Violence against women – in the arts: Bluebeard

On September 26th I posted a blog here and said I would report back after taking part in an after-show discussion of Bluebeard, currently being performed by Gallivant at the Soho Theatre, London.

Dr Emma Williamson, Senior Research Fellow, School for Policy Studies

Dr Emma Williamson, Senior Research Fellow, School for Policy Studies

Watching Bluebeard again reinforced the powerful performance and engaging writing of the Gallivant team. Both Dr Hilary Abrahams and I were pleased that we had prior warning and had seen the play in Bristol. The question and answer session was interested in engaging the audience in a discussion of the key themes of the play: sexual desire, sexual violence, gender and complicity. From our perspective as gender violence researchers the issues of power and control running throughout the performance were stark. Part of the power of the play comes both from the accurate portrayal of a perpetrator and the complicity of the audience in hearing his story. The perpetrator, who tells us about his violence and crimes against women, also describes in chilling detail how easy it is to begin relationships with these women. Engineering meetings, feigning love, and manipulating from the start, the perpetrator uses normal everyday aspects of the heterosexual love story to ensnare his victims. When they are, as he continually tells the audience, feeling unworthy and useless, their victimhood becomes his excuse for sexual domination and violence.

The question and answer discussion was chaired by Sarah Woods,, a playwright, activist and performer creating participatory events with community groups, campaigners and activists. Her most recent work looked at engaging homeless communities through art-based projects:

The panel included Dr Emma Williamson and Dr Hilary Abrahams from the Centre for Gender and Violence Research, School for Policy Studies, University of Bristol, and three other members:

Bryony Kimmings,, a performance artist whose most recent work examined the role models offered to teenage girls.

Professor Anna Furse, Head of Theatre and Performance at Goldsmiths College, University of London.

Vieta Schroff Oliver, a relationship and psychosexual counsellor.

With sometimes different perspectives and opinions being expressed on the issue of power and gender and its manifestations, the panel’s views led to a discussion with audience members about the role of gender, sexualisation, and violence within wider society.

“It is very tempting to take the side of the perpetrator. All the perpetrator asks is that the bystander do nothing. He appeals to the universal desire to see, hear, and speak no evil. The victim, on the contrary, asks the bystander to share the burden of pain. The victim demands action, engagement, and remembering ….In order to escape accountability for his crimes, the perpetrator does everything in his power to promote forgetting. Secrecy and silence are the perpetrator’s first line of defence. If secrecy fails, the perpetrator attacks the credibility of his victim. If he cannot silence her absolutely, he tries to make sure that no one listens. To this end, he marshals an impressive array of arguments, from the most blatant denial to the most sophisticated and elegant rationalization. After every atrocity one can expect to hear the same predictable apologies: it never happened; the victim lies; the victim exaggerates; the victim brought it on herself; and in any case it is time to forget the past and move on. The more powerful the perpetrator, the greater is his prerogative to name and define reality” [Herman, Trauma and Recovery, 1992].

© Isha Mehmood, 2009 AP Fellow

© Isha Mehmood, 2009 AP Fellow

The discussion highlighted how people generally feel powerless to challenge gendered and sexualized stereotypes within society. We talked about the ways in which violence and abuse can be normalised within expected gendered and sexual roles and how this can impact negatively on both boys and girls, men and women. By focusing on the positive, we discussed how individuals can engage with a range of campaigns and actions, for example stop page 3, and a mighty girl initiative, to challenge negative representations of men and women in wider society that can lead to the acceptance of abusive behaviours by men and women.

No doubt the play left the audience feeling uncomfortable, and it was heartening to see how it led to a discussion of the ways in which the most extreme behaviours represented in the play could come from, and be facilitated by, the everyday and ordinary which we take for granted within gendered and sexualised roles.

The play runs at the Soho theatre London until December 1st. Students, and those working in gendered violence services, can get discounted tickets (enter “bluestudent” when booking on-line):

The Gallivant team are interested in taking the play on tour and including further question and answer discussions which help engage the audience in exploring some of the play’s darker themes in more detail and in relation to the representation of gender in wider society:

Dr Emma Williamson and Dr Hilary Abrahams