Content Warning: Brief mentions of rape and suicide
Photo © Joe Nair @roundthebout
In January, we had a conversation with lawyer, poet, and now playwright Amanda Chong about her latest play, #WomenSupportingWomen, that maps the vast expanse of greys behind the glib hashtag of solidarity and unpacks the contrasting performances expected of women in two spaces—as leaders in the workspace, and victims in the courtroom.
WU and Amanda explored women mentorship, workplace stereotypes, arts and human connection, and more.
Disclaimer: Interview transcript is not verbatim and has been edited for clarity.
Q1: What can we expect to see in #WomenSupportingWomen and what is the motivation behind it?
In the past year, I’ve been invited as a speaker to several webinars on women’s leadership, which led me to wonder: “How useful is anything that I’m saying to the greater project of women’s empowerment?”
This made me think more deeply about what it really means to create inclusive spaces for all women, and not just women of specific privilege(s). I was also observing how feminist causes are packaged very neatly with hashtags like #GirlBoss, #LeanIn, and even #WomenSupportingWomen. I think these hashtags can create easy binaries that blunt the complexities of the moral negotiations that we have to undertake everyday. It can look too ‘black and white’, which is not reflective of the nuances we must consider in reality.
It’s just never that clean-cut.
To me, what art and theatre are supposed to do is to explore those grey spaces of ambivalence. So in #WomenSupportingWomen, I explore the question: What does it really mean to support another woman when we all carry our own baggage of trauma and privilege?
The premise of the play is that Karina Teng, the youngest female partner at a prestigious law firm, is thrust into a Zoom breakout room with her former intern Sara Ismail, as the secrets underlying the tensions between these women begin to emerge.
My impulse for this play comes from my background as a former sex crimes prosecutor. I’ve often thought about the very incongruous demands of women to perform in different ways in order to succeed. On one hand, we have the pressures on women to perform a sort of toxic masculinity appeal to excel as corporate leaders. As women in corporate settings, we know to abide by the tacit code:
Don’t show emotions or that you’re affected
Hide in the toilet and cry if you must
No one should see the crack in your armour
On the other hand, when women are in the courtroom as sexual assualt victims, we have to perform certain emotions and even become a damsel in distress in order to meet society’s expectations of trauma. In fact, if we’re not emotional, that’s when the case can actually cut against us, raising questions like: “Why would someone who’s been raped act like nothing happened to her?; How can she talk about it without crying?”
To me, these performances demanded of women are symptomatic of the gender stereotypes and expectations that we have to push back against or navigate through on a daily basis. The play is a way for me, and for the audience to explore what this means for each of us.
Q2: What is your view on being a woman professional in a male-dominated workspace?
As a female litigator in the courtroom, there were times when my older male opposing counsel addressed my male colleagues as “Sir”, but they would call me “Girl”, “Darling” or “Dear”. That immediately does something to the power dynamics—especially when I was at the start of my career. Also, some senior men might not take well to being contradicted by a young woman even in a courtroom setting, which could lead to a lot of unnecessary tension.
I found it incredibly useful to have women mentors I admired at work who had navigated similar challenges. They gave me advice with wisdom and care, and also modeled the way for how to balance the demands of lawyering with family responsibilities.
Q3: Moving back to #WomenSupportingWomen and the poems you have written, in what way(s) do you think the theater and poetry have helped you express your aspirations and/or values?
I published my first poetry collection in 2016, titled Professions. Essentially, “Professions” holds two meanings: occupations and confessions; so there’s a public and private meaning.
The backbone of the book is a series of poems told from the perspective of a disgruntled muse. The poems are titled after a traditionally male-dominated profession, such as: “The Lawyer”, “The Playwright”, “The Physicist”. On one level, these poems portray how women have been historically sidelined from various occupations. But on another level, these poems explore the power dynamics between men and women in romantic relationships.
It has always been a very clear impulse of mine as a writer—I want to talk about women’s experiences; I want to say that they are just as significant as the experiences of men, who have always been part of the literary canon.
When I first pitched my manuscript, I worried: “Oh no, as a woman writing about love, will my book be labeled as chick-lit? Would only other women read me?” But soon after, I thought: “Hey, if I were a man, I wouldn’t have the same concern. I’d just be like, yeah, of course people are gonna read me.” This reveals an insecurity when women talk about emotions. We fear what we have to say will not have the same gravity as men.
I’m currently working on a second poetry book which explores unheard narratives of women in Singapore’s history. I want to centre these stories and create a space where we can engage with them.
To me, the value of art is in how it creates human connection. The best reward for me as a writer is when something that I’ve experienced has a direct thread to somebody else’s life. It reminds me that even though pain can feel so specific and particular to ourselves, we’re actually all knitted together in the greater fabric of humanity.
Q4: How do you think the themes in #WomenSupportingWomen are important to society, for women and men?
I think it’s important for audiences of all genders, and one might argue, particularly men, to recognize that what you see happening on stage is the reality of women’s lived experiences. Most adult women have sadly experienced some form of sexual assault or harrassment.
It isn’t exceptional.
I think that women who watch this play will recognize shades of themselves in either one, if not both characters. The two women in my play represent different generations (millennial and Gen Z) and races (Chinese and Malay)—I wanted to explore the tensions in feminism at these intersections.
I hope that men who watch it could better understand women’s lived experiences, because ultimately it is the structural factors within society that make it difficult to get justice. These structural factors aren’t just changed by women. They are changed by everyone coming together and creating change in our culture or demanding change in our systems. I hope this play starts conversations about what change can look like.
There is no “moral of the story”; I don’t like being didactic when I’m creating art. I prefer to create ambivalence in people that gets them thinking for themselves and hopefully, this process of reflection expands the space of compassion we have for each other.
Amanda with Director Sim Yang Ying, Actresses Jo Tan and Tysha Khan for #WomenSupportingWomen (Photo ©Amanda Chong)