Filed under: art, education, Gender politics, theatre | Tags: milkshake, Peter and the Starcatcher, sexism, The Muppets
My students saw Peter and the Starcatcher this week. I wasn’t at the performance (for reasons that are probably obvious.) And by all accounts they loved it. A lot. This does not surprise me. I wish I could report to all of you that there has been a secret feminist revolution in schools and suddenly, across the city, kids are highly aware of gender politics. This is not the case.
What I have been pointing at in this show is subtle. It’s the kind of thing that gets into you subconsciously. It’s not obvious if you’re not looking for it. The milkshake line, and all that follows from it, isn’t going to reach out and grab your sexist-o-meter. It’s going to sneak in and get you later.
For most adults I’ve spoken to, this line barely registered. It came. It went. It was one among a dozen anachronistic one-liners that may or may not have caused a chuckle. For young people, though, I can tell you now – not just from conjecture, but from hearing their thoughts – that it is not incidental to them.
In talking about the show, students mentioned characters, plot points, staging and physical gags. For the most part, what the characters said did not come up. With one exception. One line got mentioned in almost every single one of my classes. In one class, it was the first response to the question of “What did you think about the show?” It was named by several students as their favorite part. Guess which line that was?
Let me pause here to say that neither of the classroom teachers I was working with was particularly interested in looking at the gender politics of the show, so my work with the students had nothing to do with what I’ve been talking about here. My students did character, comedy, ensemble and object work. We did not discuss gender at all. So my students’ reactions were completely independent from mine. They loved the milkshake line. They did! Talking amongst themselves, the high school senior girls delivered both the set-up and the punchline. They loudly proclaimed the milkshake bit as the BEST as they high-fived each other. One District 75 7th grade girl quoted the line, followed by how she perceived Molly reacting. (“Looking around, like: “Huh? What happened?!”) And several 7th grade boys in my classes today quoted it word for word.
They all loved it! What’s the problem? Well, let me describe to you what I saw while one twelve year old boy was quoting his favorite line. While he was laughing about the milkshake, the girl next to him began to pull her sweatshirt around her more tightly – the way you would if you were trying to hide your chest. As the boy explained why he liked this line (“Because it’s from a song from a long time ago“) the girl zipped her sweatshirt up completely. I do not think these two things are unrelated. And my heart broke a little bit right there.
There have been moments in which I’ve felt a little bit crazy in all this. In talking about this show, many people who saw it, didn’t see what I saw. And for a few moments, hearing students rave about the show, I wondered if I was over-reacting. Maybe I should just stop over-analyzing everything. Maybe it was all no big deal. They loved it! Come on!
But you know, I loved a book called “Little Black Sambo” when I was a child. Doesn’t mean it wasn’t racist. It was. It really really was. I loved The Muppet Movie. Doesn’t mean it wasn’t sexist. (I know. I’m sorry. But listen to “Hope that SomeTHING Better Comes Along” with your feminist glasses on and tell me I’m wrong.) It also doesn’t mean I didn’t internalize a whole lot of stuff BECAUSE I loved that movie. (Being a girl means being hyperfeminized, the butt of many jokes and only boys can be in charge. Also, a subconscious belief in the “Standard Rich and Famous Contract.”) In fact, the more you love something the more insidious it can become. (No, not fairy tales! No, not possible! Doesn’t everyone want to marry Prince Charming!?)
So there may be those who all feel much better now that the young people have so enthusiastically embraced this show. But I don’t. I keep thinking about that girl and her sweatshirt and wishing I were working in a context in which I could tell her my own experience of that line, where I could give her a pair of feminist glasses with which to go out there and see.
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