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  • Alissa

the she and the her of it all

Our collective language around gender is changing fast these days—which is a good thing. As more trans and nonbinary folks tell their stories, our culture is starting to get an inkling of just how diverse and varied our human gender experience actually is. And with greater understanding, our living language grows and stretches, shifting, reaching for a more precise, less prescriptive way to describe the richness of identity.

We had initially chosen the phrase ‘femme-identified’ to cover the spirit of our company’s creator niche. The phrase isn’t perfect, but we had been using it to try and most precisely express the coverage of our umbrella. Historically, women have been overlooked in the creation of theatre, except as some of the talent onstage. The ones comfortably in charge of production, direction, and authorship have overwhelmingly tended male, and as a result, the stories told tend to be men’s stories, the creation process tends culturally male, and a female, womanly, femme sensibility has been discounted, thrust aside, overlooked, misunderstood. The nonbinary perspective has been even more invisible, as we have only recently even had cultural words to identify it.

In contrast, Nebunele has been quietly telling women’s stories since our very first production, The Secret Ruths of Island House, in 2005. We didn’t set out to be exclusive about this, but we happen to be women, and these are the stories we know to tell.

As the years went on, we came to find value in our coincidentally female-dominated space, just simply because there was no comfortable maleness assuming the default perspective around, in contrast to most other spaces and companies we were participating in.

So, why not just say ‘women’ instead of ‘femme-identified’? This is stickier. Are we reaching for some kind of fake vibe of inclusion, or trying to virtue-signal, by using this newfangled “-identified” language?

Hopefully not! We are in the process of growing our company and community of artists. We work with many folks who are not our core four. And in the same conversation where we decided we will make the choice of projects we accept into our incubation process intentionally non-male, instead of accidentally non-male, we had to answer the question, ‘what about non-binary artists? If we have the opportunity to work with someone whose gender identity is not with either of these poles, do we say yes or no?’ At this point we were already choosing exclusion: we were excluding men as the writers, directors, and visionaries. Do we take another step toward specificity and say, “really we are just about the women?” That didn’t feel good.

There is a universality to the experience of being in the non-dominant group. We all share, albeit to different extents and in different ways, the feeling of being spoken over, shunted aside, seen as representing only a ‘special interest’ without a line on the main thread of being human. In solidarity with that pain, our impulse is to include everyone who bears that particular pain in a gendered way, which would naturally lead us to embrace all nonbinary folk in our company’s work.

And yet…our society at large is still so organized into those two poles, and as a feminist company, we want to specifically upend the previously-established hierarchy to emphasize the different power of the feminine. Our use of femme-identified, in a sense, was an attempt to reach past the boundaries of one binary gender, while staying connected to the goddess.

The term has issues, though, and we’ve been chewing on them for the last year. As one of our board members pointed out, ‘femme’ is historically a queer term with different connotations—and we weren’t wanting to exclude butch lesbians with our language, say, or send an invitation specifically to femme gay men. And there are plenty of nonbinary folks who wouldn’t appreciate being given the two poles that don’t fit them and asked “yeah but which way do you *lean*?” And as we continued to talk about all the ways it didn’t quite fit us, at first we found ourselves winding through an increasingly complex labyrinth of who was and wasn’t allowed to participate and none of that felt good either. Attempting to pin down gender identity, and codify it into boxes, is exactly part of the problem we’re trying to solve, but we found ourselves stuck there for a bit anyway.

In one conversation, Claytie finally helped refocus us into a much clearer place around this by asking: what is the purpose of this self-definition? As a company, are we specifically interested in the niche and the aesthetic of telling the ‘female’ side of the story? Or, are we interested in working in a way that upends the patriarchy? Both of these aims are worthwhile, of course, but whichever one is foundational should guide the language we choose.

And at that point, our response was obvious, and much simpler. This collective, as a group, has a deeper interest in looking beyond questions of identity, and into disrupting the old patriarchal scheme. With that, we let go of strict rules about who could or couldn’t occupy what role in the company and proposed this: we will choose our artists and visionaries based on whether their point of view is a patriarchy-disrupting one. This takes us out of the business of deciding which types of people are allowed in the club, which is honestly beside the point for us.

As I wrote this, we were in the process of figuring out how to rewrite our mission statement, as we don’t see ‘femme-identified’ matching well with what we’re trying to do any more. As of today, Nicole has updated and posted our new mission statement. This is an attempt to make transparent our journey and illuminate our ongoing conversation about how we want to engage in gender and society. Thanks for joining us.

Old mission statement:

Empower a global community of femme-identified artists in their fearless investigation of the human experience; Develop and support this community to create work that builds courage, fosters empathy, and ignites the imagination to bring forth a new world.

New mission statement:

Empower a global community of artists committed to dismantling the

patriarchy with an eye on uplifting traditionally excluded voices in their fearless

investigation of the human experience; develop and support this community to

create work that builds courage, fosters empathy, and ignites the imagination

to bring forth a new world.

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