Interview with Laura Merritt
What do you think is the most interesting for young people watching the film or attending a workshop?
I think they are both engaging, but in different ways. Watching the film is a way to vicariously experience women making this transformation and to be engaged in the process from the passivity of sitting in a cinema seat. I think the film may whet their appetites and maybe encourage some interest in the possibility of playing with gender themselves. They might even be interested in attending a workshop. If they do, they will need to think a lot about the "man" they want t become and bring the clothes they will need. Everything else will be learned in the workshop.
Which character of yours could be the most intersting for young people?
Perhaps Jack Spratt, who is a middle-aged cockney mod/rocker figure. He claims that he used to know the mod band The Who when they were called The High Numbers. Jack is a singer/songwriter and also plays blues harmonica. He has two songs in his repertoire, "How much do you wanna be rich?" and "He was a mutant, she was an amputee". Within the performance, Jack recalls aspects of mod culture like shoplifting records, being overly conscious of clothes and looking sharp, and riding customized scooters like Vespa and Lambretta in Brighton and London.
What is the feminist or queer aspect in your film?
The main feminist aspect of the film is that women performing men subverts the primacy of male authority. If women can perform men and pass as men, what does that say about male supremacy? Also, within the workshop, women learn how gender is a performance and the sense of entitlement and ownership that men have is something that is learned. Women get an insight in their own behaviour. How behaviour that they considered "feminine" is actually behaviour that is associated with being accommodating. e.g. constantly smiling/nodding in agreement/ and apologising. They discover that what they thought of as "natural" is simply a series of gestures repeated over time that are associated with what is agreed upon as "acceptable feminine behaviour". Women learn new behaviour and new ways of interacting. They can then be more calculating in their response so that they are better able to "perform" in situations like being interviewed; negotiating a deal; in personal relations, and so on.
Do you do workshops for men too and do you mix them with the others?
Yes - I teach Gender as Performance workshops in which men also learn to become women. These are longer workshops - usually a minimum of one week. Women transform to men and men transform to women and they then interact in their new personas. Gender as Performance is a workshop I have taught as part of a performance project, such as through the organisation, RE.AL in Lisbon and at Universities and Academies such as the Helsinki Theatre Academy, and most recently, St. Gallen University in Switzerland.
There is a long herstory of women in drag, why do you think "trans" is now a movement? And by your film you even will reach more people then the workshop attendants or queer interested. The film yould be shown in schools...
Yes - women have performed in drag for centuries. However, the 90s was really the time of gender and trans-activism. In the USA, unfortunately, it was through the rape and murder of transman, Brandon Teena in Humboldt, Nebraska on December 31, 1993, that the issue of trans became publicly visible. Originally, the lesbian community claimed that Brandon Teena was a butch lesbian and victim of a hate crime. However, a trans activist group called Trans-Sexual Menace responded by saying that Brandon Teena did not identify as a lesbian but as a man. Members of Trans-Sexual Menace protested outside the courthouse where Brandon Teena's murderers were being tried throughout the three months of the trial. Their visibility and determination created a public debate on trans which had never occurred before. Brandon Teena was the undesirable sacrifice to the cause. In 1999, he was also the subject of the biopic, Boys Don't Cry, starring Hilary Swank as Brandon Teena. The trans community gained acknowledgement and acceptance and eventually in the mid-90s a "T" was added to "LGB". These developments created the ground for subsequent generations to be more open about their gender dysphoria and to feel easier about addressing their issues within a supportive community. Over the years, some women who have taken the Man for a Day workshop, have gone on to have gender re-assignment surgery. The workshop was a place for them to try out a new identity. Most workshop participants are happy in their sense of who they are. The workshop is a place where they can create a new identity and play with that as they wish. It would be interesting if Gender as Performance workshops would be available for younger people so that they can learn how they are defined by gender and how much of that is a construction. Perhaps then they would not be so concerned about not being good enough at performing "femininity" or performing "masculinity". They would learn that the performance of gender is a choice we all make, based on behaviours we construct for ourselves in response to how we are treated by other individuals.