I want to say that maybe Rapture, Blister, Burn is the feminist play we deserve, but I’ve been trying not to blame myself for the bad things that happen to me. It’s one of the many struggles that I go through as a living human female, an experience that, by the way, I regularly complain about not seeing portrayed on stage. I like to blame *that* on the glut of white male playwrights who dominate the art. “I am sick,” I whine, “of seeing female characters who are just cardboard cutouts who don’t have real feelings or motivations written by jerk dudes who don’t know what it is like to be a lady.”
So it’s hard to know how to feel about the paper dolls that Gina Gionfriddo has cut out to use as mouthpieces for her barely thought out ideas in Rapture, Blister, Burn. I think it’s worse. It’s one thing to be alienated by someone who can’t understand your experience. It’s a curious betrayal to be alienated by someone who presumably should be able to.
So many things about Rapture, Blister, Burn make me feel lonely that I don’t even know where to start, so I’ll start with one of the central conceits of the play which is that the main character is an academic who is teaching a small class about feminism in her home, which results in a number of scenes where ladies sit on the couch and say ideas to each other. I’m no MfA in Playwriting, but isn’t that one of the things you are definitely not supposed to do? I’m pretty sure that what differentiates a play from an argumentative essay is that stuff is supposed to happen in it, and if you are really good, stuff is supposed to be happening the whole time. If that’s not a rule it should be, because listening to people say ideas is boring.
But if you are from the Tony Kushner school, and you must have people say ideas, the characters peaking those ideas should at the very least resemble actual people.
Let me tell you who is on the couch. The central character, Catherine, the academic who has chosen having a career over having a family, is wondering if she made the right choice. Brave move, playwright! Feminists are often afraid to address the fact that it is impossible to truly have it all, and it is a really good idea to take a look at the actual lived human consequences of making one choice over another without worrying about political correctness. After all, if the reflexive property stands, the political is personal, so let’s reflect on what career-focused feminism hath wrought for real, complex breathing women.
Except that if your character is an idea instead of a person, it’s not brave at all. Catherine chose her career, but she doesn’t love it, and she isn’t passionate about it. She seems pretty comfortable with other characters calling her a hack. She’s supposed to have written books about pornography and torture, but she doesn’t actually have anything to say about these things. And despite teaching a feminism class, she doesn’t seem to know about anything that’s happened in feminism since Betty Friedan and Phyllis Schlafly, two actual women who she boils each down to an idea “homemaking is oppression” and “men don’t like smart girls.” She also describes feminism as a cohesive movement that split over the issue of pornography in the 80’s and quit working. So clearly Gionfriddo has Wikipedia, but apparently not Facebook, because anyone who engages with contemporary feminists would not have completely missed everything that’s happened since 1982, particularly the extremely important issue of the exclusion of women of color.
I’m going to do an homage to both this play and most of feminism by NOT talking about the total exclusion of any mention of working class women or women of color.
So what we end up with is a total cliche. A “career woman” in an istock photo business suit who wishes she’d made time for a family. A woman facing this honest feeling in it’s complexity would be compelling and relevant, but the trope, devoid of humanity, is not only dull and played out, but it’s an unthoughtful confirmation of Schlafly’s antifeminist prediction. It may as well be a busy-businesswoman romantic comedy.
What causes Catherine’s doubt? Her mother has a heart attack. Don’t worry. She’s fine. I mean, she is totally fine. Not only is her health completely fine, she does not need or even want care. Isn’t that convenient? As Catherine worries about the loneliness she will feel when her mother is gone, Alice is delighted to be an idea in pearls with a tray of martinis, telling her daughter again and again to pursue her own happiness and stop worrying about mommy’s imminent death. She’s happy to die alone, without the burden of having inflicted any conflict related to human relationships on the play.
Also enrolled in the wayback machine feminism class is Catherine’s old roommate from college, the one who stole her then-boyfriend and married him, becoming a homemaker. GET IT?!?! She has exactly the life that Catherine chose against! Women’s lives, as you know from the syllabus, can go two ways, and Gwen’s went the other. “Gwen” is also an idea about being sad, and that idea is that you miss out on a career when you’re a mother.
And then there is, for reasons that do not make sense and do not need to, a Young Woman of Today. She texts all the time (that’s what they do!) and says pithy Young Woman of Today things.
There is one more character in the play, and that is the husband of Gwen and ex boyfriend of Catherine and guidance counselor of the YWOT whom they all spend a lot of time talking about when they are not talking about “feminism” in this contrived A idea/B idea way. Despite having an almost all female cast, this play only sort of passes the Bechdel test, because even when they are saying ideas, they are saying them about men.
The guy somehow ends up being the only human in the play. He’s flawed. He has desires. He chases them. He makes mistakes and fails, then learns and grows. He doesn’t represent anything. He’s a person. No wonder they are fighting over him. Anything to be released from each other’s cardboard company. I’d rather hang out with him, too.
I am not going to go too deep into the plot, such as it is, but suffice it to say it involves Catherine and Gwen, in the aftermath of Catherine’s affair with Gwen’s husband, deciding to switch roles with each other, which is a totally logical solution in a world where actions have no emotional consequences. Suffice it to say that when the husband is handed off, mom Gwen is not happy with independence, and independent-thinking Catherine can’t keep her man happy. Suffice it to say Alice delightedly adopts and bonds with Gwen’s son and then sociopathically relinquishes him without sentiment when the life-swap experiment doesn’t work out. Suffice it to say that the nuclear family is restored.
And what is to become of our sad career woman? She pauses to wear sweatpants and eat ice cream out of the container, in case you forgot what gender she is a cliche of, and then she returns to her couch companions, The Young Woman of Today and Iceheart Granny. Over the ubiquitous martinis, Alice delivers the conclusion to this essay, and I paraphrase: “Phyllis Schlafly was right; strong independent women can’t keep a man. And that’s good. Now you can get out there and live your life without men slowing you down!”
See! Fish don’t need bicycles! Stupid fish. You don’t know what you want.
Catherine only thought she was lonely and had doubts and regrets about her choices. But those weren’t feelings. It was just a little crisis of feminist faith. She temporarily got distracted from the fact that you get two choices, and when you choose career, you shut up and live with the consequences of that choice.
In some ways it’s a random little bit of ridiculousness that the play ends with Catherine and the Young Woman of Today moving to New York together to share an apartment and I can only assume many Sex in the City-type adventures. But in some ways it’s exactly the thing.
Of all the inauthentic stuff that this play offers as female life, this ending is the most distressing. The play suggests that feminism means that any woman, even one you don’t know very well, don’t have any bond with either in philosophy or experience, and are separated from by about 20 years of age, is a suitable companion for you. Sisterhood is powerful.
Except that it’s not, and this is why. Femaleness may bond us in political struggle but it doesn’t automatically bond us in human relationship, and one is not the other. Don’t try to tell me that this character’s loneliness and fear can just as well be assuaged by any other human female as a man that she is attracted to and is her age and intellectual equal, who shares her interests, who is looking to be her partner. It’s not the same thing. It is the dumbest simplification of feminism to say that the proximity of other another female body should be an adequate substitute for her actual desires.
Not only does it render her sexless, but it also means one girl is as good as the next and that for this straight woman, the next girl is as good as a family, when a family is what she wants.
Platonic female companionship between straight women who really get each other is deeply meaningful and is also all that some women want. But it shows a profound disrespect for women to try to tell them that if they’ve “chosen career” they’ll have to accept that kind of friendship as a substitute for a romantic relationship, and it’s a weird understanding of men that says a lady with a career can’t find one and make some other kind of life they choose together, and it is a piss poor feminism that takes as its premise that you get a doll and a man or a truck and a studio apartment in this life and further that if you draw the latter your consolation prize is female friendship.
Maybe this is the story we deserve because we haven’t done the real work of figuring out how to tell the secret female story of failing. Maybe Gina Gionfriddo’s women can’t be real because we down here in the audience haven’t figured out how to be real, haven’t been able to parse that feminism– being able to make choices without being limited by our gender– doesn’t mean that whatever choices we make are sacred. The right to our choices was hard-earned, but we don’t betray feminism by doubting them. The freedom, in fact to choose and regret, to wonder and need and be confused without feeling the pressure to hide all that complexity under a simple idea may be the next thing we have to wrest from men.
The thing that makes me saddest about Rapture, Blister, Burn is that theater is the ideal medium with which to explore that personal which is our political right. I want to see a play about a Catherine who’s allowed to be sad, an elderly woman who’s allowed to need care after her heart attack, a mother who’s allowed to miss being in school or not miss it, a teenager who is texting because that’s how she stays in a relationship and not because that’s just what they do.
What would those characters say to each other? What would they do?