Wednesday, October 21, 2009

in the image ...

Back in the 90s, the United Church issued its new hymn book, Voices United. As with any change, there was bound to be controversy and resistance, but the most controversial issue with this publication was the use of gender-inclusive language: any reference to “mankind” etc. or to God, were changed to be gender-neutral. And, I have to admit that, at the time, I was one of the people who were against the change. I thought that it was an example of excessive political correctness, and was silly to change well-known songs that were written in a pre-feminist era – I figured I was advanced enough to be able to sing about mankind and know that it included me; and God is bigger than our gender constructs, so if we want to use the masculine pronoun, it’s just about convenience and doesn’t reveal any truth about the nature of God.

I’ve been rethinking this issue recently. I’m reading “All We’re Meant to Be” right now, a book of feminist theology that was written originally in the 1960s, and then updated in the ‘80s. The authors explain that they initially didn’t think that inclusive language was important, but have moved towards it, and changed their references to God throughout the second edition of the book to use non-gendered language. Their argument is that our language shapes the way we think, so that if we refer to God as male, even if it’s just for convenience’s sake, we think in those terms, and we are therefore less likely to truly embrace the fact that women are equally made in God’s image.

So I’ve been thinking about how we talk about God can affect how we view God, and I am going to try an experiment – I am trying to only refer to God in gender-inclusive language, and see if it does change my perception. This is tricky – even in writing this, I have had to stop myself from typing “him” and “he” whenever a pronoun would usually be inserted. I generally don’t think of God as much of a “person” which, on the one hand, means that it might not make much of a difference, but on the other hand is all the more reason to move away from personal pronouns.

Going forward, I am not too worried about the other element of gender-inclusive language: it is generally accepted (at least in the circles I move in) that it’s “humanity”, and not “mankind”. But I still am not sure what I think about changing per-feminist texts to insert inclusive language. On the one hand, how can we move to gender equality in the church if we continue to tell women “oh don’t worry, when it says ‘man’, it really means you too . . .”, but then, this is art that was created in a certain context, and I am a bit uncomfortable with changing art to make it meet our sensibilities (√† la fig leaf on David) …. So I don’t know where I will fall on that debate, but (despite reservations about the musical difficulty of a number of the songs . . . a topic for another rant . . .) I definitely now appreciate what the writers of Voices United were trying to do, and why it is important.

Song and Dance

I saw the Drowsy Chaperone last night, and it was fabulous. Now, when I was young, I loved the big Broadway hit musicals – I had a scrapbook of all of the different ads that would come out in the Toronto Star for the Phantom of the Opera and Les Mis√©rables. I eagerly awaited every new Andrew Lloyd Webber production. But things went sour sometime around Sunset Boulevard. Mom and I went to see it, and it was just dull. The next night, we saw a production of Aristophanes’ Clouds in a simple black box theatre for a fraction of the price, and laughed until we cried.

My estrangement with the big musical was deepened by the advent of the Disney Musical and, despite the fact that Mamma Mia was hilarious (hee hee, flipper dance = genius), the “take a bunch of songs from a famous band and make a musical out of it” musical. I am under no delusions that musical theatre was ever made for purely artistic reasons, but I do feel like there’s been a certain increase in the crassness of the commercialization of musicals in recent history: the model is to take something that already exists (music, movie, toy), get Oprah to endorse it, charge $100/ticket, and call it theatre. I even saw a poster for a Legally Blonde musical last time I was in NYC, for goodness sake! (And, yes, I know I am a snob . . . an unfortunate fact that led to me being denied the joys of Buffy the Vampire Slayer until 12 years after it debuted . . . but that’s another story.)

I’d like a bit of pure intentions with my glitz . . . which brings me back to the Drowsy Chaperone. I was excited about seeing it, because of the story of the show’s background: it started as a skit, was expanded to a fringe show, and kept on growing until it made its way to Broadway, and 5 Tony nominations. In other words, its buzz wasn’t artificially created by some kind of entertainment juggernaut – it earned it.

It is not a particularly deep play. It’s a spoof of 1920s musicals, narrated by “the Man in the Chair,” a character who comments on the history of the actors that are supposed to be playing each role, and the various contrived twists and turns of the plots. But, it skewers the genre perfectly, while being full of the entertaining song-and-dance numbers that make it so great. And, through the Man in the Chair, there’s even a theme about our attachment to theatre, and our wish to escape through entertainment.

We don’t need media personalities telling us what to watch on the stage – that’s what we have TV for. Please, if you want to watch Legally Blonde, spend $5 to rent the movie. If you want to go see a musical, go to see something that was designed first and foremost to entertain you, rather than to make money for its producers.