Postfeminism Debates in Theater: Theory versus Practice and Women’s Dilemmas in Wendy Wasserstein’s The Heidi Chronicles

  • cc icon
  • ABSTRACT

    Wendy Wasserstein offers a case for an effective assessment to look back at the critical issues generated in theater during the late 1980s and the early 1990s in which the critical debates between feminism and postfeminism visibly emerged in the field of feminist academia and the cultural arena. Produced on Broadway in 1989 and winning most of the major awards in theater, including a Tony and a Pulitzer the following year, The Heidi Chronicles was heralded by journalists as the arrival of feminism in mainstream theater, but the play drew controversy from feminist critics and scholars. I discuss this clash and intersection of cultural production with criticism and of practice with theory, as well as differences in the cultural reception of the same play in the early 1990s and the twenty-first century. In this article, my objective is twofold: First, I seek to contextualize the postfeminism debates in relation to a specific case of cultural practice, in this case, the theater. Second, I investigate the nature and problems of postfeminism debates by retrospectively looking back at the moment of vehement argument produced in the cultural arena, in order to figure out what had been the ongoing issues between the second wave of feminism and post- or third-wave feminism.


  • KEYWORD

    Wendy Wasserstein , The Heidi Chronicles , postfeminism , feminist theater , women’s dilemmas

  • Recent debates on postfeminism suggest that the prefix “post” indicates a backlash or critical stance against the second wave of feminism or a new trend and approaching intersections in the history of ongoing feminism. Despite the numerous critical and political discussions on the meaning of “post,” most scholars agree that the early 1990s were the turning point in postfeminism debates, particularly in the field of popular media culture. Retrospectively, the 1980s were the boiling period of worries and negotiations and choices that women had to confront. All these anxieties and doubts with newly established subjectivities finally emerged in the popular form of media culture in the late 1980s and early 1990s. As Ann Brooks points out in Postfeminisms: Feminism, Cultural Theory and Cultural Forms, “the ten years between 1980 and 1990 proved to be much more than a decade in terms of the historical development of feminism as a body of theoretical and critical practice”(5). Reassessment of the theoretical and cultural debates of the late 1980s and early 1990s will be useful for us, whoever is concerned about the future direction of gender issues, to define the gulf between secondwave feminism and what has been described as postfeminism, and decide which direction we should turn to.

    Wendy Wasserstein offers a case for an effective assessment to look back at the critical issues generated in the late 1980s and the early 1990s in which the debates between feminism and postfeminism visibly emerged in the field of feminist academia and the cultural arena. Produced on Broadway in 1989 and winning the Tony Award for Best Play, the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and the New York Drama Critics Award the following year, The Heidi Chronicles was heralded by journalists as the arrival of feminism in mainstream theater, but the play drew controversy from feminist critics and scholars. When Wasserstein passed away on January 30, 2006, The New York Times reported America’s sudden loss of the most popular mainstream female playwright, evaluating her drama as the site of ongoing debate among women and feminists:

    The reputation, commercial success, and various awards that Wasserstein’s plays earned mostly in the early 1980s prove that the feminist agenda safely arrived in mainstream American culture in the 1980s. Interestingly enough, however, American feminist theater critics did not wholeheartedly welcome the mainstream recognition and commercial success of Wasserstein’s plays. This intersection of and clash between cultural production and criticism, on the one hand, and practice and theory, on the other hand, as well as the difference between the cultural reception of this same play in the early 1990s and in the twenty-first century are what I will discuss in this article. The article sets out to achieve two objectives. First, it seeks to contextualize the postfeminism debates in relation to a specific case of cultural practice, in this case, the theater. The second objective is to investigate the nature and problems of postfeminism debates by retrospectively looking back at the moment of vehement argument produced in the cultural arena, in order to figure out what have been the ongoing issues between the second wave of feminism and postfeminism, hoping to find a direction that we, as feminist scholars and critics, can aim at for the future.

    I. What Is Feminist Theater and Who Is to Judge? -- Critical Issues in Definition and Categorization in Theory

    Wasserstein’s plays have always portrayed women’s lives and various women’s choices on mainstream American stages, generating one of the most heated debates on the definition of women’s theater, or, rather, feminist theater. Although she often referred to herself as a humanist rather than a feminist, her cultural intention was highly strongly driven toward gender issues. 1 Wasserstein had kept the frustration and anger inside her since realizing the lack of or problems in representation of women during her graduate years at Yale, and wanted to write about women’s lives so that when women attended the theater, there “should be something for them” (Cohen 261). Wasserstein’s frustration and anger toward the problematic representation of women were exactly what Adrienne Rich advocated as the very first step to recognize the gender inequality that naturally guided Wasserstein to write about women’s issues in her plays. However, some U.S. feminist scholars criticized The Heidi Chronicles, pointing out that Wasserstein’s work did not provide a fair explanation for the feminist movement that they had worked on for several decades. They expressed their dissatisfaction with the play, particularly with Heidi, weakly portrayed as a cipher. Helene Keyssar’s denunciation of the heroine turns upon the issue of a woman’s ability to speak out and Heidi’s incompetence in articulating her thoughts whenever political issues arise:

    In a similar vein, Jill Dolan argues that Wasserstein’s work “narrates the uncomplimentary view of the feminist movement promoted by the dominant culture” (Spectator 49). Dolan also points out that the play treats “the history of feminism” in such a way that “key moments are trivialized, and the legitimacy of woman’s rage is neatly elided.” What is lacking is “an activist sense of rage at exclusion from power and culture”; hence, her work fails to resist the “dominant cultural hegemony.” Dolan proclaims that not only does Heidi take up a “reactive, passive position” in her own history, but also music, art, and the women’s movement are all dealt with in an “ahistorical approach” (49-54). For Dolan, the problem is not simply the absence of a feminist voice but the suppression of the expression of female rage; in other words, laughter usurps anger. Witty, unmarried professor Heidi’s life unfolds, portraying the protagonist approaching middle age and becoming disillusioned with the collapse of the idealism that shaped the 1960s. Heidi and her friends become ardent feminists and radicals during the 1960s and the ’70s, taking part in the 1968 Eugene McCarthy rally in New Hampshire, a 1970 Ann Arbor consciousness-raising session when Heidi is a Yale graduate student, and a 1974 protest for female artists at the Art Institute of Chicago. In fact, Wasserstein’s clever and witty dialogues are mostly given to Heidi’s friends, while Heidi is portrayed as an idealist whose discourse represents, very often, not her immediate thoughts and feelings but how she believes reality should be:

    Heidi’s idealism is indeed based on humanist belief, and she refuses to accept male exclusion in a women’s march. In 1974, outside the Art Institute of Chicago, Heidi participates in a demonstration against “the museum that displays only two female artists when 60% of the museum attendants and 70% of art appreciation students are female”(25):

    In her relationship with her long-time male friends, Scoop and Peter, Heidi is verbally dominated or “silenced” by them, and Susan, Heidi’s high school friend, points out that Heidi has developed the “bizarre habit of not finishing sentences” (55). However, I would argue that, first, Heidi does speak out although she needs more time and conviction to verbalize her emotion and thoughts, and second, the protagonist of this play is not Heidi Holland but the chronicles of the American feminist movement itself. Heidi, as a witty yet sensitive idealist, is often portrayed as reluctantly sharing her private thoughts with others. However, because she is often observed trying to distance herself from the events taking place, she becomes an effective protagonist to present this drama that spans almost twenty-five years between 1965 and 1989.

    In defining whether the play is feminist theater or not, Keyssar and Dolan perceive the feminist voice, in a sense, as too verbal and one-dimensional, thus dismissing silence or other signs of non-speech acts as weak or meaningless discourse. Since the play is chronicling a woman’s life as well as significant historical moments of the American feminist movement, the gradual development of Heidi finding her own voice seems a natural and even more persuasive choice. Dolan herself directed a postmodern parody of The Heidi Chronicles at the University of Wisconsin–Madison in 1992 aiming at “exploding Wasserstein’s ‘light comedy’ into a full-blown parody of cultural mores” as well as “creat[ing] characters with whom the spectators could laugh, rather than the stereotypes whom they could laugh at” (55). As a graduate student, I participated in the production, and based on my own observation, I would argue that the audience did not seem to fully grasp or enjoy the director’s political intention, despite the creative and experimental use of expressionistic props, settings, and acting style as a commentary on Wasserstein’s realism drama. Parody seems to work only when the audience knows the original text well.

    Dolan closely examined The Heidi Chronicles and Wasserstein’s overall gender consciousness and dramatic strategy in the book The Feminist Spectator as Critic published in 1991. As a feminist scholar who is highly influenced by Foucauldian poststructuralism, Dolan was much concerned about Wasserstein’s seemingly traditional status quo. The second wave of feminism agreed that, historically, women have been marginalized and unfairly treated in the social, economic, and representational systems, but particularly since the early 1990s, feminists began to disagree on the ways women are represented by women themselves in various cultural fields such as films, television sitcoms, and the theater. The collapse of consensus from within feminist theater critics and scholars that formed around issues of defining feminist theater resulted in frequent debates over whether a play or a performance could be categorized as “feminist.” The 1990s postfeminist debates were largely formed around the issues of definition and categorization, and feminist critics were keenly concerned about who and what cultural material would represent the feminist voice; thus, feminist scholars were spurred on to invent new terminology and concepts that define boundaries, categories, and differences.

    Gail Ciociola, in Wendy Wasserstein: Dramatizing Women, Their Choices and Their Boundaries, having been keenly aware of feminist scholars’ controversy over the definition of feminist theater and Wasserstein’s uncomfortable position and distance in feminist theater criticism, invented “‘Fem-en(act)ment’ as word and concept that provides a functional means by which Wasserstein’s plays can be best understood as philosophy and as literary genre and style” (1):

    Many different and sometimes conflicting ideas about how women should be represented have been ongoing issues ever since the emergence of the second wave of feminism. In fact, various categories such as liberal, cultural, materialist, psychoanalytic, and poststructural approaches have created a “chasm” among feminists, although Dolan dismisses the differences among feminists as “playful pluralism” in her The Feminist Spectator as Critic. Scholarly definitions and categorizations are supposed to help the public understand a cultural product, but the highly sophisticated debates among feminist scholars’ theorizing and terminology created distance from not only artistic practitioners but also readers and audiences. Feminist discourse within the academy has been strengthened by the developments in the 1980s and 1990s of a greater degree of feminist pluralism. However, theorizing feminist criticism in a more esoteric and sophisticated language, dealing with a more complicated level of identity and politics, slowly established boundaries and barriers, which resulted in binary opposition between the academy and popular culture. Unfortunately, it was not the theory or ideology people were concerned about but the immediate cultural experience that they desire and consume in this era of postmodernism.

    Closely intertwined with the controversy whether or not Wasserstein’s plays are feminist drama, the umbrella issue covering all the other critical charges against the play, the main criticisms of The Heidi Chronicles can be found in three broad perspectives: First, from the perspective of transnational and diverse feminists in terms of race, nation, and class, Wasserstein’s feminist value system was criticized for being too elite, middle-class, and universal. Second, Wasserstein’s predominant use of realism and of comic elements such as humor was criticized for ducking political seriousness and pressing toward commercial success. Third, protagonist Heidi’s choices in her life, particularly her emotional reliance on companionship with men and adopting a child at the end of the play, were pinpointed as signs of Wasserstein’s problematic gender consciousness.

    1In a series of articles for Harper’s Bazaar called “The Wendy Chronicles,” Wasserstein attacked the lack of female character actors in Hollywood. According to her biography, she began writing Uncommon Women and Others in 1973 mainly because the representation of women in her assigned readings of Jacobean drama appalled her. Another incident reinforced her feminist consciousness: Because her play was about women’s lives, a male student at the Yale School of Drama dismissed Wasserstein’s reading of her play as meaningless to him. Wasserstein wrote: “I thought, I spent my life getting into Hamlet and Lawrence of Arabia, so why don’t you try it” (double quoted from Ciociola 10; Finn 360).

    II. Are Wasserstein’s Women “Common” or “Uncommon”? -- Paradigm Shift from Equality to Difference

    Wasserstein’s personal life also affected critics’ preconception that her gender consciousness is geared toward liberal feminism. Born into a wealthy Jewish family and having studied at a prestigious Ivy League university, Wasserstein usually depicted intellectual and academically successful women in her plays. Wasserstein’s Uncommon Women and Others, her graduate thesis at the Yale School of Drama published in 1978, is her first commercially successful play, which set the tone for the rest of her plays in terms of theme and characterization. While illustrating a group of young women at Mount Holyoke College, from which Wasserstein graduated, trying to decide whether to pattern their lives and styles after Katharine Hepburn or Emily Dickinson, the playwright’s unique style of humorous rhetoric and distinctive personalities emerged in this play. As many critics and the playwright herself acknowledged, Wasserstein’s women are largely college-educated, middle-class, and uncommonly intelligent women who often have graduate degrees. In Isn’t It Romantic (1983), Janie Blumberg has a master’s degree, her friend Harriet Cornwall, a Harvard MBA, and as the playwright mentioned, they both “have good jobs” (Cohen 261). Kate in Uncommon Women, for example, eventually becomes a lawyer, while Harriet attains a new job as a marketing researcher for Colgate-Palmolive. Heidi Holland, the protagonist in The Heidi Chronicles, is a professor of art at Columbia University; her friends are a journalist and an executive at an international bank. Ciociola points out that “this profusion of superlatively successful women in Wasserstein’s works primarily allows her to explore the particular complexities with which a prosperous careerist must deal in order to ‘have it all’” (23).

    Critics’ general criticism against Wasserstein’s elite sensibility and her preference for popularity rather than drawing audiences’ attention to political problems that would enable social change seemed to be valid arguments in the early 1990s. However, what Wasserstein perceived as dilemmas of contemporary women two decades after the second wave of feminism seems to be a prophetic vision of women’s dilemmas in the twenty-first century. In a 2008 article in Theatre Journal, Dolan, confessing her opinion has changed, reevaluates Wasserstein’s work:

    Wasserstein’s sudden death and Dolan’s sadness at losing the talented female playwright might have blunted her critical edge. Recalling her claim that Heidi was a passive observer who called herself a humanist rather than a feminist, Dolan insisted the play belittles and dismisses the very movement the play pretends to archive. However, in 2008, almost two decades later, Dolan reconsidered the play she had heavily denounced and re-credited its achievements as a work that deserves serious consideration from feminist theater and performance critics.

    Wasserstein’s continuing manifestation of women’s predicament when trying to successfully balance career and family and her moral and cultural dilemmas on whether to adopt the dominant or imposing ideology are valid issues in the neoliberal concerns of women in the twenty-first century. Her female characters are not objects of sexual harassment, ridicule, or victimization, but her main character Heidi in The Heidi Chronicles displays an unmistakable sense of self-empowered awareness and initiative from the onset of the play by single-mindedly pursuing a career as an art historian. As Wasserstein insightfully describes her character, Heidi wants to become and she is “a highly informed spectator.” Wasserstein says, “I wanted to parallel a political life with a personal life to show how movements can influence a person’s life” (interview with Ciociola, 1995). Heidi’s ideal belief that “all people deserve to fulfill their potential” (17) is very similar to the pervasive gender consciousness of this new generation of successful young women, the so-called Alpha Girls, of the twenty-first century. Charles Isherwood writes that “Heidi Holland, the steadily single, uncompromising heroine of ‘The Heidi Chronicles,’ can be seen as the cultural progenitor of ‘Sex and the City’s’ Carrie Bradshaw.”2 If the second wave of American feminism has been challenged in terms of race, class, and sexuality during the 1990s, which positively enabled American scholars and feminists’ better understanding of the oppression of doubly or triply marginalized women of color, working class, and non-heterosexual, the very challenge also negatively began to damage women’s solidarity, the core of the second wave of the feminist movement. As Ciociola analyzes, “Wasserstein’s major plays predominantly espouse the liberal feminist ethic of equality between the sexes and, in particular, of achieving parity with men in the workplace and at home” (3). Since liberal feminism relies on a value system claimed to be universal, the movement has been criticized for ignoring differences among women and assuming that women all strive for the same things. The contemporary generation of young women, including college students, tends to simplify gender politics as gender equality, largely dismissing the history of feminism and taking for granted the hard-earned gender equality of today. Today’s young generation of women, whom Dolan and some of the other feminist scholars depict as “neoliberal” feminists, defines feminism in terms of gender equality and individualism, thus putting the virtues of personal choice, individual freedom, and competitiveness forward. Wasserstein’s representation of women was ahead of its time and prophetically foretelling women’s ultimate dilemmas in their sexuality, identity, and choices.

    Interestingly, critics’ responses to Wasserstein’s earlier plays written and produced in the 1970s and the ’80s, such as Uncommon Women and Others (1978; published year), Isn’t It Romantic (1984), Tender Offer (1984), and The Man in a Case (1986), were largely positive, celebrating the fact that women’s issues became the subject of mainstream culture, thus challenging women’s traditional position as mere objects. However, by the time The Heidi Chronicles was produced on Broadway in 1989, drawing large audiences, the consensus of the second wave of feminism began to be increasingly challenged from within and outside feminism. From within feminism itself, “the political impact of women of color’s critique of the racist and ethnocentric assumptions of a largely white, middle-class feminism” (Brooks 8) and, slowly but surely, the issues of sexual difference were highlighted as aspects of an alternative political position that might dismantle the obsessive heterosexual patriarchal values. If the second wave of feminism urged that women’s traditionally untold stories be heard, and women’s subjectivity unfold to be visible, the postfeminism that emerged at the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the ’90s articulated differences among women’s identities and positions, a shift that was clearly reflected in the critical reviews of The Heidi Chronicles.

    In fact, Wasserstein’s keen awareness of the terminological difference between humanist and feminist and her intentional choice of humanist over feminist can serve as a metaphor for the emergence of post-feminist consciousness and how she positioned herself in American feminism. As the majority of Wasserstein scholars agree, her major plays predominantly espouse the liberal feminist ethic of equality between the sexes. In The Heidi Chronicles, Heidi Holland, an art historian and a university professor, does not want to be categorized as a feminist, but she is determined to fulfill her potential. Heidi’s conviction is laid out to Scoop Rosenbaum that all women deserve to “fulfill their potential” rather than spend a lifetime of “making you and your children tuna-fish sandwiches” (17). Although Wasserstein’s plays are always about women making different choices, she does not clearly recognize racial and class issues, and critics validly pointed out that “[h]er main characters are not every women, but college-educated and career-driven ‘uncommon women’ determined to ‘fulfill their potential’ even when they have not reached certainty about the direction of that potential” (Ciociola 3-4). Wasserstein makes no pretense about speaking for all women, and the female characters in her drama reflect the playwright’s ethnicity, class, and academic background. The way Wasserstein develops Heidi’s identity as a quiet observer but still closely partaking of the social changes at the time contributes greatly in shaping this play with epic quality. The author’s choice not to grant a strong articulate voice to the protagonist Heidi can be an effective strategy. The seeming distance Heidi creates within the various circumstances can even be read as the playwright’s intentional choice to present how a feminist idealist negotiates with ever-changing social trends and politics and thus gradually finds her own subjectivity and voice. The play is framed within Heidi’s several lectures, which symbolize her own personal, academic, and political discourse.

    2Coincidentally, Sarah Jessica Parker, who starred in that HBO series, played a series of small roles in the original production of The Heidi Chronicles.

    III. Will Master’s Tools Never Dismantle the Master’s House? -- Cultural Production Versus Critical Theory

    Together with the criticism of Wasserstein for her liberal feminist position of not paying enough attention to other disenfranchised women in terms of race, class, and sexuality, her representational pattern has also faced criticism that its dramaturgical frame follows too rigidly the traditional form of realism. Realism, the predominant theater genre in North America, has been largely regarded by poststructuralist feminist theater scholars as a symbol of the patriarchal representational system. They believe that it rarely liberates women’s subjectivity from the patriarchal status quo. As Audre Lorde insightfully observed, the “master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” (110), a statement reflecting heated debates over women’s literary or artistic strategies that arose during the 1980s. Sue-Ellen Case, the pioneer revisionist feminist theater historian and critic, wrote in 1988:

    Dolan was also concerned about Wasserstein’s literary style, objecting to her “universally human” touch and the playwright’s predominant use of realism. Dolan believes that Wasserstein’s dramatic strategy is still “based on the male model” (Feminist Spectator as Critic 5). Since feminist theater scholars, including Jill Dolan, Sue-Ellen Case, and Judith Butler, have been predominantly influenced by Marxist theory and Foucault’s revisionist historicism and post-structuralism, and thus can be categorized as materialist feminists, they were more concerned about the material conditions and social systems of women’s lives represented in a cultural product and how female writers and artists challenge traditional representational patterns and aesthetics.

    The Heidi Chronicles comprises eleven episodic segments spread over approximately twenty-five years, starting from a prologue set in Heidi Holland’s 1989 lecture presenting slides of artworks of forgotten women artists. The prologue takes the audience to Heidi’s high-school prom dance in 1965. Chronicling Heidi’s personal and political journey from her adolescence to adulthood between 1965 and 1989, the play traces the history of the women’s movement from the emergence of the second wave of feminism through the consciousness-raising groups of the 1970s to the “myth of the ‘superwoman’ who can ‘have it all’ in the 1980s,” as Moritz writes (qtd in Ciociola 57). The episodic structure nicely captures a snapshot of the historical moments of the American feminist movement and the sociopolitical impact on the lives of the baby-boomer generation. A prologue is pivotal in any play because the prologue sets the tone for the entire play and is particularly significant in this episodic documentary structure of the play. The Heidi Chronicles begins with the protagonist giving a special lecture on female painters in art history. Feminist scholars largely dismissed the significance of Heidi’s role as an art historian and the specific artworks that Heidi presents in her class until 2008 when Cortney Cronberg Barko reexamined the historical meaning behind Heidi’s lectures on celebrating forgotten women in the arts:

    The prologue is then followed by Heidi’s high school dance scene in 1965. Dolan did not specifically reconsider her criticism of Wasserstein’s literary and theatrical style in her 2008 article, but Wasserstein’s dramatic strategy is not based on traditional status quo or traditional realism. The episodic structure in The Heidi Chronicles has a cyclic, non-linear style, which reminds the audience of the cyclic nature of history or a personal life. Heidi’s lecture scene at Columbia University in 1989 is presented again in the prologue of Act II:

    Heidi’s art history lecture itself is an academic monologue as well as a feminist discourse in which she delivers her knowledge, interpretation, and vision using her own voice. The dramatic style and strategy and the way Heidi delivers her feminist perspective on art history are closely and effectively intertwined.

    One of the most confusing intersections that the second wave of feminism encountered was postmodernism. In the era of postmodernism, cultural production was too diverse and abundant for feminist scholars and critics to follow and to redefine in the context of the historical and critical development of feminism. In some sense, feminist scholars and critics have lost a solid grip on the theoretical and political practice of cultural products since the 1990s. As Brooks, Modleski, and McNeil insightfully perceived, the gulf between theory and practice is wide, and feminist theoretical knowledge has become detached from the everyday reality of women:

    Feminist theater scholars’ tendency to denigrate popular commercial success further distanced their criticism from newspaper reviews and artists’ self-censorship.

    IV. Women Who Have It All Riddled with Self-Doubt -- Neoliberal Feminists’ Dilemmas about Romance, Companionship, and Career

    Reconsidering Wasserstein’s plays in 2008 and comparing the position of feminism in the 1980s and twenty-first century, Dolan writes:

    Susan and Denise are the foil characters in the play, who make decisions quickly and articulate their voices on political issues. However, Susan, who was a committed second-wave feminist, has now discarded her political agenda and is driven toward material success as a well-known producer in Hollywood. Denise represents the “Alpha-Girl” generation of young women who consider feminism a subject they discussed in a women’s studies class. Compared with the other women in the play, Heidi is portrayed as a seemingly passive and incompetent character, as Fran, the radical feminist at the consciousness-raising group, quickly judges her. However, Heidi is the one who most clearly demonstrates persistent character traits throughout the play. By positioning herself as a humanist rather than a feminist, Heidi reveals her dissatisfaction with the second wave of American feminism, while Heidi’s friends become swept up by the materialism and narcissism of the Reagan era in the 1980s. As Isherwood notes, “[Heidi] -- intelligent and successful but also riddled with self-doubt -- sought enduring love a little ambivalently,” but just like the other women in Wasserstein’s plays, she did not find it. In some sense, the woman’s “hard-earned sense of self-worth was often shadowed by the frustrating knowledge that American women’s lives continued to be measured by their success at capturing the right man. In most of twenty-firstcentury popular culture including several British films and American mini series, women are desperately trying to find the right men and romance: Bridget Jones’s Diary, Sex and the City, Ally McBeal, and Desperate Housewives, to name only a few. Throughout The Heidi Chronicles, the lead character, Heidi, although closely witnessing all the social changes during the 1960s to the 1980s and even joining a consciousness-raising group and writing feminist art criticism, “struggles romantically, and is heartbroken when Scoop, the man with whom she’s halfheartedly involved,” marries another woman. (New York Times)

    Heidi, “single and lonely, is giving a speech, which turns into a riff about the women in the locker room of her gym,” as Isherwood describes:

    By the play’s final scene, set in 1988, Heidi is a single mother to an infant, having adopted a girl in the hope that her daughter will feel the confidence and dignity that were the aims of the women’s movement, perhaps as Wasserstein herself hoped, “many years later, ultimately at great physical cost, when she gave birth, at age fortyeight, to her daughter, Lucy Jane, in 1999”(Isherwood). Jan Balakian insisted that Heidi “sells out” in the end by adopting a baby, “which is to return to the patriarchal value that emphasizes the femininity with maternal instinct” (93) and that the true cause of her depression was her not having a man.3

    Although it is clear that The Heidi Chronicles is not radically feminist, it is a mistake to read the ending literally. Wasserstein, who resisted being labeled a “feminist” playwright, arguing that men are not subject to such labels, said that Heidi adopts a baby because that choice is consistent with her character. Heidi and her daughter become icons for future generations of women who will have a stronger sense of self in a more equal society. Wasserstein told The Paris Review in 1997, “my work is often thought of as lightweight commercial comedy, and I have always thought, No, you don’t understand: this is in fact a political act . . . . [N]obody is going to turn down a play on Broadway because a woman wrote it or because it’s about women.”

    Among the various cultural forms, theater is a unique medium since it stands in the middle of the spectrum of highbrow/ lowbrow culture and popular/experimental, thus framing effective debates around representation. Theater can be a site of popular entertainment and a site of resistance and opposition at the same time for a range of groups that are more open to possibilities for creating new sites of meaning and knowledge. Thus, representational issues regarding women emerging from theater have been actively involved in both second-wave and third-wave or postfeminism. As Dolan’s essay suggests, “the taxonomy of feminisms -- liberal, cultural, and materialist -- while usefully lending precision to our analysis, has inadvertently become hierarchical, privileging materialist feminist projects at the expense of more popular or mainstream plays and productions by liberal feminist playwrights” (“Feminist Performance” 457). By returning to Wasserstein’s oeuvre and reconsidering the critical issues between her most representative play and feminist critics, I hope we can find at least a clue to the directions we should turn toward: women should be able to appreciate other women’s endeavors and creation, which means that the third wave of feminism must begin with endorsing the historical changes made possible by the second wave of feminism. It might sound clichéd, but women’s companionship and solidarity have been missing between the critics and practitioners, second-wave and third-wave feminists. Women should not feel stranded; we are all in this together.

    3In 1992, a single woman having a baby became a huge political issue in the U.S. when a successful divorced news anchorwoman, Murphy Brown, in a popular CBS sitcom “Murphy Brown,” decides to have and raise a child by herself. Dan Quayle, the vice president, publicly attacked the TV program and Murphy Brown’s choice as immoral and unethical in his speech in the San Francisco Commonwealth Club in May 1992. He argued that acceptance of unwed motherhood, as celebrated in popular culture and watched by 38 million Americans, “doesn’t help matters.” He complained that “a character who supposedly epitomizes today’s intelligent, highly paid professional woman” is portrayed as “mocking the importance of fathers, by bearing a child alone, and calling it just another ‘life-style choice.’” The controversy of Quayle versus Brown became a huge issue in the political arena and popular culture and went on for almost a half year until the comedy series ended the following season. Unlike television, theatre is a culturally subversive medium; however, the protagonist Heidi’s decision to adopt a child and the playwright Wasserstein having a child alone without marriage or a partner were also criticized as irresponsible acts of taking maternity, femininity, and family values as shopping materials.

  • 1. Balakian Jan (1995) “The Heidi Chronicles: The Big Chill of Feminism.” [South Atlantic Review] Vol.60 P.93-101 google doi
  • 2. Barko Cortney Cronberg (2008) “Rediscovering Female Voice and Authority: The Revival of Female Artists in Wendy Wasserstein’s The Heidi Chronicles.” [A Journal of Women Studies] Vol.29 P.212-38 google
  • 3. Brooks Ann 1997 Postfeminisms: Feminism, Cultural Theory and Cultural Forms. google
  • 4. Case Sue-Ellen 1988 Feminism and Theatre. google
  • 5. Ciociola Gail 1998 Wendy Wasserstein: Dramatizing Women, Their Choices and Their Boundaries. google
  • 6. Ciociola Gail 1998 “Personal Interview.” 19 Aug. 1995. Wendy Wasserstein: Dramatizing Women, Their Choices and Their Boundaries. google
  • 7. Dolan Jill 1991 The Feminist Spectator as Critic. google
  • 8. Dolan Jill 1993 Presence and Desire. google
  • 9. Dolan Jill (2008) “Feminist Performance Criticism and the Popular: Reviewing Wendy Wasserstein.” [Theatre Journal] Vol.60 P.433-57 google doi
  • 10. Isherwood Charles 2006 “Wendy Wasserstein Dies at 55; Her Plays Spoke to a Generation.” google
  • 11. Keyssar Helene ed. 1996 Feminist Theatre and Theory. google
  • 12. Lorde Audre 1984 “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.” Sister Outsider. P.110-13 google
  • 13. Cohen Esther (1988) “Uncommon Women: An Interview with Wendy Wasserstein.” [Women’s Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal] Vol.15 P.257-70 google doi
  • 14. Wasserstein Wendy 1991 The Heidi Chronicles, Uncommon Women and Others, & Isn’t It Romantic. google