LOS ANGELES — On a large screen facing five chairs, in a small, darkened gallery at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, Andrea Fraser sits, as if in conversation with the audience. Dressed casually, in khaki trousers and a gray sweater over a white-collared shirt, she begins speaking four different roles, indicated by her different intonations and gestures. In Men on the Line: Men Committed to Feminism, KPFK 1972 (2012/2014), Fraser recreates a 1972 roundtable discussion between self-identified male feminists, reciting the dialogue from memory. The conversation was originally broadcast on KPFK radio. The four men (Lee Christie, Everett Frost, Bob Kreuger, and Jeremy Shapiro) discuss their relationship to feminism and women involved in the feminist movement, touching on their personal insecurities; frustrations associated with other feminists and non-feminists; and their differing perspectives on gender roles in relation to relationships, careers, and politics. The discussion includes remarks like “I have trouble relating to women who aren’t feminists,” “I can cook now,” and “I have the feeling that women are talking about me behind my back.”
Fraser first performed this work in 2012 in a single live performance at the National Center for the Preservation of Democracy in Los Angeles, as part of the Pacific Standard Time Performance and Public Art Festival sponsored by the Getty Museum and LA><Art. She found the recording while doing research for a performance commissioned for the Pacific Standard Time initiative focused on the legacy of the Women’s Building in Los Angeles. The radio broadcast reflects the popularity of group discussions and relations in the 1970s, highlighting the emotional reactions of the group members, while addressing the centrality of group activity central to the Women’s Building and Feminist Art Program. Fraser’s performance of the discussion powerfully critiques gendered power dynamics and the ethics of empathy: as a woman speaking as the men, she is both attempting to empathize with them and exposing their failures to empathize with the goals of the Women’s Movement.
In this filmed version, Fraser recites a 50-minute monologue for the camera. She uses the strategies of parody and masquerade to humorously uncover ways in which gender is performed socially. Feminist artists in the 1970s used performance as a means of confronting the traditional role of the woman as the passive object of male desire in Western art and deconstructing this naturalized position, foregrounding women’s agency and authorship in the process.
While Fraser performs the masculine role to address issues of feminism, she remains identifiable as a woman (and as herself), increasing the dissonance between the masculine and the feminine. This dissonance is underscored when the men in the group listen to a recording entitled “Woman Which Includes Man” — a role reversal exercise in which a society with women in the traditionally male positions is imagined. At one point the narrator states, “Recall that most of the voices in radio and most of the faces on TV are women’s … recall that you have one male senator representing you in Washington. Feel into the fact that women are the leaders, the power centers, the prime movers.” After hearing the recording (which also covers “clitoris envy” and the concept of men fulfilling a destiny as nurturers and home-makers), the men react with conflicted feelings.
Fraser’s performance shows how the men deflect their feelings with humor, using it to avoid the biting pain of inner struggle as they reject traditional gender roles and attempt to embrace so-called feminine perspectives and behaviors. Fraser herself uses humor to soften her critical perspective, as she gesticulates, manspreads, and comically deepens her voice. The dialogue in itself is revealing as it offers a glimpse into the nuances and conflicts of the male feminist group. In the end, Fraser’s work provoked me to re-evaluate how far we have come nearly 50 years after the radio broadcast; while some of the dialogue is obviously dated, as it is limited to cis-hetero dynamics, other sentiments ring eerily true to the present day. Fraser points to our current political situation and the feeling that for every step we take toward liberation from gendered identities, we are still stuck in a patriarchal reality.
Men on the Line: Men Committed to Feminism, KPFK 1972 (2012/2014) continues at the Hammer Museum (10899 Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles, California) through September 15. The project was curated by Connie Butler with Ikechukwu Onyewuenyi.