Unexpected Alliances: Friendship and Agency in US Breast Cancer Theater

  • Marta Fernández-Morales Dpto. de Filología Inglesa, Francesa y Alemana. Universidad de Oviedo


As theorists from different fields have proved, the hegemonic discourse has excluded women from the grammar of friendship, pitching them as rivals as a requisite for the survival of patriarchy. However, real life and cultural products provide evidence that women are capable of friendship, even in isolating contexts like life-threatening disease. With an interdisciplinary approach that bridges female illness and feminist friendship via drama, this paper analyzes three plays in which bonding in the context of breast cancer is placed center stage. Friendship is presented as a form of agency that allows for the construction of a network within which the cancer patient finds tools to resist the androcentric medical discourse and to recover her capacity to decide and act. This process echoes the philosophy of the Women’s Health and Breast Cancer movements in a productive feedback loop between social movements and their related cultural repertoires.Keywords: theater; breast cancer; friendship; agency; empowerment; medical discourse

Author Biography

Marta Fernández-Morales, Dpto. de Filología Inglesa, Francesa y Alemana. Universidad de Oviedo
Marta Fernández-Morales, PhD, is a fully tenured Associate Professor at the University of Oviedo. Her interest focuses on gender issues in US culture. Author of four books and (co)editor of eight, her work has featured in journals like TSWL and Women’s Studies. She belongs to the "Representation Ideology and Reception in Audiovisual Culture” research unit of the University of the BalearicIslands, where she used to teach and where part of the research for this paper was conducted.


Adamsen, Lis. 2002. “From Victim to Agent: The Clinical and Social Significance of Self-help Group Participation for People with Life-threatening Diseases.” Scandinavian Journal of Caring Sciences 16 (3): 224-231.

Al-Shamma, James. 2009. Ruhl in an Hour. Hanover: Smith and Kraus.

—. 2011. Sarah Ruhl. A Critical Study of her Plays. Jefferson, MO: McFarland.

Alborch, Carmen. 2002. Malas. Madrid: Santillana.

Auerbach, Nina. 1978. Communities of Women: An Idea in Fiction. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP.

Boal, Augusto. 1985. Theatre of the Oppressed. New York: Theatre Communications Group.

Fischer-Lichte, Erika. 2008. The Transformative Power of Performance. A New Aesthetics. London and New York: Routledge.

Frank, Arthur W. 1994. “Reclaiming an Orphan Genre: The First-Person Narrative of Illness.” Literature and Medicine 13 (1): 1-21.

Geis, Deborah. 2014. “Sarah Ruhl.” In The Methuen Drama Guide to Contemporary American Playwrights, edited by Martin Middeke, Peter Paul Schnierer, Christopher Innes and Matthew C. Roudané, 261-278. London: Bloomsbury.

Gilbert, Sandra. 2006. Death’s Door. Modern Dying and the Ways We Grieve. New York: W. W. Norton.

Goodman, Lizbeth. 1996. “AIDS and Live Art.” In Analysing Performance: A Critical Reader, edited by Patrick Campbell, 203-218. Manchester: Manchester UP.

Greiner, Donald J. 1993. Women without Men. Female Bonding and the American Novel of the 1980s. Columbia, SC: U of South Carolina P.

hooks, bell. 1993. Sisters of the Yam. Black Women and Self-Recovery. Boston: South End.

Hunkins, Lee. 1995. The Best of Strangers. In Facing Forward. One-act Plays and Monologues by Contemporary American Women at the Crest of the 21st Century, edited by Leah Frank, 15-51. New York: Broadway.

Isherwood, Charles. 2006. “Always Ready with a Joke, if Not a Feather Duster.” New York Times, October 31. [Accessed online on April 6, 2017]

Jones-Ryan, Maureen. 2011. Thicker than Blood. Friendships among Womyn. Chicago: Fractal Edge. [Kindle edition]

Kaufert, Patricia. 1998. “Women, Resistance and the Breast Cancer Movement.” In Pragmatic Women and Body Politics, edited by Margaret Log and Patricia Kaufert, 287-309. Cambridge: Cambridge UP.

Klawiter, Maren. 2008. The Biopolitics of Breast Cancer. Changing Cultures of Disease and Activism. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P.

Knopf-Newman, Marcy. 2004. Beyond Slash, Burn and Poison. Transforming Breast Cancer Stories into Action. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP.

Lagrée, Jacqueline. (2002) 2005. El médico, el enfermo y el filósofo. Translated by Pablo Lópiz Cantó. Madrid: La Esfera de los Libros.

Lerner, Barron. 2001. The Breast Cancer Wars. Hope, Fear and the Pursuit of a Cure in Twentieth-Century America. Oxford: Oxford UP.

Loomer, Lisa. 1998. The Waiting Room. New York: Dramatists Play Service.

Lugones, María and Pat Alaka Rosezelle. 1995. “Sisterhood and Friendship as Feminist Models.” In Feminism and Community, edited by Penny A. Weiss and Marilyn Friedman, 135-145. Philadelphia: Temple UP.

McNay, Lois. 2000. Gender and Agency. Reconfiguring the Subject in Feminist and Social Theory. Cambridge: Polity.

Mead, Shery, David Hilton and Laurie Curtis. 2001. “Peer Support: A Theoretical Perspective.” Psychosocial Rehabilitation Journal 25 (2): 134-141.

Bourdieu, Pierre. (1998) 2001. Masculine Domination. Translated by Richard Nice. Stanford: Stanford UP.

Campbell, Sharon, Marie Rose Phaneuf and Karen Deane. 2004. “Cancer Peer Support Programs—Do They Work?” Patient Education and Counseling 55: 3-15.

Cartmell, Deborah and Imelda Whelehan. 1998. “Introduction.” In Deborah Cartmell, I.Q Hunter, Heidi Kaye and Imelda Whelehan, eds., 1998, 1-15. London: Pluto.

Cartmell, Deborah, I.Q. Hunter, Heidi Kaye and Imelda Whelehan, eds. 1998. Sisterhoods: Across the Literature/Media Divide. London: Pluto.

Churchill, Caryl. (1982) 1991. Top Girls. London: Methuen.

Comelles, Josep Maria. 2000. “Tecnología, cultura y sociabilidad. Los límites culturales del hospital contemporáneo.” In Medicina y cultura. Estudios entre la antropología y la medicina, edited by Enrique Perdiguero and Josep Maria Comelles, 305-351. Barcelona: Bellaterra.

Crenshaw, Kimberlé. 2003. “Traffic at the Crossroads: Multiple Oppresions.” In Sisterhood is Forever. The Women’s Anthology for a New Millennium, edited by Robin Morgan, 43-57. New York. Washington Square Press.

Derrida, Jacques. (1994) 1998. Políticas de la amistad. Translated by Patricio Peñalver and Francisco Vidarte. Madrid: Trotta.

Deshazer, Mary. 2003. “Fractured Borders: Women’s Cancer and Feminist Theatre.” NWA Journal 15 (2): 1-26.

—. 2005. Fractured Borders. Reading Women’s Cancer Literature. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P.

—. 2013. Mammographies. The Cultural Discourses of Breast Cancer Narratives. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P.

Diamond, Elin. 1997. Unmaking Mimesis. London and New York: Routledge.

Dubriwny, Tasha. 2013. The Vulnerable Empowered Woman. Feminism, Postfeminism and Women’s Health. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP.

Ehrenreich, Barbara and Deirdre English. 2005. For Their Own Good. Two Centuries of Experts’ Advice to Women. New York: Anchor.

Eisenstein, Zillah. 2001. Manmade Breast Cancers. Ithaca: Cornell UP.

Ensler, Eve. 2003. “Theater: A Sacred Home for Women.” In Sisterhood Is Forever. The Women’s Anthology for a New Millennium, edited by Robin Morgan, 430-436. New York: Washington Square.

Fernández-Morales, Marta. 2012. “The New Breast Cancer (Im)patient: Female Revolt against Biomedical Violence in US Drama.” In Performing Gender Violence. Plays by Contemporary American Women Dramatists, edited by Barbara Ozieblo and Noelia Hernando-Real, 97-112. Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan.

—. 2013-2014. “‘Is Anybody Paying Attention?’: Breast Cancer on Stage in the Twenty-First Century.” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature 32 (2) / 33 (1): 129-146.

Morgan, Robin, ed. 1970. Sisterhood is Powerful. An Anthology of Writings from the Women’s Liberation Movement. New York: Random House.

—, ed. 1984. Sisterhood is Global. The International Women’s Movement Anthology. New York: Anchor Press / Doubleday.

—. 2003. “Introduction: New World Women.” In Robin Morgan, ed. 2003: xv-lx.

—, ed. 2003. Sisterhood is Forever. The Women’s Anthology for a New Millennium. New York. Washington Square Press.

Narbona, María Dolores. 2012. “The Role of Female Bonding on the Stage of Violence.” In Performing Gender Violence. Plays by Contemporary American Women Dramatists, edited by Barbara Ozieblo and Noelia Hernando-Real, 61-78. Houndmills, Basinstoke: Palgrave MacMillan.

Nuland, Sherwin. 1993. How We Die. Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter. New York: Vintage.

Ostrov Weisser, Susan and Jennifer Fleischner, eds. 2011. Feminist Nightmares. Women at Odds: Feminism and the Problem of Sisterhood. New York and London: New York UP.

Parson, Talcott. (1951) 1991. The Social System. London: Routledge.

Renner, Pamela. 1999. “Science and Sensibility.” American Theatre 16 (4): 34-37.

Rodríguez Vega, Nora. 2004. ¿Qué tiene ella que no tenga yo? Por qué competimos las mujeres. Barcelona: Belacqva

Ruhl, Sarah. 2006. “The Clean House.” In The Clean House and Other Plays, by Sara Ruhl, 3-116. New York: Theatre Communications Group.

Schechner, Richard. 2006. Performance Studies. An Introduction. 2nd ed. New York and London: Routledge.

Shilling, Chris. 2003. The Body and Social Theory. London: Sage.

Steinem, Gloria. 1993. Revolution from Within. A Book on Self-Esteem. New York: Little, Brown.

Tuana, Nancy. 2006. “The Speculum of Ignorance. The Women’s Health Movement and Epistemologies of Ignorance.” Hypatia 21 (3): 1-19.

Turner, Bryan S. 1995. Medical Power and Social Knowledge. London: Sage.

Ussher, Jane, Laura Kirsten, Phyllis Butow and Mirjana Sandoval. 2006. “What Do Cancer Support Groups Provide which Other Supportive Relationships Do Not? The Experience of Peer Support Groups for People with Cancer.” Social Science & Medicine 62: 2565-2576.

Waples, Emily. 2014. “Avatars, Illness and Authority: Embodied Experience in Breast Cancer Autopathographics.” Configurations 22 (2): 153-181.

Wendell, David. 1996. Confronting Death. Values, Institutions and Human Mortality. Oxford: Oxford UP.

Willett, John, ed. 1992. Brecht on Theatre. The Development of an Aesthetic. New York: Hill and Wang.

Winch, Alison. 2013. Girlfriends and Postfeminist Sisterhood. Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan.