Once every four years most Americans sheepishly admit to trusted friends of similar political persuasions that they do not entirely understand how the Electoral College works or why it continues to exist. As President Obama put it recently, “The Electoral College is a vestige,” an artifact of the same experimental America that once felt it made sense for states like Wyoming (Population: .5 million) to have as much say as states like California (Population: 33 million) when it comes to matters of national and international importance such as determining whether avowed sexual predator Donald Trump should be the next leader of the once-so-called “free world.”
On December 19, 2016, as that vestige definitively appointed Trump President Elect, directors JoAnne Akalaitis and Ashley Tata staged Cut Piece for Pants Suit, inspired by Yoko Ono’s 1964 Cut Piece, which consisted of the artist kneeling on a stage and inviting spectators to cut pieces of her dress off with a pair of scissors. Ono’s gesture was an attempt to respond to demoralizing ongoing wars in Vietnam and elsewhere with generosity, openness, and surrender. By making herself vulnerable rather than arming herself or retreating when faced with danger and uncertainty she hoped to model a different way of existing in a world being consumed by violence and fear. She re-performed the piece several times, most recently in 2003 in response to the US invasion of Iraq. The twenty-first century reprise featured a venerable group of ten actresses who stood and sat together in Madison Square Park wearing pantsuits, a wardrobe choice that has come to be associated with Hillary Clinton and her ascent to become the first woman to receive the presidential nomination of a major American political party. As an act of protest, Cut Piece for Pants Suit will not influence the outcome of the disastrous 2016 election, but as a piece of performance art it offered an opportunity for those of us assembled to consider what it will mean to be a woman in whatever version of America we will wake up to on January 20, 2017.
As an embodied metaphor of Clinton’s difficult path through politics and history this Cut Piece recalls the countless blows she has taken as a powerful woman in the public eye. We have been punishing her in gender-specific ways since 1992 when her husband was running for president and she had the audacity to tell an interviewer that she was more interested in pursuing her career than in staying home and baking cookies. If all the misogynist remarks about her “shrill” voice uttered by otherwise fairly enlightened men were compiled they would make for a weighty tome indeed. Since women remain responsible for policing sexuality so that even seventy-year-old boys can be boys, Clinton has been ritually humiliated for her husband’s infidelities, most recently when women who have accused Bill Clinton of sexual misconduct were dredged up by Trump’s team and seated in the front row at the second 2016 debate. Among the women who assembled to perform Cut Piece for Pants Suit was the brilliant Elizabeth Marvel, who has recently played a similarly pilloried female presidential candidate on the Netflix series House of Cards, which traffics in what once seemed like outlandish political scenarios and now look like pale imitations of American reality.
More so than Ono’s original performance, Cut Piece for Pants Suit required the women involved to put themselves at risk. They stood unprotected in a busy public place with no way of knowing or controlling who might come by and decide to cut more than clothing with those scissors. The piece invites violence against the female body as way of making spectator/participants aware of the implications of their gazes and aggressive impulses. Fortunately, none of the women became the victim of any unhinged passersby; most who approached to snip off a bit of pantsuit were gracious, a little shy, and respectful.
Donald Trump is neither gracious nor respectful, and certainly not shy. The policies he and his basket of deplorables will promote during his time in office will not be designed to take women into account as anything other than shimmery sperm-receptacles. We are going to get hurt. But what this Cut Piece invites us to consider is that as important as it is now for American women to galvanize and to fight, sometimes the most radical act of resistance is to be passive in the face of belligerence and brutality, to trust, and to reject the notion that we live in a kill-or-be-killed world.
Cut Piece for Pants Suit
December 19, 2016
Madison Square Park, New York City
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