We were thrilled to work with Fi Spitzkowsky as our second dinner and a show participant, and are indebted to her for this stunning insight into some of the thoughts driving her new work The View From Up Here.
A WOMB OF ONE’S OWN
a terrible title pun to try to make up for the morally grey (or perhaps offensive) content that follows
Writing this play has been, and continues to be, a struggle. Not just with the normal writer’s block and imposter syndrome demons, but with my own ethics. There are times when I have barged into the living room and said to my housemate, ‘I think I’ve just written the most offensive thing ever.’ This, I hope, is an exaggeration; let’s not forget that people like Mark Latham and Miranda Devine are publishing regularly.
But this play has pushed me to examine the fine line that I tread every time I think, speak and write about women’s bodies and fertility. It is an incredibly difficult subject—the relationship between women, their bodies, and the continuation of human life on earth. Infinitely-faceted, it is a continually transforming beast that intersects with a multitude of difficult questions surrounding gender, ableism, power and science. So deeply ingrained is our cultural link between womanhood and motherhood—despite being inherently exclusive and harmful—that it is a painful and potentially alienating task to wrestle with the notion that personal autonomy often comes into conflict with wider social conventions and an instinctual desire for survival when it comes to reproduction.
Originally, this play revolved around two brothers. Warring brothers, equal and at opposite ends of the spectrum of power and morality seem to be a staple of western history and legends, often at the birth of great cities and civilisations—Michael and Lucifer, Zeus and Hades, Remus and Romulus, Garry and Geoff Abblett (footy joke to appeal to a broader Melbourne audience). I wanted to use this familiar form to explore a millennia-old obsession with family bonds as sacred, and the act of creating and mutating black and white morality, the birth of the hero, the unfortunate necessity of their opposing villain, and the shock realization that if you don’t know who the villain is, it’s probably you.
When did I become the black sheep of the family?
Tied up in this is a fascination with the way that the ideals of family, of forgiveness an unconditional love, allow abusive relationships between siblings to flourish. I wanted to interrogate the way that social structures—like the family unit—that may have begun as a survival strategy can become oppressive as the natural necessity for those ties become obsolete.
But quickly, as all things family-related do, the play became messy; ouroboros. The brothers became sisters, which they were always meant to be, really. And when the spotlight is on women, it always seems as though the stakes are raised, ethics are muddied. Because when women are involved, power and creation is not just about building cities, it is about creating life. Or so it would seem.
The female form is so often depicted as a divine vessel, a kind of sacred objectification which is widely relished by women, joyous (at times) for the unique and beautiful experience of growing life. But then is tearing at the womb with anything other than a child somehow sacrilegious? When we start pulling on this thread we realise how deeply it is woven through our culture. Taken to extremes, we are faced with a conflict between present, natural reality, and the infinite, possible future that is embodied by the womb.
And here I found myself pausing, as I often have with this piece, thinking, wait, is my internalised misogyny showing?
The play takes place in a world where the father has removed himself, and left the mother and daughters to live alone, independent and autonomous. But when a new, vulnerable and malleable man appears on the scene, familiar pressures of fertility and motherhood and endurance emerge. The play asks, how do we leave behind that system, when it created the lives we lead? Even if all traces were dead and gone, are we able to escape that which pumps through our veins? Simone de Beauvoir (and many more recent, radical, diverse women I am sure) believed women find it difficult to unite and shake off our shackles because we are so deeply ingrained and woven into patriarchal structures.
“women lack concrete means for organising themselves into a unit which can stand face to face with the correlative unit. They have no past, no history, no religion of their own; and they have no such solidarity of work and interest as that of the proletariat.[…] They live dispersed among the males, attached through residence, housework, economic condition, and social standing to certain men – fathers or husbands – more firmly than they are to other women”
For proof of which we only need to look at the recent U.S. elections. How can we escape this heteronormative devotion to the nuclear family unit without burning it all to the ground? How do we rebuild that without the instincts to reproduce, to nurture, to ask some portion of the population to carry a biological burden? (or gift, I suppose. Each to their own.)
Am I just being sexist?
At the heart of the problem, for me, is the constraint of language. Leonard Shlain’s The Alphabet versus the Goddess presents the fascinating, but ultimately unprovable proposition that the spread of literacy correlated to the fall of matriarchal societies, as the source of authorial knowledge shifted from women with their oral storytelling and old wives’ tales, to the men with their books and scrolls. With this came the power to create cages out of words and linguistic structures. Language ties women to their bodies and the natural world—hysterical, shrewish women are among the obvious examples. But there is a strange slant in the way we cherish and compliment women as well. ‘Handsome’ is primarily defined as referring to a man, a human being, and is secondarily noted as being imposing or of considerable size. But ‘beautiful’ can be applied more widely to objects, and refers to the enjoyment of the observer (Macquarie Dictionary. Words are fun).
We all know beautiful men and non-binary people, and everyone loves a good compliment, but there is a niggling thought in the back of my head that the forgotten, even defunct gendered etymology burrows into our subconscious and sustains the pressure for women to correlate their worth with their desirability and fertility. Even in the (hopefully) progressive world we live in today, a woman’s body and fertility are inescapable facets of their public existence. We see this in the commercialised lives of the Kardashians, unarguably powerful women who control vast empires built upon image. And in the very first press conference of the new NSW premier, Gladys Berejiklian, who was almost immediately asked why she was childless. This begins to explain why bad-ass women like Katerina Minola (to use my favourite Shakespearean example), who are constantly told they are undesirable because of their shrewishness, fall dangerously into the arms of the first man who calls them beautiful. Is this vanity or an inescapable result of the role gendered language plays in the creation of self-identity and self-worth?
Even if women are in charge, as they seem to be at the beginning of this play, guiding an illiterate young man through the labyrinth of learning language, the echoes of patriarchal control can still be heard. The word ‘beautiful’ still has a power over women. This brings to the fore an idea that I am wrestling with at the moment: the notion of silence as a feminine form. Perhaps we don’t need to change that form — perhaps we should embrace it, speak through silence, rather than translate our stories, our lives, to re-assimilate into loud, bustling patriarchal structures.
If silence can be accepted as a radical form of feminine language, can the empty womb, an absence, be the ultimate rejection of the patriarchy? And on an individual level, is it possible to extricate this personal choice from the political implications? Are women’s bodies a commodity, necessary to keep the human world turning?
Is my internalised misogyny out again?
This might seem extreme, objectifying and self-hating, but there were times in 2016 (when rape was described as ‘20 minutes of action’, when there was talk of being grabbed) when I couldn’t shake the feeling that everywhere the world was shouting, ‘Your Body Doesn’t Belong To You’.
In Nocturnal Animals Amy Adams’ character is tormented for making a choice regarding her body, one that undeniably affected her tormentor, but was undeniably hers. Where does our responsibility to others begin and end? And what if the choice is not just about timing or prioritising careers, but a deliberate response to the state of the world, a rejection. To take it to the extreme: at the end of the world, or perhaps the beginning of a new one, does someone’s personal choice matter as much as the survival of a species? If we look to popular culture and social trends, the conclusion seems painfully clear. Margaret Atwood provides a glimpse at the world of ‘no’ in The Handmaid’s Tale. And childlessness has long been the lazy man’s go-to for vilifying women, from the wicked stepmothers of fairytales to the trolling of female politicians.
When did I become the villain?
Even if we accept these women as villains, can we embrace them? If we are able to stomach the wicked ways of the men who just want to watch the world burn (our favourite Oscar-winning villains), can we find some place in popular culture for the women who just want to watch the world slip quietly away, in defiance of the pressure to consume, to reproduce, to persist? Or is this kind of passive destruction too much in a world dominated by the ideal of woman as the nurturing mother?
The ultimate goal with this play is to prompt a conversation, a difficult conversation. (And if you’d like to take part, I’m always up for a coffee and a chat). I’ve been struggling with this conversation by myself for years, and I’d like to spread the love.
Are our bodies our own? Even at the end? Even at the beginning?
Should I have kids just to make my Mum happy?
Is survival always ethical?
Am I a bad feminist?
Does it matter?