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Performance Club 2: Commencement Keynote Address by Kristyn Dunnion

Performance Club 2: Valley of the Dolls with Keith Cole

Commencement Keynote Address

By Kristyn Dunnion

Thank you, it’s such a pleasure to be here tonight to help celebrate your recent success. Special thanks to Dr. Keith Cole – I’ve been a long-time fan of your work - and to the incredible Dean of the Faculty of Performance Art, Dr. Shannon Cochrane.

Tonight’s ceremony is a way to recognize the time commitment and efforts made by the graduates. We mark this occasion because we value these things: reading books, drinking wine, meeting in person to talk about books, and drinking more wine. Also, we celebrate the lost art of listening, which is more than half of what it means to communicate, is the secret to building relationship and community, and which seems to be the biggest casualty in today’s social media wars. 

You’ve worked hard. With busy lives, it’s challenging to commit to a month of Tuesdays – to reading a very thick book, completing homework assignments, and showing up every week. It’s a very different impulse to share physical space with strangers on a king size bed in a motel room on Spadina Avenue, than it is to scroll comments online, liking stuff. Graduates, you chose to engage in meaningful dialogue in the flesh. It’s remarkable, given today’s technological advantages. In other parts of your lives, some of you teach. Some are students. But in this setting we follow a different social contract: this is knowledge exchange and we are all participating and learning. Some of you organized this project and others came strictly as guests – but we all performed roles. This is really exciting.

Specifically we honour a book written more than fifty years ago by Jacqueline Susann: a bestseller, blockbuster, and inspiration for the film we will be watching in a few moments: the Valley of the Dolls. Is it a work of art in the great literary tradition? Absolutely not. But it is more than mere commodity. You were asked: what does this book mean to us now? Is it still relevant? 

For me to answer that, I need to take a step back in time. Please indulge me!

I was born and raised in a one-stoplight town at the Southern most tip of Canada. 

We have tornados, organized crime, every Fundamentalist Christian movement imaginable, and quick sand. I barely made it out alive! Raise your hand if you’re from a small town. Shout it out! Okay suburbs, too, a different kind of soul death. 

We have this in common: aspiration, desperation, desire. We abandoned local expectation to enter into a magical place – urban, fictional, where we could become someone completely new. Or completely Gay. Just like us, the main characters come from shitty little towns to The Big City. So far, how is this different from our own stories? Even Lyon, the fictional British stud, is actually from an isolated farmhouse in the middle of nowhere, England. 

We create Self and community. We continue to create, and then comes secondary wants: money, love, fame. Sometimes, we recreate a status quo: hard rules based on competition, insecurity, internalized bigotry, capitalist greed. Because somewhere along the line we try to make art for a buck in this Vampire Economy. In the Valley of the Dolls they get rich. The rest of us just get notorious. (if we’re lucky!)

Knowing this book celebrates high camp, I thought it would be fun to read. 

The first half is the ingénue’s journey. Those female friendships reminded me of my own early years: surviving on stolen saltines, scissoring with a series of gorgeous roommates, and angling for free drinks at the bar. In the book there was a transition. The second half, that’s when things got rough. Saturn Return, People! By the end of the book, I felt a great despair.

I suspect reading this book as a woman is quite different than reading it as not a woman. Men make the rules and men benefit from them. Men also sacrifice a domestic or sustainable romantic life in order to play the game, but they don’t pay the ultimate price. What about Tony, you say? Privately perceived to be a damaged man, less of a man than others, he’s used much like a woman in this book. He’s a child man, almost equal to a woman. But his manager/sister never betrays him; he wins privacy and dignity, which is robbed from all of the females without exception.

The currency for most transactions in the book is female bodies. Oh there’s money money money. But women’s bodies, and ultimately their minds, are the collateral damage for fame and fortune. Or, for a simple escape from insufferable small town life. 

Each beautiful woman in this book is a stand in for all those other beautiful women. They’re on billboards, magazines, movie screens, television. We read Jennifer North and think Marilyn. Sharon, Whitney. Anna Nicole. Reading Neely we think Judy Garland. Frances Farmer. Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan, Rose McGowan. Anne Welles could be Princess Di, living a lie, wealthy and famous and starved for affection. Hungry. And if this is the outcome for the most culturally valued, famous, wealthy and privileged white women, what about the rest of us? 

Professor Cole mentioned how Jennifer North’s death scene haunted him for years. For me the passages describing Neely’s incarceration in the sanatorium were terrifying. How many dissatisfied wives or reluctant girls or lesbians or latent witches or Indigenous or free thinking females were incarcerated just so, because they would not or could not play the limited roles allotted to them in their particular time? How many are still there now?

Is this book relevant? I don’t know what you decided in class, but I will say, sadly, yes. Because we can’t go one day without another famous entertainer stepping forward to talk about sexual misconduct or violence she endured during attempts to get work, maintain contracts, and grow a career.

Hell, never mind Hollywood. You might be amazed to learn as I did, that behind each little poem in practically any college literary magazine lies a blow job. A dusty, alcohol induced, sloppy, end of the night blow job. You can hardly break into the regional and non-glamorous world of Canadian literature without banging some old drunk. And for what? A royalty cheque that barely covers a month’s rent in any major city.  Never mind the cost of the prescription you’ll need to clear up the STI that poet gave you! Is there no end to the sense of entitlement held by these bearded unwashed creeps? What exactly fuels their narcissism and desperation for artistic recognition? And more important, Who Cares!?

While in the asylum and afterward, Neely speaks about her changed body with the assumption that gaining weight is a death sentence for pleasure and affection. Lyon’s hateful words about her size are fuelled with a violence and disgust that leap from the page – from a page already soaked in violence and disgust! And isn’t he the first guy on top of her, as soon as she starts popping those diet pills again? Creep.   

Even the richest woman in New York, in the world, goes to bed hungry at night, afraid of expanding her waistline.

So, what has changed in the past 50 years? 

In many respects, not much. The demise of the women in this book is all too real.

Have we at least evolved with regards to this deep body shaming, this dismissal of unconventional female beauty and power? Can we – queers, activists, artists, witches, people of size, black, indigenous, trans and disabled people – can we break this mold once and for all?

YES Mother Fucker.

My kindest advice to the graduates:

Self medicate. Like the precious white women in this book. Pop your pills and dull your pain, buffer yourself from the injustice surrounding you.

OR wake up, and dismantle it, piece by piece.

Write your own scripts, your own plays and musicals. Start your own band, make your own film. Write your damn poetry and print it or publish it yourselves. Use your cell phones, for God’s sake, and maybe, if we stop taking selfies, stop skimming and scrolling and liking things long enough, we can even use them to take down the government! 

Where will be fifty years from now? Who’s to say. But hopefully by then we can finally talk about the real main characters, the Dolls themselves. Pills for diets, pills for beauty sleep. Pills for heartache and physical pain and depression and grief, for the deep emotional wounds that will not heal. The benzos of 1960’s Hollywood may as well be the Oxys, Percs and Fentynal of the current western world. The dolls are everywhere. The Tabloid story that remains untold is the one about the wealthy, mostly-white men who make the dolls, who market and prescribe the dolls, and get even richer from the dolls. They are the ones whose reckoning shall one day come. 

My final words to you, courageous graduates: (Donna Martin Graduates!)

Every Cock Counts. (Chanting with everyone!)

If you’re going to suck it, suck it good. But never forget what else you’ve got in that mouth: teeth. A toast to one day biting down!

Photo credit: Henry Chan