From a Gillette ad to high art: why I yelled at a theatre audience | Van Badham | Culture
Rare is the theatrical experience in which the critic is provoked more to fury by the audience than the show, but there I was, in the Q&A after a production of controversial Canadian play Daughter, squealing: “Are there seriously people in here who find this content shocking?”
And then, to their insistent nodding, “Jesus, people – where have you been?!”
When Daughter premiered in Edinburgh it divided critics for its subject matter, a “horror show” of modern masculinity. In it, a moneyed, white, middle-class, almost-middle-aged man dances in fairy wings to Beyoncé and relates the emotional story of his now six-year-old daughter’s brutal birth. His subsequent monologue charts his anxieties as a man obliged to raise a female child, and it’s a fear that makes increasing sense as he proceeds to list a catalogue of horrible things he’s done to women over the course of his own life, from the hateful, to the exploitative to the – arguably – abusive.
It’s not this content but how the audience reacts to it that makes the show worthy of analysis beyond the theatre. According to its production company, Pandemic Theatre, the show was sourced from the stories of real men of the same demographic it depicts, who had been encouraged by Daughter’s team of co-creators to answer questions about their more secret selves.
The composite becomes almost a clinical monograph of the western Anglosphere’s apex predator: the moneyed white man. The insight imparted is that, with enough class privilege and ready cash to indulge their every whim, such men are restrained only by the limits of their own moral conscience.
Writer and sole performer Adam Lazarus is a brilliant actor, which is perhaps why audiences and some reviewers have confused his performance with reality. He only intermittently attends the post-show Q&As the company offers as a means to debrief the audience, choosing to avoid, sometimes, the enmity of crowds enraged by the hour they’ve spent with his character, unable to separate actor from act.
Losing my own shit in the Q&A at Sydney festival was not my finest hour, but I was flabbergasted by the insistence from the audience of middle-class women that the content was shocking; that there was anything surprising about middle-class men nursing an inner misogyny while collecting porn, getting lapdances, failing to declare STIs to their partners, taking drugs and screwing around.
“Surely, there are not men like this,” more than one audience member remonstrated in the face of data so hard that within 100 metres of where we were sitting statistics would have found a man just like that. Something that I pointed out, quite loudly.
The whole experience made me reflect on the phenomenon of self-delusion that afflicts communities grappling with the reality of misogyny: who the misogynists are, where the misogyny happens. What is it but delusion when the very same audience members who can’t discern a professional international actor from the woman-hating character he’s playing can simultaneously deny that a character so believable to them actually exists?
Gender relation scholars such as Deniz Kandiyoti and Lisa Wade have described as a “patriarchal bargain” the active strategy some women employ to gain the upper hand in their relationship with misogynistic men, choosing to accommodate “gender roles that disadvantage women as a whole” for perceived personal advantage. But the aftermath of Daughter exposed to me a passive – maybe even unconscious – strategy some women employ to survive the moneyed male misogyny closest to them. It’s denial.
As the play coolly reveals, it’s the women in closest proximity to these misogynists who are – of course – at the most physical risk should the men indulge their status with a whim to abuse. If partners, lovers, daughters and employees don’t manage to suppress, deny and disavow the existence of the predator in the room, they’d face the risks of confronting just how much dangerous the unequal dynamics truly place them in.
The tangible reality of male woman-haters is, sadly, something you cannot escape if you live on the internet. I’d recommend those still insisting they are shocked by the content of Daughter to visit the comments section under social media posts promoting the new ad for razor brand, Gillette.
Gillette’s parent company Procter and Gamble is a signatory to the UN Women “Unstereotype Alliance”, one of several megacorps pledging to address the harmful gender stereotypes that mass advertising and branding have pushed for so long. Acknowledging #MeToo as well as – let’s face it – the appeal of a message respectful to the present sentiments of a massive, massive market, the ad exposes Gillette’s history of “the best a man can get” sexism. It gently talks its male market through better, kinder, stronger ways of being a man, and encourages the interventions men desperately need to make against the misogynists in their midst.
Those misogynists and their enablers have not taken the ad well, and it’s somewhat revealing of their characters that they read criticism of misogyny as an attack on universal maleness. It is stunning to observe an insistence, from one offended man at least, that those who “stormed the shores of Normandy” did so not to prevent the spread of fascists but to affirm their right to wolf-whistle strangers and grab women’s tits. One suspects Piers Morgan’s intention to forever boycott Gillette for its “absurd virtue-signalling PC guff” is something of a brand victory for a company targeting an “everyman” market, rather than the far narrower demographic of those who get their sausage rolls from hotel room service. Something something, moneyed white men, case – in – point.
It’s encouraging to learn that the misogynists are, again, in the minority of popular response to the ad, which has been hailed widely – and emotionally. I shed some tears – though whether they were for the ad or the sad reality that authentic moral leadership for men and boys is being shown by a razor company rather than, say, the president of the United States, I cannot tell.
I do know that when ex-NFL footballer turned actor and feminist activist Terry Crews appeared onscreen, the floods came. Misogyny – and the solidarity of those who battle against it, high art to low – sure makes for an emotional week.