Friday, February 24, 2012


I am not going to lie. I am so stoked to see My Landmark Theater etiquette article  get so many comments (and the fact that it's been the number 1 most read article on the last couple of days doesn't hurt my writerly ego either). I think it touched a nerve with people like me who a) are guilt-ridden rule followers (damn you Catholic conscience!) and b) people who believe very deeply in the importance of manners, who believe in old-fashioned behavior in public places, things like holding doors open and getting up to let people past. I know those people are out there. In fact I think the majority of people in this city are in that vein, and I think they're the ones who are responding most vociferously to my post, because we aren't just annoyed by rude behavior, we're hurt and affronted by it. It bothers us deeply, because we were raised to believe acting inconsiderate is wrong, and it's hard to understand why anything thinks it's right.

My favorite part about writing for an online forum is the feedback. Whether good or bad, I love being able to engage with readers. You can't do that with print (well I suppose you can, it's just delayed by a few weeks and shows up in the comments page), and it's just a really great facet of online journalism.

One other theater related thing. I saw August: Osage County last week at Barksdale's Theatre Gym. And let me make a quick preface. Go see this show. It is incredibly well acted, beautifully staged (the set is a textbook example of how to make the most out of small spaces). It is thought provoking, and Tracy Lett's writing is just unbelievably strong. It feels old fashioned in the sense that the script has the power of the old playwrights, Williams and Miller, writers who crafted this distinctly American vernacular of theater, language that is raw and forceful but still gorgeous enough that you want to curl up inside of it.

So go see it. Please. But here's my quibble. It may be that I'm feeling particularly sensitive toward women's issues right now, betrayed by my legislators and my state, who came very close to passing a bill that would have mandated an invasive, medical, intra-vaginal procedure without medical reason or the need for consent (sidebar: this should offend any human being, but as a health care professional in the making it is abhorrent, it goes against everything modern medicine stands for, where patient consent is not simply necessary, it is the one, unmovable, fixed benchmark we have).

Maybe it's that little alarm bell that goes off with the voice of my college Women in Shakespeare professor, who urged us to stand up for the women in our stories, to fight for their voices. Maybe my take is just way off from the Pulitzer Prize committee who awarded Mr. Letts that honor.

But I have a problem with the portrayal women in August: Osage County. I understand that female characters are characters, and that as characters they have the right to be mean and ugly and cruel. I understand that women in real life can be mean and ugly and cruel. But nearly all of the women in this play, at one point or the other, are one, if not all, of these things. And the other women are often small and shallow and foolish. The women drive their husbands to drink or suicide or affairs. The women pair up with completely unsuitable partners, because they don't want to be, horror, middle aged and single. Barbara, one of the leads, is such a strong woman, and for most of the play she seemed like the moral compass, the one who was made of steel. But then she ends up crying, asking her adulterous husband if he'll ever come back to her, as if she were the one in the wrong. And in that moment he is the sympathetic one. He's the one with the choice, the power of keeping the relationship going. And I just hated that. I know affairs are complicated, it's not simply one wrong person and one right. And many women might do just that, beg their cheating husbands to come back to them. But this character has been so strong up until that point, so moral, and it bothered me tremendously to see her reduced to that.

In contrast, many of the men in this play are sympathetic and decent. They are funny and polite. They try to stop fights and soften blows, while the women around them shriek and rant and go off the deep end. And yes there is one absolute creep of a male character in this play, but Letts has the female character stay with him even after he has tried to force himself on her fourteen year old niece. Which, I'm sorry, but no. Just no. I don't buy that. I don't buy that any woman, no matter how desperate or scared, would stay with a man if there's even the possibility of that. I'm a woman, with a niece, and it's just bullshit. It's not creating a flawed character. It's a flaw in character creation.

It's frustrating for me, because I love so much of the characterization of the women in this play. They are the strongest characters absolutely, in terms of how developed they are. I don't think Letts is intentionally sexist. I think it's just a very talented man, writing women, and getting aspects of it wrong because of a fundamentally flawed but deeply ingrained view of women in American society, which is in a nutshell the history of famous American plays and literature.

Maybe I'm the only one who feels this way. Maybe you could have the opposite opinion. And like I said before, you need to go to this play and form your own opinion because it's so worth seeing. The sexism I found here isn't obvious or outright or probably even intentional. Instead it's the subtle, insidious kind that permeates so much of our world, still, even in 2012, the kind that lives inside people (men and women), without them even knowing it.

We've come so far, but we're not there yet. The only way to get there is to question and challenge and ask yourself if things are fair, if women are given a real and honest voice, whether in life or in a play.


Mary Catherine said...

I obviously have not seen this play, but I have some comments just from your post.

First, you said you wish the woman with the adulterous husband would have stayed strong. But in life, no one is strong 100% of the time. I think if anything, it is more realistic that he showed a weak (if that's even what you want to call it- I'd just call it emotional) side, because everyone, men and women, have one. The males weakness was his cheating, that already makes him weaker than the woman. And if she really did love him, it would be almost impossible for her to stay strong throughout that entire situation. And I don't think anyone knows how they would react to a situation like that until they are actually in it.(Again, have not seen the play so may be completely off about all of this).

Second, if you are against the fact that this writer is showing women as mean, ugly and cruel, then you should be against all of the Real Housewife shows...because I don't think I've ever watched an episode without thinking how completely awful those women are. The show is entertaining as it sounds like this play is, and I guess my hope for people is that they know the difference between entertainment and reality.

I agree with you, that women have come a long way and that we have a ways to go. But I think the only thing holding us back is ourselves. Because lets be honest, men would be nothing without us. :)

(Can you tell I have too much time on my hands?)

Unknown said...

Thanks for the thorough comment! I definitely agree that men and women are equally capable of being terrible and horrible and shallow (like you said the RH are great examples of horrible women). I have absolutely no problem with a writer creating a horrible, mean female character. Or for a writer to create a kind, decent male character. My problem with this play is that it is a large cast/family of men and women, and the women are almost universally terrible and the men are almost universally kind and decent. And that could happen in a real life. You could have a family where the women suck and the men are awesome, sure. But when you are a writer you are making choices when you create characters. And I question this playwright's choices in regards to how it varies from one gender to the other. And I definitely agree that in real life a woman could beg her cheating husband to come back to her instead of the other way around. I'm sure that happens all the time unfortunately. But again, in this instance a writer made the choice to take his one strong, moral female character and have her beg her husband of 20 years to stay with her after he's cheated on her with a teenager. Like I said that might not bother anyone else. But it just didn't sit well with me. Too many undergrad classes examining women in literature I think. It's kind of a reflex. But I really appreciate your comments and definitely respect your opinion.

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