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Both to be and to exist
1 Jun 2010
Published To

 "I think the time is now. The time’s ripe. Now, we have a lot of very prominent women, clever, and intellectual and emotionally strong. They should have a say about how we are going to reconstruct this society. There is a political chaos and people are really yearning for something constructive to happen."

Hlin Agnarsdottir. Playwright, author, and activist. Involved in the early women’s movement of the 1970’s and 80’s, wrote and edited the feminist magazine Curious Red, and worked on the editorial board of the mouth pipe in the Women’s Alliance Vera, which means “Both to be and to exist.” Interviewed June 2010.

Both to be and to exist

I was born 1953 in Reykjavik in a family of six children. I always saw myself as the child in the middle, the Sandwich Child. I grew up in Reykjavik and my father was a salesman. My mother was this fifties-sixties housewife, so they only had a basic education. They were children during the Second World War, so they were post-war parents

My parents were quite progressive, but they used quite strict methods with us children. They were not poor people, but they were not rich either. They had six children to take care of and that was a lot of work to do. I was quite lucky for myself that I managed to go to school and to educate myself, which I thought was a very important thing, something that my sisters and brothers didn’t do in the same way. My siblings had to go to work when they were sixteen years old, when school was over. They just did their basics and then they were sent off to work.  That was quite hard.

My father was also quite a patriarch. He was a tyrant-type of a father, and I was quite rebellious because I felt it early as a child that he was treating us in an unfair way. I think that that really made a great impact in my life. How strong, how strict and domineering my father was made me really competitive. I just wanted to show him that I could be as strong as him, you know. This really shaped me as a thinking, feministic woman.

I didn’t like how he treated us sisters and my mother. He did not abuse us, not sexually or nothing, but he was violent. He had some violent manners toward us children, and he was violent towards my mother and I never liked it. He treated her in an oppressive way. That was something that I thought I would never have any man do to me.

My mother was not a typical housewife, though, because she always could enjoy her hobbies like painting. She was a member in an amateur association of painters. She met people and went out of the home. Of course, she was a housewife, but she was a creative mind. She had beautiful tastes, and she could create a beautiful home. Everything became tasteful around her. I was influenced by that. In that way, she was a role model for me. I was in the creative business since the very beginning: I had a creative mind.

Ever since I was a child, I was a very active and energetic little girl, and I wanted to be able to achieve more. I found it quite strange that I wasn’t able to do the same things as the boys. I felt quite early how confined our space is.

Yes, I always saw and felt as a child, as an adolescent, and a young woman that I had an inferior place. I wasn’t inferior, but I just hadn’t the same possibilities. It’s about possibilities. I hadn’t the equal right to do what I wanted to do. There was a social pressure of behaving or acting as a woman. I was always questioning myself, “What is a woman? What makes you a woman? What is so peculiar about being a woman?” This is how it all began, and I’ve never stopped. I’ve never seen any reason to stop thinking about this.

I went through elementary, high school, college, and university in Reykjavik. I went into a ballet school. That was my first step into the theatre, and I got acquainted with a lot of people who were quite educated, intellectual and progressive in thinking. And I liked that company of people. Then I moved to Sweden in 1976. I went to the universities of Uppsala and Stockholm to study drama and theatre. Then, I came back to Iceland, to my home country. I wanted to serve my home country.

I started my career as a drama teacher first and then gradually went into directing theatre and writing for the stage. I’ve worked more or less as a professional theatre director and dramaturge, drama teacher, playwright and writer.

Everything I’ve written, in a way, is characterized by my thinking as a woman. Most of the plays I’ve written are very ironic. I use female irony and ironic distance. I have a certain kind of a humor that really characterizes a lot of what I do, but I can also write drama. I mix drama and humor and absurd things.

I wrote a play in 1996, which in fact takes place in the women's room of a discotheque, and it’s called Women Terrorize. There, I dove into the depths of the beauty myth and I wrote it under the influence of Naomi Wolf's book The Beauty Myth. The mirror and the light played a great part in that play. The women of the play who don´t know each other, they always meet in front of the mirror to communicate.

I was doing a lot of research about the looks of women and the way they feel as women. I did research on food, diets and anorexia. Around the world, women's lives are really influenced by all these ideas of how to look and how to behave, and oppressed by fashion, cosmetics and mass media.

It’s quite natural for both men and women to look good and to be healthy and well dressed, but in a way, women are hard-kept when it comes to looks. It’s a trap. Let’s say, hair, for example. I’m getting white and a lot of women my age dye their hair. It’s also getting into younger and younger states, too. Girls at 12, they start to dye their hair. This beauty terror, it’s such a huge part of women’s lives and women terrify each other with all this stuff too. None of us can escape it. This beauty terror really controls your life.

As soon as you become an active woman in society and you want to be seen, you want to represent something, you have to look quite good. Of course, we all want to look good, but women are under this pressure way more than men. TV reporters can be men at 60, gray-haired, but women, after 40, it’s quite difficult to keep up with the myth of the ever young and sexy girl.

I’ve always been quite interested in this because, amongst other things, I’m a physically strong woman. As a child, I was never fat, but my ballet teacher said that I was square. I was well built, muscular, and I loved sports. I was quite clever in gymnastics and ballet, and I was a runner and a handball player. I found very early that the women in my family, they were worried about this. They were worried that I was not feminine enough and that I had too good appetite. They thought that I ate too much, which of course could lead to obesity. I was often quite irritated by this and it destroyed my self-image for years when I was a young woman.

This is all about self-image, the self-image of women. My mother and my elder sisters, they were kind of saying to me that I wasn’t ok, that I had to do something else to change myself, to fit into society, to be more appealing. I rebelled against this because who forms and creates this ideology of how women, how they should look, and how they should behave?

I also had female friends during high school who were always thinking about weight. They didn’t eat anything. They starved. They were always on a very strict, stringent diet, and I never understood this. For me, eating was just natural. But there were people around me who were trying to stop my eating in a natural way. Of course, I had a quite good desire for food because I moved a lot and I had a great energy. I could eat more than other women or girls. Because I liked to eat, when I ate, I was reminded, “Don’t eat too much.” I didn´t eat the right female portions. I was just eating like a normal child, or a boy maybe.

Why is it that, gradually, when you come to puberty, the women, the girls, they start to cut down the portions? They don’t eat this, don’t eat that and they are selecting a lot. It becomes a ritual to eat. It’s never a natural thing. It’s become even worse now, anorexia and all these dysfunctional attitudes toward food and eating.

Women terrorize each other with this beauty myth. You can just see in this TV series now, the total makeover. In Women Terrorize, I was really scrutinizing the cruelty that is a part of the women’s world. There is a cruelty there. You have to dare to say something about it, open it up, reveal it. That’s what I’ve done.

I do dare to satirize us as women. As a writer, I have the commission to mirror life in my own personal style. I don’t decide in beforehand, ok, now I’m going to write a play or a novel about how badly women are oppressed. I don’t do that, but I try to display how it is and then the spectator and the public has to kind of decide for themselves what they can see in it.

This play was staged at the city theatre in Reykjavik, and it became very popular and a public success. A lot of things that I’ve done have become popular in a way. My first play, which I wrote in 1984, was really a hit. That was a very ironic play about the hippie generation and the radicals. In that play, I was covering a life of a man who every time he changed his social and political opinion, he changed his woman as well, which is understandable in a way, but he was in fact a serial dater.

This man had just finished high school when he gets married in the play and as soon as he comes in contact with all these kinds of movements, you know, the radical leftist movement, the hippie movement, and the feminist movement, he always meets a new woman. This is a story about how this man goes through all this development of ideological ideas and at the same time changes his partner. In the end he ends up with a young girl. He’s about 45 and he has an 18-year-old girl moving into his house. Then, he doesn’t have a place for his son who is almost the same age. So we were also kind of satirizing this tendency in men who, when things get a bit complex in relationships with women, they chase a new woman instead of growing up and maturing. It seems to be easier for men to have a new woman, to go into a new relationship than to change themselves.

That was my first big play back in ’84 and before that I had done a lot of minor plays. After ’84, I’ve been quite active as a playwright. I’ve written radio plays and TV series. Here, on the table, is my last play, which is written because I got a grant from the National Theatre of Iceland. It´s a drama called Refugees.

It’s a fact, though, that I haven’t had the same possibilities in the arts as the men. I haven’t been given the same tasks, the same projects. My way out of that is to create my own projects. That’s what women do and creative people who are not chosen or elected or given opportunities or grants to create. That’s what women have been doing here in Iceland. We have a network among ourselves, and we try to build it out and support each other. Sometimes it helps, sometimes not.

Privately, I’m not married. I was married once at 21, and I was divorced at 26. Then, I had a partner for some 16 years after that, and he died of cancer. We had already split when he got the cancer but we were friends all the way to the end of his life. I wrote a book about him, about our relationship, which was a very difficult relation because he was an alcoholic. I studied alcoholism and co-dependency very profoundly to be able to write this book.

 I am now in a very open relationship. I’m preferably free and independent. No children. I really wanted to have children, but I had some difficulties. This is basically my story. I am just alone.

Of course, I have a very close male friend, and I have family in a way. Not my own family, but I have my sisters and brothers and their children whom I adore and love. It took time for me to accept that I couldn't have children of my own and also to accept that I wasn’t like other women around me. In a small society like Iceland, this is quite a strain. It’s a stress not to be a part of this formal structure of a family-based society of a small population.

Well, I’m an artist and, I must state, that I love my artistic life. Despite all this, I have had opportunities that the “family people” don’t have. I have travelled a lot. I have lived abroad, and I can stay where I want to stay. I never have to think about what I am going to do with the children. I am flexible, and I really love to change my living situation all the time, which also keeps me alive.

I know that there are a lot of people my age that envy me and even younger and older people. “Lucky you, how can you do this?” I like this kind of life. Street smart, that’s what I’ve always been. I’ve always seen a solution. I can risk a lot of things.

Of course, when I get older than I am, it will become more difficult, and I have to secure something in my life to be able to live easily in my senior days. Anyhow, I still have some energy, and I’m going to use it as I want to.

Some women after fifty think it’s too late to do anything worth effort. I can understand that women who have been in a long marriage, bringing up lots of children, also working professionally, they become exhausted and tired. The way out of exhaustion is also to stimulate your mind. I think each period of life has its own kind of exciting side, and I still think that there is something exciting coming up in the close future. I must say that I’ve never felt as energetic as right now.

I think the strength is that I don’t leave my ideas. It’s all about endurance. It’s a long run. Three years ago, I quit my job at the National Theatre of Iceland to go to university, to add to my former education in theatre and literature.  I’m now writing my latest dissertation, which is a hundred pages, on the self-image and identity of the artist as it is seen in Thomas Bernhard’s play Histrionics.

I think it’s very important for women, especially after fifty, to reeducate themselves, even if they have got some old University degree. You have to reeducate yourself to strengthen your mind and your thinking. After fifty, after she was alone in the house and my father was out working, my mother started to reeducate herself and to go out to work. That really changed her life for the better.

 Now, I have this great experience, maturity, and also it’s a liberating thing that I have gone through all the sexual hazards of my life. I don’t have to compete for men any longer. I’m not going to build a family. I just have some years left, maybe 10, 15 years, to do something really good for myself and hopefully society as well, to make life even better for other people. I think it’s quite natural with your experience and with your maturity to think about what you can do for your common man or women, for society.

Even now, there’s a circle of women who have started to discuss a new wave of women who will run for the next parliament election, and I really have been thinking it over. If someone would offer me to be a part of the list, I could really think of participating in that active way, going to the parliament, all the way. I don’t think it’s too late.

I think the time is now. The time’s ripe. Now, we have a lot of very prominent women, clever, and intellectual and emotionally strong. They should have a say about how we are going to reconstruct this society. There is a political chaos and people are really yearning for something constructive to happen. We are talking about how to start over again after the economic and financial collapse, and the constitution has to be changed. The constitution is from 1874. We really need to rethink it and reshape it.

It’s so difficult for women to get through, though, to get into power. Men in politics, they kind of can’t stand the authoritative voice of woman. They defy it. And they don´t want women to rule the economy of the world, though they would surely do much better than men.

I have a friend in politics, and she’s been judged for this authoritative voice. She’s very focused and concentrated and an orator.  You need that authoritative voice in politics and women have to use it. You can’t say everything in a sweet voice. Then, it’s like you’re always excusing yourself for having the opinions you have. But of course you can express them in a balanced and polite way.

One of my male friends came once into rehearsal of one of my plays with me. He sat in the rehearsal and afterwards he came to me and said. “I’m absolutely amazed,” he said. Why? “I’ve never heard you speak with this authoritative voice.” That’s how he put it. The truth is, the authoritative voice of a woman is too seldom heard or respected.

Why can’t you just mix genders? These different genders are in your mind. I don’t care how you define it. We all have female and masculine sides. I like to be both. I like to be female. I like to be male in my thinking, if you choose to define it in that way. Women say, “The men are better at this than we.” I don’t believe it. I think that we can be as good. It’s not necessary that everybody becomes good in everything. No, we have to complement each other. If a woman is good in things that are said to be male or masculine, what’s wrong with that? The other way around, if a man is a good cook or takes care of children better than a woman, that’s good.

This is something I’ve always a bit astonished about. Always when I start to work with a group of people, I start softly, in a very feminine way. I embrace and listen carefully what people have to say.  Then, when I’m gradually moving toward the result, the pace kind of picks up, the pace becomes stronger, and then I really use the whip" to drive the people to the final result which often can be tough. To some people, this is quite masculine way of working or more similar to what we tend to define as “male” energy. That’s my style. If I’m writing, reading, I always start very softly and very slowly and then I get the pace.  

If this is a manly task to be concentrated and focused, that’s ok. But I’m a woman. Since I am a woman, some people are amazed that I work in that way. They think you always behave like the stereotype of a woman, so kind and soft.

Pleasing others, that’s what women are brought up to do and be. Quite early I found out that this was kind of peculiar and strange that I as a female child was always meant to please others and make their lives easier. That seemed to be the only way of being accepted and loved. You want to please others, and you can do it, but in the end, you are never satisfied yourself. Ever since I was a young person, I wanted to know, who am I? What do I want to do and what is my purpose in life and what do I want to reach and what is my goal?

I always have a goal. Now, I’m writing this play. Then, I’m doing my dissertation and while I have these two goals, nothing else can come between or destroy it. A lot of women want to do things, they have ideas, they think about it, they talk about it, but they don’t do it. I often become quite disappointed with women when they just talk, talk, talk, talk and don’t do. Get your own ideas done. Pursue your ideas. Get results. It can take some time but focus.

Of course, there were periods in my life that I was let down. I let myself down and I was let down by others, in my thinking and in my emotional life and in my living. Being a human being always takes a toll. You have to pay for a lot of thing, privately. Often my private life has really taken a big part of my energy. I’ve gone through depressive periods of my life and faced with a lot of mental strain where I couldn’t see anywhere out.

So, in that sense, I haven’t been all the time energetic and strong. I have had my private baggage to carry, but I have never forgotten what it’s all about. Even though I’ve felt badly in my private life and gone through periods of mourning and sorrow, which is quite natural, I’ve always come back. I've always wanted to be and exist. 


Community Justice Activism Advocacy
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