As I mentioned, I saw Bachelorette last week at Studio Theatre, and really responded to it.
On the way out, I overheard someone in the audience complaining that they didn’t like the play because the characters were vulgar, disgusting beasts. Their sentiment was similar to this commenter’s on the DC Theatre Scene review.
My reaction to their reactions: JUDGMENT! Judgy judgy judgment.
(I have had this reaction to others’ reactions before, so I’m just using the Bachelorette response as an example.)
A SPOILERY run-down and analysis for those who haven’t caught the play (YET – tickets still available, eh? ehhh?): queen bee-type Regan is the maid-of-honor for Becky, and gets the use of her swank hotel room for the night before the wedding (Becky’s staying with her fiance). She invites anxious Gena and fun-loving Katie to party it up in the suite, despite the fact that Becky doesn’t like them and didn’t invite them to the wedding. All three are nakedly envious (not jealous) of Becky for not only being the first to get married, not only for marrying a rich, likeable guy, but for doing it while committing the sin of being fat, in sharp contrast to the three of them, all of whom have remained conventionally attractive since high school.
SPOILERY continued: it becomes very plain just how insecure and troubled these women are. As they indulge in a downward spiral of drugs and booze and inviting strange men up to the hotel room, they all but directly say “we played the game right, we’re beautiful, why haven’t we gotten married yet?” It’s clear that it’s less that they dislike Becky, and more that they dislike themselves, and Becky’s success casts their own lives in stark light. Gena, Katie and Regan are victims of social expectations, the ones who were supposed to be the winners, facing the fact that in the real world, character can actually matter more than makeup, and marriage doesn’t have to be the end-all-be-all test of a woman’s value.
SPOILERY continued: Regan plays up, as much as she can, being the condescendingly smart and confident one among her friends, but when a sleazy pick-up artist comes at her with his insults-and-belittling game – going so far as to call her “not as smart as [she] thinks [she] is” – she crumbles into her own lack of self-esteem and cheats on her boyfriend with him. (It’s another area of insecurity for her that her three-year relationship with said boyfriend has failed to lead to marriage – again, she’s done everything “right” – and the sleaze preys on this, too.) It’s all too bad, because Regan comes across as truly intelligent and full of potential; essentially, she never should have had to play the ‘beauty is everything’ game, but she’s gotten to the point where she dismisses her own job working with cancer patients because being humanitarian isn’t part of the script of what makes a girl like her worthwhile. She essentially has all the building blocks in place for being a self-actualized, happy human being – but doubts herself so much that she feels she has to pretend to be someone else entirely, and requires massive amounts of pills to keep her focused enough to maintain that self-deception.
SPOILERY concluded: On the other hand, Katie comes across as honestly not the brightest. She’s single and still working retail (where she feels invisible) ten years out of high school, and is even more naked in her insecurities. She had a brief time on top as “the hottest” of her friends, back in high school, and never was taught that she needed to figure out who she was or what else she could be besides Homecoming Queen. (Amongst other things about herself that she ignores, she seems to have a passing interest in music.) When Gena, her best friend and emotional anchor, is not around, Katie falls into what is apparently a consistent pattern of attempted suicide, after breaking down in tears and beating herself up for being worthless. Her suicide attempt, this time, is triggered by her scaring away Joe, a very nice guy and stoner who was dragged along by Regan’s pick-up artist. Joe – who, incidentally, reveals that he’s a stoner mainly because he realized that people are terrible, and prefers to check out – runs away from her when she tries desperately to get him to validate her through sex; she’s drunk and he feels it’s not cool for him to take advantage of her. Katie can’t accept this failure on her part and swallows a bottle of pills.
If what playwright Leslye Headland is doing in those characters’ storylines wasn’t clear, this line (quoted in the review I linked to above) is pretty blunt: “Age 12 is when you start to hate yourself,” Regan says, discussing the standard emotional path for young women.
Personally, when judging other people in general, and deciding whether I really honestly like someone, I place high stock in empathy. Being able to find the humanity in other people is… well it’s better than dismissing others as demons or worthless. Every one of us is flawed, and every one of us deserves some understanding. (Okay, no, not Hitler, every one of us who is not an utterly insane mass-murderer, okay?) If you dismiss people for not
This same idea can apply to seeing a play or movie. Now, not every play or movie is totally realistic in its portrayal of people, so it’s totally reasonable to find some bad film’s awkward facsimile of a real person to be unlikeable. And the purpose of many a play and film is to entertain plain and simply, and it is also plenty okay to not like or empathize with a character in such a story because they make it hard to be entertained.
But Bachelorette is not either. Bachelorette, in my reading of it, was *about* understanding, empathizing and, in a sense, getting to the bottom of these characters.
Therefore, for these audience members to utterly dismiss them seems, to me, like utterly dismissing some real-live person for being flawed. In a way, I find it worse, because the play put their hearts right out there for the audience to see. If you met a real-live Regan or Katie, she could easily seem to be nothing but shallow, cruel, petty and stupid simply because you don’t know what’s really going on behind all that, and real people are very, very good at hiding their true selves. (Even, or especially, the people on reality shows like The Real Housewives, who may have a lot it common with these characters.) By contrast, the “people” in Bachelorette lay it all out. How can you not empathize and feel for, at the very very least, poor Katie, who for heaven’s sake tries to kill herself because… well, because the world is full of people like the commenters, who think she’s worthless for being who she is, and she agrees with them?
I’m not saying, one bit, that an audience member has to like these people. They are, undoubtably, hedonistic, self-absorbed, and spiteful; I wouldn’t want to necessarily hang out with them (depending on what mood they’re in). I’m not even saying you have to even enjoy the play; maybe you don’t find a story exploring the bleeding hearts of outwardly horrible people to be a good night out – that’s a valid criticism. But dismissing the play as empty and the characters as beasts? I don’t understand that.
At the very least, pity them. For the 60-year old commenter to not even be able to a muster a “these poor kids these days, who are being sent down the wrong path” seems to indicate a lack of human understanding. That commenter says it “helps if the audience can connect to one or more of the characters,” but first of all, why can’t you connect to people who clearly want to be loved for who they are and considered valuable by society and to feel better when they’re upset? Don’t all of us want that? I mean, maybe the commenter has achieved utter wisdom and risen above the desire for acceptance so far that he can look down condescendingly on those who are still struggling for it.
Second of all, I don’t think this is that kind of play. This isn’t a play with a hero you need to identify with in order to root for the right team. The antagonist is society; the characters are its victims; there’s no hero is in sight (although Joe tries his damnedest to be Katie’s). To make a comparison, these characters are a lot like Cersei in Game of Thrones – she’s a terrible person, but it’s completely clear that she (like everyone else on the show/in the books) is that way because the forces of society forced her to be that way. It’s a test of your empathy to see whether you can recognize Cersei as human, or whether you just call her heinous names; the same goes for the inhabitants of Bachelorette‘s world, which is presumably much closer to our own that Westeros.
In a way, the audience is supposed to be the hero – the hero for coming to understand these people who they would normally dismiss in real life, and maybe go back out into real life with some greater understanding the next time they meet a Katie or a Regan.
(And for the record, it would be a separate and longer discussion of the play to talk about how complicit the characters are in victimizing themselves and perpetuating that; and another separate discussion of just how pervasive or universal the character’s troubles are; so I won’t get into either debate here.)
If my point of view here isn’t clear yet, I basically look at people who dismiss the Bachelorette characters, or Cersei, or any number of other examples, as pretty much the same as someone who dismisses kids from bad neighborhoods who end up in gangs. Don’t you get it?
Judgy judgy judgeness. Do you ever judge someone for not empathizing with someone else?