Using a feminist framework analyse Here Lies Love. What is staged as ‘feminine’ within the performance and how might the performance be perceived as perpetuating patriarchal orthodoxies or providing a feminist intervention?

Featured Image from the National Theatre’s Production of Here Lies Love

The National Theatre’s production of David Byrne and Fatboy Slim’s Here Lies Love, is a musical documenting the Philippines First Lady Imelda Marcos’ historical ‘rise from small-town beauty to the most powerful political figure in the Philippines’ (Billington, 2014). By applying Judith Fetterley’s theory of the ‘resisting reader’ Here Lies Love can be examined through a feminist lens; ‘the first act of a feminist critic must be to become a resisting rather than an assenting reader’ (1978: xxii). Fetterley’s resisting reader is able to question and deconstruct, not with an unconsciously influenced masculine reading, but with a feminist one. Thus, Here Lies Love is a production which challenges both a patriarchal discourse and a white hegemony, with its female protagonist presenting a character whose goals are not solely romance based, but socio-political. Natalie Mendoza as Imelda Marcos drives the action from a female perspective with the designer’s costume choices, based on what Imelda Marcos wore in real life, emphasising an empowered version of female sexuality and femininity.

The plot of Here Lies Love emphasises an egalitarian power-dynamic between the characters of Imelda and Ferdinand Marcos, presenting their on stage relationship as reliant upon each partner to achieve their respective socio-political goals. In the number ‘A Perfect Hand’ after Mark Bautista’s Ferdinand has first seen Imelda he sings ‘And if you open the door for a lady/You open a door for yourself’ (Here Lies Love, 2014), the parallelism of these lyrics conveying a relationship of equal opportunity. This plotting choice may have been chosen because the historical relationship between the two was, as Ellison describes, ‘a political match made in heaven’ (2005: 35). This in itself offers feminist analysis because typically female characters ‘exist not to drive the plot but to sacrifice for the men, the real stars of the show’ (Wolf, 2012). Rather than simply submitting herself as an aid to Ferdinand’s political goals in the production and becoming a ‘trophy wife,’ Byrne makes clear use of Imelda’s opportunity to marry Ferdinand for her own gain through song. The musical’s opening number ‘Here Lies Love’ demonstrates Imelda’s aspiration in the lyrics ‘A simple country girl who had a dream/The ladies passing by, a better class than I/How much it meant to me to be like these’ (Here Lies Love, 2014). These lyrics clearly express what a young Imelda wants, thus when the opportunity of marrying a promising, wealthy politician arises the audience can interpret Imelda’s decision as means of increasing her class status; accepting Ferdinand’s marriage proposal will enable her to become like the upper class women she admires. While this dramatization of marriage seems misogynistic on the surface, a feminist lens instead allows patriarchal culture to be searched out and criticised (Fortier, 2002: 108). Imelda does not conform to patriarchy through the social convention of marriage but she is instead aware of this and chooses it as a means to improve her life; the lyric ‘Never poor no more—I have all that I need’ in ‘Walk Like A Woman’ best exemplifying this (Here Lies Love, 2014).

It is an interesting choice by director Alex Timbers to construct Here Lies Love as a musical that simultaneously falls into the ‘rags to riches’ genre. This being because when female characters are the protagonists of this genre their endeavours are often fuelled solely by romance, as a means to relieve them of their poverty. In Intertextuality, it is stated that ‘works of literature, after all, are built from systems, codes and traditions established by previous works of literature’ (Allen, 2000: 1), texts are reflective of those that have gone before them and thus a reader will read based upon this prior knowledge. Originating and often applied to Dickensian male characters, the rags to riches genre is an interesting choice to explore Imelda’s autonomy within the production. Whether Cinderella is found by the Prince or Vivian is picked up by Edward in Pretty Woman, these female protagonists only go onto better things because their male counterparts rescue them in a romantic fashion. Here Lies Love subverts this because Imelda’s feelings for Ferdinand were coupled with a need to ascend in socio-political status, something clear from the opening number before they have even met. This is a liberating representation of a female character, one which questions and alters an established patriarchal orthodoxy within the ‘rags to riches’ genre. Thus as a protagonist Imelda Marcos becomes a character who is not simply categorised in the manner that ‘Patriarchal cultural visions often reduce women to stereotypes (virgin, whore, Madonna, bitch)…’ (Fortier, 2002: 111), instead her character is presented as multi-dimensional; feminist when in the theatre ‘old stereotypes still persist — and, somehow, we still love them’ (Wolf, 2012).

Of the many creative elements in the production, costume is key in conveying Imelda’s character development throughout the performance; as Simone de Beauvoir suggests ‘one is not born a woman, but, rather one becomes one’ (Butler, 1990: 8). Creator David Byrne states in Here Lies Love’s programme that the costumes ‘help tell the story visually, by complementing the narrative information that is in the songs’ (2014). Thus dressing in what is considered a ‘feminine’ manner is used, not simply to conform to twentieth century gender-norms and definitions, but through capitalisation as a socio-political tool to further Imelda’s character endeavours. American image culture having infiltrated the Philippines, during the Marcos era, to dictate what being ‘feminine’ meant and in the early 1960’s this became ‘the construction and reconstruction of a desirable self’ (Ouellette, 2011: 230); Imelda shaping her public appearance to fit in with this image. During the opening song ‘Here Lies Love’ Imelda’s costume consists of a simple dress which is used to reinforce her low class: ‘When I was a young girl in Leyte/ My dresses were all hand-me-downs and scraps’ (Here Lies Love, 2014). As the production continues the costumes, designed by Filipino Clint Ramos, become more elaborate and highlight an increased sense of femininity on a public platform. In ‘Eleven Days’ Mendoza’s Imelda changes into a dress with floral patterns on it, comprised of light colours such as pink and lavender this pattern and choice of colour symbolises hyper stereotypical femininity. A choice that is made clear when the eleven day long Imelda-Ferdinand courtship was ‘public property’ in the Philippines from the start (Ellison, 2005: 35). This boy-meets-girl matrix visualised in Imelda’s feminine dress and Ferdinand’s masculine, black suit represents a pinnacle heterosexual relationship, their romance becoming romanticised and, as aforementioned, reminding an audience of stories they already know. Thus by being presented as embracing, and capitalising on, her ‘femininity’ as a socio-political tool, the Imelda character helps perpetuate an visually endearing relationship which will help further her own aspirations; it being intended that an audience will come to believe in this relationship the same way the Filipino people did.

Final commentary, can be noted in the fact that Here Lies Love was staged at the National Theatre, a venue which is statistically patriarchal: ‘Looking again at the last ten years, at the NT, 80% of that work has been done by men’ (Potter, 2013). This masculine discourse may stem from the fact that ‘Many of the restrictions and limitations we live with are more or less internalized and self-monitored’ (Frye, 1983: 14). In a sense the cannon of male-dominated theatre, both behind and on-stage, is not questioned because as Stella Duffy states: ‘… they think men (and yes, white, middle-class, middle-aged, able-bodied men at that) are all we need to see’ (Higgins, 2013). Thus Here Lies Love is a production that challenges this gender disparity, although conceived and created by two men the production’s Cast and Creative teams are more equally balanced when it comes to gender than the norm; 59% male and 41% female. Of the actors employed for the production 53% are female which highlights the egalitarian nature of the performance, important when of the ten subsidised theatres in England the National Theatre actually comes out ‘worst at 34%’ (Higgins, 2013). Importantly, Here Lies Love cannot be defined as feminist simply because it represents more women on stage, the production simultaneously gives a voice to women of colour who are often side-lined by a white-female hegemony. As Fortier explains, ‘women of colour have had their perspectives and voices erased from the dominant culture, and therefore have a different struggle in asserting their perspectives and voices’ (2002: 115). Often excluded from the hegemony of white feminism Here Lies Love creates a space for women of colour to tell a story that would otherwise not be heard. Unable to fit into a cannon of white patriarchal theatre, the production challenges what this by staging Filipino history as a musical; unconventional and bold in its story telling.

In conclusion, Here Lies Love is a production which can be clearly examined in a feminist light. By challenging and subverting white patriarchal discourses that exist within the theatre a resisting reader, as an audience member, is enabled to question these cultural matrixes. As compared to standard stereotypes in society, which permeate theatre also, the production explores the multi-dimensionality of women where Mendoza’s Imelda subverts categorisation.  The production is also interesting in its exploration of what constitutes the ‘feminine’, as aforementioned, the costume choices present an empowered version of female femininity. One which re-orientates what is socially accepted by patriarchal society in order for Imelda to capitalise and use it as a tool, creating a place for herself in the male-dominated sphere of politics while at the same time achieving her own class aspirations.

WORD COUNT: 1586

References

Billington, M. (2014) Here Lies Love review – David Byrne and Fatboy Slim show lacks substance. Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2014/oct/14/here-lies-love-byrne-marcos-review (Accessed: 25th February 2015)

Butler, J. (1990) Gender Trouble Feminsim and the Subversion of Identity. Routledge: London.

David Byrne (2015) Here Lies Love Lyrics. Available at: http://www.davidbyrne.com/archive/here_lies_love/lyrics.php (Accessed: 10th March 2015)

de Beauvoir, S. (1973) The Second Sex. New York: Vintage.

Ellison, K. (2005) Imelda: Steel Butterfly of the Philippines. Lincoln: McGraw Hill.

Fortier, M. (2002) Theory/Theatre: An Introduction. 2nd edn. New York: Routledge.

Frye, M. (1983) The Politics of Reality: essays in feminist theory. California: The Crossing Press.

Here Lies Love by David Byrne and Fatboy Slim (2014) Directed by Alex Timbers [National Theatre, London. 1st December].

Higgins, Charlotte. (2012) Women in theatre: why so few make it to the top? Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2012/dec/10/women-in-theatre-glass-ceiling (Accessed: 22nd February 2015)

National Theatre (2015) Here Lies Love. Available at: http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/shows/here-lies-love?play=4 (Accessed: 20th February 2015)

Ouellette, L. (2011) Inventing the Cosmo Girl: Class Identity and Girl-Style American Dreams in Gender , Race and Class in Media: A Critical Reader. 3rd edn. Edited by Dines, G. Humez, Jean M. California: Sage.

Potter, Sam. (2013) Does the National Theatre have a problem with women? Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/stage/theatreblog/2013/nov/07/national-theatre-problem-with-women (Accessed: 22nd February 2015)

Wolf, Stacy. (2012) Why we love ‘Les Miserables,’ despite its miserable gender stereotypes. Available at: http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/why-we-love-les-miserables-despite-its-miserable-gender-stereotypes/2012/12/28/bc8ef17e-4f84-11e2-839d-d54cc6e49b63_story.html (Accessed 20th February 2015)

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