Vulnerability and Resistance

By Jaclyn Chong

Jaclyn never intended for her Concerned Citizens Programme project to be a feminist one. But as she ponders over the ways in which women have been oppressed in a largely patriarchal society, she encounters a parallel between the act of performing emotional labour in theatre spaces and the function of the female body as a machine for capitalistic production, and resolves to take agency over her performing body as an act of rebellion against power structures that seek to alienate and repress female bodies.

Photo contributed by the author

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Before being selected for this programme, one of the questions that I was asked during the interview was if I saw my project to be an artistic or a social one. I had answered that I envisioned my project to be artistic because it is a familiar way of working for me.

Through the process of talking to the mentors about my project and also with fellow participant ila , I however wondered if it would be more important to push for collective, community care within the arts community, specifically related to the theatre scene. But how would I even begin to organise and reach out to all the independent theatre groups out there?

I met with CCP mentor Alvin Tan who shared with me his wealth of knowledge and anecdotes from working in the theatre scene. Established theatre companies each have their own protocols and ethics, but nothing is really formalised across these companies. I approached my friend who’s a theatre director of a small company that I am working with. I’ve previously shared with him an article about harm reduction. As the article points out, it is unsustainable for just the director to care for the whole team because it is impossible for one person to know the many different ways in which others might need care. Thus, I wanted to have a discussion about how we could all care for each other. My friend expressed initial resistance towards this, since it seems to him that I am complicating things in an emotional way.

I realise that this project is so important to me because of my own personal experience. But what makes others want to care for it too? If status quo is good enough, and the people I am working with are my friends, shouldn’t I trust that I wouldn’t come to any harm? Am I being too sensitive, and imposing my own ideas by demanding that everyone in the team talked about safe spaces and care?

We had closed-door sharing sessions with Shailey Hingorani from AWARE and Vanessa Ho from Project X. One of them brought up how there was a need to talk about their own experiences of harassment or discrimination in order to prove authenticity when speaking up against it. This becomes a form of emotional labour that has to be constantly performed to prove legitimacy. However, this then also creates a burden on activists or anyone speaking up actively about a social cause to constantly do the emotional labour of telling their story in order to be heard.

Consequently, the other also mentioned the importance of going into this work without the baggage of trying to heal through helping others, and that one must be healed themselves before helping others. At the same time, in doing the work of community care, one risks inserting themselves into the narratives of others. This concept is referred to as projection/transference, when the person who is supposed to be holding the space for others becomes quick to entangle their own experience with the person whom they are holding space for.

This concept of projection/transference is something that I am quite wary of. To be able to hold space to listen to others, we must be able to hold space for ourselves first otherwise we will become quick to attach ourselves to the experiences of others, instead of listening to them closely.

How much was I projecting/transferring my own experiences onto my team members? Perhaps I am not completely healed. Should I be doing the work of performing the emotional labour of telling my story and trying to convince them to care? And to what end? Just so that I will feel at home in my own body? Suddenly, I am jolted back to my own personal, individual experience of sexual harassment by a
theatre director.

I did not intend for my project to be a feminist one, but it has become very much so because of the subject matter of harassment and exploitation of vulnerabilities I am coming from.

One of the speakers also shared about the need to grovel, to fit within state-imposed structures in order to fight for social change. This necessity to conform to wield the radical voice in a cautious way in order to operate, exist, function and survive within the patriarchal structure is something that especially concerns me.

I’ve been thinking about how working with the body is such an essential part of female performance, and collaborative devised performances. Body politics, and telling the lived-in bodily experiences of someone allows us to assert how we live within and with our bodies.

I am leaning towards this way of working through the discomfort in my body, the discomfort that female bodies experience in being discriminated or harassed.

This concept of alienation and feminism is something that has been theorised, and it has been pointed out that it results in “the fragmentation of the person and prohibition against expressing human creativity”. Taking agency over my performing body and creativity then becomes an act of rebellion in itself, against the patriarchal structures that seek to oppress and keep me estranged from my own body.

We frequently sustain a patriarchal dualistic view towards the female body and look upon our bodies to ascertain to standards of beauty that allow us to be well-liked and socially accepted. At the same time, the body can be seen or wielded as an instrument, a subject of the male gaze, the fetishised female body in performance. Developing or attending to our bodily being for the sake of another person or end is fragmenting, an instance of narcissistic alienation or repressed satisfaction. I am hoping to address the ways in which we can reclaim the female body from these oppressions and narcissistic alienation through my performance piece, and to prioritise existence-as-a-body.

By collecting scenarios in which I have performed emotional labour, I hope to parallel this to the labour of the working class, where “women, as genitally sexualised bodies, and workers, as machines for production, are equally prevented from realising their own humanity”. Feminism to me is about reclaiming our agency to protect ourselves, and about giving space for the community to take care of each other. Community care can be feminist when it runs contrary to paternalistic structures that claim to “know what is best”, and who view it as their duty to protect the damsel in distress. I hope that my presentation or performance can open up conversations—candid or formal, light hearted or ironic—to acheive a feeling of coming together to realise what it means to care for each other and to take up space.