Boundless Theatre Search

The Art of Self Love: Young Women Fight the Male Gaze

Laura Stratford 31 January 2019

Our Work RealQuick

At the GQ Awards in 2018, Rose McGowan was awarded the Inspiration of the Year award. She was one of the first women to come forward after the New York Times published allegations of sexual harassment against Harvey Weinstein. Standing at the podium to give her speech, she said ‘Thank you…for breaking a blacklisting that has lasted in my life for over twenty years…’. Those who have been following the #metoo developments will be familiar with Rose McGowan’s allegations of sexual assault. However, how often would we regard the length of time over which the ‘blacklisting’ was inflicted as the more pertinent part to her statement? Is there enough of a dialogue on the potential impact that male gaze subjugation can have on one’s mental health?

It seems fitting that Boundless Theatre, who aim to create exhilarating theatre which speaks to young people, aren’t afraid of tackling this subject head on through strategic collaboration.

Two years ago, Boundless Theatre commissioned the talented actor and writer Charlotte Josephine to develop her new play, FLIES. Having started out as a female adaptation of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, Josephine has since re-worked the play into a more fluid and abstract piece that will explore the male gaze in a more experimental way. She interviewed and worked closely with young women from the very beginning, and as a result FLIES is strikingly bold and direct in its motivation: “It’s a piece about young women, it’s a piece for young women. It’s angry and sweaty and searching.”.

Recently I sat in on a Research & Development session where Charlotte Josephine and the play’s director, Bryony Shanahan, presented a snippet of the play in the making.

As the lights go up, a group of young women are poised on the stage. Flitting between classical and heavy metal music, the young women switch from balancing books on their head to being unrestrained, a signifier early on of how this play intends to investigate the fine line between the antiquated and idealised version of the orderly woman to a more contemporary, disorderly, free-from-patriarchy embodiment.

From one vignette to another, we are transported to an uninhabited island and the group of young women are now the lost girls, trapped in a dingy onstage.They tease the audience, “I can see you looking at me”. They lure the audience into believing that they intend to appeal to the male gaze. However, very quickly, this is debunked by angry repetitions of the same line, this time conveying their hurt and humiliation. Said in unison, it’s arresting in its effect. Eventually, they address the audience with one final cry: ‘It’s our fault they’re looking at us’

Another chilling but profound moment was the use of a voiceover. The voice of a young woman can be heard recounting her experience of going to the cinema and being confronted with the dominance of the male gaze. She describes a humiliating experience where she found it difficult having to explain to her younger brother why a female character in Blade Runner was naked. Whilst this is played out, the young women onstage, still symbolically trapped within the confines of the dingy, make sexualised and sinuating movements with their bodies as if to further highlight how the portrayal of women has become a stereotype of its own within the moving image.

It would be a shame to reveal more detail as this play is on the verge of completion. However, I can assure you that Charlotte Josephine’s FLIES looks to be an exciting, powerful and progressive piece that challenges our idea of the male gaze today.

Later that same day, Boundless Theatre invited ArtsSisterhood, the DIY Art therapy workshop collective aimed at young women and non-binaries, to run a Real Quick event at the Barbican to explore the play’s themes.

Ali Strick, the founder of ArtsSisterhood, discovered that the ‘free mental health services in this country were in a dire state’ and that there was a lack of group therapy on offer. Meanwhile, she has always been a firm believer in the mindfulness element of Art therapy: “…clearing thoughts from your head and focusing on a task while still being in touch with how you are feeling throughout the piece you are working on… I think the most important benefit is digging down into your psyche to find things you may not have addressed before…”.

A placard stood outside the Real Quick studio space, detailing the theme of today’s workshop: ‘Self love, self image, selfie’.  The walls were lined with paper and side tables were almost spilling over with pens, paints and crayons. A group of young attendees from different parts of London waited eagerly, quiet in their anticipation. Once Ali Strick and her team gave a small introduction, outlining the workshop rules such as ‘no racism, bullying, judging of other people’s artwork…’, eyes started to wonder over the questions pinned against the wall:

‘What is your experience of the male gaze?… How can we reject or counteract it?…

How do you see yourself?… How do you want to be seen by the world?’.

Of course, making that first mark amidst a group of strangers is always daunting. But gradually, fleckles of paint and swathes of colour started to appear. Freeing the mind without inhibitions meant that there was a collective focus on the exercise.  For one hour, this group had forgotten that they were in a glass box studio within the Barbican centre, with passers-by observing from the foyer. A communal closing in on the main objective, which was to practice the art of self-love and not to be self-conscious of one’s emotions.

Some young women spoke to each other during the session. Others quietly watched from the sides, thinking about the next mark they wanted to make.

There’s something quite remarkable about being able to step back and observe the myriad sketches and glued-on magazine clippings, and yet recognise the distinct parallels: Kim Kardashian butt-cheeks, glaring eyes, cock eyes, idealised images of women, a red cross on Gwyneth Paltrow’s forehead, ‘I can’t stay a tennis champion if I want children’, ‘too emotional…pull yourself together’, ‘build a wife’. They all build on the overwhelming consensus that even in 2019, women are still regularly faced with the same regressive and old-fashioned notions. As one drawing nicely summed up, ‘Society’s Manual to Womanhood’.

Talking to a couple of participants whilst everyone made their last minute contributions to the walls, I asked them why they came along to the event: ‘We saw this on the Barbican website and just thought this would be something interesting to do before a pint at the pub on a Friday night’. The majority said that they had been to this DIY workshop in Peckham where the project initiated. A few young women had even found out about it through Instagram.

Contrary to the stereotypical view that younger generations are attached to their mobile phones and indifferent to topical discourse, workshops like these prove that this isn’t the case.

Towards the end of the session, Ali led a discussion based on everyone’s experiences. The desire to offload one’s anger or frustration, or simply share a more positive outlook on the subject of the male gaze and the self today was palpable. It worked, and Art was integral to that process of tapping into one’s inner psyche, transforming the taciturn into direct unequivocal expression.

Starting off the year with an unashamed refusal of the male gaze and open exploration of mental health issues is a statement in itself. As Kirsten Peters Roebuck, a Producer at Boundless Theatre, said to me during the workshop: ‘Yeah, it’s pretty great to be working on new material and collaborating with ArtsSisterhood and Real Quick, and we’re only half way through January!’.

Laura Stratford is a writer, producer and director from London. She currently works at the British Film Institute. Her most recent film is a documentary called ‘Lady Lovely Lute’ which tells the story of a lute player afflicted with frontal lobe brain injury. Other credits including working on a BBC Four documentary, ‘The Ballet Master’ and producing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival for two consecutive years.


Flies by Charlotte Josephine is currently under commission and in development.

Self image, self love, selfie was a Boundless programmed event as part of Real Quick the Barbican’s new platform for rapid responses to the state of the world.