Last night I went to the opening of the The Metromaniacs at the Old Globe Theater in Balboa Park. It was amazing. A perfect combination of mischief, mistaken identities, misplaced infatuation, and true love triumphs in early Enlightenment Paris; The Metromaniacs is a non-stop verbal rhyming treat for the ears. Set against the backdrop of an in-home theater production, our characters swoon over the words of secretive poets and mock the dreariness of everyday life all the while wishing to make fantasy a reality. Expertly written and directed, the story juggles multiple plotlines at once, relying on a small gifted cast that keeps the audience members on the edge of their seats the entire time. There wasn’t one forgotten line or faltered step, and I left the theater smiling cheek-to-cheek already planning on a second return.
Despite the fact that it is one of the better plays I have seen in a long time there was one thing about it that forced me to pause with a critical eye once the inevitable “theater high” had dissipated – the romanticization of misogyny and sexual harassment of women. During the play there were various instances in which deceit, stalking, and harassment of some of the female characters by the men allowed the men to achieve their goals while eliciting laughter from the crowd. Even I was guilty of this.
We have the maid that is grabbed from behind and felt up by a man she continually rebuffs who interprets her verbal and physical rejections of him as foreplay. He chases her and claims she will belong to him once their employers become wed. Then there is the wealthy but illiterate lover who decides to lie about who he is in order to gain the affection of the girl he desires and trust of her father. And finally, the servant who lies about his identity and precedes to ply our fair maiden with alcohol in order to get into her pants. They spend some time behind a tree and he emerges with unkempt hair, lipstick smeared across his face, and his pants conveniently missing. We are obviously meant to assume that they did in fact have sex and even then he ends up with a different woman who casually brushes aside his indiscretion and poor behavior.
Like many of the romantic comedies and plays before it, The Metromaniacs glorifies and cheapens the sexual harassment of women by men for laughs. When I was younger I didn’t pay much attention to the way women are perceived in the media and film. But as I have gotten older and become more aware of the double standards women face both professionally and personally, I wholeheartedly believe it is our responsibility to challenge tradition and point out that when we routinely portray harassment of women as normal and justifiable because it is framed as actions taken by men in love or simply because that’s how manly men should act, then we are undermining efforts to combat sexual harassment and abuse.
It is not and should not be consider normal and acceptable behavior. Street harassment, catcalling, professional tit-for-tats, online slut-shaming, and a rape culture that dehumanizes the victim first before anything else is not the type of world we should accept as normal. As I have mentioned before, there is a growing movement across the U.S. that is pushing back against many of the double standards that women face in the media and on the TV screen. It’s a small step but it’s a good one. Along with other movements that are addressing equal pay, rape on campus, and positive body images, especially with larger women, I have cause to hope. Still, we must all do our part.
Now I’m not saying that this play is single-handedly perpetuating dangerous ideas about acceptable treatment of women by men. In fact, I would even encourage you to go see it. But do so with open eyes and an awareness of the messages hidden underneath the laughter. Sexual harassment is endemic to American culture. We did not get here over night and it’s going to take many years, most likely decades, before we even come close to eradicating it. So the next time you see it, whether it is your boss calling one of your co-workers “girl” or “little lady” or a group of men making explicit comments and gestures towards a woman just walking down the street, speak up. Silence can do more harm than good and ignoring the problem does not mean it will magically go away.