Have you ever thought about how sex has a three-act structure? This is what I was thinking about whilst listening to The White Stripes and wondering what the best way would be to write a play about radical feminist activism. Conquest, the song in question, tells the story of a predatory male figure who meets his match. Jack White sings:
And then in the strange way things happen
Their roles were reversed from that day
The hunted became the huntress
The hunter became the prey
(I’m enjoying this. I can get on board with the gender role reversal. And then:)
She with all her female guile led him helpless down the aisle
She had finally made a conquest
What the hell Jack White? While the rest of the world had been chanting the riff to Seven Nation Army, I had been raving about how the White Stripes were subverting gender stereotypes: Meg was the drummer! They had told people they were brother and sister so as not to detract from the music!
But was he seriously suggesting that this was anything near to role reversal? That male conquest is sex whilst female conquest is marriage? That marriage was a weapon that women use to ensnare? I was bitterly disappointed – I wanted to hear a woman retell the story. Thus, Conquest was born: a play about the world’s first revenge cupcake company.
Before we’re too hard on Jack or Meg White, I should tell you the song is a cover of a track first released in the 50s. It was the product of another time you may say; but how far have we come? After all, we still live in a world where people labelled Meg White simultaneously as the seductress who kept Jack’s eyes off the game, and the eventual deathblow to the band because of her performance anxiety. Meg was Yoko. And the fact that we even have that archetype is telling.
Women are so often cast as plot interruptions to serve a man’s storyline. Female characters are obstacles to the protagonist following his path, barriers to success or catalysts to develop his thinking. These are all things that allow him to grow in to a better version of himself, whilst she’s just there for the ride.
The history of the published word is a male affair, so it is not surprising that stories today are rooted in a masculine perspective. But even structure can feel inherently male. Writer Jenny Crusie points out that traditional linear structure ‘reflects the male life experience. It begins with the birth of an idea/event/problem/struggle, rises through the ranks accumulating power and tension, and then achieves the climax of its path/career, after which it retires.’
Feminine life experience does not always mirror this. Until recently, the majority of women did not have a career and did not experience a shifting of power or status in a way comparable to their husbands. Even today, childbirth can be seen to halt traditional linear progression – careers are put on hold as women return to the home – a regression in comparison to the structure we are used to of ‘rising up through the ranks’. The life map just isn’t the same. So why should structure be?
Big deal you may say – it’s human. That’s how we make sense of a random world. But there is a danger to this imposition of structure that goes beyond a lack of representation. In the play, the character Jo illustrates this by explaining sex’s own three act structure: ‘beginning, middle, end’ equals ‘foreplay, build-up, climax’. ‘There’s always male climax – occasionally there’s female climax. But it’s not usually at the same point in the story because it’s not paramount to the plot…sex is a story in his eyes and stories are about overcoming something, overcoming someone’. The cultural expectations of the structure of sex, or even wider social interactions, can facilitate abuse. If you’re thinking about the climax of your story – how does another person fit in to the equation? Rather than being an interaction on equal footing, it becomes a power play.
Conquest is a show about flipping power structures, about telling stories in a new way – it’s messy and it’s about not always having to get it right. Female storytelling in itself is a relatively new endeavour and so it is the responsibility of theatre makers, playwrights and authors who identify as women to re-write the storytelling playbook.
Conquest is playing at VAULT Festival 2018 from February 21-25. For more information and to book tickets, visit https://vaultfestival.com/whats-on/conquest/