- Four Women in the Woods:An Ecofeminist Look at the Forest as Home
In 2002, Futerra, a British media company advocating sustainability, launched "The Seasons Alter," a four-minute video of Titania's "bad weather" speech. Played by two actresses, Titania chides the surly Oberon, chasing him around the sparse modernist set dominated by an enormous clock. He responds to her recital of environmental disasters stemming from their quarrel by placing the onus on her: "Do you amend it then: it lies in you." She then repeats her own last line more forcefully: "We are their parents and original."1 Formerly, directors were wont to shorten this speech—the longest in the play—because its serious topicality broke the spell of comic fantasy. Futerra, by extracting its prescient relevance to the contemporary global warming crisis, thrust A Midsummer Night's Dream into the Anthropocene.2 By posing their fault equally, however, Futerra obscures the ethicality of their respective positions. It places Titania's commitments to rectifying the weather patterns upon which farmers depend and nurturing her votaress's child on the same level as Oberon's whim, an expression of power invested in him by a patriarchal hierarchy. Their debate also puts the Fairy Queen's concern for the world's inhabitants in conflict with her maternal affection for one particular child. She is not allowed by Oberon to love both. By trickery, he obtains the changeling, quells her rebellion, and reabsorbs her into his hierarchal order. However, Titania's challenge to his rule lingers from the image of her loving command over the forest dwellers, a delicate dream of an alternative relationship, of a possible something else.
Titania's importance in the play and the expansive expression of her values and desires demonstrates one woman's conflict between her loyalty to nature and to her husband/king. Three other female characters in classical dramas also face similar dilemmas of having to choose between [End Page 71] their identities associated with forest life and their roles in patriarchal societies: Sakuntala in Kalidasa's eponymous fifth century Sanskrit play, Neang Seda (Sita) in the Reamker, the eighteenth century Cambodian version of the Sanskrit Ramayana,3 and Shakespeare's Rosalind in As You Like It. All four are unusual in that they are aristocratic women who spend the duration of their respective dramas in forests.
Their conflicts reprise one of the major concerns of ecofeminism that examines the "important connections between the oppression of women and the destruction and misuse of nonhuman nature within male-dominated cultures."4 This general formulation does not specify the important connections, but Karla Armbruster adds, "central to the ecofeminist agenda is the goal of individual, social, and ideological change—specifically, change that will improve the cultural standing of women and nature."5 She implies that the hierarchy of dualisms that divide the world and valorize the male side, such as nature/female and culture/male, has to be dissolved to allow more nuanced interconnections. These artificial divisions, with their concomitant ramifying dyads, were imposed not only to simplify, dominate, and unify the multiplicity of life forms, but also to justify that domination as the natural order. The mutual exclusivity of dualisms has been harmful to both halves, and ecofeminism challenges the gendered essentializing of qualities. It critiques those expected of women that perpetuate the notion that they are somehow physically and emotionally closer to nature, in contradistinction to mind, reason, and the scientific method, and that this association invalidates their environmental knowledge and concern. "Inherent in ecofeminism," writes Barbara Gates, "is a belief in the interconnectedness of all living things. Since all life is nature, no part of it can be closer than another to 'nature.'"6
At the same time, it must account for women's historical roles as nurturing caregivers and the current focus of agencies dedicated to poverty eradication by empowering poor women to protect their own environment. Moreover, ecofeminism challenges the cultural construction of "nature" within the humanist project of mapping the world as well as the aesthetic melding of women and landscape within a sexualizing gaze of Western art. Pleasures of the land and body have to...