When Terri Kapsalis was doing graduate work in performance studies at Northwestern, she found a way to combine academics with her part-time job. She worked as a gynecology teaching associate, using her own body as a model to instruct medical students in pelvic and breast examinations. Once Kapsalis realized she was, in essence, performing on the job, playing the role of patient began to carry new and exciting connotations.

She has since come to view the pelvic exam as “pelvic theater.” By studying the practice of gynecology as performance, she began to understand the dynamics of role-playing in power relationships and the ways women are affected by cultural ideas about the female body. Pelvic theater became the basis for Kapsalis’s doctoral thesis, which matured into her new book, Public Privates: Performing Gynecology From Both Ends of the Speculum (Duke University Press). The book mixes historical analysis with cultural critique, including a dissection of such pop-culture offerings as Dead Ringers, David Cronenberg’s movie about twin gynecologists, and Annie Sprinkle’s performance piece “Public Cervix Announcement,” in which audience members were invited to peer at Sprinkle’s cervix while she held a microphone between her legs to capture their comments.

Kapsalis starts off by reexamining the work of two sociologists, James M. Henslin and Mae A. Biggs, who in 1977 used a dramaturgical model to reinforce “proper” roles for physician and patient during a pelvic exam. Not surprisingly, they cast the patient as passive and compliant in contrast to the doctor’s active role as diagnostician and healer. In this setting Kapsalis equates the doctor with the stage director: “The pelvic theater…largely occurs between [the patient’s] legs, which serve as wings of the pelvic proscenium. The drape-sheet curtain rises at the hands of the physician, dividing front stage from backstage, while the exam spotlight shines on the spectacle. The physician/spectator inserts a speculum and props open a little makeshift stage….In this space, a parallel drama occurs…instruments are plied…little brushes and swabs sometimes dance like puppets at the hands of the physician.”

Kapsalis says that the clinical nature of the procedure overcompensates for society’s queasiness with female sexuality, treating the vagina as separate from the patient’s body. She thinks this affects treatment and diagnosis, because communication is compromised while assumptions are made about women’s needs and preferences. Gynecology is geared toward identifying pathology, even when many patients are just in for a routine checkup. While reading medical textbooks, Kapsalis says, she searched for a photo of a healthy cervix or vulva and couldn’t find one, though plenty of physical abnormalities were pictured.

Female subjects were often blindfolded or their heads were cropped out.

Kapsalis pays special attention to the modern speculum, which was invented in 1845 by J. Marion Sims. Hailed as the father of gynecology, Sims used a pewter spoon to look inside the vagina. He conducted surgical experiments on unanesthetized slaves in Mississippi over a four-year period, inviting groups of physicians to observe his handiwork. Kapsalis remarks on Sims’s resemblance to P.T. Barnum, whom Sims reportedly admired. He once referred to the great showman as his “good friend.” Eventually Sims took his own show on the road, setting up a hospital in New York before heading to Europe to perform surgery in amphitheaters.

Kapsalis recognizes that the cast of characters is changing in guy-necology to include women practitioners. “It’s one of those situations in which women are getting higher paid positions, they’re more in demand, and yet if the structure of medical education doesn’t change much then it’s not going to look very different as a profession.”

A book-release party will be held at 8 PM next Thursday, April 24, at the Lunar Cabaret, 2827 N. Lincoln. The evening will feature performances by fellow Theater Oobleck member David Isaacson, musician Jane Baxter Miller, the jazz group Steam, and Wounded Jukebox, which features John Corbett on records, Ken Vandermark on reeds, and Kapsalis on “reads”–she’ll recite passages from her book along with editors’ comments and critical responses. Admission is $5, or “pay what you can.” Call 773-327-6666.

–Laura Kopen

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of Terri Kapsalis by Kathy Richland.