Usual Girls

Puritans to Pussy Hats: Changing Sexual Norms in American Popular Culture

Posted on: November 28th, 2018 by Elizabeth Dunn-Ruiz


“I think I can see the whole destiny of America contained in the first Puritan who landed on those shores.” French political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville, after visiting the United States in the 1830s.

The Puritans punishing and humiliating someone. Credit: F.T. Merrill.

The Puritans
Though the Puritans arrived almost 400 years ago, aspects of their culture, including the desire to repress public displays of sexuality, continue to inform American society. Puritan villagers belonged to a single church and resisted the intrusion of outsiders. Relying on mutual surveillance, they sought communal unity and frequently took each other to court on charges of moral violations in order to suppress deviance.They controlled individual behavior through fierce gossip and public punishments, like whipping, use of the stockade, and the infamous scarlet letter for adulterers.

Voices of Change

Ideas about female sexuality have changed dramatically over the last two centuries, when, frustrated at being thought of as property, women began to demand legal and personal rights.

In 1792, British author Mary Wollstonecraft published A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects, in which she argued that women should be formally educated and that men should be held to the same sexual standards as women.

Sigmund Freud lived from 1856-1923, and his theories and research methods were as controversial during his life as they remain today. He theorized that neuroses are the result of sexual desires from early childhood that have been repressed from conscious awareness but continue to impact personality. Freud believed a woman’s life was dominated by her reproductive functions and that “hysteria” was the result of women repressing their sexual desires.

Sexual Behavior of the Human Female. Credit: Fine Editions Ltd.

At Indiana University in the 1940s, Alfred Kinsey and his research team set out to understand the actual sexual behavior of Americans. He conducted interviews with thousands of people and wrote detailed “sexual histories” of each. He introduced Americans to the “Kinsey Scale,” the idea that people do not fit into exclusive heterosexual or homosexual categories and sexuality exists on a continuum.

In 1960, the Federal Drug Administration approved the birth control pill. Betty Friedan’s 1963 book The Feminine Mystique argued against the notion that it was a woman’s destiny to marry and bear children. 1967 brought about the “Summer of Love,” a “Human Be-In” that ushered the hippie way of life to the forefront of American media. In 1968, New York Radical Women protested the Miss America pageant because of its stereotypical notions of female sexuality, throwing bras, high heels and other trappings of femininity into the “freedom trash cans”.

Dan Savage’s sex-advice column, Savage Love, has been going strong since the early 1990s. Savage, a self described “deviant of the highest order,” encourages sex-positivity and sexual interactions where consenting parties strive to be “GGG”: good in bed, giving of equal time and pleasure to your partner, and game for anything within reason. In 2010, he founded the It Gets Better Project, an internet-based effort committed to creating a world “where all LGBTQ+ are free to live equally and know their worthiness and power as individuals”.

Sexuality in the 1990s

The 1990s, when the characters of Usual Girls are coming of age, can be seen as a decade celebrating female sexuality. Pamela Anderson posing in Playboy was marketed as a sign of female empowerment. Britney Spears came on the scene in her Catholic schoolgirl skirt and tied up white shirt. Lil' Kim released Hard Core, and a week later Foxy Brown dropped Ill Na Na, both brazenly celebrating their sexuality through uncensored rhymes.

But in the 1990s many women who were seen as too angry, too ambitious, or too sexual, were also maligned in the media. Feminist Allison Yarrow coined the term “bitchification” to explain this process of reducing women “to their sexual function in order to thwart their progress.” White House intern Monica Lewinsky, after participating in sexual activity with a man in a position of power over her and 27 years her senior, was reduced to a punchline.

Third wave feminism, a phrase introduced in 1992 by Rebecca Walker partly in response to the silencing of Anita Hill, took hold in popular culture. This period in feminism also embraced sex-positivity and Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw’s concept of intersectional feminism—the idea that multiple identifiers are essential in understanding an individual’s experience of the world. The Riot Grrrl movement combined these feminist ideas with punk music and culture to start a “girl riot” against a society that offered no validation of women’s experiences and held a narrow view of beauty and sexuality. In 1993, thanks to student activists at Ohio’s Antioch College, the country’s first “yes means yes” policy was enacted, making verbal affirmative consent necessary at every step of a sexual interaction.

Pussyhats. Credit: Jayna Zweiman and Krista Suh.

Pussyhats and the Present

During a 2016 presidential debate, the Republican candidate called his opponent a “nasty woman”—just a few weeks after The Washington Post released tapes from 2005 in which he boasted that he can get away with grabbing women “by the pussy”. In response, over a million craftivists donned pink “Pussyhats”™ and marched on Washington in January 2017.

Public discussions of pubic hair and the political implications of how a woman grooms herself can be found everywhere from “Keeping up With the Kardashians” to magazines at the checkout stand. TV commercials advertise lingerie, vaginal lubricants, condoms, and adult toys. Nevertheless, puritanical norms still abound. Abstinence-only education programs, though proven ineffective, prevail. Purity rings and chastity club ceremonies publicly celebrate waiting until marriage to have sexual intercourse. While the media titillate consumers with sexual imagery, so often the message young women receive is that female sexuality is bad or dirty—that a woman should appeal to sex partners, but not actually engage in sex and certainly not enjoy it. Four hundred years after the Puritans’ ships docked in these shoals, Puritanical values linger in America’s soul.

Usual Girls is playing at the Black Box Theatre through December 23, 2018. For tickets and information, please visit our website.

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2018-2019 Season, Usual Girls

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Interview with Arnulfo Maldonado

Posted on: November 20th, 2018 by Ted Sod


Education Dramaturg Ted Sod spoke with Set Designer Arnulfo Maldonado about his work on Usual Girls.

Set Model for Usual Girls. Credit: Arnfulo Maldonado.

Ted Sod: How did you respond to Usual Girls when you first read it?
Arnulfo Maldonado: I was very much struck by its directness. This play has zero fluff, so it was important for me to also approach the design with that same directness. This is a play that sees a woman’s (in this case, Kyeoung’s) journey/transformation from a very early age through young adulthood. What are the events in our young lives that shape us to be who we are as adults, especially for a young woman of color?

TS: Does the play have personal resonance for you?
AM: It’s personal in that I think we all grapple with our own identity and our own place in the world; I certainly believe that my own personal journey through the murky waters of adolescence, coming to grips with my own sexuality, understanding what it meant to be a minority—those are parts of me that were very much shaped by the people in my life, in school, the social groups I was attracted to, the social groups I avoided. It’s equal parts exciting for me because this is the third play this season in which I am creating a world for an almost exclusively female ensemble—School Girls; Or the African Mean Girls Play by Jocelyn Bioh at MCC, and Dance Nation by Clare Barron at Playwrights Horizons —being the others.

TS: What kind of research did you have to do in order to design the set?
AM: The rawness of the play reminded me of Nan Goldin photographs, her unapologetic documentation of intimacy. That led to discovering other photographers whose work focuses on capturing teenage/young adult intimacy, like Justine Kurland and David Stewart and Olivia Bee, who documented her own adolescence in a book entitled Kids In Love. Bee’s use of color felt slightly surreal and right for the tone of the play. That led to looking at more sculptural-based work, like that of Alex De Corte’s. And, of course, looking at photographs of grade schools, middle schools, high schools…the architecture and makeup of these spaces. The geography of these types of institutions includes very vulnerable/open spaces, like a parking lot (where one waits for a ride after school, for instance). It was important to retain that openness in the design because that waiting time/space wants to feel slightly scary. There’s nowhere for you to hide, nowhere for you to retreat to.

Set Model for Usual Girls. Credit: Arnulfo Maldonado.

TS: How are you collaborating with the director, Tyne Rafaeli? Please give us a window into your process as a set designer.
AM: This is my third collaboration with Tyne and what’s great about a recurring relationship is that you pick up on what helps each of you connect with the piece. Tyne shared with me a visual that felt right in terms of the vulnerability of the space, but also possesses a slight eeriness and seduction to it, that ultimately led me to make the connection between the work of photographers like Olivia Bee and visual artists like Alex De Corte. That was the key image that opened up the possibilities of the space.

TS: What were the challenges in designing the set for this show?
AM: This is my third show in the Underground space. I also designed Kingdom Come by Jenny Rachel Weiner and last season’s Bobbie Clearly by Alex Lubischer, so I have become well acquainted with the challenges of the space. With a play like Usual Girls, which also takes place in multiple locations, it was important to strip the design to the bare essentials and at the same time retain some of the eeriness and excitement of the visuals. The floor felt especially important: we thought to use a similar rubber flooring found on playgrounds because we first see these women on a playground at a very early age. playing a game involving not falling into molten lava. Similar games are played, more emotional ones, as they get older, but the floor remains constant—this felt especially right. As you’ll see, There is one wall that transforms subtly to allow the room to feel slightly more expansive at times—sometimes it becomes a reflective space and at other times it becomes a retreat/protective space. Kyeoung can sometimes feel in control of this space, sometimes lost. This ever-shifting wall feels important in terms of connecting it with how the world itself shifts around her, and at times it can be pleasant, and at others you’re staring at yourself in a mirror and it can be quite painful.

Usual Girls is playing at the Black Box Theatre through December 9, 2018. Best availability on Sunday nights. For tickets and information, please visit our website.

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2018-2019 Season, Usual Girls

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Coming of Age on Stage

Posted on: November 15th, 2018 by Clare McCormick


Leaving childhood can be treacherous. Filled with change and uncertainty, adolescence swiftly and ungracefully delivers us to new and frightening terrain. While this journey is unique to everyone, experiences like heartache, joy, and sorrow repeat themselves throughout our lives and, for many writers, onto the page, as they try their best to make sense of them. Playwrights have always artistically grappled with growing up, and Ming Peiffer’s Usual Girls is no exception: below is a selection of plays that also try to navigate the no-man’s-land of coming of age.

Frank Wedekind’s play, groundbreaking in its approach to adolescence, follows a group of teenagers and examines how well-meaning adults in their lives fail them, triggering unprepared consequences. Moritz dies by suicide after receiving bad marks; Wendla becomes pregnant and then dies during her mother’s attempt to provide her an abortion; and Melchior, sent to a reformatory after being expelled, struggles to reckon with with the loss of his childhood.

John Kerr as Tom with Deborah Kerr (no relation) as the housemaster's wife in the film of Tea and Sympathy, 1956, directed by Vincente Minnelli. Photograph: Everett/Rex

Robert Anderson’s play presents Tom Lee, a sensitive boy who is at odds with his brash, masculine classmates. The bullying intensifies when the other boys, perturbed by Tom’s effeminate nature and possible homosexuality, try to force him into “manliness.” Laura Reynolds, the wife of one of Tom’s teachers, observes this with alarm and decides to intervene, offering herself up as a potential object for Tom’s desire. The play’s final line, spoken by Laura, remains iconic: “Years from now, when you speak of this, and you will, be kind.”

Paula Vogel’s Obie award-winning play serves as a crinkled, cryptic roadmap to an interrupted girlhood. Feeling like the family’s misfit, Li’l Bit turns to her dashing Uncle Peck for guidance and companionship. The two bond over driving lessons, and Peck teaches Li’l Bit everything he knows. However, Peck’s attentions soon turn predatory, and when grown-up Li’l Bit reflects on this conflicting relationship, her memories prompt us to think about sexuality, identity, and how secrets build when buried in the body.

In the last play of his Brother/Sister trilogy, Tarell Alvin McCraney tells the story of 16-year-old Marcus Eshu, living in the fictional town of San Pere, Louisiana. In a world infused with Yoruba mythology, set in “the distant present,” Marcus begins to experiment with being “sweet”— a historically black Southern slang word for “gay.” Missing his father and feeling at odds with his surroundings, Marcus fumbles for love and a place to call his own in the days directly preceding Hurricane Katrina.

Teagan Rose and Connor Kelly-Eiding, in Echo Theater Company’s 2017 production of Dry Land. Photo by Craig Schwartz.

DRY LAND (2015)
Ruby Rae Spiegel’s brutal and intimate glimpse into teenage girlhood takes us to a high school locker room in present-day Florida, where we meet 16-year-old, pregnant Amy and lonely transfer-student Ester, united by swim-team membership. As the girls strategize about home-abortion tactics, they talk about typical teen things, too: feeling isolated, the way kisses taste, what college life might hold.

Usual Girls is playing at the Black Box Theatre through December 9, 2018. Best availability on Sunday nights. For tickets and information, please visit our website.

Related Categories:
2018-2019 Season, Usual Girls

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