). I’m curious why approximately 87% of married college-educated women still take their husbands' names. Why is it that women aged 15–44 are more at risk of rape and domestic violence than cancer, motor accidents, war and malaria?
Asking why, having the freedom to ask questions, and having access to tools in order to seek answers to these questions in spite of the status quo is empowering, but it is only the first step. We need all of the population (not just 49.6% of females) as well as policy makers to go ahead together.
The #MeToo (2017) and Laura Bates’s Everyday Sexism Project (2012) have been major turning points in the discourse surrounding consent and the widespread pervasiveness of sexual harassment and assault. Raising awareness is always the first step; I am not in a position to outline what the next effective step would be, but I believe the viral spread of the hashtag will encourage both sexes to seek consent. I would like to see an end to the days where it was presumed that women should be chased and men should do the chasing, the constrictive gender roles are detrimental to both sexes. Consent and mutual respect is and can be very sexy—living in a culture where sexual harassment is normalised and excused is not.
Digital feminist activism is seen by some as the hallmark of the fourth wave feminism; social media is the perfect platform to disseminate information and foster community engagement transnationally. Now, more than ever, the personal is political. From the “I need feminism because…” campaign to “This is what a feminist looks like”, to the quick organisation and the overwhelming attendance of 3.3 million women and men who joined the Women’s March in 2016 (that all began as a Facebook post by Hawaiian grandmother Teresa Shook to express concern over the threats against women’s rights after the inauguration)... for all the success (or because of it), one in four women between the ages of 18 and 24 report being stalked or sexually harassed online, with women of color and members of the LGBT community experiencing especially fierce online harassment (these rates are two to three times higher among men of the same age).
Leda is a reference to a character in Greek mythology that inspired countless artworks and poetry, she is the mother of the beautiful Helen of Troy and the grandmother of Orestes and Electra. I was influenced heavily by W. B. Yeats's poem about Leda, titled Leda and the Swan. Camille Paglia incidentally called the poem "the greatest poem of the 20th century”.
The "rage" in the title refers to the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD is a mental health condition than can affect survivors of terrorist attacks, natural disasters, serious accidents, assault or abuse, sudden and major emotional losses as well as military veterans and hospital staff.
In the United States, 9% of people develop PTSD at some point in their lives.1 It is so widespread that Singapore has also started screening programmes at both Changi General Hospital (CGH) and KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital (KKH) to identify those at risk of PTSD.
I believe in an inclusive and accessible theatre experience, where possible. Before coming to Singapore, I was on the board of Australian Theatre of the Deaf (ATOD). ATOD created bilingual theatre for the hearing and the deaf as well as training for actors and Auslan (Australian Sign Language) interpreters. I am passionate about not just captioning shows, but shadow-interpreting, which incorporates the interpreters into the performance rather than having them stand to one side of the stage. With captioning, it’s hard to pick up the emotional readings of lines as well as differentiate between characters, but in bringing the interpretation close to the action, all audience members are similarly engaged in the onstage action. I am so thankful to the Esplanade for making this a possibility!
1 American Psychiatric Association (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing. pp. 271–280.