Circus News

“Go Beyond the Stereotype”: A Thoughtful Discussion Regarding Gender, Binaries, and Contemporary Circus

“As a female base, I realized that by literally lifting people up, I could quickly change audience perception. I had a sense of responsibility to do my act to enact change, to change people’s perception of what a woman can be or do. Early on I always highlighted my femininity on stage: wearing pretty makeup, a dress, sometimes heels, to show that, yeah, this can happen at the same time. I can lift a man over my head, and still be a woman. But also out of fear that if I wasn’t super feminine, I would be categorized as aggressive or somehow part man.”
Female base in circus
Erica Rubinstein, Education Director and coach at the Circus Project, bases Terry Crane of Acrobatic Conundrum

I was sitting with Erica Rubinstein, current education director and coach at the Circus Project, in Portland, Oregon. She had worked as a partner acrobatics base for many years with Acrobatic Conundrum in Seattle, Washington, and I wanted to pick her brain about her experiences as a female base—specifically, a female base with a male flyer—in the circus world. “No one ever questioned my choice to be a base, if anything it was encouraged. What felt confusing was figuring out how to portray my gender on stage,” she said. “I had few role models to look to. It’s like, because I’m a strong woman, I have to play the ‘man-part’. I never saw a woman base play the romantic interest, for example. I got typecast. There is a narrow vision of what a strong woman can look like, and I often wished to see some nuance in gender expression onstage outside the binary.”

Gender and circus. Gender in circus. It’s a tough subject to grapple with, in part because it is such a subjective topic. With the #MeToo movement and the growing awareness around the grand underlying structures and hierarchies that support a patriarchic system, it’s also a subject that is likely to raise hackles. My own experiences come from being a woman who rejects binaries, who presents as androgynous, and who was raised in Portland, Oregon. The women interviewed for this article have their own stories to tell. My hope is for this article to start a conversation within the international circus community that exists within the ever-changing, ever-evolving community of human beings from all walks of life. We need to talk about our role in the system as a whole, and what responsibility we have as participants in a global structure.

By referring only to women with regard to gender in circus, we further entrench the view that gender is a ‘female problem’ and equally, we may potentially miss the broader effects of patriarchy on all participants.

The circus has almost always existed on the fringes of society until recently, with the advent of multi-million dollar contemporary circus companies. It has given voice and precedence to those who don’t quite fit in—and I think it still can. However, upon returning from the largest outdoor circus festival in the world, Montréal Complètement Cirque in Quebec, Canada, I repeatedly asked the question: “Where are people like me?” and “Must I present as femme to fit in, to get work?”

The answer, I found, was far more complex than just that.

Female acrobats
Mimbre performers demonstrating base & flyer power.

“What does it mean to be male or female in circus?” Lina Johansson, founder of the London-based circus company Mimbre, mused out loud as we chatted over video one afternoon. I had auditioned for her company in 2018 and had reconnected with her in Montréal. “It’s changed a bit, hasn’t it? In traditional circus, it was about challenging stereotypes, a place of empowerment. Women sought the circus as a place of independence, where their strength and skills were accepted and the costumes ‘scandalous’ for the times but allowed. In contemporary circus there seems to be far more gender stereotypes. Like we are more boxed in. You’d think we’d go forward but we haven’t. The room to define oneself is small.”

“Why do you think that is?” I asked.

“Society.” She paused, looking off beyond the camera. “What do we value? Why are we capitulating to creating what sells? Have we put ourselves into our own boxes out of fear of not being sellable?”

Martha Harrison is the author of the paper, “Gender Representation in the Circus Arts: A Case Study” in which she systematically tallied the amount of jobs offered to women versus men and the language surrounding the job offers in the Artists Company and Development Centre newsletter published weekly by London-based circus school the National Centre for Circus Arts. In her paper, she creates the term ‘the combined female’ to “describe the repeated description of female performers who combined conventional masculine traits with conventional feminine traits (Harrison, 27).” Harrison observes that women in circus “are having to display a certain type of femininity. The demands placed upon female performers are extensive. They are not allowed simply to be strong, but must be strong yet feminine, physical yet sweet (Harrison, 27).”

In the paper, Harrison is quick to assert that the binary does not only affect women, but that the restrictions placed on men, while different, align “with the deeply held cultural notions of gender dichotomy and [assert] a great deal of pressure on both the men and women to fit into their designated gender roles (Harrison, 28).” After a thoughtful analysis of the newsletters from 2015-2016, Harrison concludes: “By referring only to women with regard to gender in circus, we further entrench the view that gender is a ‘female problem’ and equally, we may potentially miss the broader effects of patriarchy on all participants. […] my discourse analysis here ultimately demonstrates a mixed picture when it comes to the equality and representation of performers in the circus industry (Harrison, 36).”

“It’s a cultural and societal question as much as a circus question,” Harrison told me in our phone conversation a week later. “It’s hard to do not-normative when people expect to see a certain thing.”

A three-high
A moment in the show Lifted by Mimbre. Photo credit Steve Eggleton.

That ‘certain thing,’ it turns out, is the archetypical circus act: the push-pull, male base-female flyer hand to hand act. We’ve all seen multiple versions of it. The male base throwing the female flyer around, the woman trying to come back, to be picked up and thrown again. There’s a substantive reason for this recurring act. For one, the mechanics of hand-to-hand technique suggest a certain kind of partnership; the physical intimacy of a duo suggests physical romance; and this binary sells. Without my prodding, all three women I interviewed—Rubinstein, Johnsson, and Harrison—brought up their issues with this kind of act. “It’s glorified sexual violence, glorified abusive relationships,” Johansson said. “At what point are we going to take responsibility for what we put in front of an audience?”

“But if you are making something that challenges societal norms,” Harrison asked, “are you less likely to get booked?”

There is validity in all of this. As artists and performers who have made careers (or are trying to make careers) out of a circus act, the balance between different representation and marketability can make or break the potential of a livelihood.

My conversations with Johansson and Harrison ended up raising the same questions, a pattern that I found enlightening. The question of societal expectations and what is sellable extends not only to the performers creating the act but also to those higher up on the hierarchy of power. Who is directing? Who is hiring? Who is producing a festival or a show? Who is doing the marketing? Who are the coaches or the outside eye during the creation process? If you travel backwards towards the source, the question quickly leaves the circus and enters the realm of socio-economics. Ultimately, who has the money and the power, and what choices are they making in the hiring process? Representation in circus performance is as much a question of power as a question of opportunities.

In the 1970s, feminist scholars, particularly Peggy McIntosh, began examining the sociological concept of ‘privilege’—the idea that men gain social, political, and economical privileges or rights based solely on their sex. McIntosh states, “A man’s access to these benefits may vary depending on how closely they match their society’s ideal of the masculine norm.” In 1989, black feminist scholar Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw coined the term ‘intersectionality’ to describe the concept that all aspects of a person’s social and political identity (e.g., race, gender, sexuality, disability, economic status, etc.) overlap. So, a black woman who is trans will have a very different experience in regards to discrimination and social access than a white cisgender (i.e., a person whose gender identity matches the one they were assigned at birth) woman, and a white, cisgender woman will have a different experience than a white, cisgender man.

Trapeze artist in The Exploded Circus
The Exploded Circus by Mimbre. Photo credit: Simon Dack, Vervate Photography

Privilege and intersectionality are an important piece of the overarching conversation about responsibility. The circus magnifies some of the issues plaguing modern society simply because it is a smaller world that emerges from and relies on a global culture. The representation allowed in circus is tied to the representation found in society as a whole.

“The responsibility of privilege,” Johansson said, “is to recognize the privilege you have, use it meaningfully, break the floor, to throw down a ladder.”

She highlights this with her experience co-producing a show with Dior. The female director of the highly-acclaimed fashion phenomenon wanted five female acrobats for a runway show; Johansson felt there should be at least 18 to build the pyramids and shapes she had in mind. “She said, ‘Yeah, ok!’ It’s like, she had done so much work to climb to the top in an industry mostly ruled by men, and she was throwing a ladder to the rest of us to help pull us up. She’s made it a thing of commissioning females, and she’s uncompromising about it.”

“The responsibility of privilege,” Johansson said, “is to recognize the privilege you have, use it meaningfully, break the floor, to throw down a ladder.”

Rubinstein felt the same way. She recognized that she has privilege just by being on stage and wanted to use that space to make a difference. “We need to create space and time and energy to be aware of our privilege and power,” she said. But a performer’s responsibility goes beyond just being aware. “We need to live the awareness,” she said. That is to say, having a lens of awareness about personal privilege that you can use to look at the world is only the first step. “The thing about power and privilege is that if you’re in power, you can turn the lens on and off. But until you can come forward with that lens most of the time, if not all the time, then you are perpetuating the status quo,” Rubinstein said. The lens can never turn off. “You need to live it.”

The conversations I had with these women did not yield me any straightforward answers about whether space exists for my expectation-breaking form in the circus. But maybe my initial feelings were focused in the wrong direction. I left the series of interviews mulling over my own responsibility within the circus world and within the art that I create. I exist within a hierarchy of power but I also exist as an autonomous being. What if I dare to make whatever work I want, non-binary as I am, and not let the box become walls that I can’t climb over? I’m a circus artist, after all.

Unless otherwise noted, all photos are provided courtesy of Mimbre Arts and Maria Grazia Chiuri. Feature photo Falling Up by Mimbre. Photo credit: Eric Richmond
Zoe Zou Stasko
Performer, Writer -United States/Canada
Performer, Writer
USA/CANADA

Born in Portland, Oregon, Zoe Zou Stasko graduated from L'École de cirque de Québec in 2017. She majored in aerial straps and minored in handbalancing. When not training, she can be found reading science fiction, singing to herself, or writing blog posts for her blog Cirquespiration, found at zoezoustasko.com.

Zoe Zou Stasko

Performer, Writer USA/CANADA Born in Portland, Oregon, Zoe Zou Stasko graduated from L'École de cirque de Québec in 2017. She majored in aerial straps and minored in handbalancing. When not training, she can be found reading science fiction, singing to herself, or writing blog posts for her blog Cirquespiration, found at zoezoustasko.com.

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