Fauxnique Doesn’t Beat Around The Bush
Last November 6, Bay Area dance maker Monique Jenkinson was performing The F Word at San Francisco’s cabaret nightclub Oasis. “F Is for feminism!” Jenkinson’s drag queen alter ego Fauxnique clamored, rallying cheers of approval from a supportive crowd. As the country was about to cast their vote in the first elections in which a woman was running for president, the feminist message of Jenkinson’s work took on a heightened meaning. “Come on people, we’re gonna get her into office!” she declared in her Wonder Woman bodysuit. At the time of the performance, Jenkinson was already at work on her piece Delicate Material, which she had begun a few months earlier.
But on November 9, the country woke up to the reality that it had not elected the first woman president and had opted instead for a candidate with an openly sexist and misogynist discourse. That partly informed the direction of Delicate Material. For one, the piece got a new title, C*NT, or, The Horror of Nothing To See, which premieres at ODC’s Walking Distance Dance Festival on June 9. “After November, the stakes felt much higher,” Jenkinson explained in a conversation last week. “This whole idea of asterisk, removing the letter from the C word, the silencing felt very relevant to me. People can call it Cunt if they want to, people can refrain, people can call it The Horror of Nothing to See.”
Drawing power from investigating aging, ugliness, and rage -which are traditionally looked down upon in patriarchal society- the piece explores misogyny and the performance of gender. Jenkinson also uses the context of contemporary dance to play with expectations of what a drag queen’s show looks like. She juxtaposes two forms of bodily discourses -the ‘neutral/no-to-spectacle’ postmodern body and the ‘spectacular/drag queen’ body- to question performance and spectacle. “It’s so interesting when you think about what no spectacle is,” she adds. “The no spectacle is also like the horror of nothing to see.”
The absence of spectacle that the piece’s title points to also constitutes a direct reference to French feminist theory, in particular the work of French post-structuralist feminists Luce Irigaray, Julia Kristeva and Hélène Cixous, which served as inspiration for the piece. These thinkers wrote about how psychoanalytic and gender difference discourses theorized the male sexual organ as visible, present, and seen, opposing it to the female’s (invisible, absent, unseen) thereby granting men the dominant position of subjects, while objectifying women and relegating them to a position of passivity.
C*NT includes quotes from Irigaray’s seminal work This Sex Which Is Not One. When we met, Jenkinson was deliberating about her intentions when reading French feminism as high camp during the piece. “How do I dig into this text while keeping a sense of humor? Humor can create distance but it can also connect. Good camp is on the edge of making you cry and also making you laugh.” Some of her dramaturgical advisers, including dance artists Larry Arrington and Christy Funsch, were recommending Jenkinson “not to let people off the hook with humor.”
The change of title also appears as an attention to language as a site of power and potential change — an idea shared by the French feminists, who offered that language constitutes a space where women can redefine themselves outside of patriarchy. In The Laugh of the Medusa, Cixous wrote:
Woman must write her self: must write about women and bring women to writing, from which they have been driven away as violently as from their bodies. Écriture féminine places experience before language, and privileges the anti-linear, cyclical writing so often frowned upon by patriarchal society.
Jenkinson is also looking at how language is manipulated to reinforce dominant power structures, and can, alternatively, be reappropriated by marginalized voices. “I’m interested in the queering of language. If a drag queen says: ‘Oh girl, she looks cunty tonight!’ That means ‘She’s great, she looks fierce!’ It’s a compliment. So it’s about turning something over, and over and over. What does it do?” Jenkinson offered. “Also, to reclaim the word cunt is reclaiming something that already means what it is, unlike a lot of other ‘reclaimed’ words: ‘queer,’ ‘bitch,’ etc.”
For the piece, Jenkinson sourced artworks which are considered as defining and monumental in the history of art and yet reflect, convey and/or create misogynic representations of women. Such is French singer Serge Gainsbourg’s Histoire de Mélody Nelson, which is part of the music score of C*NT. The song is a Lolita story of sorts, recounted in the words of the man, about his sexual relationship to a 14-year-old girl, whom he deems “fucking stupid” (conne in the original French lyrics). The misogynic violence contained in some of Gainsbourg’s lyrics has never tarnished his reputation as one of the most important popular singer in France, with international recognition.
In a showing of the work in process at Theater Unplugged last August, Jenkinson was dancing to Gainsbourg’s song after having transformed her body, wrapping clear tape around her thighs and buttocks, her hair kept tight by a wig cap — ‘uglifying’ her body according to Western standards. “What if I take my aging female body and don’t put on shimmer tights that smooth it all out? What if I put scotch tape around my ass and make it look gross and weird and make Serge Gainsbourg’s work be present with the reality of that?” Jenkinson had offered in an interview last August.
In that short sequence, Jenkinson, a seasoned performer with a background in ballet and contemporary dance, also questioned the way dance canons have reinforced patriarchal structures. Starting upstage right and moving in a perfect diagonal line to downstage left, she seemed to be revisiting and simultaneously destroying the practice of the traditional diagonal combination performed in ballet and modern dance by the ‘pretty ballerina.’
Reflecting back on the changing political context the making of C*NT has evolved in, Jenkinson insisted that it has pushed her, like many artists, to question the role of art in times of uncertainty and unrest. Last January, she participated in the “Making Art During Fascim ” workshop led by Los Angeles-based consultant for artists and arts organizations Beth Pickens. “Should I be protesting instead [of making art]?” Jenkinson inquired. “What is the place of this work? What’s our role? I think we’ve all felt that a bit. Pickens’ response was to keep making art, because it is what we need.”