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,
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
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 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.
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
In a similar vein, Jill Dolan argues that Wasserstein’s work “narrates the uncomplimentary view of the feminist movement promoted by the dominant culture” (
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
Dolan closely examined
Gail Ciociola, in
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
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
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).
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
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
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
Interestingly, critics’ responses to Wasserstein’s earlier plays written and produced in the 1970s and the ’80s, such as
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
2Coincidentally, Sarah Jessica Parker, who starred in that HBO series, played a series of small roles in the original production of The Heidi Chronicles.
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” (
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
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.
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:
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
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.