Review by Fran Luck
The rape of women is omnipresent and quite normal in our society. One in five women will be raped in her lifetime and out of 1,000 rapists 994 will go free. Most rapes are not even reported because of the unlikelihood of a conviction and the psychological torture victims are put through in the process of testifying. The women walking-wounded are everywhere.
During an early scene in Alicen Grey’s GYNX–a play performed August 21 through 27 at Hudson Guild Theater NYC as part of Thespis Summerfest 2017–the main character says “It is very common for victims to fantasize castrating their rapists, but women seldom act on it.” However, in this play they do. How this comes about and what happens to the individuals involved as well as the society around them, is the substance of the play. While the premise is simple, the plot unfolds with enough unexpected twists and turns to keep the audience mesmerized.
Pulling no punches, the play begins with a castration scene. A rapist is strapped down, his back to the audience. Five women in medical masks holding trays of surgical instruments and blood-mopping-up equipment surround him. He is told that this will be done to him because he has raped a 10-year-old girl; that he has used his penis as a weapon and that it will now be taken away from him. He begs and pleads to no avail. The lights go out as we hear his blood-curdling scream.
The play then loops back to how it all began. An 18-year-old lesbian homeless woman named Petie is before a prosecutor, explaining how she became a member of a team of female castrators, as the prosecutor taunts her for allowing herself to be “brainwashed into a cult.”
What follows is the story in a series of flashbacks. We meet GYNX, a mysterious and well-heeled woman who is assembling around her a group of victims of male assault–women who have been raped, trafficked, or forced into child pornography plus one older “underground abortionist.” GYNX has rescued them, given them a place to stay and provided a sympathetic ear. We see each of them gradually open up to her and to each other–telling the stories of what had been done to them and expressing their rage. The performances are convincing and well acted, taking the audience through what each woman has kept hidden and sweeping us up in their emotion.
As each woman relives her trauma, GYNX artully encourages her to fantasize about what she would like to do to avenge herself. Each has had the fantasy of “cutting off my rapist’s dick.” Bingo!
GYNX has obviously thought through a plan for how a group of women might operate to castrate rapists; she encourages them to read books on feminist theory and teaches them basic surgical skills. One of the women works in a hospital, where she is “invisible” as a cleaning woman and has access to the “cadaver room.” The women go there nightly to practice, sewing the organs carefully back on at the end of each session so no one will know they’ve been there. They discuss the pros and cons of different types of castration: orcheotomy (removal of tesicles only) vs. penotomy (testicles remain, but penis goes–with urethra rerouted through the anus so that the men have to “pee sitting down”). They develop “steady hands” and confident skills. GYNX inculcates them with the high ideal of working “for the good of all women” rather than for individual revenge.
The group starts to perform actual castrations on living men whom GYNX has identified as being rapists. When they have reached a few hundred (they are in a medium-sized town), some of the men, having finally overcome their shame at being penis-less have gone to the police. The population of the medium-sized town now realizes that a group of unknown women is systematically castrating men. The media goes wild and becomes obsessed with them, dubbing them them “The Feminazi Five.”
In what, to this viewer, was one of the most gratifying parts of the play–reflected in the obvious delight of much of the audience–we find out that the men of the town are now aftraid to go out at night by themselves! They are being advised to go out only in groups and “watch their drinks” lest these be spiked with drugs–much the way women now live. And rapes are now down by 50%!!! And even TV pundits are using words like “unprecedented” and “historiec.”
Meanwhile, with law enforcement looking for them, GYNX will not allow any of the women to leave the apartment so as not to get caught, and cabin fever and tension mount as Petie starts to question GYNX’s orders and her autocratic style of leadership.
How GYNX has come by the money to maintain this organization and support the operation and everyone in it, remains a mystery until the end of the play–but Petie follows her one night and finds out the truth–as the play winds down to one of its many possible logical conclusions.
My few criticisms of the play center around the choices the author makes in the various political debates and historical references that are sprinkled throughout. While it makes sense to include feminist political references–the play takes place in a world (clearly our world) in which women have, for a very long time, been victims of a patriarchal society, and the actions of the women only make sense in this context—the examples the playright has chosen to illustrate current issues in feminism seemed somewhat arbitrary, and in a few cases inaccurate, to this feminist-historian reviewer.
For instance, in a scene in which the future gang hang out in the apartment, GYNX leads a discussion on “equality vs. liberation” as feminist goals. She critiques the goal of “equality,” pointing out that to be “equal” to men, women would “have to have an equal propensity for violence as well as exploitation.” She connects this argument with why she does not define herself as a “feminist.” When Petie points out that some women want “liberation from men” GYNX immediately characterizes “women’s lib” as “hardline separatism”–and dismisses it.
But these positions are not quite accurate in stating feminism’s main positions. By “equality” feminists have meant “equality of opportunity”–not being the same as men–and many feminists have critiqued the nature of male-dominated society while at the same time arguing that women still needed the vote, equal pay and all the other opportunities men have had access to, in order to be in a position to change that society (not to mention, just to survive in the present one).
GYNX misrepresents “women’s lib” (“women’s liberation”), defining it as hard-line separatism. But the women who brought the term to modern feminism (“the Women’s Liberation Movement” of the 1960s) were not at all separatists–most were heterosexual and argued for “struggling with men” rather than separating permanently from them* (although they did think that women-only spaces were temporarily a place for women to explore their situation amongst themselves and strategize on what to do).** Separatism came later, with the rise of “Lesbian-Feminism” and “cultural feminism”*** and was considered by the original Women’s Liberation Movement founders to be a form of political backsliding.****
Most importantly, I found GYNX’s repudiation of the label “feminist” to be undercutting of the “fight on!” message of the play. “Feminism” is the banner under which women have, for centuries, fought and gained just about all of the modern victories for women’s rights and today it is a word used around the world by those engaged in that struggle. To divorce ourselves form the word, is the equivalent of laying down your banner in the middle of a battle–something that would be deeply confusing and demoralizing to the troops! Better to uphold that banner and continue to rally around it, redefining and refining the parts of it that need improvement, as we go along (something feminists have long done), without abandoning the word itself. I would also point out that the same early Second Wave women who rescued “feminism” from its 19th century association (Shulamith Firestone led on this) used the term alongside “women’s liberation.”
Lastly, I found an inconsistency in how historic references are cited in the play. I imagine an artistic question for the author was “should the play mention earlier women and groups who fought back by name, or keep the play more fictional and not mention actual names?” When Natasha, the underground abortionist, speaks of patterning her actions after a “second wave group of feminists who took matters into their own hands and did illegal abortions,” she is referencing the historic group known as “Jane,” but never mentions the group by name–yet, when the prosecutor mentions Valerie Solanis and “The Scum Manifesto” (whose writing he sees as a precursor to the actions of the “Feminiazi Five”), Solanis, a real person, IS named. Why one and not the other? While I realize that this is a work of art and not a history lesson, it seems if you are going to refer to history, you might as well name who it is you are talking about, if only to give the audience important information that might be useful in finding their own role models for action (this principle undergirds my criticisms above).
Yet, all in all, GYNX succeeds brilliantly in cutting through the fog of denial in which both men and women attempt to live in order to avoid facing the real situation of women and rape in a society that only gives only lip service to stopping men from raping.
Before Petie is sentenced at the end of the play, she demands an answer to one final question: “If, what we did to try and stop rape was the wrong way to go about it, then what IS the ‘right way’?” As the audience leaves the theater, the question hangs heavily in the air–a genie that, now out of its box, refuses to be quietly tucked back in–a question that has now been made much harder to duck after seeing this play.
* Feminist Revolution, 1976, Random House (can be obtained at Redstockings.org)
** Separate to Integrate, Barbara Leon, Feminist Revolution
*** Daring to be Bad, Alice Echols
**** The Retreat to Cultural Feminism, Brooke, Feminist Revolution