The criticism of gender binaries was something that caught my interest during orientation. Although I had come from what I perceived to be a liberal environment and household near Albany, New York, I had never understood gender as a social construct or something that is socially performed. I thought that all sexual orientations should be accepted by society, and that was it.
In conversations with new and returning students, I began to understand the idea that one’s internal life should not be infringed upon by other people’s definitions of gender, that gender identity is a spectrum rather than a box. These organic conversations gave me an invigorating new perspective that I did not expect coming into Wesleyan as a freshman. While I was home over fall break, I was able to understand a play in a much more valuable way than I would have had I not been exposed to the University community.
“Venus in Fur,” written and directed by David Ives and set in the modern day, portrays two characters, one male and one female, who undergo a drastic power shift over the course of the female’s audition for a play written by the male. In the play, Thomas Novachek, the writer and director of his own stage adaptation of the 1870 novel “Venus in Furs” by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (who coined the term masochism), and aspiring actress Wanda von Dunajew, read from Novachek’s script as Wanda auditions for the lead role in the play.
At first, their interaction feels all too exploitive. Wanda, with her raw Long Island accent and amateur bag of props and outfits, is treated by the director as an unintelligent philistine who should use her sex appeal to compensate for her outward lack of intelligence. Novachek bitterly complains about the lack of attractive women with intelligence, a misogynistic claim that festers in locker rooms and bars across America.
Novachek’s outward expression is one of masculine dominance, and Wanda’s one of ditsy cuteness. Her submissiveness to Novachek is a result of the rules of the game they are playing. These two characters are in a world where the masculine has the power, but Novachek needs feminine beauty to actualize his vision. Male dominance drives the plot of the play and the play within the play that is being read onstage.
Wanda’s surprising insights into the psyches of the characters in Novachek’s adaptation change the trajectory of the story. Early on, Novachek is giving the orders, and he demands that Wanda accept them. She responds to his control flirtatiously, both when he dominates her in character and when they break character. Novachek takes Wanda much more seriously when she uses her sophisticated transatlantic accent (which sounds more British than American) rather than her natural Long Island accent.
However, Wanda begins to blow Novachek away even using her normal voice with her dissection of the male character in the play within the play: she correctly asserts that by asking to be the female character’s slave, the male character is in fact gaining not only pleasure but also power from his submissiveness because he is making the female character do what he wants while she has the illusion of control.
The trait of dominance is isolated in this play. In the world outside of the play, we associate certain traits with males and others with females. Masculinity is associated with a person who acts in a way that is logical, serious, and assertive. Femininity is associated more with feelings and passivity.
What brought the book “Venus in Furs” to its fame and what brings gender performance to the fore in the play is when Novachek and Wanda switch their reading roles, with Novachek attempting to act feminine and Wanda asserting her masculinity. By taking advantage of Novachek’s own creation, Wanda completely destroys the gender performance that Novachek relied upon to create his play.
Wesleyan’s avant-garde intellectual atmosphere gave me the perspective to stay within the world of the play without feeling uncomfortable. Theater is an experience that demands a critically engaged audience. Inside the world of the play, I was able to understand the dissection of dominance on stage. More importantly, outside of the world of the play I saw parallels that were too true to sit comfortably with me, and that’s due to some of the conversations I’ve had here.
As much as I feel that I am critically observant and open-minded, before coming to Wesleyan I had not thought critically about how people perform their genders. Lily Myers’ “Shrinking Women,” a powerful slam poem that examines gender roles in our society, is a great example of how bold and critical Wesleyan students are. With nearly four years to go, I’m excited to be a part of a community that is critically engaged, both internally and externally, for the sake of learning itself, rather than uses the breadth of opportunity here as merely means to an end.
Lahut is a member of the class of 2017.