(Miss Blake in Persephone's 'Blue Stockings')
Content warning – sexual assault, gendered violence, academic jargon.
In a little under a month, I will have the privilege of joining a cast of bad ass young women and supportive young gentlemen on the stage of the Studio Jean-Valcourt du Conservatoire to don corsets and kerchiefs and bring Jessica Swale’s Blue Stockings to life. Persephone Productions has always fulfilled their mandate of providing opportunities for emerging actors with ambitious and often politically pertinent plays. We may ask, as I believe we should of all contemporary art we take it, why this piece now?
I join this cast as a part-time student in the final year of my undergraduate degree at Concordia University. It was with no small degree of entitlement that I began my studies at the same institution my parents attended, where they were married and where I was baptized. I always knew I belonged at Concordia, and I was welcomed there warmly. In my several years there, only one instance of gendered violence stands out.
The Liberal Arts College of Concordia is famously a space of open and amicable debate, freedom of status quo challenges, and wicked parties. At out end of term celebration at the bar on campus a few years back, your humble narrator was only too happy to rise to the questions a fellow student had for me about the merits and even necessity of feminism in North America. Drink in hand, arguments in the other, we made the Enlightenment fathers proud for a while there.
The night went on. While we got a little looser the more we all drank, passions never ran high through my dialogue with this classmate. I tried to joke about a my “weak feminine constitution” and he joked about what a battle axe I was when I drank. Soon, a hole in my leggings was caressed, tugged at, and suddenly torn right across the generous width of my thigh. I felt like I had let things get out of hand, had invited this somehow, but stood my ground and brushed it all off.
This gross boundary crossing came to its pathetic apex upon my departure, strategically planned with a tall, more sober male friend. I went in for the bisoux I give everyone who lets me that close to them with the gentleman with whom I spent most of the night debating and coquettishly sparring.
“Thanks for the spirited exchange, and the push to get new pants!”
“Tell me,” he whispered while our faces touched the first time, “you really need a man,” he finished as our faces brushed to the other side.
“Huh?” I yelled over the music, but his meaning became clear to me when I felt him grab me presidentially, slipping his hand under the whole he’d made in my skirt.
I laughed it off, a de-escalation mechanism practiced to perfection since my adolescence, but never yet employed at Concordia, where I had always felt safe and sound and free. I told my friend on our walk to the metro what had happened, and for all his campus activism he seemed unmoved by such an act committed by his peer.
That whole summer, shame and confusion and anger brewed within my mind while I replayed the embarrassing evening committing the details to memory. You should have smacked him, came the belated advice of a girlfriend, you shouldn’t have been so glib about the debate, came another. Where was the fun and friendship and the joy in that?
Returning to class in September, I found that I now shared one of our small scale seminar classes with my interlocutor of yester-semester. Every word I heard him spoke, every opinion I heard him articulate so much more calmly and soberly than he was able to at our last encounter filled me with disgust. I approached him alone after class, and was not too surprised to find him very receptive to the idea of having coffee with me that minute and hearing me out.
“There we are, now I’ve paid you off,” he joked weakly, after buying me two cappuccinos and hearing the lecture I had been sitting on all summer. I was glad he was joking with me. I made him understand that what he did at our campus bar last semester was gross and uncalled for and a kind of violence and silence that I was so angry had worked on me. His pathetic pawing at me managed to both prove the point I had tried to make from the beginning and undermine my arguments completely. He listened eagerly, and told me of the ways in which he had thought about that encounter throughout the summer as well with a genuine remorse. I was satisfied, I laughed with joy rather than fear.
I have thought about this experience throughout our rehearsal process of Blue Stockings. I have thought about how proud the Fathers of the Enlightenment would be that what ignorance and violence was bred in inebriation was healed through compassion, equality, and fraternity over coffee.
I have thought about the gendered violence that endures on the campus grounds of the United States, the laws that keep women and girls from education in more conservative countries, and about how privileged I truly am to attend Concordia because of such a long history of suffrage and campaigning and a fierce conviction of my worthiness of this education that our forbearers had faith enough in to fight for.
And finally, I have thought about how valid and valiant a weapon against violence is laughter. Hyperbole, pun, and punchline are my very favourite tools of communication. It comes as no surprise that my favourite offense in a debate is also my best defense when confronted with ugly weakness. I think the comedy within Blue Stockings works in a double-edged strike; first, as a foil to those woke enough that the conflict of our story might feel preachy, and additionally, as the proverbial spoon full of sugar to make our message go down.
I hope audiences will leave our show feeling a sense of hope from Blue Stockings, that time’s arrow marches on towards social progress not by being passive passengers in a Darwinian project of improvement, but by stirring pots, rocking boats, and thinking for ourselves.
If you or a friend experience any kind of assault or intimidation on the Concordia campus, call campus security at 514-848-3717: Option 1 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Blue Stockings runs October 17-27.