Cirque and the Sexual Objectification of Men

On Friday, I went to Cirque du Soleil’s Varekai. I have been dreaming of going to a Cirque show for years, but something always got in the way of us going. So I was very excited to go. What I didn’t expect, however, was to feel utterly disgusted by the end of the show. I couldn’t believe that the show would include such base comedy nor that it would go nearly to the point of sexually harassing male audience members. But it did. And I want to share my shock of the experience.

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I went to the show expecting the majesty and beauty that I’ve come to know from Cirque. And there was that. The costumes and music were beautiful, the acts stunning to perfection. But the show itself left something to be desired.

During the intermission, I actually went back to the website for Varekai. Did I miss something? What was going on? The show is described as “A captivating forest inhabited by whimsical and enchanted creatures.” Ok, check. Looking more closely, I see a mention of “both the absurd and the extraordinary” and a tribute to the “circus tradition.”

First, the character of The Skywatcher. This character spends half the time on stage grunting or making obscene faces. Like a caveman meets a dunce. A dunce who “comically” makes rude and inappropriate gestures. Here is how he is described online:

“Mad scientist and ingenious inventor, collector of the world’s memories and interpreter of signs, this is a man who receives signals, transforms sounds and forewarns of trials and tribulations.”

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Ok, sounds ok? I can see a little bit of comedy in there, but the level of base rudeness presupposes that the audience is uneducated and only capable of laughs through the most crude grunts and gestures. So I found that insulting. Take those elements of “interpretation” (I’m being generous here) out, and the character would have more value. Particularly as he’s supposed to be “ingenious,” not an idiot. 

So let’s move on. If you thought that was it for comedy relief, however, you’d be wrong. Included in the show, but hidden from the main page, are “Clown Acts”:

“No circus show would be complete without clowns! Joanna and Steven amuse the audience with an act that’s simply absurd.”

And yes, absurd it is. I can forgive this as an intermission piece, but it’s woven throughout the story, removing all sense of fluidity and grace from the actual Cirque performance. What’s more, I felt actually offended by the content of the show. During the show, the act singles out audience members to “interact” with. They make men take their arms off of girlfriends, or pick pocket some men, or interact in other ways. There were two incidents, though, that spoke of more than just comedy.

In one incident, the performer isolated a boyfriend from his girlfriend. The male in the act went to sit with the girl (haha, I’ve stolen your girlfriend!), which would have been ok, had not the woman in the act thrown herself in front of the man, holding onto his chair while covering his body. Now, imagine a man doing this to a woman. Would you be ok with a woman being physically restrained in this way? No? Me neither. But I also wasn’t ok with this being done to a man. I didn’t find it funny. 

Next was the more serious incident. A man was pulled onto stage to be a part of a disappearing act. During the course of the act, the woman in the show was seen to throw her body onto his and pretend to kiss him. The whole act was about her sexually fawning over this audience member. So, while I object to the way she’s sexualizing herself, what really threw me was how everyone was laughing while this was happening. If a woman were on that stage and a man pretended to grope her, would that be ok? It’s NOT OK. 

I don’t know what happens in these circus acts at other shows. This is not, and has never been, my style of comedy. But if this is the norm for circus acts, it’s NOT OK. Just because men are the centre of the act, not women, does not mean we have a right to sexually objectify them. If I were on that stage, I would have felt abused. That is sexual harassment and it is NOT OK. 

Cirque, what are you doing?!?!