Shaming and blaming
Girls Like That tackles teen tormentors
Slut! Growing Up Female With a Bad Reputation, Leora Tanenbaum explores the sociological reasons behind why and how some teenage girls are singled out, labeled, and tormented by their peers for their perceived sexual behavior. Often, the target is on the fringes of social acceptability and hit puberty early, turning boys’ heads, to the chagrin of more popular girls. Whether or not she is actually sexually active is not always relevant — what matters is making her feel terrible about herself.
Slut! was published by HarperCollins in 2000, before smartphones, social media, sexting, and viral videos. Girls Like That, a British play by Evan Placey, premiered in 2013 and takes into account the new wave of what is commonly referred to as slut shaming. A boy at school sends out a naked picture of Scarlett, who had been considered awkward by her so-called girlfriends until she suddenly grew breasts.
Girls Like That opens at the Greer Garson Theatre at Santa Fe University of Art and Design on Friday, Oct. 28. Though the school’s website notes that the play is not suitable for children, Girls Like That was named Best Play for Young Audiences at the Writers Guild of Great Britain Awards. The SFUAD production is directed by a new performing arts department faculty member, Shad Willingham, and has an allfemale cast of 25 actors. The play is written largely in direct address and evinces a clear moral stance that judges the girls harshly for their treatment of Scarlett. Willingham and the cast adjusted some of the staging and dialogue to make the tone of the play less preachy, and they Americanized the British slang.
“We were quite liberal with that,” Willingham said. “We didn’t want it to be too removed to be relevant to our audience. The actors are not playing British schoolgirls. If there was something American teenagers just wouldn’t say, we changed it.”
Willingham told Pasatiempo that the cast had numerous discussions about the play’s themes, and he was quite shocked to learn about some of their high school experiences. “There were girls who had been bullied and girls who admitted to bullying. Most of all, what they realized was that at some time or another they had all been part of the problem. It seems that girls treat each other in a very specific way, a way that mostly boys do not. You think a girl
is your friend, but she might be talking about you behind your back in a very catty or hurtful way. Generally, guys won’t be friends with someone they would talk that way about.” He attributed the severity of modern bullying to technology, where cruelty is instantaneous. “It used to be that if you wanted to insult someone, you had to do it to their face. Now you can write whatever you want online, and you don’t have to see the person’s reaction. You can remove yourself from the impact — on them, but on you as well.”
Girls Like That is staged like a musical, with several outrageous dance numbers set to songs by Beyoncé and Katy Perry, among other contemporary female pop artists. The cast functions something like a chorus, with different cliques of girls — referred to as squads — taking various stances on Scarlett. Some are jealous of her body, while others feel quietly bad about what is happening, and still others believe she deserves everything she gets. The boys in their orbit are responsible for initially releasing the photo and ridiculing Scarlett while congratulating Russell, the student who took the picture and engaged in locker-room talk about her with his buddies. The girls, however, are the ones who ostracize and scorn her, offering her no loyalty or protection despite having known her since kindergarten.
Throughout the play, young women step forward from historical time periods and deliver monologues about experiences with sexism. Among them is a flapper in the 1920s who stands up to her brother when he tries to force her to leave a party and a hippie chick in the 1960s who works for abortion rights. A 1980s aerobics-loving teen has a coveted internship at a law firm; when an attorney puts his hands on her, she gives him chapter and verse on sexual-harassment law in a voice dripping with Southernstyle sweetness. Modern girls, the monologues imply, excuse boys and turn on each other instead of standing up for themselves and banding together against a common enemy.
“I think we as a society let boys off the hook, and the play is exemplary of that,” said Willingham, who is fifty years old. “I think that men of the millennial generation will grow up treating women in a much more equitable way than men of my generation do, or than men of Donald Trump’s generation do — and that’s because we’re evolving as a culture. However, and I’ve thought about this a lot lately, I don’t know how a boy is supposed to know the difference between being genuinely attracted to someone and wanting to pursue that attraction and only pursuing a girl by virtue of what he can see, before he really knows her. Technically, that’s objectification. As a man, it’s challenging for me to completely wrap my mind around it. It used to be you would just let a girl know through signs and signals that you wanted to go out with her. You asked her to a dance. I’m not saying boys are victims, but it seems like a labyrinth. There must be answers to these questions, but who is teaching them? Not Donald Trump.”
The issue of how the Republican candidate for president of the United States talks about and treats women has informed many of the cast’s discussions during rehearsals. “The assault allegations against Trump are not what the play is about, but the cast is definitely angry,” Willingham said. “They got really angry when he was talking about Miss Universe, and what is really driving us right now in terms of politics is the way he talks about Hillary Clinton’s marriage. This generation doesn’t seem to think that consensual sex and sexuality or how many times someone gets married is anyone’s business. Now you can come out as gay or trans in high school and not automatically lose all your friends. It’s very different than when I grew up. But now here is this old white man telling women how they should take care of their bodies, how much they should weigh, how they should be married, how to live their lives.”