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Juárez’s Dead Girls: De-romanticizing feminicidio in Caridad Svich’s Iphigenia

June 1, 2010

This post is part of the Theatre’s Rape Culture series.

Pink crosses in Ciudad Juárez memorialize the victims of feminicidio/Image from Amnesty International Canada

In the lead sentence of a 2009 article about the murders of hundreds of young women in the Mexican border city of Juárez, one Los Angeles Times reporter wrote: “The streets of Juarez are swallowing the young and pretty.”

This dramatic lead, like much of the writing done about the rapes and murders of women in Juárez, romanticizes the crime by drawing attention to the youth and beauty of the victims.

But there’s nothing pretty, romantic or even mysterious about the situation in Ciudad Juárez, where at least 464 women have been murdered since 1993, according to the Mexico City-based newspaper La Jornada.

Many of the women have been young workers in the border city’s maquiladoras, factories famous for their abusive working conditions. Many have been sexually assaulted before being murdered. A few arrests have been made, but at least one investigation has shown that police and government officials are involved in the violence. At the very least, the response of the authorities has been inadequate.

While news reports have often responded with superficial dramatizations, Caridad Svich’s 2004 play Iphigenia Crash Land Falls on the Neon Shell That Was Once Her Heart (a rave fable) dramatizes sexual violence in order to make a point. The play is set in an unnamed Latin American city where a violent general is plotting to sacrifice his daughter (Iphigenia), believing her death will save his political career. Iphigenia is a multimedia and multi-sensory experience replete with gender-bending, sexual imagery, absurdism, confusion, and Greek inevitability. It’s an acid trip, and it’s meant to saturate and provoke. But I’d like to highlight one aspect of the play that I found fascinating: the playwright’s decision to cast Juárez’s dead girls as men.

Fresa girls in a 2004 production of the play/Photo by Yvonne Byod and 7 Stages

The imagery of pink crosses with women’s names written on them and references to the “dead factory girls” connect the play’s setting to Juárez. But the murdered women — who Svich calls fresa or “strawberry” girls, a term that can mean rich or snobby in Mexican slang — are cast as men in drag. The decision to cast the “dead girls” as men messes with the image of the young, beautiful, dead female body. In at least one version of the play, the fresa girls are cast in overdone doll makeup, wearing clothes that are too small. Such imagery satirizes the over-emphasis on female bodies in reports about sexual violence. Dressing male bodies up as “fresa girls” dramatizes the process of presenting death as beautiful or romantic. But Svich takes it a step further, challenging the privileged tendency to romanticize feminicidio. At one point, the wealthy and privileged general’s daughter, who is dancing her way to a rave in order to escape her own inevitable murder, yearns to be a fresa girl — a victim of sexual violence and murder:

IPHIGENIA: I want to be just like you, girls.

FRESA GIRL 3: Like us?

IPHIGENIA: Names on a wall. Written by lovers who caress me.

FRESA GIRL 3: Caress us?

IPHIGENIA: You are beautiful girls.

Her naivete about the dead girls, murdered brutally by “lovers” outside dance clubs, indicts the naive reader or viewer. There is nothing beautiful about a dead body — even a young, female one — even one found outside a dance club.

Svich’s strategic casting decision messes with canonical conventions of victimhood and confronts the idea that beautiful women somehow deserve to be raped — or that raping or killing a beautiful woman is either more or less violent than killing a less attractive (or less feminine) victim. The casting of men in drag as “girls” also draws attention to violence against transgender and transsexual people and makes the point that sexual violence is not just a girl’s problem. Despite attempts by the play’s protagonist to dress up murder with drama, drugs and dancing, there is nothing romantic about this death — or its inescapability.

Amy Littlefield is Music Editor at Gender Across Borders.

  1. Marly permalink
    June 4, 2010 12:43 pm

    Powerful. thanks for sharing. Is IPHIGENIA still being shown?

  2. Amy Littlefield permalink
    June 12, 2010 5:20 pm

    Hi Marly,
    Thanks for commenting. I know that the play is still relatively popular. It’s been put on in recent years in theaters across the country, from New York to Texas. I would check the local listings for colleges and other theater programs near you. If you get to see it live, I’ll be jealous!

    • June 19, 2010 12:10 am

      Hey Amy and readers,


      First of all, thanks to Amy for writing so astutely about the piece. Very few critic/scholars ‘get’ why I cast the fresa girls with men in drag. It’s not a whimsical choice at all but a conceptual one related to exactly what Amy describes. So, it heartens me no end to read insightful critique of the play.

      As for productions, it originally was workshopped in Greece, and then received its premiere at 7 Stages in Atlanta in 2004 in a kick-ass production that I wish would be revived…

      After that it was produced in Denver by Lida Project, in Los Angeles by Son of Semele (there is a fab trailer from the show on YouTube,which you can check out), in New York City by One Year Lease, at ASU-Tempe in a production directed by Lance Gharavi, in Austin Texas produced by Salvage Vanguard Theatre, at North Harris Community College in Houston, TX and in Ecuador at Teatro Mexico; this next season it will be produced by Halycon Theatre in Chicago.

      The play is published in TheatreForum journal with photos from the original production and my essay “Euripides Children.” It’s also published in the anthology DIVINE FIRE from Backstage Books. You can find it in paperback on amazon and the like.

  3. Amy Littlefield permalink*
    June 20, 2010 10:28 pm

    Hi Caridad,
    Thanks for the post! And thanks for letting everyone know where to find the play. I highly recommend Iphigenia to anyone looking for well-written, challenging theater that confronts gender violence in a unique way. And if you’re lucky and live close enough to Chicago to check out the upcoming production, be sure to report back!


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