Gloria Steinem’s Favorite New Play- by Sarah Begley
Adults have had a whole lot to say about sexual assault and social media in the months since Steubenville, Torrington, Conn., and the deaths of Rehteah Parsons and Audrie Pott. But we haven’t heard much from the kids—young adults, really—whom these events affect. A new play, provocatively titled “SLUT” and lauded by the likes of Gloria Steinem, sets out to bring those girls into the conversation.
In fact, in the world of SLUT (which has one remaining New York performance), girls dominate the conversation—but that doesn’t mean they always agree, or that they aren’t plenty influenced by the adults in their lives. The story centers on Joey (short for Joanna) Del Marco, a student at an elite New York City prep school and a member of the dance team, officially nicknamed “the Slut Squad.” They’re remarkably confident in their sexuality, chanting in the prologue, “THEY ALL WANT A PIECE OF THIS and YOU KNOW YOU CAN’T SLUT LIKE THIS!” Much of that swagger fades away after a cold Friday night that tears the school apart.
Joey finds herself the only girl pre-gaming with three of her guy friends before a big party (whom we never see—only girls have a place on this stage). In the cab on the way to the main event, something awful happens that we only learn about little by little as the play goes on. It suffices to say that it’s bad enough to make Joey vomit violently upon arrival at the party, and to then book it to the local precinct.
In the first section of the play, we see the characters at school and in their homes in relatively conventional staging. After the assault, the rest of the play is a split pane between Joey narrating her statement to unseen law enforcement officers alongside scenes of her classmates reacting to Joey’s situation—sometimes with sympathy, often without.
The script, written around improvisational exercises undertaken by the teen actresses, renders these reactions with rough authenticity. The characters’ thinking is deeply influenced by the prejudices they’ve inherited from their parents and haven’t yet learned to check; all the same, a nagging feeling inside seems to tell them it could have been me.
Before the incident, the girls toss around crass phrases like “bloody beaver” and “chub rub” (a rash between the thighs caused by friction) with glee. After, it’s more like “sloppy drunk,” “control” (as in losing it or out of it), and, of course, “slut.”
On one hand, we hear what sounds like mimicry of CNN’s much-criticized Steubenville coverage: “This type of shit can ruin someone’s, like, WHOLE life and I feel bad for him,” one girl says of one of the perpetrators. “Because, you know, it’s been his dream to go to Harvard like his Dad and his brother went there too and his grandfather and stuff and, like, this could 100 percent ruin that for him.”
On the other hand, there’s serious youth pushback to adult rhetoric: “You always pride yourself on being like, this big, like, feminist,” another girl accuses her mom. “You, like, did that fundraiser downtown that time for women in India and wherever else and you’re always saying it’s so messed up when people can’t take women and girls seriously. And now YOU’RE not taking Joey seriously … You called her a ‘little slut’ to dad when you guys were in the kitchen. I heard you.”
The play does not break ground in theme or content, but it does make an important and underutilized gesture in creating a space for girls, their families, and the audience to communally work through a complicated and painful issue. As Gloria Steinem wrote to The Daily Beast, “SLUT is not a play that is written by one person and then performed. It's life that is captured and then inhabited again and again. Seeing it is a way of seeing what young women experience when their bodies belong more to others than to themselves.”
Katie Cappiello and Meg McInerney direct the show as part of their Arts Effect All-Girl Theater Company, a project they developed together in 2007 to advance female empowerment through theater. They began work on this play by talking to the girls (some of whom they’ve known since they were six or seven) about what was going on in their lives. “We noticed that the word ‘slut’ was coming up a lot in conversations about challenges they were feeling as far as growing into their sexual selves,” Cappiello says. “We knew right then and there that this was something we really needed to explore.”
To continue the work of female empowerment, they are presenting their show again at StopSlut, a conference in partnership with Equality Now, the Feminist Press, the New School, and Soapbox Inc. to put together a two-day conference addressing slut-shaming, bystander culture, and the practical ways we can prevent assault. These will be followed by a screening of the documentary It Was Rape, and in the months after, these groups will build and support a New York City Girl Coalition, bringing together 80 girls from all five boroughs to discuss the unique problems they face at their schools and to develop plans of action.
One character in the play defends her choice not to report an assault by saying, “I just don’t wanna be a rape girl, you know?” With its aspirational tug and promise of transformation, maybe the stage is the perfect place for teenage girls to help each other out of this quandary.