Yesterday Rick and I had a great time at Sweet Briar Theatre’s production of As You Like It.
First, of course, it was simply great fun — and even better, it was quite interesting. On Thursday evening, Professor Tony Lilly gave a pre-show lecture about the various confusions and anxieties reflected in the text. He talked about the performance of gender, the replication of courtly hierarchy in the forest of Arden, the contrast between romantic notions of nature and love and the characters’ rather unromantic experiences of them, and the emergence of capitalism as a framework for human relations. And, not surprisingly, he reminded us that Renaissance acting troupes were single-sex organizations, with male actors playing both male and female roles.
Watching any of Shakespeare’s “gender-bending” plays in the context of a women’s college raises intriguing questions. On stage in Babcock this week were female actors playing male characters, female actors playing female characters who temporarily assume male identities, female actors playing as female characters originally written as male — and, of course, some female actors playing women and some male actors playing men! The head of a thoughtful viewer begins to spin. . .
Thinking about women’s education inevitably opens questions about how we think about sex, gender, and identity. Is womanhood nature? Performance? A little of both? When we say Sweet Briar’s mission is to educate women, what assumptions are being made about what that means?
Across higher education similar questions are being energized by increased awareness of transgender students. A few recent articles on this issue are here, here, and here. In a previous generation, colleges and universities were challenged to ensure that lesbian and gay students could learn and grow unimpeded by discrimination, harassment, or prejudice. In our generation, that discussion has expanded to include concern for the well-being and academic success of transgender students or others whose gender identities are expressed in “unconventional” ways.
Many educational programs and campus facilities rely on clarity about gender distinctions. Who is a male or female athlete, according to the NCAA? Who should be allowed to live on single-sex residence halls or use single-sex bathrooms? Who can be admitted to, or graduate from, a single-sex institution? Answers to such questions will emerge and develop over time, through thoughtful and compassionate discussion. We can’t know what the answers will be yet, as we are only beginning to recognize the issues.
Leaving the theater yesterday, I walked home thinking about these matters and the fact that, as is so often the case, Shakespeare has been there before me.