Enjoying life from the safety of your theatre seat
“Moby-Dick” should go in the trash because it doesn’t pass this one strange test.
The pain, grief and reality of life is best experienced from a cushy theatre seat or curled up with a good book. Let me explain…
A few years ago, when I was working for an opera company, we did a production of Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer’s “Moby-Dick” based on the Herman Melville novel.
To this day, it was one of the best pieces of theatre I’d ever witnessed. Nevertheless, the audience had plenty of criticisms:
“It was too long!”
“It was an okay first draft.”
“It was too musical.”
“It was not musical enough.”
“It was too sad.”
You get the idea. I invited a content creator to take photos and post to her social media to drive traffic to the show. I was surprised when she posted a negative review. I wasn’t surprised that the review was negative — the opera was polarizing and taste-specific — I was surprised at the content of the review. She didn’t like the opera because it did not pass the Bechdel test.
The Bechdel test, named after cartoonist Alison Bechdel, is used as a measure of female representation in media. It stipulates a piece of media must have at least:
two named female characters,
who talk to each other,
about something other than a man.
I won’t summarize “Moby-Dick” for you, but if you know anything about mid-19th century whaling ships, it goes without saying there are no female characters in the opera adaptation. Being upset about this story not passing the Bechdel test is like being upset about someone ruining the ending of “The Passion of the Christ.” (Spoiler alert: Jesus dies. And the book was better.)
I was baffled that the entirety of someone’s negative opinion would be based on such a narrow set of tools to dissect the work. Certainly, not all stories are about women just as not all stories are about men. All the other themes — madness, forgiveness, male friendship, obsession, international relations, integrity, poverty, racial strife and even musical criticisms — were all swept under the rug because it didn’t pass one single test.
A need for reading glasses
Over the last few years, I’ve noticed a trend of picking apart classic works of art with new, blunt instruments: identity categories.
I was in college when it was all the rage to required a diversity credit for your degree. The class I took was helpful and broadened my horizons. Furthermore, the professor expected curiosity and debate in order for us to pass the class.
This professor was great about not being dogmatic about what we should or should not believe, and she fostered open debate in the classroom. Since then, I’ve noticed the reverse trend — particularly online.
I’ve seen discussions about viewing Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” through the lens of race; the ballet “La Bayadère” through the lens of cultural appropriation; Brahms through the lens of gender; and Shakespeare through the lens of queerness.
I’m not saying no one should ever use these lenses to analyze these works. You probably can have a decent discussion on the aforementioned artists through those lenses. But they can’t be the only lens with which we analyze art. (And for Pete’s sake, can they stop being the default discussions for every piece of art we observe?!)
I’ve had one-too-many conversations with people who “just can’t get into Jane Austen” because all of her characters are “obsessed with getting married.”
I won’t explain again why this is a terrible take, but suffice it to say, poor Mrs. Bennet, with her nerves, just trying to get through the early 19th century, puts it best:
Newfangled parts on an old device
I’m an avid seamstress, and early in college, my mom gifted me her old sewing machine from the ‘70s. It’s old and heavy and only does a straight stitch and various zig zags, but it is the best machine I have ever used. I can sew on it until the wee hours of the morning, until I’m so tired that I ram my finger under the needle, and this workhorse of a machine has never once broken on me.
Occasionally, I’ll sew on a newer machine, but I hate it. When they break — which is often — the problem is one of two issues:
A piece of plastic broke somewhere in the machine, OR
It needs a software patch… like the phone that keeps deleting your emails.
Of course, there are always downsides to owning an old machine. The biggest problem you face is that when it inevitably does break, you can’t just put new gears into it. You either have to scour Ebay for the exact replacement or have a new piece forged — hopefully in a way that won’t set the whole machine off balance.
Art and the tools we use to analyze it is similar. A third-wave feminist take on Jane Austen makes no sense in the lives of characters who couldn’t vote, own land, control their reproductive cycle, or even avoid dying from some random infection that would be perfectly treatable today. You’re better off observing the individual character’s emotional growth, the cultural importance of marriage and women’s roles in upper-class England during the early 19th century.
These tools cut with surgical precision, and they take time to develop. You can consume hundreds of thousands of books, movies, songs, scores, paintings, plays and performances, and still only get a few inches deep with well-developed analytical skills. Only focusing on race, gender, ability, or any other identity gets you skin deep.
Why, in recent years, have we tossed out old, precise tools of having a thorough understanding of culture, language, history, politics, religion and science for such primitive and simplistic ones? It could be because it’s easier and we have more content to consume, but I would wager that fear has something to do with it.
Art should be daring
When I worked for that opera company, the artistic director would say that the safest place in the world to deal with taboo subjects like violence, betrayal, rape, grief and sexuality was from the safety of your theatre seat. You’re sitting on a nice, cushy chair where none of the scary plot points can get to you, and — if the county isn’t too tightfisted with their HVAC budget — you can enjoy the air-conditioning for two-and-a-half hours.
The best part is, when you see a show or read a book that rends your heart — one that makes you weep for a tragic loss every single time, even though you know it’s coming — you’re still safe at the end of it. It leaves you better prepared for real tragedy when it does enter your life.
Love it or hate it, a well-written story is one that made you feel something, not necessarily one that you thought was “good.” This same artistic director never seemed to fret when a show got bad reviews. He did, however, get nervous when the reviews were tepid.
Tepid reviews meant you staged something that was expected. Something forgettable. Something… mediocre.
I’ve seen a surge of mediocre art recently especially in the realm of movies, TV shows and new literature. For example:
I periodically watch the show “FBI: Most Wanted” with my parents (and the rest of 65+ America.) It seems like every other week, the characters are investigating a “hate crime.” I hate bigotry, but I actually hate the moralization of laws according to subjective standards even more. Legislating morality has never ended well for anyone. No one can even agree if the shooting at Club Q in Colorado was a “hate crime,” according to this piece by.
I haven’t been impressed with most contemporary literature. Much of it seems flat and… expected.wrote this great piece about sensitivity readers and how they gatekeep the literary community and kill perfectly good books before they get published. I suspect this is at least part of the reason contemporary fiction seems so dull and lifeless.
Don’t even get me started on how sick I am of the “strong female lead” and how Hollywood has a problem with gentle characterizations of women.
“Clowns to the Left of Me, Jokers to the Right.”recently interviewed Deborah Appleman, a professor of education at Carleton College, author and instructor at the Minnesota Correctional Facility — Stillwater. Appleman isn’t exactly my political bedfellow, but like she says in her new book “Literature and the New Culture Wars: Triggers, Cancel Culture, and the Teacher’s Dilemma,” she, like me, finds herself increasingly saying, “I hate it when I find myself agreeing with people with whom I usually disagree.”
I was struck by her story of students objecting to Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” on a women’s studies professor’s reading list because the book contained incest.
The students weren’t themselves triggered by incest, but they were worried that, “Someone somewhere has experienced incest, and that’s a horrible thing,” and they wouldn’t that person to be triggered. She says:
“… literature is messy. And actually our idea for teaching literature is to mess things up. It is to make us feel some negative feelings. To make us feel sad, to make us feel horrified, to make us feel empathy with things that are going on. So if we clean everything up so that no one ever experiences any emotional discomfort, the canon of most of our literature, both classic and contemporary, is going to be eviscerated.”
I feel sorry for these students who are shielding themselves (and possibly other students) from the cathartic experiences of reading a book by Toni Morrison.
It’s a luxury to be able to pick up a book like “The Bluest Eye” or “100 Years of Solitude” or “Their Eyes were Watching God” that has uncomfortable references to sexual abuse, domestic violence and incest — to feel the pain of the characters, empathize with them — and then put the book down having never actually experienced those things yourself.
It’s a privilege to be immersed in these perspectives. It grows your heart and expands your soul. It’s worth every tear you shed over the experience.
What I would like: monthly book discussion group. Or a movie discussion group! Or a podcast discussion group.