(l to r) Mimi Scardulla, Jenny Rose Baker, Wonu Ogunfowora, Lauren Zakrin, and Kaitlyn Frank in ‘We Are The Tigers.’ (Photo: Mati Gelman)
By Cleo Aukland
Girl culture (and its often overplayed gossipy cattiness) is having its moment across New York stages. From high school rivals and cheerleading squads to an aging group of college friends, women are front and center in a slew of new musicals, but not always for the better.
It’s an easy brand to market. Use a lot of pink, throw in a high ponytail or heels, and you’ve got an unmistakably girl-themed work sure to elicit some giggles at a woman who’s trying to calculate calories from fat or a teenager lamenting her popularity status. Too often, creative teams fail to mine the line between gratuitous female antics and smart, well-formed commentary, instead, staging works puffed with sugar and no intellectual nutrition.
Take a look at some of the recent arrivals on and off Broadway this season: We Are The Tigers, Chick Flick, and Mean Girls are just a few in a collection of musicals with girl culture as the central thematic element. Each features a group of girls from high school to middle age, a glorious continuation of female leads among all the boys in the bands.
The term “girl” itself gets diagnostically challenged in Hurricane Diane, a smartly written new play by Madeleine George about a group of New Jersey women who are confronted by a lesbian landscaper incarnation of the deity Dionysus. “We’re close, so we call ourselves ‘the girls,’” says one of the women.
“Just getting straight on your preferred terms,” Diane responds. “You’re women, but you refer to yourselves as girls,” subtly questioning the societal impact of how women interact and define their relationships with one another.
As for the musicals, girl cliques (here meaning a cohesive collection of women branded as one unit, but that can also break down into separate entities) anchor the stories with varying degrees of success. Women characteristically backstab, gossip, and throw each other under the bus — literally, in some cases.
Mean Girls exists as a pinnacle of cattiness and girl-on-girl bullying; the work (based on the film and featuring a book by Tina Fey) is a satire, but one that exudes heart. New student Cady Heron (Erika Henningsen) quickly absorbs the dos and don’ts — or, as said by Gretchen Wieners in the film, “like, the rules of feminism.” Her limited social understanding grows as The Plastics, headed by Regina George (Taylor Louderman), take Cady under their wing.
The Plastics are caricatures: a biting iteration of heeled, pinked-up bullies. The reason The Plastics have a foothold as one of the funniest and truest cliques on screen and stage reveals itself through individual assessment of The Plastics’ members, demonstrating a fully dimensional characterization of women with shiny exteriors and vulnerable insides. They domineer as high school royalty, instilling fear in classmates, but bicker and bitch among one another. The musical pokes fun at the cornerstones of girl culture: fake friendships, fighting over boys and gunning for spring fling queen. But under the surface, they become touchpoints for character development rather than stereotypes.
Preston Max Allen’s We Are The Tigers, by comparison, fails to move past its one-note character attributes (Vicodin addict, Jesus freak, alcoholic, among others). With a spurt of blood and a scream, an unknown knife-wielding assailant slays a squad of high school cheerleaders. The girls quickly turn on one another to pin the crime before the culprit is eventually revealed, but not before they turn on one another. It would be refreshing to see a murderess kill with more in mind than a cheerleading win, or to see the girls find solace and support in one another instead of hurling insults. This is also apparent in the recently opened Be More Chill, where the supporting female roles have little substance, and gage their own value only in terms of their dating status.
While there’s quantity in the representation of women on stage this season, collectively, there is still a heavy reliance on stereotypical female behavior. In the short-lived Chick Flick (which played 11 previews and 12 performances), the four women each embodied a rom-com character description: the career-driven mother, the failing actress, the lovelorn pastry chef, and the crazy, chronically single small business owner. The characters’ interactions (offering a makeover, chocolate, wine, and a good ol’ rom com to assuage emotional revelations) never evolved beyond stereotype. Why must they rely on the convention that makeovers fix a broken heart?
While positive characterizations do exist on Broadway (look at Elsa and Anna in Frozen and Emma and her girlfriend Alyssa in The Prom), there still exists too many dangerously over-simplified renditions of women. Sure, use archetypal personality traits for characters, but give them an arc and have them learn something about themselves. The danger lies in stoicism, proving why stereotyping female culture refuses to die, even on stage.
Cleo Aukland is a New York City-based writer with a focus on theater. Read more of her work here.