We often trace misogyny and sexism in far-reaching media like books and movies, but more short-range events like plays can, unfortunately, fly stealth under this radar.
It makes sense. New movies are seen on thousands of screens. New books are sold in countless bookstores and online retailers. But new plays open at one theatre, in one part of one country, and will cross the eyes of an audience that can probably be counted in the hundreds or thousands; certainly not the millions. However, it is partly because of this limited scope that special attention must be paid to the work – frequently very expensive work – that is put on our local stages.
Recently, I saw The Spoils, The New Group’s production of Jesse Eisenberg’s latest play, at the Signature Theatre complex in New York City. Because The Spoils doesn’t open until June 2 (it’s been in previews since May 5), this piece is not meant to be a review of the work, but an analysis of certain unsettling moments in the text.
The Spoils was staged in a 191-seat proscenium called The Griffin, and it looked like each of those seats was filled. That means, on the best night, there are still likely more people on an average Boeing 737 than in that space. In other words, I was part of a relatively intimate crowd.
However, the reactions I noticed within that crowd seemed to echo beyond its seat count. First, a bit of context: Eisenberg’s play is about a guy, Ben (played by Eisenberg), who is, by all accounts, a scumbag. He spouts racist jokes at his Nepalese roommate, sexist comments toward said roommate’s girlfriend, objectifies women, sexually assaults women (in the play!), mooches off of his rich dad, lies at every turn – the list goes on and on. Ben’s personality is clear from minute one, and changes not one iota by minute 150.
During that plateau of misogynist/sexist/racist behavior, we are treated to Ben telling us about a dream he had about his middle school crush (Sarah), who is now back in his life as the fiancée of a former friend (Ted). In the dream, Ben says that Sarah stood above his face and defecated on him (The play’s language is much more, well, tailored to Ben’s character – I’ll let you use your imagination).
When Ben tells this to Sarah, he also attempts to forcibly kiss her, insisting that there’s something sweet and loving about his dream. Sarah fends off this attack, and tells Ben that it is selfish of him to think that simply trying to woo a woman (albeit oddly) makes a man entitled to her body. This was the one breath of fresh air in the play. “Finally,” I thought, “an attempt to take down one of the caveats of Men’s Rights Activists!”
But no. At the end of the play, in its final scene (after Ben sexually assaults his roommate’s girlfriend), Sarah comes back and reminds Ben of an incident in middle school: a female student had just arrived from the Ukraine. All of the other kids thought she was “radioactive” due to Chernobyl.
One day, the some of the other students tried to “quarantine” her under the jungle gym at recess. Ben, according to Sarah, took off his clothes and tackled this Ukrainian student, and pretended to “hump her.” After that, the other students saw that, since nothing happened to Ben, this foreign student must not be a biohazard. “You saved her,” says Sarah. “You saved her.”
Ben saved her via his sexual assault. And so, hey, if he sexually assaults you, too, he’s all right. He’s just trying to save you! You just don’t understand his way of showing his kindness. It’s your fault, you stupid victim, you. Seriously. Look at him, with his Jesse Eisenberg-ness. That’s not a sex crime; that’s practically a Valentine.
And that’s the taste the last scene of this play leaves in your mouth. But you want to know the worst part? About 95% of the sexist, racist, and misogynist jokes Ben made in the play received overwhelming laughs from the audience – including seemingly everyone but me and my friend. Even after the sexual assault! Jokes about Nepalese poverty? Riotous! Dreams about the objectification of a woman via a defecation fantasy? People in stiches! Ben’s creepy preparation to “win” his childhood crush? Tears of laughter. All of a sudden, the small theatre space became a whole lot smaller.
I’ve noticed this a few times in New York City theatre: an audience will laugh at even the ugliest of “jokes” if a famous person says them. Each chuckle produced that night at The Spoils came with the subtext of “Oh, can you believe Jesse Eisenberg said that?” This one of the ways that celebrity influences culture, especially in small groups.
After the play, I thought about Jeremy Renner. I thought about Sean Connery. I thought about Mel Gibson. I thought about the string of male celebrities who have made sexist/misogynist/racist comments that have been either laughed off or dismissed as “not that big of a deal.” Does our tendency to be star-struck mean we can so easily put our feminism – and perhaps our humanitarianism – on the back-burner?
Well, roughly 180 people seemed to answer “yes.” That night.