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Women's Issues—Current

heidi life carol play

There was a decided shift in women’s issues in the final quarter of the last century. Going beyond the questioning of the limitations imposed on women as mothers and homemakers, these plays begin to explore the future of women rather than their past. As women have begun to take a more prominent role in public life and the workplace, they have both questioned the quality of such advances and what they may have lost in the process. At the heart of many of these explorations remains the concern over a woman’s relationship with the men around her and how this contributes to her self-definition as both woman and human being.

In for colored girls who have considered suicide , Ntozake Shange depicts the continuing difficulties of being both female and black in modern America, and offers the vision of a supportive network of women bound together by their pain to refocus on their life possibilities. The collaborative nature of the production is, to some critics, particularly feminine, but Shange’s emotive mix of poetry, prose, music, and dance, which she terms a “choreopoem,” creates a theatrical expression more closely related to African performance. Her text, however, is informed by the conditions faced by black women in a racist and patriarchal American society.

While Shange asks for women to recognize common bonds and help each other, Wendy Wasserstein, in The Heidi Chronicles , points to the unrealistic idealism of such a request, showing the intrinsic selfishness of many women even as they espouse community motives, and their essential isolation as they strive for true freedom. Wasserstein’s play, despite its comic surface, exposes the fads and weaknesses of the women’s movement in the latter half of the twentieth century, while simultaneously eliciting its true advances, which turn out to be more emotional and psychological than material. By the close of the play, Heidi wins what she has most desired all along, confidence in her own ability to choose what she does with her own life, regardless of social expectations.

Widening the focus, David Mamet’s controversial Oleanna explores the effects of the women’s movement on the relationship between men and women. Mamet’s protagonist, John, considers himself to be an enlightened man, yet when he is systematically destroyed by Carol, a female student who accuses him of sexual harassment and worse, his response is primal and savagely “male” as he lashes back both verbally and physically. As much as John believes himself to be sensitive to women’s equality and rights, his treatment of Carol is condescending and unnecessarily paternal, a fact she eventually forces him to recognize. Although Carol’s revenge is justified to some extent, its harshness makes us feel uncomfortable. Through this ending, Mamet points out the potential dangers of feminine empowerment.

for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf is a series of poems written about a variety of black women, from youth to maturity, who relate stories of fear, pain, loss, and joy, through which they forge a triumphant, collective, black-female voice by the play’s close, and thereby celebrate the resilience of black women. The play shows a variety of possibilities faced by black women, who suffer from abusive lovers who will not allow them to be themselves and a predominantly hostile environment. The women seek love and connection, and move toward the understanding that they can fulfill this need without the aid of untrustworthy men. Starting with a mélange of voices, naming a series of American cities and female adolescent concerns, the play separates into a series of individual characterizations that offer a variety of female experiences and responses to the world, society, and men, both in particular and general. The finale connects the women with nature, an intensely feminine symbol, and allows them to discover the power to transcend the difficulties of their lives with renewed self-esteem and the strength of their community.

The poems that make up the play can be grouped into five subcategories, the first of which is an exploration of female youth and early forays into love. We learn that being a young black girl can be filled with pain and misunderstanding; even at this age, men are predatory, as one girl loses her virginity after her high school graduation. However, these harsh images are balanced against a third poem told by a girl who is filled with joy over the possibilities of music and dance, which suggests there are alternatives. Dance continues to symbolize life and vitality throughout the play, as music serves to underline the characters’ moods.

The second group of poems further conveys the possibility of rebellion against other unpleasant outcomes as the women grow older, but no more happy, in their dealings with men. One woman, disgusted by her lover’s lack of commitment to their relationship, decides to put him out of her life for good, returning his plant, and another cuts herself off from others completely to pursue her art. Such rebels are counterbalanced by stories of how women can also be abused into submission through rape, often by close acquaintances, and forced to face the shame and physical pain of abortion. Shange uses obscenities at moments like these to force home the ugliness of such violence against women.

The third section presents a series of portraits that offer wider social commentary on the lives of black women, embracing both political and historical themes and images. We meet a defiant New Orleans dance-hall girl who sees herself as an Egyptian goddess despite the negative opinions of others. It is a lesson in self-esteem, one of the most difficult achievements in a group that has been so historically demeaned. Next comes a young dreamer who runs away from home with Haitian rebel Toussaint L’Ouverture as her imaginary companion, upset at not receiving the library prize she deserved. On meeting a real-life boy named Toussaint Jones, she decides to return home. This symbolizes how the exotic can be transformed into the commonplace to make it accessible to all. Then a woman who lures men to her bed, only to vengefully throw them out the next morning, implies that vengeance against men provides no relief, but the next poems suggest a better direction. The section culminates with a lady who comforts women who are victims of harassment, and three more women who set aside their rivalry over one man to bond together like sisters. The possibility of a supportive community is forming.

The fourth series asserts a woman’s need for love and the heartbreaking search many follow in its quest, especially given the average men they meet. As they dance and sing together, it becomes obvious that the most positive love they might find is a mutual and supportive love of each other. The play’s climax comes in the fifth series of poems, mostly about the price women have paid when they have opened themselves up to a man. One laments the loss of her possessions, taken away by a false lover; the group considers the misuse of the word “sorry” by unfaithful lovers; and we hear how Beau Willie Brown tries to persuade his children’s mother to marry him by dangling those children out of a five-story window, but before she can answer him he drops them. Yet despite such mounting violence against them, the women find the resilience to end on an affirmative note. The colors in which they are dressed, which have come to represent differing aspects of their lives, combine to create the rainbow of the title—an apt symbol for the beauty and worth they have discovered within themselves.

The play is a purely feminist vision, as Shange makes no attempt to consider male difficulties. While some poems in the play come out of her own experiences, others relate to her studies in the mythology of women. Shange speaks to and for all women who see themselves as dispossessed, mistreated, or misunderstood, and she does not confine her stories to the black community, even though the play’s language is a celebration of black English. She is somewhat idealistic in her suggestion that female empowerment rests in women’s ability to form a community, but she successfully illustrates the unjust patriarchal past and the possibility of an improved nonhierarchical future. Balancing images of dirty, lonely cities and technological circumstances that oppress black women against images of natural beauty accompanied by song and dance through which women can become free of oppression and gain equality, Shange creates a world filled with ugliness and beauty, and asks us to choose which we prefer.

The Heidi Chronicles relates formative moments in the life of Heidi Holland as she grows from adolescence into womanhood. Through Heidi and her friends, Wasserstein encapsulates concerns, fears, and victories women faced through the developing women’s movement from the mid-1950s through the 1980s. The play begins with Heidi in 1989, lecturing on the inequalities of “Women in Art,” and then shows us how this self-assured woman was formed by depicting various occasions in her life from sixteen to forty. At her high school dance, she already shows signs of discontent with the expectation that a woman’s main aim in life should be to secure a husband. While her friend Susan pursues this aim, Heidi meets Peter, with whom she forms a friendship rather than a relationship, based on their joint refusal to be categorized.

While Susan tends to bend with the wind of every feminist fad that comes along, from radical feminism, through life on a women’s commune, to an executive position, Heidi is staunch in her focused ambition to bring neglected women artists to people’s attention. She is correspondingly more successful, too; while Susan’s feminism dwindles into a facile sitcom, through picketing, scholarship, and sheer determination, Heidi brings women artists into the public eye through exhibits, lectures, and publications. It is a focus she needs to learn to apply to her own life and, eventually, through the insistence and aid of her friend Peter, she does.

Peter is homosexual, meaning that he and Heidi can never be more than friends, but it is a friendship toward which Heidi is often neglectful. In her efforts to seek validation, Heidi frequently abandons Peter without warning as she moves to England or the Midwest in search of a better life. Ironically, she leaves behind what she sought, an honest connection to another human being, unaffected by gender, rather than the problematic romantic relationships she has with men and the facile mouthings of support she hears among the female gatherings she attends. From consciousness-raising rap groups to baby showers, it becomes clear that the women attending these gatherings, despite their words of solidarity and support, are only out for themselves; they are consumed by their own individual problems. It is not until she learns to value Peter’s friendship and stop running away, that Heidi learns how to be herself. It is a lesson her friend Susan, forever consumed by the latest craze, fails to learn. Susan ends the play a successful businesswoman with a hit show, but she leads a shallow, unhappy, and intrinsically unfulfilled life.

Despite her reluctance to commit, Heidi is not adverse to sexual relationships. Her sexual awakening comes on meeting Scoop, an intriguing but inveterate womanizer. Despite her insecure reliance on Scoop to make her feel valuable, Heidi is as unable to permanently commit to him as he is to embrace monogamy. While Heidi, Scoop, and Peter appear on a television talk show as a cross-section of the sixties generation, they are intrinsically the same—each hurts, cheats on, and abandons others as they selfishly pursue happiness; gender, or even sexual orientation, has little to do with it. Scoop marries Lisa because, unlike Heidi, she will put up with his unfaithfulness, be the good little wife and mother, and restrict her own artistic abilities to illustrating children’s books so as not to overshadow her husband. Lisa is the compromising woman Heidi refuses to be.

Since she was a teenager, Heidi was unhappy with the expectations imposed on her gender. She insists that men and women are not intrinsically different, despite gendered social expectations, but her attitude seems more humanist than feminist. She continuously asks throughout the play why everyone cannot be allowed to live up to their potential. Scoop offends Heidi by his outrageous confidence; she feels shortchanged by her inability to be so bold. She suspects that this lack of self-confidence stems from women being taught to be deferential and self-sacrificing. It takes her some time to overcome her need for a relationship to feel that her life is worthwhile. The 1970 meeting of Susan’s “Consciousness-raising Rap Group”—although satirizing such groups with its stereotypes of the man-hating, aggressive lesbian, and nurturing, acquiescent housewife—is also a defining moment for Heidi, where she faces the inequities of her life and becomes a committed feminist. While Susan just plays at being liberated, Heidi truly lives a life of liberation, refusing to settle for an unfulfilling marriage, as so many women do, and refusing to be discontent with the single life women are expected to abhor.

Heidi is an intelligent, attractive woman who does not want the burden of a husband, but refuses to lose out because of that decision. Her choice at the close to remain in the city to support Peter whose partner has AIDS, and become a single mother by adopting a baby girl, are commitments with which she feels comfortable. She had felt a sense of betrayal from her fellow women, who talked about equality, yet never seriously believed in it as they settled for abusive relationships, or unhappy, unfulfilled lives, trying to live up to male ideas of what their lives should be like. She reveals her discontent in a speech she gives on “Women: Where Are We Going?” to her old school. Satirizing the picture of the perfect woman who has it all—important job, husband and lover, children, wonderful home as she works, cooks, and does charity work and exercise on the side—Heidi recognizes that this image is not only impossible, but ridiculous. Feeling the constant pressure from other women to compete to become the closest to this “ideal,” she declares her intention to withdraw from the competition, seeing it as divisive rather than supportive, and fated to bring disappointment rather than contentment.

By the play’s close Heidi has redefined her expectations and learned to be content with who she is and what she achieves, regardless of gender. Having reaffirmed her friendship with Peter, she no longer feels unconnected to the world around her and begins to look forward to the future; perhaps not her own, but at least that of her daughter. Scoop could not settle down with her, since he could never accept a relationship in which his desires did not come first. Heidi refuses to enter such an either/or relationship, in which one half of the couple sacrifices their ambitions for the other: she insists on the possibility of equality, in which everyone is encouraged to fulfill their potential, however great or small it may be, regardless of gender. Such is Wasserstein’s message to her audience.

Oleanna depicts the mounting antagonism between a college professor, John, and a student, Carol, as they engage in an uneasy interplay of power and control. As a self-absorbed teacher, who hypocritically denounces the very system to which he pays court, John is forced to question his own actions and motives in his dealings with a student whose concerns he has tried to sidestep and whom he has consistently patronized. Carol is struggling in his course and needs answers, but John is too wrapped up in his own needs to give her the proper attention. As a male, he is too conditioned to being in the seat of power and refuses to see anything wrong in his behavior. Reading his words and actions from a feminist perspective, Carol charges him with sexual harassment, which jeopardizes his tenure, his new house, and, eventually, his job. At the play’s close, John viciously attacks Carol, and reaches a momentary enlightenment as to why he is being so punished.

Mamet’s epigraph from Samuel Butler suggests that this is a play about the dangers of accommodation. Women have long submerged their desires and needs to placate and satisfy the male expectation of dominance. The women’s movement attempts to free women from self-restrictive bondage and offer them power to equal that of men. Mamet’s question is whether women will become as indiscriminate in their abuse of men as men have so long been toward women. Carol initially feels subservient to John in terms of social, economic, and educational class, but gets the courage to challenge him partly from a women’s support group.

Carol admits that she takes out her anger at all men on John, for she is sick of men’s assumption of power over women. She empowers herself by attacking John: “You can’t do that anymore. You. Do. Not. Have. The. Power. Did you misuse it? Someone did. Are you part of that group? Yes. You. Are. You’ve done those things” (50). She cares no more about John’s thoughts or feelings than he cared about hers when he was in control. Sickened by his patriarchal behavior and his pride in lording it over women, she upbraids John as an example that such behavior is no longer acceptable. Carol’s apparent lack of compassion and hatred are disconcerting, being qualities frequently accepted in men, but rarely exhibited by women.

Thus Mamet depicts an uneasy relationship between genders in light of the increased power granted to women through the women’s movement, coupled with the unwillingness of men, so used to being the figures of power, to step aside. One can sympathize with John for losing so much, when all he seems to have done is try to help a student, but Carol also elicits our sympathy as we can see the hypocrisies behind so much of what John says and does, whether it be consciously or subconsciously. It is this double vision that makes the play so controversial.

John’s office is a locus of patriarchal power: the place to which he summons his students, rules on their fates, and, if his treatment of Carol is typical, demeans and belittles them to maintain control. It is not just the way he repeatedly keeps Carol waiting while he talks on the phone, but how he rarely allows her to complete a sentence, consistently denigrates the education in which she firmly believes, and, instead of listening, insists that he knows what the problem is and tries to tell her what she is feeling. He is unwise to burden her with his inadequacies as he does, because, despite his assertions to the contrary, they are not alike; ironically, it is largely these “confessions” he offers to try to help her that she uses to bring him down.

John’s treatment of women over the phone gives more credence to Carol’s charges of sexism. He repeatedly reduces his wife to “Babe,” insists that she allow their male realtor to take charge, and angrily screams " screw her" into the phone, when the woman whose house he is trying to buy refuses to be tricked into a lower price (39). Irony again creeps in, as his reaction to his realty deal echoes that of Carol toward education—both being in worlds they do not understand and responding with anger—but instead of gaining insight, John tries to deny Carol her anger, frustrating her further. Having brought her to the verge of tears, he puts an arm around her to comfort her. On the surface, this appears to be an honest attempt to calm her, but the casualness with which he touches her without consent implies an unspoken male prerogative that goes to the core of the system that Carol challenges.

By act 2, Carol has shattered John’s complacency with a formal complaint, yet he remains oblivious to her needs. Instead of apologizing for his formerly blasé attitude, he responds with denial and threats, trying to coerce her into backing down. He is sexist and elitist, and there is nothing false in her report: she is simply expressing her perspective on his words and actions, a perspective that may not have been his intent, but one of which he should have been aware all along if he really believed in equality. His resort to physical force, as he tries to prevent her from leaving, allows her to extend her charges to battery and attempted rape, against which he will have no defense, since it will be his word against hers and she is now in control.

By act 3 the tables have been fully turned. It is now Carol who has the power and it is John’s turn to feel impotent and frustrated as she cuts him off, says she understands him , and asserts her point of view, forcing him to listen to her as she lists his failings and hypocrisies. When she reprimands him for de-meaning his wife, he loses control entirely; he knocks her down, curses her, and is about to hit her with a chair when he finally sees himself through her eyes and recognizes the “monster” she has seen all along. Saying, “Well,” he sits at his desk, and she replies, “Yes, That’s right” (80), and we see the first moment of recognition and understanding between them in the play.

Women's Issues—Past [next] [back] Women in White

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