(this theatre review originally published at postpacificpost.com)
In between starting and finishing Sarah Schulman’s newest book, The Gentrification of the Mind, I went to see Nina Arsenault’s The Silicone Diaries. The two works are now intertwined in my mind, as it is through Schulman’s devastatingly honest analysis of the gentrification of cities and culture from where I experience Arsenault’s one-woman play.
Schulman’s personal and critical memoir of AIDS in America has everything to do with anyone who has ever felt discriminated or abandoned by the dominating ideology. Her history as a co-founder and core organizer of ACT UP (and ongoing ACT UP Oral History Project) still resonates in every line and every chapter that change is willed by the community; but twenty plus years have passed and the dark cloud that’s formed overhead is the insidious fact that those who make change will often not be those who benefit it.
This idea of community, as groups that help each other out, but in fact are helping cross-generationally, is what resonated with me in The Silicone Diaries. Arsenault’s seven monologues are about her peers as much as about herself. From being a young boy in Beamsville, Ontario, to sex work in Toronto, to her first illegal silicone injections in Detroit with other transgendered women, to her operations in Mexico under the care of a maternal figure whose mission was to make sure access to safe and quality surgery was available to those who need it, Arsenault is an image, and this image is a reflection of our times.
The undercurrent of the play was the myth of beauty, which is complicated by narrow gendered definitions and our cultural climate that plastic immortality is divine. The moral argument that plastic surgery is not needed is one reality, but another reality is that for most transgendered individuals, surgery is the only way to ever feel okay, and sometimes, the only way to survive. Arsenault moves fluidly between the realms of the real and the hyperreal, gliding from spiritual depth into naive innocence, and the impression given is that life, everyone’s life, is important and complicated, and more specifically, each life lived is a barometer of the society that surrounds it.
Here is where the play drifted for me, as Arsenault in her post-show talk where she appeared infinitely more relaxed and charming, revealed an important distinction. She does what she wants because she understands that she’ll never be accepted, and so she avoids discrimination in general society by being an artist where being an outsider you in fact fit in. This is a conscious thought, but it is not enough. I want to celebrate Arsenault as I do feel she is genuine in her humanness, but this is an issue that goes deeper, as recalled by Schulman, how have we separated art from society, society from accountability, and why being uncomfortable and making others feel uncomfortable have become internalized as bad behavior? Arsenault has sculpted her body into society’s reaffirmed standard of beautiful, and yet, she is rejected by the very machine that upholds this unrealistic standard.
This is the culture of gentrification, or the gentrification of culture as we (on all sides of the supreme ideology) believe that homogenization of appearance and thought is the status quo for societal normalcy, and everyone else can exist on the periphery. But if I take one thing away from The Silicone Dairies, it is that identities are complex and therefore so is society, only, we have collectively forgotten about this latter half of the equation.