Sexual Politics and Cultural Oppression

in Girlhood Studies
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  • 1 University of Toronto jasmyn-galley@live.com

DRAMA REVIEW

Tomson Highway. 2010. Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing. Markham, ON: Fifth House.

I spent my childhood in a small town south of London, England. Growing up in a Eurocentric society shadowed my maternal Indigenous heritage: in my history classes, Britain and its Empire were championed but its colonies, and the people in them, were never mentioned. When I was 18 years old I moved to Toronto in a bid to connect with my Canadian roots. I have since learned about the injustices that my maternal family faced in residential school and the ongoing prejudices they experience in society today. Sadly, these make up just one piece of the larger history of imperialism and its violence towards Aboriginal identities and cultures.

In this review1 I will explore the relationship between female sexuality and the oppression of Native individuals in contemporary Canadian society. Through a close analytical reading of Tomson Highway’s play, Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing (referred to as Dry Lips hereafter) I will dissect the shifting perceptions of female sexuality held by different characters in the play, and the objectification of women in Native cultures. I will show that the sexual oppression of women in Highway’s play is analogous to the cultural, political, and social oppression of Aboriginal Peoples throughout history at the hands of colonialists as well as at those of contemporary Canadians. I will discuss how Highway’s play also implies hopeful potential for change in its depiction of female sexuality as a means of empowerment and renewal.

Tomson Highway’s Dry Lips takes place on the fictional reserve of Wasaychigan Hill in North Ontario. The play explores the significance of female sexuality in relation to the empowerment and oppression of girls and women. Highway demonstrates that while the female characters are empowered largely through pregnancy and motherhood, they are also oppressed through objectification and sexual violence. The shifting depiction of female sexuality could be described as problematic since it suggests that women are socially, politically, and sexually dominated by the men of Wasaychigan Hill. However, through his portrayal of female disempowerment, Highway suggests that misogyny is a result of the historical oppression of Native peoples by white culture. In this way, the playwright specifically uses the depiction of heteronormative sexuality and the act of sex to address larger political problems. Therefore, Dry Lips presents an argument for continued decolonization by demonstrating that there is still room for social change in contemporary Canada.

As I mentioned above, Highway presents motherhood and pregnancy as empowering for women, which is seen in the composition of the women’s hockey team, the Wasy Wailerettes. According to Pierre St. Pierre, “[Y]ou gotta be pregnant or have piles and piles of babies to be a Wasy Wailerette” (29). The women’s hockey team is a symbol of female empowerment in its celebration of both fertility and motherhood.2 However, the power of motherhood is questioned and undermined in a conversation between characters Pierre, Spooky, and Zachary when they discuss Black Lady Halked’s labor at The Dicky Bird Tavern seventeen years previously. Unlike the women of the Wasy Wailerettes, pregnancy and motherhood were not empowering processes for Black Lady Halked who was helpless, drunk, and alone during childbirth. Pierre recalls that “[Black Lady] kind of oozed down right then and there… [and] the sight of all that woman’s blood… scared the shit right out of [Big Joey]” (93). In Pierre’s description, Black Lady is a grotesque spectacle: she gives birth “in between beers, right there on the floor, under a table, by the light of the jukebox” (93). Black Lady demonstrates that being a mother is not always empowering or life-changing for women—after all, by the final stage of her pregnancy, she had allegedly been at the tavern for “[t]hree weeks… drinkin’ beer… by herself” (93).

The power of women’s sexuality is further problematized through the objectification of female characters, as demonstrated by Gazelle Nataways’s striptease. Gazelle’s sexual appeal is underlined in the assertion that “in the heat of the moment, as [she] strips down to silk tassels and a G-string, [the men] begin tearing their clothes off” (87). This image is just as unsettling as that of Black Lady’s inebriated labor: giving in to their lust, the men tear off their clothes in a frenzy, thus demonstrating their desire for sexual domination—one woman at the mercy of five men. Like Black Lady Halked, Gazelle is a spectacle, an object of the male gaze. However, unlike Black Lady, Gazelle is seen as a toy that promises sexual pleasure. Although a woman’s sexual appeal can be read as a form of agency, Gazelle’s sexuality incites an antagonistic reaction from the watching men: Gazelle’s body is depicted as so appetizing that the men rip their clothes off in anticipation of ravishing her. In contrast, the men’s aversion to Black Lady Halked’s labor is underlined with the memory of Big Joey “puk[ing] over on the other side of the bar” (93). Highway’s tavern scene juxtaposes two expressions of female sexuality—sexual allure and maternity—and his putting the two side by side effectively undermines the power of both childbirth and motherhood for the Wasy Wailerettes, here represented by Gazelle, whose sexual display garners more attention than Black Lady’s inebriated labor does. The scene underlines that while the sexualized female body is appealing to the men, the female body in childbirth is seen as disgusting. Male desire, therefore, trumps the power of motherhood.

Highway’s play constantly returns to the notion that men’s lust overshadows women’s autonomy, sexual agency, and their identity as mothers. For example, at the beginning of the play the Anishnaabe spirit, Nanabush, puts on a “gigantic pair of false, rubberized breasts” (15). Later, Nanabush takes the form of Patsy Pegahmagahbow, a “young girl of eighteen with a very big bum (actually an over-sized prosthetic bum)” (38). In both instances, the women’s sexually appealing body parts are exaggerated and their appearance becomes comical as a result. Once more, the female body is reduced to a spectacle—a caricature of sexuality that exists for and caters to the male gaze. Indeed, instances in which the women are objectified by the men of the reserve occur frequently throughout the play. During one of the women’s hockey games, for example, Gazelle loses the puck down her shirt: “Down the crack. Right down that horrendous, scarifyin’ Nataways’s bosom crack,” according to Pierre (81). The idea that Gazelle’s cleavage is both “horrendous” and “scarifyin’” is neither positive nor empowering—the female body is once more defined by what are perceived to be its assets, and transformed into an object for men to ogle and gossip over. Pierre recalls that the puck “slid somewhere deep, deep into the folds of [Gazelle’s] fleshy, womanly juices” (81), a description that implies that she is appetizing—a piece of meat to be devoured. Alternatively, the description can also be read as a misogynistic response to Gazelle’s physicality and sexuality since it implies that she is disgustingly leaky. Susan Billingham asserts that Pierre’s description demonstrates the men’s “fear and horror of the female body, the fear of being swallowed up by the mother, her power to give or withhold human life, and so on” (2003: 371). Therefore, while the women’s hockey team is seen as empowering for its players, it is a threat to the men of the reserve. To reduce this threat, the men must objectify the Wasy Wailerettes—as seen in Pierre’s description of Gazelle. The men’s objectification actively undermines the women’s celebrated identity as mothers since it transforms them into sweaty, sexualized spectacles that are both alluring and repulsive.

Throughout Dry Lips, Highway depicts a male-dominated society that largely denies its women agency and power. When Creature Nataways finds out about the all-female hockey team, he asks his fellow men, “Shouldn’t we … stop them?” (31). Later, Creature utters in disbelief, “Women playin’ hockey. Ho-leee!” (33). Finally, when they are discussing the idea of an all-women team, “Big Joey and Creature look at each other, break down and laugh themselves into… hysterical fits” (35). The general reaction of the men, and of Creature and Big Joey in particular, demonstrates a patriarchal worldview that is shocked by the prospect of female authority and ability—specifically in relation to hockey, which is stereotypically designated as masculine. Spooky’s response to the news is, “Thank the lord the end of the world is coming this year” (55). Clearly, on the reserve, hockey is seen to be a man’s game and the prospect of a successful female team threatens the men’s power. Despite their discomfort, however, the men’s reactions—especially their laughter—ultimately question the women’s authority because the men of the reserve clearly see the situation as comical.

As I have discussed, Highway’s play depicts female sexuality as empowering in instances of celebrated motherhood but this power is undermined through female objectification and male dominance. The most extreme case of female disempowerment occurs when Patsy Pegahmagahbow is raped by Dicky Bird, who violates her with a crucifix. Dicky Bird, the son of Black Lady Halked, has Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. His presence, therefore, reminds us once more that motherhood is not always empowering or celebrated if its responsibilities are left unfulfilled or neglected. As Patsy is raped and humiliated, Big Joey and Creature stand idly by and do nothing; the devastating scene epitomizes the misogynistic sexually violent oppression of the reserve’s women.

Highway’s problematic depictions of female sexuality are important to the work as a whole because they underline prevailing socio-political problems in North American society. Colonial writings often described so-called discovered lands and their inhabitants as feminine in order to justify the power of both the Caucasian male and of European civilization.3

Therefore, in Highway’s play, the maltreatment of women through their objectification—and most prominently through sexual violence—can be seen to stand as a metaphor for colonialism and its historical oppression of Aboriginal identities and cultures. While talking about what he calls the women’s “revolution,” for example, Big Joey encourages the other men to “celebrate a new page in our lives. Wounded Knee Three! Women’s version!” (63). By conflating the historical events of Wounded Knee with the women’s hockey “revolution,” Big Joey connects cultural oppression to his own perceived emasculation by the women of the reserve.4 In doing so, Joey simultaneously aligns his patriarchal worldview with the larger process of colonialism—two ideologies that are inextricably intertwined. Historically, many North American Native cultures embraced gender fluidity and in some cases, the notion of a third gender that embodied both male and female attributes. (Today, “two-spirited”5 is the preferred term.) In contrast, European society championed heteronormativity and this resulted in the spread of European ideologies—based on patriarchy and prescribed dichotomous gender roles—in Native cultures. The misogyny depicted in Dry Lips thus exemplifies the replacement of a unified matriarchal indigenous culture with a fractured patriarchal one.

Black Lady Halked also demonstrates the impact of colonialism on Native cultures. Firstly, she exemplifies a Native stereotype—the alcoholic—with her inebriated childbirth and her son who is affected by Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.6 Second, when Black Lady Halked disciplines Dicky Bird by spanking him with a crucifix, she represents the authority of Catholicism, which historically lorded itself over Native cultures and bodies after it was introduced to North America by early colonizers. It is therefore no coincidence that when Dicky Bird violates Patsy he employs the very same object—the very same symbol of Western culture—to do so. Patsy’s abuse at the hands of Dicky and his crucifix stands as a metaphor of the rape of Native cultures by both Christianity and colonialism. Furthermore, Patsy is pregnant, which implies that this cultural rape will affect her unborn baby, too, in its being victimized by the crucifix while still in utero.7 Patsy’s rape demonstrates that the colonial damage done to Native societies is passed down through generations. Women being disempowered throughout the play is a metaphor of, and also stems from, a history of colonial violence.

The unsettling events of sexual objectification and rape are, however, redeemed by the end of Dry Lips through the support of the women’s hockey team and the symbolic unification of the men and women through parenthood. At the Wasy Wailerettes’ next game, the men encourage rather than ogle the female players: “Dicky Bird enters with a big sign saying: ‘WASY-FM’ and hangs it proudly up above the microphone stand” (122) while Creature yells words of encouragement. Thus, the women’s hockey team is once more seen to be a symbol of female power. As I have demonstrated, throughout Dry Lips, Highway frequently suggests that childbirth is the ultimate symbol of female empowerment—as seen with the Wasy Wailerettes and, later, in a conversation between Simon Starblanket and Nanabush. When he encounters the Trickster, Starblanket asks, “If God, you are a woman/man in Cree but only a man in da Englesa, then how come you still got a cun. …” (113). Nanabush interrupts Simon before he can finish and completes his sentence with the word “womb.” Nanabush’s interjection demonstrates the active replacement of female oppression and sexual objectification, both of which are symbolized by this noun—here meant to be derogatory—in favor of motherhood. Therefore, although the final image of the play is of fatherhood (Starblanket raises his child above his head), it is important to note two things: first, the baby is a girl; second, the play fades out to the sound of Hera and her child laughing. Throughout the work, whenever men laugh it is to mask discomfort or denial. In contrast, the women’s laughter demonstrates happiness, and Hera’s laughter reinforces Simon’s earlier realization that “it was always [women]… who had the power, the power to give life, the power to keep it” (94). In Highway’s play, female laughter is a sign of empowerment, and the power of motherhood is ultimately reinforced with the triumphant mirth of Hera and her baby.8

Although Highway manages to overturn the depictions of female disempowerment by the end of his play, the contradictory episodes coupled with his limited depiction of ideal femininity—that is, women as mothers—and the heteronormative worldview that prevails, signify that there is still room for growth in both Native and Western societies. Through his fictional depiction of a present-day reservation and his use of the oppression of women as a metaphor of and a parallel to the oppression of all Native cultures, Highway emphasizes the fact that white society still subjugates Native individuals—a process that began hundreds of years ago with colonialism and continues to this day. Indeed, in Canada alone 1200 Indigenous women are still missing, many Native individuals know of somebody who experienced the so-called civilizing process of the residential school system first-hand, and Aboriginal individuals face uncountable instances of prejudice and racism every day. Highway’s play, therefore, demonstrates that Native oppression prevails in contemporary Canadian society—an uncomfortable state of affairs that needs to change.

Acknowledgement

I wish to thank Vicki Visvis, Department of English, University of Toronto, whose informative lectures on Highway’s play inspired much of the argument in this review.

Notes
1

A version of this review was originally submitted as an essay to the University of Toronto 24 March 2014 for ENG252: Canadian Literature.

2

In her essay, “The Configurations of Gender in Tomson Highway’s Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing” (2003), Susan Billingham asserts that “when membership [in the Wasy Wailerettes] is linked to women’s fertility or sexuality, specifically their capacity to give life and raise children, playing hockey becomes symbolic of female empowerment. This is made explicit … [w]hen Pierre bursts in on Simon and Zachary with news of the team’s inception, his confusing allusion to the pregnant Lalala Lacroix leads Simon to offer to fetch… the reserve’s last remaining midwife and medicine woman. … This juxtaposition creates a positive nexus among hockey, motherhood, feminine spirituality, and traditional Native medicine” (371).

3

Anne Fausto-Sterling explains that since the beginning of the scientific revolution, “[n]ewly discovered lands were personified as female… [which] helped to naturalise their rape and exploitation” (1995: 22).

4

In her lecture, “Tomson Highway’s Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing,” at the University of Toronto, ON., 3 January 2014, Vikki Visvis made this point.

6

Billingham explains that “Highway takes stereotypes created by the dominant culture and re-projects them, intensifying the (white) audience’s discomfort. One obvious example of this tactic can be found in his confrontation of the problem of alcoholism.” (366). She goes on to quote Highway as saying that most white people see Indians primarily as street drunks.

7

I acknowledge Vikki Visvis’s input here.

8

This point was made by Vikki Visvis.

References

  • Billingham Susan. 2003. “The Configurations of Gender in Tomson Highway’s Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing.” Modern Drama 46, no. 3: 358380.

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  • Fausto-Sterling, Anne. 1995. “Gender Race and Nation: The Comparative Anatomy of ‘Hottentot’ Women in Europe: 1815–1817.” Pp. 1948 in Deviant Bodies, ed. Jennifer Terry and Jacqueline Urla. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

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  • Weisner-Hanks, Merry E. 2011. Gender in History: Global Perspectives. (2nd ed.) Malden, MA: Blackwell.

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Contributor Notes

I am of British and First Nations descent: my mother—a Native of Wikwemikong Unceded Indian Reserve, Ontario—visited the UK in her late twenties, where she met my father. After they married, she decided to remain in England where I grew up. When I was 18 years old I moved independently to Toronto, where I have been living and studying ever since. I have completed an undergraduate degree in English literature at the University of Toronto, and in September 2016 I will begin my Master’s degree at its school of graduate studies.

Girlhood Studies

An Interdisciplinary Journal

  • Billingham Susan. 2003. “The Configurations of Gender in Tomson Highway’s Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing.” Modern Drama 46, no. 3: 358380.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Fausto-Sterling, Anne. 1995. “Gender Race and Nation: The Comparative Anatomy of ‘Hottentot’ Women in Europe: 1815–1817.” Pp. 1948 in Deviant Bodies, ed. Jennifer Terry and Jacqueline Urla. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Weisner-Hanks, Merry E. 2011. Gender in History: Global Perspectives. (2nd ed.) Malden, MA: Blackwell.

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