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G*d Is A Woman: The ins and outs of a cancellation

Thoughts on WILD RICE's latest play, G*d Is A Woman.

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Photo: Ruey Loon

Recently, it came to my attention that the local theatre company WILD RICE is staging a new play, entitled G*d Is A Woman. I Googled it, went to and voluntarily forked over my own money for a ticket. I brought one of my plushie children, a baby pig-bunny who hid in my bag because he’s only 8 cm tall. And let me tell you: I was SHOCKED at this show. I cannot believe that a production with this sort of WOKE content, filled with ideas from a morally bankrupt West, is being FOISTED upon Singaporeans. As a concerned citizen, I am utterly OUTRAGED. My tiny plushie bb was TRAUMATISED by the use of vulgar language. Fortunately, he’s an inanimate toy. But imagine if he had been a real kid! THINK OF THE CHILDREN!!!

Baby pig-bunny stowed away for the show.

I’m being facetious, but we know the type, don’t we? There have been multiple incidents over the years of art, literature or other forms of expression being censored after “concerned Singaporeans” leapt to take offence at work or activities they likely had no intention of participating in in the first place.

In 2014, the children’s book And Tango Makes Three, which tells the story of two male penguins raising a baby together, was almost pulped following complaints from conservative parents that such a book did not promote “family values”. The book was eventually saved from destruction, but moved to the adult section. In 2016, the song ‘Holy Water’ was cut from Madonna’s Singapore concert setlist after objections to her show from the Catholic Church and other religious organisations. In 2019, the government reversed their decision to allow Watain, a Swedish black metal band, to perform in Singapore, after complaints from Christians who were “concerned and offended”.

These are three relatively high-profile examples, but there are more. Many instances don’t get brought up publicly at all, and are only spoken of in closed social circles, vented to friends over alcohol and comfort food. No one is happy about it. Everyone has a different opinion of what the response to such censorship should be. But no one can fight every battle; sometimes the risk doesn’t feel worth taking, especially when the prospect of success is so slim. So just shut up and survive to make work for another day. It makes you feel gross and spineless, but what are you going to do? Here, have another glass of wine.

These are the things that G*d Is A Woman, WILD RICE’s new play from playwright Joel Tan and director Ivan Heng, tackles. With a cast of four—Benjamin Chow, Brendon Fernandez, Munah Bagharib and Zee Wong—playing a range of characters, the story begins with Jon, a playwright deeply frustrated by not just a ludicrous case of censorship in an upcoming arts festival, but also that the festival director has chosen to take it on the chin rather than put up a fight.

Jon casts around for a way to express the fury he feels, to seek revenge on those who continually defile art and the right to free expression with their small-minded ways. This originally takes the form of a play, entitled Pig Nation, that’s more foul-mouthed rant than a cohesive piece of work, leading his actor friend Maggie to bluntly observe, “Some art really no need to make one.” Then Jon hits on a better idea (at least, it seemed like a good idea at the time): to create a spoof petition calling for the cancellation of pop star Ariana Grande’s upcoming Singapore concert, taking issue with her song ‘God Is A Woman’. “Please respect God’s pronouns,” he types triumphantly in a spot-on parody of the pearl-clutching, offence-taking open letters of the Singaporean conservative.

The intention was that Ariana’s rabid stans would turn on anyone who dares put their name to the petition. Sweet, sweet revenge, surely? Of course, things don’t turn out as intended. Conservatives, mistaking the petition for the real deal, jump on board. Before long, it’s a tussle between the conservatives—led by Clarissa Foo, the prim and pious wife of the well-connected Singtel CFO—and artists and activists desperate to preserve not just the jobs at risk of a show cancellation, but also the space for artistic expression.

Events are fictionalised and dramatised in G*d Is A Woman, but the fiction is built with elements that we know to be true. The best satire always hits on nerves, and the cackles from the audience of the Saturday night show I was at came often as much from recognition as from comedy.

Unlike Pig Nation, Tan’s script isn’t just a shriek of rage. It takes in all the different ingredients of a cancellation shitshow: egos, hypocrisy, posturing, (self-)righteous anger, desperation, compromise, complicity. Audiences are forced to confront the fact that these so-called battles for the values of our society are more often than not less about principles and more about social capital and networks of power and influence. And while citizens might clash with opposing points of view and demands, both sides can ultimately only appeal to a government that holds all the cards.

As the lights came up for the intermission, I heard someone sitting near me say to a friend, “How did they even get the permit to stage this?” As Singaporeans, we are attuned to the power of the government, and the fact that we need their permission to do so many things. We also, at the very least, have a vague idea of where the sensitivities lie. Another overheard remark during intermission: “This show is rated R18 ah? Is that the highest a play can get? You know with films right, as long as there’s a gay in it, it’s like, R21.” It’s hard to know exactly how such decisions are made. Sometimes things that we suspect might get in trouble are allowed to pass; other times content we thought innocuous turn into huge problems. It leaves everyone uncertain and prone to assume the worst. This is the reality that we live in, and one needs to only pay a little bit of attention to realise how pervasive this sort of opaque control and policing of potential conflict is in our society.

In an interview, director Ivan Heng described tackling serious topics through comedy in the theatre as “[dressing it] up like a chocolate muffin cake with a razor blade in it.” I laughed my way through G*d Is A Woman, but left the theatre with hundreds, thousands, of paper cuts. It felt cathartic to guffaw with my fellow audience members, or to watch the characters on stage lose their shit over the absurdity of their situation… but then I re-emerged into the same world. Part way through the second half I even began wondering if the authorities might use this very show to gaslight us: How can you say that Singapore not free or that there is censorship? We even allowed G*d Is A Woman to be staged! Would an authoritarian state allow something like that?

Much has been made of “cancel culture” in Singapore, with many fingers pointing at an intolerant “woke” left. The Straits Times has even run commentaries about the problem of “too much ‘wokeism’”. The government is mulling the possibility of legislating against “cancel culture”, after conservative Christians expressed fear of being targeted for their views, particularly on LGBTQ issues. (Meanwhile, LGBTQ representation in the mainstream media is actively policed, and LGBTQ people continue to face discrimination in many aspects of life, such as access to home ownership.)

Photo: Ruey Loon

The reality—which G*d Is A Woman reflects back to us—is that the playing field was never even, and it is not the more progressive artists or activists who have the upper hand. Campaigns might be mounted that gain some traction on social media, but the amount of pressure alleged “Social Justice Warriors” can drum up is limited in a context where laws suppress expressions of dissent or protest and power rests heavily on one side. Activists are not the ones who move in the same networks of power and influence as the “natural aristocracy”. And while the government might claim neutrality, its desire to avoid backlash by pandering to whoever can generate the loudest uproar—or what feels, to them, like the loudest uproar—means that the game has long been stacked in favour of those most willing to, as Clarissa Foo says in the play, “exercise my constitutional right to be offended”. (Psst, it’s not a real right.) Even so, at the end of the day, it is the powerful that reigns supreme, and even personal connections can only go so far when up against the government’s goals.

‘Lowest common denominator’ demands for conformity and intolerance towards different world views do real harm to a society. The psychic damage shouldn’t be underestimated; a society where nothing that’s challenging or risky or uncomfortable is allowed for fear of backlash or ‘disharmony’ is one where we’re forever trapped in immaturity, constantly reminded of how little faith our government has in us. Imagine what it would be like to live in an environment where art isn’t allowed to get any more interesting than a pretty painting of Bukit Timah Hill (or, as the minister character in the play observes, maybe just a nice photo? Easier and cheaper!) Imagine policing ourselves and everyone around us, scrubbing our thoughts of any hint of expression that might invite “backlash”. How dull our senses would get over time, with nothing to engage with beyond the most inoffensive and mundane.

Ultimately, the questions that G*d Is A Woman poses have very little to do with Ariana Grande or God’s chosen pronouns. Instead, it demands us to consider the cost of living in such a close-minded complaint culture. Perhaps Jon, the playwright, was on to something after all with his terrible play. Perhaps, if we allow this to continue, we might really be a Pig Nation of subservient, unquestioning grunts.

G*d Is A Woman is running at Wild Rice @ Funan until 23 September. You can book your tickets here.