The Sphinx Test

Given the persistent inequalities of the theatre profession, Sue Parrish, artistic director of the Sphinx Theatre (http://www.sphinxtheatre.co.uk/), the UK’s longest running women’s theatre company, launched the ‘sphinx test’. The idea for the test was proposed by Rosalind Philips and developed with Helen Barnett and Parrish. It’s inspired by the Bechdel test for film which prompts gender-aware viewing by asking three key questions: are there two or more named women in the film; do they talk to each other; and do they talk about something other than men?

The Sphinx theatre test goes like this:

 The Sphinx Test
PROTAGONIST:

  •   Is there a woman centre stage?
  •   Does she interact with other women?

DRIVER:

  • Is there a woman driving the action?
  •   Is she active rather than reactive?

STAR:

  •   Does the character avoid stereotype?
  •   Is the character compelling and complex?

POWER:

  • Is the story essential?
  • Does the story have an impact on a wide audience?
Although the test has theatre makers in mind, I’ve been exploring it as a first-base, gender-awareness exercise in relation to canonical, dramatic texts. At the outset, students are invited to think of a recognised play that is in some way important to them. Thereafter, each student applies the test to that drama, which in turn provides an opportunity for collective, critical reflection on whether and how the ‘malestream’ is evidenced in renowned drama, past and present.

In one way, it’s not surprising when dealing with the canonical that comparatively few plays pass on all of the above points – though that in itself serves as a useful means of creating gender-awareness. But beyond that, the questions posed in the test in turn raise issues or layers of further gender-related thinking. Here are a few that students and I have discovered between us:

Is there a woman centre stage? / Does she interact with other women?

  •   Addressing the question of whether there is a woman centre stage, helps to create a gender-aware overview or snapshot of the chosen plays. And, where there is central female figure, we can then go on to ask whether or not she is driving the action, is complex, and so forth, rather than assume this might be the case.
  • Interactions between women often prompt discussion about the nature or character of the exchange. Specifically, what is the subject and the purpose of such an interaction: what space and role does this have in relation to the story? Or, as per the Bechdel test, are interactions between women limited to talking about men?

Is there a woman driving the action? / Is she active rather than reactive?

  • Narrative and gender can emerge strongly as a point of reflection here: gendered patterns of who is ‘doing’ and who is ‘done to’ – or who wants what from whom.
  • Where a woman appears to drive the action, a discussion point may also arise from the way in which such action is constrained within the social order or determinants of the play, thereby rendering her action ‘reactive’ to a larger system of social control.
  • Discussing the ‘reactive’, we have found it useful to reflect on how dramatic structures en-gender binary patterns of active and passive roles.

Does the character avoid stereotype? / Is the character compelling and complex?

  • Reflections on stereotyping often take us to considerations of genre. In comedy, for instance, are gender stereotypes deployed retrogressively (e.g. to laugh at female characters), or are they used for a more subversive edge?
  • We have also found that thinking about complexities of characterisation can productively be used to think beyond gender towards the intersectionality of gender, class, sexuality, race, ethnicity, age, and disability

Is the story essential? / Does  the story have an impact on a wide audience?

  • Reflections on narratives as ‘essential’ can help us to think through what kinds of stories are deemed culturally significant, or not.
  • Working with canonical texts assumes that these have been in some way impactful. But then the question that follows is how their impact has either endorsed normative gender roles or been useful in challenging the status quo?

Elaine – with thanks to Lancaster theatre students who participated in the feminist critical reflections classes in 2016 &2017.

 

 

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