NYT's Astringent Feminist Theater Critics: 'Creepy and Reactionary' for Female Character to Gain Joy in Motherhood

June 5th, 2016 8:23 PM

Every year the New York Times tries to ruin the summer movie season with the pair of fun-deprived, politically correct movie critics Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott, who solemnly count up and analyze female characters on screen before declaring the portrayals sexist and the numbers insufficient.

This Sunday, the bean-counting joylessness expanded to another artistic field, with theatre critics Laura Collins-Hughes and Alexis Soloski dueling to see who could be more astringently feminist in grading the current state of Broadway: “Fighting for Something More.” The online headline: “Broadway May Not Be So White, but Is It Woman Enough?” Plus, there's an arbitrary dig at Ronald Reagan in the Sunday Books section.

They drug out the infamous “Bechdel test” (but without the scare quotes) which purports to measure the feminism of a work based on checking a box as to whether there the work contains a scene in which at least two women talk to each other about something other than a man:

On Broadway, it has been a year of women: waitresses, shopgirls, concubines, Revolutionary sisters, a literary editor, a morphine addict and many victims of abuse. Is this cause for celebration or despair? Or pie?

The musical “Waitress” and the play “Eclipsed” featured all-female creative teams. Yet even as women constitute two-thirds of the Broadway audience, women still lag far behind men as playwrights, composers, directors and designers.


ALEXIS SOLOSKI Let’s get right to it. Has this been a good year for women?

LAURA COLLINS-HUGHES There’s been progress, sure. But I wouldn’t say that makes it a good year. It’s interesting that this is the season when the producers of “Waitress” and “Eclipsed” have marketed their shows by touting the presence of women in key creative roles. If that weren’t a rarity, it wouldn’t be a marketing point.

They didn’t like the “creepy and reactionary” scene when a mother becomes happy upon the birth of her baby, and wondered how any other woman could possibly like it.

SOLOSKI ....I think we both had problems with “Waitress” on Broadway, right?

COLLINS-HUGHES Going there already, are we? Yeah, my head popped right off at the end of “Waitress,” which in the hands of Sara Bareilles, Jessie Nelson and Diane Paulus has become tonally a very different creature than the much more nuanced Adrienne Shelly movie it’s based on. One of the few interesting aspects of the central character here, a waitress named Jenna, played by Jessie Mueller, is that she is an unhappily married woman who gets pregnant and adamantly does not want the child. Yet -- this will be a spoiler for anyone who hasn’t seen it -- the moment she gives birth, she is utterly transformed as a human being, which I found creepy and reactionary. But the show does have a pink and baby blue logo, so I should not have been surprised.

SOLOSKI That the show is popular with female audiences mystifies me. I don’t read it as empowering. It condemns bullying behavior from Jenna’s abusive husband and then rewards it from the nerdy suitor of another waitress and the crotchety diner owner who bankrolls Jenna’s liberation. And the baby aspect of “Waitress” wouldn’t have rankled so much if reunions with children -- and here we go with the spoilers again -- hadn’t been the finale of two other female-centered Broadway shows, “Bright Star” and “The Color Purple.” No matter how much women achieve -- Alice of “Bright Star” is the fiction editor of an important literary journal, Celie of “The Color Purple” reinvents herself as an entrepreneur -- they’ll never be complete without their children.

Not even the universally hailed historical musical “Hamilton” escaped. It seems there's just not enough women in the drama about the life of the American founding father.

COLLINS-HUGHES That’s true. Is that something that’s always on your radar? It’s always on mine. The first time I saw “Hamilton,” blown away as I was by it -- and I am staunchly in the “Hamilton” is a work of genius camp -- I was disappointed that there was so much terrific stuff for so many men to do, and basically two substantial female characters who are crucial to the story but still pretty much on its margins.

SOLOSKI Yeah, I can and will go completely fangirl for “Hamilton,” but that show is never passing the Bechdel test....


SOLOSKI I read recently that Lin-Manuel Miranda likes the idea of cross-casting some of the men’s roles with women once the show is licensed to high schools and colleges. A few years from now, I’d like to see a female Aaron Burr just killing it. ...


On Broadway, I was surprised at how much I liked “Bright Star” -- and thrilled that a show whose characters include a talented young man determined to make it big as a writer is not centrally about him.

SOLOSKI I think we’re both on board for shows in which female journalists triumph.


COLLINS-HUGHES It feels to me like more producers are getting the message female artists have been sending: that it’s not O.K. to exclude them and that they’ll make as much noise as necessary to get doors opened to them...

SOLOSKI ....Next season, I’d like to see women suffer a little less and run the world a little more.

Bonus bias: In her round-up of current thrillers for the Times Sunday book review, fashion critic Vanessa Friedman made a gratuitous slam of former President Ronald Reagan. Friedman had this to say about a political thriller by Steve Berry:

According to “The 14th Colony,” the old Soviets discovered the oversight, and their rogue agents have decided to finally take revenge on the United States for what is presented as the subterfuge cooked up between Ronald Reagan and the pope that led to the fall of the U.S.S.R. (Anyone not a fan of the 40th president is hereby warned that in this book, he’s a genius.)