The Unplugging narrates the exile of Elena and Bernadette (Bern) after a global power outage. In a world used and dependent on electricity to live, a global power outage creates a new reality in the life not only of humans but also the environment. These two indigenous “old women” around their fifties, were living with a community of humans who work together trying to survive and adapt to the new reality without electricity. Because the characters were not contributing to their community and were not women of child-bearing age, they were exiled as they were considered an extra weight rather than useful or practical. Forced to leave their community, the two women have to figure out a way to survive in a post-apocalyptic world without power or electricity surrounded by heavy snow and limited resources.
Throughout the play, one more character appears and three others are mentioned. Seamus, a young and handsome man, appears in the Mukwa Gezzis (Bear Moon: February) and he encounters Bernadette while she is looking for food or tools that might help her and Elena survive. Bernadette and Seamus start having an affair, regardless of the age difference, but Elena does not approve of it. Elena suspects Seamus was sent by Laird, the chief of the community they were exiled from. In the end, Seamus was indeed sent by Laird but ends up being a call for help as they need the guidance and wisdom from Elena and Bernadette as the old wise women left. The play touches on themes such as women's roles and traditional expectations, indigenous cultures, women’s sexuality, and traditional knowledge.
Yvette Nolan is the playwright of the play The Unplugging. Apart from being a playwright, she is also a dramaturg and a director. According to her author description, she was born in Saskatchewan to an Algonquin mother and an Irish immigrant father and raised in Manitoba. Yvette lived in the Yukon and Nova Scotia before moving to Toronto where she served as Artistic Director of Native Earth Performing Arts from 2003 to 2011 (Location 1320).
The Unplugging is a play that involves a diversity of themes and connections. It dives into the importance of Aboriginal knowledge for the adaptation and survival against environmental disasters, due to its already existing nature-connected traditions and practices. Due to this, we are examining a play that explores what is known as a spiritual ecofeminist play. Spiritual ecofeminism does have a variety of views and perceptions developed from Aboriginal knowledge, which many times are appropriated by “Western” ecofeminists. Yvette Nolan’s play The Unplugging aligns with the ideas of spiritual ecofeminism as it portrays the connection between women and nature in the shape of aboriginal traditions and knowledge, and demonstrates the attempt of patriarchal appropriation of this traditional knowledge.
As mentioned, spiritual ecofeminism can be seen or interpreted in diverse ways. For the purpose of this analysis, I will concentrate my thesis and arguments based on the following definitions and perceptions of spiritual ecofeminism. Spiritual ecofeminism explores the connection and relationship between women and nature, and how these two are victims of patriarchal oppression. The exploration of the relationship between women and nature comes mainly from Aboriginal traditions and knowledge. According to Kathi Wilson in her article Ecofeminism and First Nations Peoples in Canada: Linking culture, gender, and nature, “Within some Aboriginal cultures, nature is perceived in the image of Mother Earth, a nurturing, life-giving entity. Women, therefore, are perceived to have a stronger, more natural connection to earth than men because of their shared reproductive abilities” (335). Wilson also mentions the work of Judith Plant in her work Healing the Wounds-The Promise of Ecofeminism, as she states ecofeminist spirituality “like the traditions of Native Americans and other tribal peoples, sees the spiritual as alive in us, where spirit and matter, mind and body, are all part of the same living organism” (335). Referencing also Carolyn Merchant’s citation from her book Radical Ecology (present in the article General Overview of Ecofeminism by Laila Fariha Zein), spiritual feminism “celebrates the relationship between women and nature through the revival of ancient rituals centered on goddess worship, the moon, animals, and the female reproductive system” (4).
Aboriginal Cultural Connections
Western Ecofeminist Appropriation
It is important to acknowledge the constant Western ecofeminists appropriation of Aboriginal cultural knowledge in regards to spiritual ecofeminism. Wilson highlights how “some ‘Western’ ecofeminists have utilized the beliefs and historical experiences of indigenous peoples to support feminist theories of women–nature connections. By drawing upon Aboriginal cultures to support these claims, indigenous beliefs, knowledge, and experiences are at times appropriated” (334).
With all the prior information presented, let’s transition to examine The Unplugging through the lens of spiritual ecofeminism. The play narrates the exile of two indigenous “old women” around their fifties, Elena and Bernadette, who were living with a community of humans, who working together were trying to survive and adapt to the new reality without electricity. Because the characters were not contributing to their community and were not women of child-bearing age, they were exiled as they were considered an extra weight rather than useful or practical. This exile and the total disappearance of electricity pushed the characters to reincorporate their Aboriginal knowledge to survive nature in isolation.
The play makes specific references in the use of language words and choices that informs the audience that the two characters are of Aboriginal descendancy. Also, Bernadette mentions how she is from Winnipeg and Elena from Saskatoon, which are two regions in Canada with rich Aboriginal history (102).
The knowledge was transmitted not by power-generated devices such as computers, it was transmitted by older women in their families who were attached to the Aboriginal practices. As the characters were exiled, they had to rely on their memory from what their grandmothers used to share. In the play, Elena mentions that her grandma never really trusted the technology (271) and that is why she had all this information, knowledge, and practices around nature to survive. The example we can see is the way Elena knew that the woodsy smell of the tea was just staleness and that four or five years passed. Her grandmother told her that information before, and now it comes useful when trying to find something to eat or drink.
Elena and Bernadette
Elena is the figure of the play that represents the indigenous knowledge and the connection between women and nature, as she is the one who finds ways to work with nature to survive along with Bernadette. Bernadette, on the other hand, reflects a side of women not very connected with spiritual ecofeminism, but with the ownership of her body and her sexual desires. Bernadette talks openly about her sexual needs and how she misses those interpersonal connections.
Both of the characters have a reflection moment in which they acknowledge their lack of support towards their past community and how they were considered a burden. In times of crisis, humans need to work collectively, and not selfishly, in order to survive the environmental impacts produced by their actions. The two indigenous women acknowledge their past actions and when in isolation, decide to reconnect with nature through their aboriginal knowledge transmitted by elder women in their family.
The play also reflects a relation to spiritual ecofeminism through the demonstration of knowledge appropriation by the characters of Seamus and Laird. According to Wilson, the “embracement of indigenous spirituality can result in a ‘post patriarchal’ model in which there is a movement from devaluing the feminine to honoring both the body and earth. In doing so there is an attempt to recast the connection between women and nature as virtue” (335). This play highlights the embracement of indigenous spirituality honoring the body and earth, but it also shows how that indigenous spirituality and knowledge are attempted to be appropriated by patriarchal figures.
Seamus gets closer to Bernadette just as a way to access her knowledge and her survival skills, so he can report them back to Laird. At the end of the play, when Laird dies, the community realizes the knowledge and expertise of both Elena and Bernadette are vital for the survival of the community, so they insist on welcoming them back as leaders of the tribe. The act of Seamus and Laird shows how patriarchal figures (with eco hubristic intentions) try to appropriate the aboriginal knowledge from women for their own benefit, rather than share it with the whole community. This is also seen when Western ecofeminists appropriate the Aboriginal knowledge under the name of spiritual ecofeminism, without acknowledging the real roots from where it comes from.
To conclude, The Unplugging is a play that represents the ideas behind spiritual ecofeminism such as the aboriginal knowledge and practices, and the connection between women and earth, as well as sharing the struggle of patriarchal or Western attempts of appropriation of knowledge for their own benefit.
In The Unplugging, it is possible to explore the environmental impact of power outages. The impact of the power outage in The Unplugging was global and clearly apocalyptic. Nevertheless, the world and the human populations have experienced very negative consequences due to long power outages throughout history. In this section, we will explore major power outages in history in different areas of the world, and learn about their impact on the environment and the human communities.
According to an article by CNN, the longest power outage “came after Typhoon Haiyan [and] devastated the Philippines in 2013. About 6.1 billion hours of power were lost after that massive storm” (par 3). Philippines’ communities struggled to get water, medicine, and other resources, through this time. The typhoon took thousands of lifes and destroyed several buildings and infrastructure in the country. Following up, comes the power outage in Puerto Rico. Hurricane Maria was a really powerful environmental disaster for Puerto Rico, and according to CNN, “the monster storm slammed into the American Caribbean territory in September 2017 and heavily damaged the power grid; more than 3.4 billion hours of electricity [were] lost there. That makes it the second-longest blackout in world history, according to a report from the Rhodium Group, an economic research firm” (par 2). CNN quotes Trevor Housner, a partner at Rhodium who co-wrote the analysis with Peter Marsters, as he stated that “As we started looking at the scale of the blackout and try to put that in historical context, it became clear this was a record-breaking event and worthy of some attention and focus just from an electric standpoint” (par 6).
Lastly, there is the 2019 blackout in Venezuela. According to BBC News, “In March [of 2019], the country was hit by a series of blackouts, including one that affected all states and lasted a week” (par 4). BCC News reported that “The blackout, which started at 16:45 local time (20:45 GMT) on Monday, caused massive gridlock in Caracas as traffic lights lost power. Sidewalks were crowded with pedestrians after the city's metro stopped running. Power was restored in the capital and some other parts of the country in the early hours of Tuesday local time, state-owned power company Corpolec said. But workplaces and schools were due to remain closed during the day as the government urged people to stay home” (par 6). This power outage lasted for 3.2 billion hours and affected 30 million people in Venezuela. BCC News also highlighted how “Venezuela depends on its vast hydroelectric infrastructure, rather than its oil reserves, for its domestic electricity supply” which were clearly affected due to the power outage (par 10).
Connecting back with the CNN entry about the power outage in Puerto Rico, CNN shows a graph of the worst power outages in US History, being Puerto Rico the worst as of now (Image attached below).
When seeing these power outages, mainly produced by environmental disasters, it is important to remember how many lives were affected, and what are actions that we are going to take to be more prepared for these events and be less dependent on electricity in case of a natural disaster. Also, what are the actions we are taking as humans to stop contributing to climate change and to increase the strength of natural disasters by disturbing the equilibrium?
Our transition to the modern world due to colonial and Western influences is forcing the First Nations to detach from their cultural and traditional roots rather than involve a connection with the earth and a lifestyle in balance with nature. Maybe a more connected to nature approach less dependent on technology and electricity will be the answer to the decrease of natural disasters.
BBC News. “Venezuela Blackout: Power Cuts Plunge Country into Darkness.” BBC News, BBC, 23 July 2019, www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-49079175.
Criss, Doug. “Puerto Rico's Power Outage Is Now the Second-Largest Blackout in History.” CNN, Cable News Network, 16 Apr. 2018, www.cnn.com/2018/04/16/us/puerto-rico-blackout-second-largest-globally-….
Nolan, Yvette. The Unplugging. Playwrights Canada Press. 2014. Kindle Edition.
Wilson, Kathi. "Ecofeminism and First Nations Peoples in Canada: Linking Culture, Gender and Nature." Gender, Place and Culture : A Journal of Feminist Geography, vol. 12, no. 3, 2005, pp. 333-355. CrossRef, www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/09663690500202574, doi:10.1080/09663690500202574.
Zein, Laila F., and Adib R. Setiawan. General Overview of Ecofeminism. Center for Open Science, 2019, doi:10.31219/osf.io/fmjgk
Pictures (Carousels and First Nation Art)
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