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I dig jazz and single-malt scotch.  I write plays; I direct them too. I love STAR WARS more than is healthy. I walk my dogs every day, unless it's raining or terribly cold.

Monday, September 06, 2010

Girls Like Boys: The theatrical role of boyish-women

ANYBODYS: Buddy boys!
ACTION: Ah! Go wear a skirt.
ANYBODYS: I got scabby knees.
---West Side Story

There is a type of female character who serves the theatrical function of representing a tough outsider. She is the boyish-woman. In the popular musical West Side Story Anybodys is described in the stage directions as “a scrawny teen-age girl, dressed in an outfit that is a pathetic attempt to imitate that of the Jets (the all-male, Anglo-American street-gang)”. The character-type embodied by personas like Anybodys often stands in opposition to other female representations present in the play who are conventionally feminine. While the feminine-female-types may populate the world of play in groups, the boyish-woman appears alone. Often categorized as a tomboy, she is readily dismissed by the characters around her as an anomaly, as with the dismissal of Anybodys by Action in the exchange noted above. In the world of West Side Story Anybodys is a wannabe; and what she wants to be is a guy in the gang. In the decades that have followed the premiere of West Side Story the figure of the boyish-woman has appeared many times, occasionally claiming a central role in the narrative. Two plays that explore variations on the tough boyish-woman type are Cherrie Moraga’s The Hungry Woman: A Mexican Medea, and Luis Alfaro’s Electricidad. What is the relevance of the boyish-woman, and how does she function as a theatrical device?

The Hungry Woman: A Mexican Medea

Medea comes with a lot of baggage. Her name epitomizes tragic female vengeance: a mother pushed aside for a younger woman by the husband she had saved and brought to power. Variations on the Medea story explore the lengths to which she will go to gain vengeance by accentuating the volatile relationships between herself, her hero husband, and her (usually male) children. Playwright Cherrie Moraga’s riff on the ancient tale imagines Medea in a world created and enacted by a cast of women and one boy (portaying Chac-Mool). The traditional Medea is often presented as having two sons, but Moraga consolidates the two boys into the single heir Chac-Mool. She also invents Luna, a woman significantly younger than Medea who is described in the character list as “Medea’s lover of seven years, a stone mason and clay sculptor.” It is clear before the play begins that Moraga’s Medea will diverge from the standard Greek template, not because of the infusion of additional mythic traditions, but because of the queer aspects she introduces to the Greek story.

Because this narrative presents Medea and Luna as lovers, the assumption is to understand this as a lesbian relationship. Scene One begins with a conversation between Medea and a prison guard, juxtaposing this conversation with a separate scene showing Luna waking and dressing to go visit Medea. We understand Luna’s intent because she is speaking to the woman who is still in her bed. Interspersed with these present-time exchanges is a scene from Medea’s memory of her son Chac-mool being taught to plant corn by Luna. Medea remarks, “And the stonemason’s voice entered me like medicine. Medicine for my brokenness.” Luna walks from memory back to the bedroom, finishes dressing by putting on a “men’s suit jacket” and speaks to the woman in her bed, telling her about Medea and promising to return the next evening. From this we understand that Medea and Luna had once been close, that Luna had been close with Medea’s son, and that Luna has separated herself, at least partially, from Medea. We also understand that we are witnessing the end.

Scene Two brings Luna and Medea together in a time before the prison and the end, discussing a letter that has arrived from Jason announcing his plans to wed a new bride. For their transgression as a same-sex couple the pair along with Medea’s son has been forced into exile in Phoenix. Luna asks Medea if she is jealous, which Medea dismisses claiming instead that she is a rabid dog.

LUNA: You never divorced Jason…why?
MEDEA: You believe in that piece of paper?
LUNA: Yes, when it means you could be taken away from me.
MEDEA: I’m not your custody case. Don’t treat me like one.
LUNA: No, Chac-Mool is. Our son is the custody case.
MEDEA: My son.

This exchange seems to announce Medea’s uncompromising possession of her son, as later she is also unwilling to share Chac-Mool with his father Jason. But one could also read this pronouncement of Medea’s need to be the exclusive parent of Chac-Mool as an extension of her attachment to boyishness. Rather than equating Luna as a female figure who might have equal claim to co-parenting the boy, Luna is actually filling the role of the missing child in the original myth—where Medea has two sons. She is a second boy for Medea, but unlike Chac-Mool who is growing toward man-hood, Luna is an eternal boy who can never achieve manhood, while simultaneously thwarting her womanhood. Later in the play the character Mama Sal explains the parameters of womanhood to Luna:

When you’re a girl, hija, and a Mexican, you learn purty quick that you got only one shot at being a woman and that’s being a mother. […] You go from daughter to mother, and there’s nothing in between. That’s the law of our people written como los diez commandments on the metate stone from the beginning of all time.

Luna has found a place in-between through her boyishness.

Luna identifies herself as a lesbian, and struggles to compel Medea to recognize that they are both lesbians involved in a lesbian relationship. With the question of losing Chac-Mool to Jason Luna observes, “It’s like the thought of losing Chac…no kid between us…and we got nothing to disguise what we are to each other. Maybe for you, Chac-Mool somehow makes us less lesbian.” Throughout the play, Medea resists the label “lesbian,” sometimes by shifting it solely to Luna, and at other times by citing her motherhood.

While others in the play-world, and most observers of the play, regard Luna as a lesbian, Medea slips while drunk and calls her a boy:

MEDEA: Remember how I’d wrap my thighs around your boy’s face. (Holding her face) How come I called it a boy’s face when you’re so female?
LUNA: (Pulling away) Just macha, Medea.
MEDEA: A boy’s hunger, that’s what I saw there in those dark eyes resting between my legs.

Medea trusts the eternal boyhood embodied by Luna. Later in the play, Medea states the danger of a boy growing to manhood, “Betrayal occurs when a boy grows into a man and sees his mother as a woman for the first time. A woman. A thing. A creature to be controlled.” It is the boy embodied by Chac-Mool that Medea seeks to preserve, and is distraught as he passes into manhood:

Can you smell it, Madre? Mi hijo’s manhood. He wears it in his sleep now. In the morning I find it in a heap on the floor, crumpled in his pijama. Like Luna, I bring the soft flannel to my nose. I inhale. No baby smell. No boy. A man moving inside his body. I felt a small rise against my thigh just now, a small beating heart hardening against the place that was once his home. Where is my baby’s sweet softness now?

The deep contradiction this presents is that while she condemns this attraction from Chac-Mool, she celebrates it in Luna. When speaking to Luna about their early lovemaking, Medea describes it like this:

How does it start? How does it vanish? How is it you used to drink from me as if you yourself didn’t taste the same coppered richness when you brought your own bloody fingers to your mouth. As if when you drew a woman’s shape with your sculptor’s hands, you didn’t find the same diosa curves an valleys when you bathed yourself each day. Eres mujer. But for you, falling in love is to think nothing of yourself, your own body. In the beginning all was me.

Medea is not woman-centered, she is not centered outside of her own self at all—she is Medea-centered, which is part of the reason she is unable to recognize herself as lesbian. Medea, the mother, is resistant to queering even in the arms of a woman stonemason. Luna, the boyish-woman who will never achieve manhood survives Medea’s destructive path, but Chac-Mool, who is passing into manhood does not.

In the final image of the play a dying Medea is held in the arms of a ghost Chac-Mool, described by the playwrights as a pieta image. But this is a reverse pieta, the son cradling the dead body of the mother. The mother becomes the boy, the boy becomes the mother.


As Electricidad mourns over the rotting body of her father, she is not happy to be left behind in a world of women. Her brother Orestes is rumored dead in a hit sponsored by their power-grabbing mother, but we know that he is alive and in revenge-school-training on the DL in Vegas. As long as he remains out of bounds Electricidad is surrounded exclusively by women who want her to calm down, come inside the house, and relax. She is having none of it. She separates herself from the other women by staying outside (which is also closer to us as we watch), and by wearing the pure trappings of her “old-school” chola identity: Levi’s, black tank-top, chancla flip-flops, and a layer of baked-on earth left by the Santa Anna winds. In the world of this play, Electricdad is the only character sporting this look in such a male-centric way. She is the boyish-woman who holds the center of this play-world.

Electricidad seeks to fill the hole left by her father. She is determined to hold vigil over his decaying body until… until what? She believes that her brother Orestes has been killed by assassins sent by their mother, and does not have much of a plan. Early in the play she does, however, announce her complete alliance with her father’s way of life:

They don’t know what I’m capable of when it comes to my love and loyalty to you mi rey.
You are the old ways, Papa.
You are the history and the rason we know how to live.
I want to live the old ways, Papa.
Simple and to the point. […]
Why can’t we live the old ways?
She says I act like a man.
I’m not a girl.
I’m a chola!

In this declaration she renounces her womanhood, but what does this leave her? Can she achieve manhood? Her lack of true action in the rest of the play indicates that she cannot. She has renounced her born gender, occupying an in-between state between boyhood and manhood.
Electricidad is surrounded by women. While she remains vigilant and still, they tread through her yard. Her mother Clemencia speaks to her from the house behind her, trying to goad her daughter into giving up her vigil. Electricidad refuses, reminding herself of the power-grab initiated by her mother through the murder of the male family members, “She thought that if she killed you, all the old cholo ways would end.” Instead of ending the old ways with the death of the father and brother, Clemencia galvanized Electricidad into a male oriented place-holder. Clemencia herself is described by the playwright as chola in “evening-wear.” Her clothes are form-fitting, her make-up is fresh, and she wears spiked heals, all in fem/butch contrast to her daughter in the yard.

There is another daughter who comes to the yard who is more aligned with their mother than the father. This is Ifiginia, who in myth was sacrificed by the father and avenged by the mother. In this telling she has been away, sometimes in jail, but more recently as a member of a convent. Dressed as a Catholic schoolgirl, she finds her sister Electricidad in the yard guarding the body and unwilling to share the grief or compromise her position over the body.

ELECTRICIDAD: I am making plans, Ifi. I am going to take her last breath without raising a finger. Just watch me. I am not going to walk away from this body until her stillborn heart rests in my hands. […] Help me destroy her, my hard chola sister, who always lent a fist in the loyalty to the Casa de Atridas.
IFIGINIA: I am out of jail. But I see that you have just entered yours. Your solitude has made you loca, hermana. Your grief ain’t opa, babosa. Don’t let it boil.
ELECTRICIDAD: My grief is the match that fuels the fire of my revenge.

Ifigenia will not help her sister continue the cycle of familial revenge. Electricidad insults her choice of returning to the nuns, calling them “dykes,” further cementing her disdain for anything female.

Later, Clemencia again attempts to demonstrate the similarities between herself and Electricidad:
CLEMENCIA: […] You and I are survivors.
ELECTRICIDAD: No tengo nada in common with you, monster.
CLEMENCIA: You hate me because porque me ves inside of you. We are more alike than you can ever imagine.
CLEMENCIA: […] Hard chola with no friends to call your own. Your sister always in jail, and your little brother too soft for his own good. Little chola whose only friend was your hard papa. He took the soft skin from you and made you a warrior. And you were stupid enough to thank him for it. But why wouldn’t you? You were in love with him.
CLEMENCIA: That ain’t a new sentimiento. I hate me too sometimes.

Comparisons to her mother, or any of the women in her family, enrage Electricidad. She refuses to acknowledge any similarities with her mother, because doing so would crack the image of her father that she has donned. And yet, for all of this man-centered posturing, Electricidada does not take action. She remains, but she does not act. She is like her soft brother, unable to act because they are both locked in boyhood. Orestes, however, has an option because he is capable of entering manhood. He seizes manhood by taking action: exacting revenge for the murder of his father. At his sister’s bidding, he bleeds the life from their mother. Together the brother and sister create a whole-being capable of committing this terrible act. Separately they would have failed. In the myth Orestes becomes the responsible party and faces trial while Electra’s story ends. Here too, Electricidad is unable to progress alongside her brother. She is forever a boyish-woman, unable to continue alongside her brother into manhood. Will that ever be enough?

When You’re A Jet

The boyish-woman is a liminal figure. As represented by these plays she is a figure trapped by her choice to forgo womanhood. A perpetual boyhood is possible, but ultimately unfulfilling, because the boys in these plays are incapable of significant action.

Returning to Anybodys in West Side Story, the result of her final verbal exchange is telling.  As a tag-a-long to the Jets, she was in a position to save Tony from being captured by the police after the rumble at the end of Act One.  She also manages to infiltrate the rival gang’s territory and overhear Chino’s plan to kill Tony.  After delivering this news to the Jets, they disperse in an attempt to circumvent Chino’s retaliation on Action’s orders.  As the Jets disperse, Anybodys wants her instructions and asks Action, the new leader of the Jets, for an assignment like the other gang members:
ANYBODYS: What about me?
ACTION: You?  You get a hold of the girls and send ‘em out as liason runners so we’ll know who’s found Tony where.
(She starts to run off.)
ACTION: Hey! (She stops.) You done good buddy boy.
ANYBOYS: (She has fallen in love) Thanks, Daddy-o. 
(They both run off.)  

Love.  This qualifier to her final line of dialogue redeems her.  She passes from the liminal, eternal boyhood into the beginnings of womanhood because she has fallen in love with a man.  Unlike Luna who loves women, or Electricidad who loves her father and nobody else, it is possible for Anybodys to discard boyishness and claim a place as a young woman.  While this possibility lingers for Electricidad and Luna, the worlds of their tragedies do not allow their passage into the world of full womanhood.  They are forever boyish-women, trapped by inaction either of their own construction or societal impasses.  They are denied a form to grow into; their potential goes unrealized— at least for now.

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