The Thin Gender Line

Reviewed by Lourdes Arciniega

Women’s drama sometimes misses an opportunity to create a space for ground-breaking feminist performance when it concentrates on upholding rather than dismantling existing gender binaries, as happens in Carmen Aguirre’s Blue Box. Aguirre’s sharp and biting monologue narrates the life of Carmen, a Chilean immigrant fleeing a revolutionary life and failed first marriage, who begins a doomed relationship with a Chicano television actor in Los Angeles. Although Carmen is the pursuer in this highly charged and erotic sexual liaison, she has none of the power. Her lover easily puts on and discards incarnations of gender by being both the object and manipulator of Carmen’s sexual desire. Indeed, it is this blind focus on lust that ultimately derails Carmen, as well as the whole of Aguirre’s work. Carmen subverts female agency by misreading her grandmother’s advice to “look in front of you” and fixes her gaze instead on the “Vision Man,” her lover. Aguirre’s play works well when Carmen engages directly with the audience, as when she interactively stages the feeling of being hunted down and pursued by a spy. Tragically, Carmen is not aware that she is embodying the same role in her pursuit of her unworthy lover. Thus, Aguirre consistently undermines Carmen’s opportunities for female empowerment by defining Carmen’s sense of self worth in terms of her sexual desirability in the eyes of another. Aguirre writes a woman’s drama where a woman speaks only in relation to her connection to the men in her life.

In The Book of Esther, Leanna Brodie’s Esther finds more breathing room to wield some feminist agency. The fifteen-year-old farm girl runs away from her conservative, Christian parents to the apartment of a gay activist where she meets a teenage hustler who introduces her to the multicultural diversity of an urban environment. When Esther’s parents arrive to claim her, her father has a heart attack, and Esther is forced to return to the farm. The hustler follows her and gives her a new perspective on her once familiar surroundings. The gay activist, who used to be a close family friend who was forced to run away when homophobia invaded his neighbourhood, also returns to the rural setting. Thus Brodie sets up gender, racial, and religious intolerance as obstacles that Esther, the hustler, and the activist have to overcome. Anthea, Esther’s obsessively religious mother, becomes the surprisingly pivotal axis for change in this triangle. She gains everyone’s trust and respect by assuming the patriarchal role in her household. Anthea wields her faith and empathy as instruments of female authority succeeding in creating a strong female bond with her daughter, which ironically also frees Esther to follow her own path outside the gendered confines of her home. Brodie gives her marginalized characters an alternative space for feminist-based engagement. This doesn’t impose a gender-challenging resolution, but rather offers hope through its continued performance.

This review “The Thin Gender Line” originally appeared in Science & Canadian Literature. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 221 (Summer 2014): 127.

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