Carolina Creative Campus – The Gender Project

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Within the context of this project we have chosen to explore gender and identity. One interesting way we clarify that exploration is with this question:

“How do we navigate gender in our everyday lives?”

To navigate: • verb 1 plan and direct the route or course of a ship, aircraft, or other form of transport. 2 sail or travel over. 3 guide (a vessel or vehicle) over a specified route.

It’s origin is the Latin navigare, “to sail.”(The Oxford English Dictionary)

Fascinating imagery: direct, transport, travel, guide, route, sail

How specific, how direct. Why then is the concept of gender navigation less concrete?

I thought about this concept as I walked up Polk Place this morning, heading to my ten o’clock class, weaving in and out of students as late as I was. Literal navigation; my body, as a vessel or vehicle, was moving through space. Each footstep bringing me closer to my destination. Translating this idea to my thoughts on gender I realized that perhaps the reason why the concept is so difficult is because there is no tangible destination. All of the definitions above consider navigation as a plan, a guide, a route; yet gender is undetermined and ever changing. It evolves from a series of constructed images, thoughts, gestures, etc. and not simply from the consultation of a map.

How then do we navigate gender in our everyday lives?

I wear a skirt. I have short, curly hair. I apply blush and mascara before leaving the house.

These things make me feel feminine.

I am a leader. I am assertive. I carry weight in my feet.

These things make me feel masculine.

Navigation? I’m not sure.

I liken this exploration to a conversation I recently had with the director of Tony Kushner’s A Bright Room Called Day (produced by LAB! Theatre, as part of The Gender Project). He explained his thoughts on gender and Kushner’s dramaturgy. The piece allows for an exploration of character without the constraints of traditional male or female roles. Each character then becomes defined by their own series of entrances and exits, dialogue, interaction, and gesture.

Navigation? A realistic representation I believe.

If what determines navigation is not only a plan or guide, but movement as well then it seems relevant to consider the journey in addition to the destination.

Do you navigate? How so? How often? How conciously?

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Gender, Performance, Sexuality

Why do issues of gender and sexuality prove so touchy for so many?  Shouldn’t we be able to delight in, play with, flaunt the norms of these scripted ways in which we behave as good “boys” and “girls?”

This semester, I’m taking a class through the UNC department of Performance Studies called Gender, Performance, Sexuality, which is co-taught by Joseph Megel and Renee Alexander Craft, and if I previously had any questions as to whether these issues are hot, heavy and complex, I have none now.  In just the first three weeks of class, we have explored these issues at such depth and through such pointed and personal lenses that minds are being blown, mine included.

On the first day of class, we interviewed another about an early memory when gender was mapped onto us.  The second day, we performed each other’s stories, and the results were profound to say the least.  The intensity of many of the experiences shared was matched only in the trust and care shown by the class toward one another.  Still, to hear my own story performed me was jarring, and gave me new insight into my own story and my own childhood that I hadn’t realized in its telling.  Throughout the class, even though we had only known each other for six hours, tears were shed and bonds were built.  The agreed-upon safety of the space allowed us to reach ground and touch upon issues that many present had never spoken of with even their family and closest friends.  The beauty of the class, using performance to explore issues of gender and sexuality, is that both gender and sexuality are rooted in the daily, mundane performance of patterns and rituals we often take for granted.  Performing about our genders lets us realize more about the performed nature of our genders.

Perhaps the most inspiring aspect of the class to me is the diversity of the students.  There are queer students, students of color, straight students, gay students, white students, athletes, academics, those who have performed their entire lives and those who have never stepped on a stage.  The different points from which we all jump into this work serves to create a rich, dynamic, and moving mosaic, and I can only look nervously and excitedly forward to where this work will take all of us.

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DV8: To Be Straight With You

What does social activism and art look like? What does social activism and art sound like?

For some, it evokes Bob Dylan, articulating the refrain of a restless generation while strumming on his guitar between wisps of vocals and harmonica. For others, it’s a large graffiti-mural piece on the side of a building reclaiming public space for the public good, vibrant colors and empowering images with perhaps a banner-message tagged to sum it all up.

For DV8, the medium of choice is theatre. Their topic in To Be Straight With You addresses the many and diverse attitudes in society concerning homosexuality. These attitudes vary from subtle hypocrisy to outright violent hostility, denial to damning, concession to persevering resistance. I felt that by adopting the interviewees as characters, the performers effectively took the often oversimplified or grossly generalized perceptions of both camps on the issue and, through heartfelt, authentic reenactment, helped me to better see the nuances of this complex situation. Who do we condemn? What do we condemn?

To me, one particular focus of the play was that our attitudes towards homosexuality are an exercise in moral/cultural relativism and as a result, are characterized by those same vexing conundrums: how much of a person’s views are determined by cultural construct, by traditions, by those elements which are never absolute? DV8 does a fantastic job in intimating the many roots of the current perceptions of homosexuality. At one point, while the audience ooh’d and ahh’d (don’t pretend to be jaded—we all thought it was cool) as an actor conjured a large globe, he highlighted and colored sections while spinning statistics and facts about the laws of different nations and religions. By investigating this angle, I really thought that To Be Straight With You strived, at least, to condemn no one– or at least to pass judgement for you. Rather, it put the characters within their appropriate context, for isolated, it would be too easy to pigeonhole them as the hero or the villain which we might even subconsciously seek.

DV8’s performance of To Be Straight With You was definitely no one-act or two-part, break-here-for-intermission and resume-plot-line piece. The company created a collage of stories all compiled through interviews. Together, these stories defied the “sit there and listen” attitude that a lecture might have emulated had it been addressing similarly heated issues. Rather, the stories set the scene for an evening with an accessible and inspiring “let’s think about this” message.

DV8’s work stitched together anthropology, journalism, oral history, multimedia, dance, acting, and technology into a seamless and mutually reinforcing collaboration of mediums, none of which detracted from the other, but each somehow heightening the audience’s engagement with the overall message thanks to the individual role of each. A story is accompanied by a dance, and the dance is accompanied by music which swells at every climax of a story. Suddenly, simple casual jump roping becomes more urgent as the actor recounts of his father’s reaction to his homosexuality, and the gentle pattering of rope meeting ground becomes the threatening and breathless fury of an enraged patriarch or the helplessly frantic footsteps of the protagonists’ escape. In one scene, a recording of an interview with the British prime minister’s wife where she voices her desire to “help” gay people by encouraging them to convert to a heterosexual lifestyle is interrupted between questions by a raucous, feet-thumping, drunken tune as actors dressed with horse-head masks stomp around in an absurdist dance. The message this seemed to drive home is that the self-perceived beneficence of the speaker is no more than debasement of homosexuals to animals. The idea of manipulating their behavior is eerily similar to the domestication of wile, unruly beasts—an unsettling suggestion throughout an otherwise hilariously satirical part.

The result is a piece which is rich and multifaceted. The pace is smooth, and the images are lasting.

Equally lasting are the questions and concerns. For both nights after the show, the student group SHOWW with Arts tried to give the audience members a creative outlet of their own in which to respond to the show and to the issue presented. In the lobby, our blank sheet of white paper was quickly made replete with accolades for the piece (including a proud shout-out to the director from his father-in-law), depictions of scenes, follow-up questions, and other doodles grappling with gender issues (ex: soccer cleat with high heel, blue and pink baby toys, etc.)

Ultimately, as vexing as the relativist conundrums might be and as impenetrably grey those shades are, DV8 does provide a clear stance for one universal ideal: open dialogue. And To Be Straight With You proves to be another excellent answer to what social justice and the arts might look and sound like.

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Vivien and The Shadows

The DTH headline on the Oct. 21 performance of Vivien and The Shadows was “Sex Spectacle Shocks”. Yes, there were elements of the play that were shocking, uncomfortable to watch, even offensive. However, I believe that sex was not the main point of the play – it explored issues of gender and sexuality within the larger issues of appearance and copying.

In the program notes, the director, Ong Keng Sen, states that “Vivien and The Shadows is inspired by the ‘taboo’ concept of copying”. The work addresses the tension between the Eastern and Western traditions of art. This is a topic that has interested me for a while now; the Asian way of learning art (be it theater, music, painting, etc.) is to copy the master until one can achieve the exact same level of ability – only then can one be considered an artist. However, in the Western world copying is seen in a negative light, and originality is praised. We would much rather a child draw an original blob than trace the Mona Lisa. Can original art be formed from a copy of another?
Vivien and The Shadows begins with one performer copying the movements and expressions of Blanche DuBois in the film A Streetcar Named Desire. Throughout the entire play, the movie plays on small screens offstage, and some scenes were projected onto a large screen, with performers copying the movements of the original actors. Yet Vivien and The Shadows was much more than a rerun of A Streetcar Named Desire – it was a work of art in its own right. When does a copy become more than a copy?

Theater as an art form inherently must deal with the issue of copying. When one acts, one is copying the movements, the gestures, the inflections of something or someone else. We don’t expect an actress to actually get stabbed onstage, we expect her to act as if she were. What is the difference? Is there a difference?

Another large theme in the play was the fluidity of illusion, appearances, and our definition of self. The performers constantly changed outfits, wigs, makeup, speech… everything. There was no single coherent plotline, and all the performers narrated in the first person, with no single main character. One point made was that illusions and darkness can sometimes free us and allow us to be our “true” selves. One character was an accountant by day and could only let his gay self be known at night, in the shadows. This reminded me of the summer reading book, Covering, and a question common to both works: how much of who we are is defined by how we look, and what we do? How does our appearance define us to others?

Although some parts were difficult to watch or hard to understand, I enjoyed the play overall. It was definitely experimental theater, but it was thought-provoking and quite beautiful at times. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to see the world premiere of this piece, and I hope that it can spark dialogue about the illusions and shadows in our own lives.

-Fei Fei Wang
Honors Arts and Dialogue Program
Freshman, biology and music double major

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Druid Podcast

Check out our first Podcast by Will Halicks about the recent visit by the Druid Theatre Company to UNC-CH!

Click Here to Listen to the Podcast

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Story Spinning…

…is just what author, and UNC alum, E. Patrick Johnson, did in his performance of Pouring Tea at the Sonya Hanes Stone Center last week. The performance was based on stories Johnson collected for his book Sweet Tea: Black Gay Men of the South (on sale at the Bulls Head Bookshop if you are interested).

The full title of the piece is Pouring Tea: Gay Black Men of the South Tell Their Tales, and tell they did. Johnson illustrated the men he interviewed by portraying each in an honest, respectful manner. He took care in sharing inflection and tone tendencies, as well as physical characteristics and mannerisms. It was also important to Johnson to include an audio excerpt of each interview, so as to consistently remind audiences that his performance reflected human beings, rather than fictional characters. Johnson gracefully touched several areas of sensitivity including sexual violence, exploration of gender identity and family relations. The stories were vastly different and each offered a unique perspective, yet all explored one similar theme: gender is a constructed progression. Just as personality is cultivated, fluid, and changing gender is a malleable concept.

This was most evident in the story of Chaz, a transgendered male who had for, a significant portion of his life, considered sex change surgery. His words speak louder than my own.

“My ideal life now is just to embrace everything that makes me who I am. All of my indifference, all of my attributes, all of my qualities, as well as my faults, and to realize that God has made no mistakes in making me, that his words said, I was fearfully and wonderfully made. Who am I to say anything different? But because of that, keeping that in retrospect to the way that society treats you because of your indifference, I’m at a level of maturity where I no longer am overly concerned about what people say or think about me, or my lifestyle, or my life choices, for that matter. I feel that the most important person in my life is me. If I’m not happy, if I’m not well, if I’m not content, then anything else is irrelevant. And then, once I’ve established that happiness, being content with who I am, and with where I am at, then I can appreciate others, and add to the quality of their lives (356, Sweet Tea).”

Why is dialogue so integral to performance? It was evident in the performance, as the piece was based on conversation. Yet, I still wonder what about dialogue is so nursing, satisfying, helpful? What about “story spinning” and conversation makes it feel so innate?

Let me know your thoughts, and continue to contribute.

We have a number of exciting, unique performances coming up. Details are published here and can also be found at

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Geek Chic

Will and I seem to be like minded, although we have never formally met (which should be remedied soon!). And no, we did not plan these posts, but I am glad my interests compliment the current conversation.

I recently read a collection of articles (Geek Chic: Smart Women in Popular Culture), edited by Sherrie A. Inness, for a current issues in mass media course. Inness examines articles that vary in depth and content, and the book covers topics as vast as cartoon characters and political figures. The effect of the entire collection is the over arching theme of the constructed image, and how images serve as a powerful source of myth. Myth is an important aspect in the construction of intelligent women because, Inness contests, it is myth that supports and reinforces ideals we, as consumers, may know to be false. One of the strongest examples Inness explores is that of the “dumb blonde.” Those reinforcements then create an undeniable reality that affects how topics of women and intelligence continue to be treated in mass media, and in daily life. So by perpetuating myths through constructed images in pop culture and mass media we are in turn allowing them to become a reality.

The idea of myth is fascinating in the context of this project. I believe that myth is one of the reasons why gender is so difficult to discuss; it is hard to distinguish whether or not our opinions about gender norms are rooted in our own realities or in deeply ingrained myth.

If you’d like to take a look at Geek Chic it’s available at Davis (ISBN HQ1421.G43), but don’t rush there today…I’ve still got it checked out.

Thanks for being a part of this dialogue.


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Women in Journalism

Hello everybody.

My name is Will. I’m an English major with minors in creative writing and news-editorial journalism, and I’m excited to have the chance to contribute to Carolina’s Gender Project. I’ve worked on various desks at The Daily Tar Heel for the past several years. I spent the spring and summer studying in the British Isles, and I met Reed after contributing an article to the Carolina Performing Arts program book about an upcoming Memorial Hall show by the Druid Theater Company from Galway, Ireland.

In my features writing class Thursday morning, we had the opportunity to talk to Karen Jurgensen, editor for USA Today for several years, about what it was like to put together a news edition in the hours following the September 11 attacks. (She said USA Today had to scrap almost the entire design for the day; the new edition sold more than three million copies.) In 1999, Jurgensen made headlines when she became the first woman to be appointed head of a national paper. Most sources on the Web will tell you she started her career in a paper in Charlotte, N.C., but it actually goes back all the way to The Daily Tar Heel. She was an English major, which makes me feel decidedly better about my own career prospects.

Talking to her got me to thinking about a larger conversation that has been going on in the world of journalism for some time: the continued domination of the workplace by male writers. According to a statistic from one of the articles below (click the second link), women occupy just three percent of “clout” decision-making positions. The ratio of men to women in op-ed positions is also drastically unbalanced, although a few women have become household names in that sector – Cynthia Tucker at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Maureen Dowd at The New York Times come to mind.

There’s been many a good article written about this problem in the industry, and I’ve posted two of them below. Take a look if you’re interested in some further reading.

Stop the Presses, Boys! Women Claim Space on Op-Ed Pages
March 15, 2007

Catherine Orenstein, an author and occasional op-ed page contributor herself, teaches a seminar on how to write and publish an op-ed essay. At the time of the article, hundreds of women and also men (In fewer numbers) had taken the seminar, and Orenstein had received clips of published essays from about two dozen of her former students.

Voices too often missing in op-ed land: women’s
July 16, 2008

Among the parties at fault for the scarcity of women op-ed writers, writes Jenkins, editors share in the blame — but it’s also up to women to participate more assertively.

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Gender Project Photographer

Hello, everyone.

My name is Jordan. I am a senior Journalism major, Dramatic Arts minor. This year I have the great fortune of being photographer for The Gender Project. Last year I watched our campus engage in an amazing yearlong discussion about capital punishment. This year I expect nothing but great things from the Gender Project and, from what I’ve seen so far, our campus is not going to disappoint. Last week I documented groups of first year students talking about our summer reading, Covering: A Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights, one of which included Kenji Yoshino, the author. I also attended a lecture and Q&A session with Yoshino in Memorial Hall. All I have to say is that, if this is the standard of intellect and enthusiasm to which I can hold our students and faculty, then I can’t wait to see where this discussion takes us this year. Everyone had an opinion to share and everyone was ready to hear it. People were disagreeing, agreeing, discussing, thinking and learning with each other. That, my friends, is what this is all about and I can’t wait to document and share the story of the Gender Project.


Kenji Yoshino in Memorial Hall

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The Carolina Summer Reading Program

It is mid-August, already. The summer has concluded and a new semester is well under way (although our first full week of classes has yet to be completed). Am I forgetting another 08-09 academic calendar year milestone? Certainly. The Gender Project has begun, officially.

This marks an important start in my year for many reasons. One being that I have spent my summer, and will continue into the fall, as an intern in the Office of the Executive Director for the Arts, working with Reed Colver on campus and community engagement. I will be posting on this blog periodically to track my experience and to offer not only my perspective as an intern, but as a student as well. I think that Carolina Creative Campus, the larger subheading above The Gender Project, is an asset to this campus because it inspires us to create dialogue surrounding the arts. There are many opportunities for discussion found throughout an academic climate, but none so unique as the arts. Particularly none so unique as the season created by Carolina Performing Arts and the performances specifically labeled The Gender Project.

I can’t think of a more appropriate start to an initiative based on dialogue than The Carolina Summer Reading Program. Reed and I had the opportunity the Monday before classes began to meet with a group of first-years to discuss last summer’s choice, Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights written by NYU Law professor Kenji Yoshino. The book, in short, does a fantastic job in sparking discussion. Yoshino clearly articulates a theory about civil rights that is based in the context of litigation, and largely in the context of his own story. He crafts an approachable read that manages to be far less alienating than other examination of civil rights I have ever encountered. He uses his personal reflection, as a gay Asian American male, and appropriately applies those experiences to all who have suffered any sort of, as he calls them, covering demands. It was fascinating to hear discussion, minimally facilitated, that came from young males and females from a variety of backgrounds, races and experiences. The discussion that emerged was a testament not only to Yoshino’s book, but to the climate of this campus and the integrity of the students who populate it.

I will openly admit that I was nervous walking into a room full of new students. I was worried that what I had to offer would not be enough. That I would get 35 blank stares and two hours to fill. But what I learned is that facilitation, particularly in the case of The Gender Project, comes not only from what I have to offer, but primarily from what the group has to offer. This I find most exciting about the year ahead. A dialogue is a collaboration; it isn’t two parts me and one part you, placed side by side for examination. It is a blending, a mixture, of the catalyst (in this case Covering), plus my thoughts and yours. A relief to all, and hopefully not just me, who choose to participate this year in our discussion. There are no right answers, there are no expectations; there is only participation.

Yoshino asks for that in Covering. He relays a message of communication and acceptance. An appropriate and much needed tone for this project. Here’s to a fantastic kick off. Thank you to all who participated in the summer reading program, and to those of you who did not have this opportunity I invite you all to participate in some form or fashion this year. I look forward to our collaboration.


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